Susan here, with a few stories from history—odd, quirky, amusing stories that aren't always included in historical accounts. If you've heard these before, they're worth another chuckle. No matter the era or the year, history is about people, with instincts, impulses, thoughts, habits, needs, and cleverness that is refreshingly familiar to us today. Victories, triumphs and losses, advances and discoveries, genius and so on–that's what we most often learn about.
And then there are the other stories–the blunders, the oddities, the quirky little things that make historical figures utterly human. Here are a few of those — enjoy!
Easter is coming, and bunnies are a big part of that, the chocolate and the furry and fluffy sort. But what did Napoleon have to do with bunnies? In 1807, to celebrate a treaty, Napoleon proposed a rabbit hunt and set his chief of staff to round up some hares and let them loose in a field, making the hunt easy for Napoleon and a select group of cronies. Berthier did so, visiting farms and bringing hundreds—some accounts say thousands—of rabbits to the field where the emperor and the others were ready for the hunt.
When the rabbits were set free, they did not scamper away, inviting the chase—they hopped about in the sunshine and ran toward Napoleon in particular, leaping up to climb up his legs and arms, swarming around the emperor and his men, and hoppity-hoppity-hopping to the carriages to leap and bounce inside. The chief of staff had not brought wild hares—rather, he had gathered farm rabbits more suited to life around people, and even life as pets. They were happily expecting food and perhaps a pat and a tummy rub. Napoleon rode away in a coach filled with fluffy bunnies—amid the laughter of his men.
Ben Franklin and the Turkey
Another holiday features turkeys—and Ben Franklin was particularly fond of them, not only because he thought them tasty. He admired the turkey so much that he proposed it for the national bird (thankfully the eagle won out!). One day, in the midst of his series of experiments with electricity, Franklin was planning to cook a turkey for dinner and had the bright idea to harness an electric current to heat up and cook it a lot faster than roasting it on a spit over the kitchen fire.
Not a bad idea in theory, in practice it left a little to be desired. Generating a current, Franklin connected the leads to the plucked turkey—but contacted the electric current himself. He was blown clear across the room, and lived to tell the tale. History doesn’t record what he had for dinner that night, but chances are it wasn’t roast turkey!
Michelangelo and the Duomo of Florence
Michelangelo was such a celebrated giant among artists of his time that his good opinion was gold. In 1516, he was walking through Florence one day with town officials, who were proud to show him the progress of the beautiful cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, under construction at the time. They pointed out to him Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome, a masterpiece of architectural ingenuity and beauty. Stopping to examine the cathedral’s soaring vaulted dome, Michelangelo looked up and noticed the intricate stonework trim being applied around the base of the dome. What did he think, they asked. “It looks like a cage for crickets!” he said, being a blunt and straightforward sort. Work on the dome’s trim stopped that day, so the story goes, and the trim on the dome has never been completed.
Another story about the Duomo’s construction exists. In its planning stages, a looming problem was how to construct a
dome that high. After much deliberation and rejected plans—the fear was that the dome would collapse during construction due to the unusual height and breadth of the vault—city officials turned to the public for solutions. A contest was held. Among the suggestions was to create a gigantic pile of dirt inside the cathedral during construction, so that workers could climb up and down the makeshift mountain, safely carrying bricks and stone and materials to construct the dome. The idea interested the committee—but how would they clear all that dirt out when the dome was complete? Seed the dirt with gold coins deep inside the mound and invite the people of Florence inside to carry the dirt away in buckets while they searched for the gold. Needless to say, this brilliant little plan didn’t come about, and they relied on scaffolding instead.
Andrew Jackson’s Parrot
Another animal story—President Andrew Jackson had a pet parrot named Poll, which he purchased in 1827. When Jackson died many years later in 1845, during his funeral, Poll the parrot sat on a perch nearby as hundreds of visitors entered and came through to pay their respects. Before the sermon, it was reported, this “wicked parrot that was a household pet got excited and commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people and had to be carried from the house.”
People were horrified at the extent of the bird’s colorful, raunchy language—and some were even scandalized at the bird’s irreverence during the funeral of its owner. Bad Polly! Though it begs the question: where did Poll learn such creative language?
Just a few of the reasons why history and the people who create it remain endlessly fun and fascinating!