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How ‘Unicorn Horns’ Became the Poison Antidote of Choice for Paranoid Royals

April 16, 2019 in History

By Hadley Meares

Elizabeth I, for one, was known to drink from a unicorn horn cup, believing that if poison touched it, it would explode.

Being a king or queen has always been a treacherous job. Between homicidal enemies, duplicitous courtiers and back-stabbing family members, royals had every reason to constantly fear for their lives. And there was one form of assassination that particularly terrified them: silent, invisible poison.

For centuries before the age of Enlightenment, paranoid royals sought protection in superstition, alchemy and quackery. They paid enormous sums—sometimes a proverbial king’s ransom—for magical objects they believed would neutralize, expose or repel poison. The most coveted of those? The mythical “unicorn horn,” also known as an alicorn.

“Before chemistry was a thing, people believed that many objects and foodstuffs had magical ‘virtues’ or properties,” says Eleanor Herman, author of the . After purchasing a particularly costly horn, James tried it out by giving poison to a servant, followed by an antidote made of powdered unicorn horn. When the servant died, James believed he had been hoodwinked.

An experiment involving the use of unicorn horns against poison.

The most dangerous poisons were hiding in plain sight.

Horns weren’t the only antidotes royals employed against the dreaded poison. Some used stones etched with scorpions. Others placed gems such as emeralds and amethysts in their goblets. Still others sought protection from powders crushed from bezoar stones (hairballs and other undigestible solid masses pulled from animal stomachs) or toadstones (mythological gems embedded in toad’s foreheads that were actually fossilized teeth of extinct fish).

To stave off poisoning attempts, some royals took a daily antidote, or theriac, to build immunity. Theriac ingredients included common foodstuffs like parsley, carrots, black pepper, cloves, wine and honey, says Herman. Others ingested sulfur and garlic, now known to neutralize arsenic in the bloodstream. And, she added, “Some theriacs included real poison such as arsenic in minute amounts to get the body used to it slowly, so that a single large dose might not prove fatal.”

What’s ironic in all this is that royals—along with the general population—poisoned themselves daily in countless ways. Elizabeth I probably hastened her death by her constant use of lead-based white face paint; in her last year, she showed many signs of lead poisoning. Cosmetics and medications contained large amounts of mercury, lead, arsenic, animal and human feces and urine, and dead body parts, says Herman.

And that’s not counting all the banal, …read more

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Revolutionary Mobs Almost Destroyed the Notre-Dame Cathedral

April 15, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Anti-Christian forces all but tore down one of France’s most powerful symbols

It’s one of France’s most powerful religious, architectural and cultural symbols—and images of Notre-Dame de Paris in flames evoke questions about how the city, and the cathedral, will move forward. But the fire isn’t the first time the cathedral has faced destruction. In the 1790s, revolutionaries and angry mobs looted the church and even declared that it wasn’t a church at all during a bloody push to remove France’s close ties to the Catholic church.

Before an angry revolutionary mob stormed the Bastille in Paris in 1789, the Church wielded extraordinary power in France. The vast majority of French people were Catholic, Catholicism was the state religion, and the Church owned vast swaths of property and collected heavy tithes from most people’s incomes without paying taxes of its own. But a growing number of French people had tired of the Church’s almost inconceivable power.

As the monarchy toppled, then fell, a small group of radical revolutionaries who had been influenced by Enlightenment-era philosophies of freedom of religion and a reason-based society saw their chance to strip the Church of much of its authority. They embarked on a dechristianization campaign, confiscating Church property, trying to get all clergy to swear their loyalty to the new state, and removing the Church’s control over the birth, death and administrative records it had held for so long.

The Revolution gained steam, and so did its attempts to strip the Catholic Church of its authority over French life. Parisians massacred jailed priests during the September Massacres of 1792, and clergy were put on trial during the Reign of Terror. In 1793, the new government announced that public worship was illegal. In response, people rushed into churches, stripping them of religious symbolism.

Pieces of the statues of the kings of Judah which adorned the facade of Notre Dame, that had been missing since the French Revolution, shown at a museum in 1977.

Notre-Dame de Paris had long been a symbol of the monarchy, too—a place where kings were coronated and state holidays celebrated. But revolutionary Parisians had had enough of its royal resonance. The cathedral’s west facade featured 28 statues that portrayed the biblical Kings of Judah. In fall 1793, the new government ordered workers to remove them. They didn’t portray French kings, but no matter: The 500-year-old statues …read more

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Chernobyl Timeline: How a Nuclear Accident Escalated to a Historic Disaster

April 15, 2019 in History

By Jesse Greenspan

Critical missteps and a poor reactor design resulted in history’s worst nuclear accident.

A safety test, which took place on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, was deemed so routine that the plant’s director didn’t even bother showing up. It quickly spiraled out of control, however, as an unexpected power surge and steam buildup led to a series of explosions that blew apart the reactor.

