The past was far more disgusting than most of us realize. We’ve told you before about Pompeii’s trash can streets, medieval London’s otherworldly stink, and the appalling hygiene of the 18th century. But even these horrors have nothing on the various parasites and diseases of the past.
Remember the last time that you had a bad toothache? Awful, wasn’t it? Now imagine that pain roughly 100 times worse. It’s so bad, in fact, that you lose touch with reality and start acting like a rabid dog. And your dentist has no way to help you.
That was the sort of toothache that a small number of patients encountered in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Luckily, the infected teeth had a simple method for curing themselves. They exploded.
In 1817, Reverend DA from Springfield suffered a toothache so bad that it made him act like “an enraged animal,” banging his head against the ground and biting a fence post to relieve his agony. But the pain kept getting worse.
One morning, the reverend’s wife heard a crack like a gunshot. Shortly after, her husband walked in and declared himself cured. His tooth had just exploded, sending calcium fragments flying across the room.
There are a handful of similar cases on record. Although the patient usually felt better after the infected tooth burst, the explosion could be damaging in itself. In 1871, one woman was nearly knocked off her feet by the blast, which was so loud that she briefly went deaf.
Cases of exploding teeth mysteriously stopped in the 1920s. It’s now thought that the mixture of metals used in old-time fillings may have caused cavities to occasionally fill with hydrogen, eventually leading to a miniature explosion.
9Gigantic And Painful Intestinal Worms
Intestinal worms like tapeworms still affect people today. But these parasites are wimps compared to some worms observed in the 18th century. In 1782, an article in Medical Essays and Observations reported on a young man who passed a worm 0.5 meters (1.5 ft) long and 4.0 centimeters (1.5 in) thick. By “passed,” we mean that he had to get a friend to help him pull it out of his rear end.
Made up of earthworm-like joints and full of dark, sticky blood, the worm was like something out of a horror movie. It had a jaw like a duck’s bill, was dark chocolate in color, and had apparently been burrowing in the poor guy’s intestines for days. As it moved, it caused him excruciating pain. Whatever this monster was, it wasn’t a tapeworm.
A similar story from the 16th century is just as bad. Italian goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini recorded in his autobiography that he once vomited a worm that was 13 centimeters (5 in) long and covered with long, dark hairs. No one had any idea what the heck it was.
Mass hysteria is when a group of people start doing something absurd on a grand scale with no rational explanation. Famous examples include the Loudun possessions and the Salem witch trials.
At certain times in history, mass hysteria has also intersected with medicine to create creepy, inexplicable “plagues.” One of the creepiest may be the dancing plague of 1518.
The plague began one hot July in Strasbourg when a woman began dancing in the street and didn’t stop. Ever. She was still dancing days later, apparently no longer in control of her body. At that point, things got weird. At least 100 other people started dancing and quickly discovered that they couldn’t stop, either.
According to old eyewitness accounts, the victims appeared to be terrified and begged those around them to make them stop dancing. Within a few short days, people were literally dancing themselves to death.
Luckily, the town had a bizarre but effective solution. It was decided that the plague’s victims just needed to dance the compulsion out of their systems. Halls and stages were set up for dancing, and musicians were hired to play 24/7. By September of that year, the dancers—whose number had swollen to 400—finally tired themselves out. The plague was over.
Although this was the last dancing plague in European history, it wasn’t the first. There had been at least 10 beforehand. In 1374, one of them engulfed what is now Belgium, Luxembourg, and most of northern France.
There are certain things that no man ever wants to have happen to him. Hearing his doctor say the words “prostate cancer” is one of them. Another is having a living creature crawl out of the end of his penis. For one unfortunate man in 1838, that’s exactly what happened.
As reported in American Journal of the Medical Sciences, the 23-year-old victim was suffering from a urinary tract infection. After days of urinating blood and pus, he found himself unable to pee.
His agony was so great that doctors urgently sent for a catheter. Before it could get there, the problem sorted itself out in the worst possible way. A pea-sized object popped out of the guy’s penis, followed by a heavy discharge of pus and urine. When doctors examined the blockage, they discovered that it was a living beetle.
Terrifyingly, such cases were not unusual at the time. The former BBC journalist Thomas Morris has covered many of them on his gruesome blog. Apparently, one young boy peed out 16 slugs.
If you were to be mysteriously whisked back to 1918, there’s one disease that you’d probably try to avoid above all others. That was the year that the Spanish flu blasted its way across the globe, killing up to 50 million people—over twice as many as World War I. But that pandemic overshadowed one that was just as inexplicable and potentially freakier.
Although it was far less deadly than the Spanish flu—killing “only” one million people—sleepy sickness was horrifying. Officially known as encephalitis lethargica, scientists now believe that it was a reaction to a rare form of Streptococcus bacteria.
At the time, though, nobody knew what was happening. All they knew was that people were starting to fall asleep like they had narcolepsy. And some of them never woke up.
But they didn’t die. Some sufferers lapsed into coma-like states, unable to control their bodies and unable to wake up. Shunted into medical units, they still showed signs of brain activity, but they didn’t respond to stimuli.
