The rat that was executed for murder!

It’s hard to believe that a rat was once executed for murder. The judge in this bizarre trial was Tsar Peter III. He was an adult male, already in his 20s, who retained a childlike fascination for his set of toy soldiers. And when he found a rat chewing the head off one of his model infantry – he saw red.

The rat was put on trial, found guilty of murder and ordered to be executed by hanging. Peter then constructed a mini set of gallows and carried out the grim verdict.

His queen, Catherine, chanced upon the grisly spectacle and decided to bring forward plans to overthrow a husband she totally detested. With him out of the way, she would become sole ruler of Russia. Which is exactly what happened. Peter was discreetly bundled away and most likely murdered.

However, we do have to question this story. On the one hand, it could be entirely true that Peter was a sadistic simpleton as portrayed in later propaganda from Catherine’s supporters. Conversely, Peter was the subject of a campaign to portray him as entirely unsuited for high office. Therefore everybody should thank his wife – sorry, widow – for getting rid of the idiot.

Catherine herself turned out to be a more than capable ruler. But some revisionist historians have pointed to Peter’s impressive legislative record or reform – achieved despite the fact he was only tsar for six months. The suggestion is that far from being mentally impaired, Peter was just as capable as his very driven wife.

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But what’s come down to us is an image of a petulant and grossly immature young man who put a rat on trial for murder in a fit of pique. And in truth, it’s a far better story than the alternative. Getting people to believe that he’d carried out such a morbid exercise wasn’t difficult as Peter had made plenty of enemies among the church, nobility and peasantry with his progressive views. And Catherine kept these stories about him going for the rest of her life.

This is an episode in my new YouTube series Weird Historical Facts – so view and enjoy!

How a horse became a Roman senator!

In my new YouTube series Weird History Facts I’m taking one episode to look at how a horse became a Roman senator. What on earth possessed the Roman emperor Caligula to declare his favourite nag Incitatus both a priest and a member of the senate?

By all accounts, it had an unremarkable record of public speaking and legislative activity. Largely on account of being a horse. But it certainly got under the noses of the senators. Apparently by liberally defecating on the senate floor, according to one Roman historical source.

Caligula was, if we are to believe the historian Suetonius, besotted with Incitatus. The horse was part of his favourite chariot racing faction – the greens – and ahead of a race, the entire neighbourhood around his stable was ordered to be silent throughout the night. Incitatus was then able to get a good night’s sleep in a manger made of ivory housed in a stable constructed of marble, covered in purple blankets.

Suetonius, who loved to combine history with lashings of gossip, claimed that Incitatus had a staff of eighteen servants, was fed oats mixed with gold flakes and was allowed to invite guests to quite elaborate dinners. Caligula also declared that the horse had divine status.

This story was circulated to prove that Caligula was insane. And by the time historians like Suetonius and Cassius Dio were writing about Caligula, he had been assassinated and damned by the Senate. So – we are entitled to question the impartiality and veracity of this story. Was a horse really made a Roman senator? And if so, was it an insane act or was Caligula making some kind of statement?

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The preferred theory these days seems to be that Caligula did indeed make Incitatus a member of the Senate and proposed him as Consul but the reason was to show his utter contempt for Rome’s senators. Of course they were in an invidious position. The emperor could ask all he wanted for better quality advice and guidance but when he executed people at a whim, it’s hardly surprising senators just kept their heads down – as opposed to losing them.

Incitatus somehow seems to have remained a senator until the reign of Claudius when he was removed on a technicality. He failed to meet the financial requirements for sitting in the Senate. And was later put down after injuring his leg.

Enjoy this episode of Weird History Facts!

The shortest war in history – just 40 minutes!

The shortest war in history was between the British Empire and the sultanate of Zanzibar. A David and Goliath struggle in which Goliath won – in just over 40 minutes. It was enough time for the British to inflict 500 dead on the enemy while only sustaining a single casualty on their side.

The reason for the shortest war in history was a dispute over the appointment of a new sultan. The previous holder of this title and ruler of the idyllic island off the east African coast had died in rather suspicious circumstances. His nephew then took power. But the local British consul took the view that no new sultan could be appointed until Queen Victoria’s local representative said so.

However, the newly enthroned sultan thought different. He told the British to mind their own business. However, the British felt they were indeed minding their own business. Zanzibar was a protectorate. And the British were intent on protecting Zanzibar from German expansion in Africa. The new sultan wasn’t trusted on the German issue and so had to go.

Neither side was prepared to back down. And so the British embarked on what is euphemistically termed ‘gunboat diplomacy’. That meant positioning three cruisers, two gunboats and 150 marines in the harbour of the sultan’s capital and then bombarding his palace. That kind of diplomacy!

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The sultan responded by firing back with a Gatling gun that – ironically – had been a present from Queen Victoria. He also mustered a 17th century cannon and a couple of field guns. Needless to say, he couldn’t match the firepower of the British Empire.

The war kicked off at 9am and was over by 9.40am – making it the shortest war in history. And it’s the theme of an episode in my new YouTube series, Weird History Facts. Do please watch and enjoy!

The woman who gave birth to rabbits

In the early 18th century, a woman called Mary Toft claimed to be giving birth to rabbits. In the heady gossip-ridden world of Georgian England, this story was taken up with relish. It dominated the gossip sheets in London. And even made its way to the ear of King George the First.

The king was so intrigued by the thought of a woman giving birth to rabbits that he sent his physician down to the market town of Godalming to meet Mary Toft. And not only was his physician convinced of her story, but helped to deliver a fifteenth rabbit. Then he wrote a book on the topic.

All of which made the king absolutely furious when he discovered the whole thing was a hoax. He fired his physician and Mary Toft disappeared into obscurity.

The aftermath wasn’t good for the medical profession. Doctors were ridiculed as dirty old men. And the fact that the king’s physician was Swiss-born opened the doors to some unpleasant xenophobia. Toft’s motives were interpreted as purely financial tinged with a complete absence of morals.

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One cartoon of the day depicted Mary Toft held aloft by the lascivious male doctors enjoying an examination of her private parts. See that image below. The fact this ever gained any credibility is because of some very odd pseudo-scientific theories circulating at the time. One was the notion of ‘maternal impression’ – that a woman could alter what was in her womb through her thoughts and dreams.

Completely mad but these were the early days of modern science.

This is one of several bizarre stories I’m going to be investigating in a series on my YouTube channel called ‘Weird History Facts’ and I invite you to watch this episode below and enjoy!