Soooo ... History Was Way Weirder Than We Thought

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by Jordan Breeding

It’s easy to look back on history through rose-colored monocles. Everybody dressed so fancily and spoke so Britishly, we tend to see past how terrified they were of air conditioning or how they sometimes turned bowling into a religious activity. History teachers make the past seem normal and accessible by skipping over the good stuff, but forget what Mr. Geller told you. History was way freaking weird, guys.

 
 

The Salem Tomato Trials

The Salem witch trials were a dark period in American history. Dozens of Massachusian women (and even a few men) were killed by the state, simply because they’d been accused of dabbling in witchcraft several hundred years before Harry Potter made it cool to open-carry wands and chase people around while straddling brooms. Well, not “cool” exactly, but probably not worthy of death by hanging.

The trials remain to this day a cautionary tale against mass hysteria and failing to adhere to due process. But the Salem witch trials aren’t the only example of unfair discrimination in court. Heck, they’re not even the only ones from Salem. That’s because 150 years later, America was again rocked by courtroom scandal. We’re talking about the Salem tomato trials.

Prior to 1820, everybody just assumed red tomatoes were poisonous, probably somehow because of Voldemort. To be fair, there were several rich Europeans who died while eating tomatoes, but it was because they ate them on pewter plates. Tomatoes’ chemical makeup releases the lead in pewter, causing lead poisoning. So the real lesson is “don’t eat lead.” You’re welcome.

 Pixabay

Pixabay

“There’s an assassin near. He’s poisoned the entire area!”

Robert Gibbon Johnson, gentleman farmer, knew that tomatoes were fine to eat as long as you didn’t also eat lead, but he needed a way to prove it to the good people of Salem ... New Jersey. Sure, he could have published a book explaining the health benefits of shoving tomatoes into your face, but also who the hell would read that? Instead Johnson walked to the local courthouse carrying a big basket of “poisoned apples” to put tomatoes on trial. A crowd soon gathered, excited to watch this dude definitely kill himself, because traditionally, watching things die was history’s equivalent to bingeing Breaking Bad.

And just in case Johnson was wrong about tomatoes, he also brought along a respected physician, Dr. James Van Meter, to give him CPR or pee on his foot if Johnson passed out or whatever. Before taking a bite, Johnson held up a tomato and said, “The time will come when this luscious scarlet tomato, rich in nutrition, a delight to the eye, a joy to the palate whether fried, baked, broiled or even eaten raw, will form the foundation of a great garden industry,” which is absolutely the most epic thing anybody’s ever said before eating a tomato. Then he ate the whole basket like a modern-day William Wallace.

As you may have guessed, he did not die, and soon after, the tomato-industrial complex grew into the behemoth it is today.

People Killed Each Other Over Orchids

History is full of badass jobs that’ll never really exist again: Horseback knights, war-time motorcycle message carriers, uh, orchid hunters? Although there’s still something of a black market for stealing and reselling exotic plants today, it’s nothing compared to what was going on with orchids during the 19th century. And by that we mean, people no longer literally kill each other to grab the prettiest flower.

During the Victorian era, fancy rich people would hire orchid hunters to do nothing but scour the world for new, rare specimens. It’s not like these flowers were just squatting behind the Starbucks on fifth street, so hunters traveled to exotic locations for their next find. This meant traversing insane terrain, contending with rare diseases, surviving animal attacks, fighting indigenous peoples, and even squaring off against other orchid hunters. Because of this, a huge majority of orchid hunters straight up died.

 Pixabay

Pixabay

But, really, put this on a scale with human life and see which side tips.

Seriously, the whole thing sounds like Indiana Jones if, instead of procuring actual magical artifacts, he was desperately trying to grab a glorified daisy. Tempers ran high between hunters, and they often found themselves pulling guns on each other or peeing all over other hunters’ orchids to destroy their crop. Often they’d chase each other around the world, creating honest-to-God rivalries not unlike René Emile Belloq and Indiana Jones.

Even if a hunter managed to survive, grab a couple thousand orchids, and ship the whole mess to Europe, more often than not the orchids would all up end up dead on arrival. Orchids aren’t really supposed to be transported, but hunters only made money if the plants were purchased at auction. It was a terrible living, and even the hunters who managed to return still tended to die of poverty.

Nostalgia Was Considered A Disease

Without nostalgia, it’s fair to wonder if anything in America would exist at all. What would we do if we couldn’t watch infinite reboots or listen to ‘80s music? How would we spend our time without quizzes that only true ‘90s kids can pass? We’d probably just die, right? Well, historically, it was the exact opposite. Nostalgia was the thing that’d kill you, because it was considered a disease.