Millions of people worldwide suffered this horrendous fate. Although some were “awakened” with drug treatments in 1969, many slipped back into their sleeping state after only a few weeks.
Scarily, the disease hasn’t entirely vanished. The odd case still crops up today, although another major outbreak seems extremely unlikely.
The words “eye spiders” alone are enough to give a significant number of people nightmares. Unfortunately for any arachnophobes reading this, the story behind that headline is even worse.
In 1840, Dr. Lopez of Alabama was called out on a gruesome case in Charleston. The previous night, his patient had felt something drop on her face while sleeping. The next morning, she woke up with a hideously swollen eye. When the eye was examined, a mucus-covered spider was found living in the cavity.
Incredibly, the horror story was only just beginning. A few days later, Dr. Lopez was called to see the woman again. More spiders had been discovered in her eye socket.
Over the next few weeks, Dr. Lopez visited her every morning. Each time, he extracted a tiny, mucus-coated spider from inside her eye. After two months of this, locals were convinced that the original spider had laid an egg sac behind her eyeball, causing this terrifying condition.
We’ve got good news for all you readers who are trying not to vomit. As Dr. Lopez soon realized, such a thing is basically impossible. It turned out that the woman was mentally ill and had been placing the spiders in her eye each morning, possibly as a means of getting attention.
Still, the 19th century was a fertile time for extracting animals from bodies. On his blog, Thomas Morris records the stories of a boy who vomited millipedes and another person who supposedly had a live mouse extracted from his intestine.
4Ice Age Superbugs
Antibiotic-resistant bugs are a potential nightmare. Bacteria that can shrug off treatments have been around since 1947 and are growing in number. Commonly called superbugs, these Darwinian monsters could be what finally kill off modern humans.
Yet recent research has shown that these superbugs might not be so modern after all. There is evidence that they spent their formative years in what is now Canada, killing off our ancestors during the last ice age.
In 2011, Scientific American reported that antibiotic-resistant superbugs had been found buried deep in the ice outside Dawson City, Yukon. These tiny killers were at least 30,000 years old and hadn’t seen sunlight in millennia. Thousands of years before we humans figured out antibiotics, Actinobacteria had set up a defense system to stop us from killing them.
Of course, this made no difference to our ice age ancestors. Bugs killed them swiftly whether they were resistant to antibiotics or not. But if you ever go back in time via a DeLorean or a TARDIS, you might want to avoid prehistoric Canada.
The dancing plague may have occurred centuries ago, but you don’t have to go too far back to find creepy instances of mass hysteria. In modern-day Tanzania, you would only need to take a time machine back to 1962 when the mainland was still called Tanganyika. That was the year that the laughing epidemic hit. One day, people suddenly started laughing. Months later, they still hadn’t stopped.
Like the dancing plague, the laughter epidemic was creepy because those affected apparently didn’t want to be laughing. People laughed so hard that they injured themselves. Entire schools were shut down, and whole villages were quarantined. When the plague vanished months later, 1,000 people had laughed themselves into illness.
Perhaps the creepiest part is how the symptoms were described. Those affected said that it felt like “things were moving about in their heads” and that they were being controlled by an alien force. However, just about every expert in the world now chalks the whole thing up to mass hysteria.
2Vomiting Up A Fetus
In 1835, Dr. Ardoin, a French doctor living in Greece, recorded that a young boy named Demetrius Stamatelli had vomited up a fetus. This already disgusting sentence gets even worse when you realize that the dead baby spewed by Demetrius was probably his own twin.
Parasitic twins occur when one twin “absorbs” the other in the womb. Usually, the absorbed twin goes unnoticed until death. Occasionally, it has to be surgically removed if it starts to cause problems. The case in 1830s Greece is the only time on record that someone apparently vomited their twin.
The details of the case are utterly gruesome. Demetrius had abdominal pains so bad that he was at death’s door. It was only after a horrendous vomiting fit that his symptoms abated—after the dead twin was spewed out of his mouth. Apparently, it had been attached to the boy by some kind of umbilical cord. Dr. Ardoin seemed to find this horror show utterly fascinating.
1The Plague Of Athens
Of all the gruesome and mysterious plagues that have racked human civilization over the centuries, none is more gruesome or mysterious than the Plague of Athens. Between 430 BC and 426 BC, the cradle of democracy was transformed from a serene place of ancient wisdom into a grand showcase of gore.
According to the only surviving eyewitness account (as related by Thucydides), those affected saw their eyeballs turn red, their tongues become bloody, their throats decay, and horrible ulcers pop up all over their bodies. If that wasn’t enough, death typically came after a horrendous bout of diarrhea.
It’s estimated that up to two-thirds of the Athenian population died this way, including some of the city-state’s greatest leaders and generals. Scarily, we’re still not sure what caused it. Many scientists believe that the Plague of Athens could be the earliest-known Ebola outbreak.
Yet that interpretation comes with issues because there was no other recorded outbreak between 426 BC and the 1970s. Others have suggested cholera, bubonic plague, typhoid, and even measles.