From the 17th to the 19th century, nostalgia was seen as a psychopathological disorder. Physicians thought it similar to general paranoia, expect that instead of a fear of being attacked or persecuted, sufferers experienced overwhelming longing for stuff from their past. It was largely associated with soldiers who would become homesick when they would hear songs or see objects that reminded them of their childhood. It got so bad in the Swiss army that if anybody played a milking song called “Khue-Reyen,” they could be freaking executed.

 
 

But it wasn’t just rad milking songs, anything could “set it off”, like: a too lenient education, coming from the mountains, unfulfilled ambition, masturbation, eating unusual food, and love (“especially happy love”). The symptoms were all over the place too, ranging from plausible stuff like general sadness to suicide all the way down to totally unrelated crap like brain inflammation and heart attacks. I mean, Furbies are stupid, but they probably don’t inflame anybody’s brain.

Of course, like with any disease, there was also an outbreak of “fake nostalgia.” Soldiers pretended to get super sad thinking about ABBA’s greatest hits or whatever to avoid fighting. Back in the good ol’ days, apparently earning a Purple Heart just meant softly humming “Dancing Queen.” Of course, armies don’t work well without soldiers, so the go-to cure quickly became inciting terror by threatening to bury sufferers alive or just treating the symptoms with stuff like leeches, making people throw up, or “warm hypnotic emulsions” -- which could either be delightful or what that movie Human Centipede was about.

By the time nostalgia hit America, soldiers spent less time threatening to kill “sufferers” and more time calling them a bunch of wussies to shame the sadness out of them, because, you know, America. Eventually, nostalgia shifted and became cool, kind of like Dungeons & Dragons or eating tomatoes.

People Used To Ship Children Via Mail

If you’ve got the money, the Postal Service will mail pretty much anything under 108 inches and 70 pounds. So obviously my huge, sweaty, panting, massive dog, Geoffrey, is out. But there are other things one might want to ship that would fit under those restrictions. For example: children. Of course, nowadays it is technically “illegal” to stuff your “cousin” into a “box” and ship him to “Cambodia”, but that wasn’t always the case.

Before 1913, the Post Office was unable to ship anything larger than four pounds, because Wheaties hadn’t been invented yet and nobody was strong enough to lift more than that. But on January 1st, 1913, God invented the Parcel Post system so we could finally ship full-on packages to each other. This was a huge boon to the economy, and mail-order companies saw their revenue skyrocket. Middle-class families were able to make money, too. Instead of purchasing tickets for their children to ride the train, they’d just ship their little butts through the mail.

“Nobody was home, so I just left it by the garage door.”

Generally speaking, parents mailing children was largely seen as a cute joke, but occasionally they got away with some pretty impressive consignments. For example, one family shipped their four-year-old daughter 73 miles to her grandmother’s house. It only cost them 53 cents worth of stamps and presumably any chance their daughter would ever love them again.

It only took about a year for the Post Office to officially close that little loophole, but there were still several instances of parents trying to sneak their kids off in little boxes, hoping nobody would notice. Money saved on a train ticket was worth possibly losing a kid since, apparently, they were only worth slightly more than birthday cards in the early 1900s.

Square Dancing Was Used To “Fight The Jews”

Square dancing is probably the least offensive dance ever conceived. It’s the official state dance for over half of America and its slow, polite moves seem specifically designed to thwart teenage pregnancy. Of course, that’s not why square dancing is so overwhelmingly popular across the country. The real reason is because it’s so good at “fighting the Jews.” At least, that’s what noted anti-semite Henry Ford believed.

Back in the roaring 20s, America found itself swept up in the a sexy new music genre called jazz. Jazz’s popularity wasn’t just because it employed the dulcet tones of grown men blowing into metal tubes -- it also came packaged with several dope-ass new dances like The Charleston. It was fun, it was exciting, and Henry Ford believed it’d be the downfall of America. Ford claimed that Jews created jazz to corrupt the masses, even though, you know, they absolutely did not create jazz music. Ford believed the Jewish community was controlling and manipulating the African-Americans who were actually creating jazz so ... he wasn’t really a great dude, overall.

 
 

Ford was so against jazz that he actually made it one of his life-missions to destroy it—by making old, white-people dances popular again. To that end, he dumped tons of money into square dancing and country music. He forced his employees to attend square dancing events, he funded “old-time music” radio events and Western dancing clubs, and he even published a book explaining how to square dance ... man, that had to have been marketed as a thriller. Ford then passed the racist torch off to others who eventually lobbied across the country to make square dancing more of an institution.

And that, friends, is officially the weirdest, stupidest fact we’ve ever presented on The Modern Rogue. So far.

Like this article? Check out “Weird, Unexpected Origins Of 5 Common Things” and “The Unexpected Origins Of 5 Common Practices”.

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