Considered history’s worst nuclear accident, the Chernobyl disaster killed 31 people directly, including 28 workers and firefighters who died of acute radiation poisoning during the cleanup. Experts believe it likewise caused thousands of premature cancer deaths, though the exact number is disputed. To this day, the area around the plant remains so contaminated that it’s officially closed off to human habitation.

Below is a blow-by-blow account of how this catastrophic meltdown occurred.

A view of the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant three days after the explosion. Considered history’s worst nuclear accident, the Chernobyl disaster on April 26, 1986 killed 31 people directly, many due to radiation poisoning during the cleanup. The area around the plant remains so contaminated that it’s officially closed off to human habitation.

View the 10 images of this gallery on the original article

September 26, 1977: The Chernobyl nuclear power station, located about 65 miles north of Kiev, Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union), begins supplying power to the grid.

February 1986: A Soviet official is quoted saying that the odds of a nuclear meltdown are “one in 10,000 years.” By this time, the Chernobyl site contains four 1,000-megawatt reactors, plus two additional reactors that are under construction.

A Safety Test Sets the Stage for a Meltdown

April 25, 1986, 1 a.m.: Chernobyl’s operators begin reducing power at reactor No. 4 in preparation for a safety test, which they have timed to coincide with a routine shutdown for maintenance. The test is supposed to determine whether, in the event of a power failure, the plant’s still-spinning turbines can produce enough electricity to keep coolant pumps running during the brief gap before the emergency generators kick in. Ironically, this safety test brings about the reactor’s destruction.

April 25, 1986, 2 p.m.: Reactor No. 4’s emergency core cooling system is disabled to keep it from interfering with the test. Though this doesn’t cause the accident, it worsens the impact. At around the same time, the test and shutdown are temporarily delayed …read more

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There Was a Spy Inside Hitler's SS. Here's What He Did to Stop the Nazis

April 12, 2019 in History

By Greg Lewis

Kurt Gerstein’s official mission: ‘improve the service of our gas chambers.’ His personal mission: opportunistic sabotage.

On June 8, 1942, with the Second World War at its height, a Nazi officer in civilian uniform entered the Institute of Hygiene in Berlin and was shown into the office of Major Kurt Gerstein. The visitor brought an order from his superior, Adolf Eichmann, of the Reich Security Main Office: Gerstein was to collect a large quantity of a special gas from a secret factory and deliver it to a location in Poland.

The gas was Zyklon B, a variant of hydrocyanic or prussic acid, which released deadly fumes on contact with the air. Its use was not discussed.

Gerstein already knew. Earlier that year he had received a briefing document about the creation of “necessary” buildings in an occupied Poland “for the gassing of the Jews.” Gerstein suspected that Zyklon B was the means by which the mass murder would be accelerated.

But despite his black tunic with the lightning SS collar flashes, Gerstein was no ordinary Nazi. He had joined the Waffen SS to expose its crimes. Now, he would not only be a witness to the horror—he was being ordered to ensure the instrument of murder was delivered to its destination.

READ MORE: The Nazis Developed Sarin Gas During WWII, But Hitler Was Afraid to Use It

Hitler, accompanied by Joseph Goebbels and Julius Schaub behind him, at an event in the Berlin Sport Palace with many SS members in attendance, circa 1940.

When resistance failed, he infiltrated the SS.

A tall, slim man with a serious face and dark, penetrating eyes, Kurt Gerstein was 35 when he applied to join the Waffen-SS in September 1940.

A quick glance at his record showed that he had the makings of a perfect recruit. He had been born into a deeply conservative household, and both his parents were enthusiastic Nazis.

READ MORE: How the Hitler Youth Turned a Generation of Youth into Nazis

But a closer look at his life suggested both the will and courage to rebel. At school he gained a reputation for truancy and insolence, behavior that brought him into conflict with his father. He found comfort in the Bible and, on leaving school to study to become a mining engineer, spent his weekends writing pamphlets for a national Bible circle.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Gerstein was angered …read more

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Villa for Stone Age ‘One Percent’ Found Near Stonehenge

April 11, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

. “So people who inhabited these buildings were perhaps of a more senior social status, [perhaps] of a more important lineage than the rest of the population.”

Pollard and his co-authors of a paper published in the April 2019 issue of Antiquity believe Stone Age people built Avebury to commemorate this important house. The massive stone monument, he told Live Science, “likely relates to the dwelling of people who were regarded as being part of an important foundational Neolithic lineage.”

This is a huge shift from when archaeologists studied the house’s foundations in 1939 and theorized that it was the site of a medieval structure. Pollard and his colleagues argue that the house’s foundations and surrounding pieces of flint tools and pottery match other examples from the early Neolithic period. They theorize that Stone Age people built the house sometime after 3700 B.C.E., several centuries before they constructed the stone circles at Avebury and Stonehenge in the modern-day county of Wiltshire.

An illustration depicting Avebury during neolithic times, containing three stone circles.

The archaeologists note that although Avebury and Stonehenge are part of the same World Heritage Site, Avebury has received far less archeological attention than the strangely more-popular Stonehenge. In the future, they hope to examine Avebury’s northern inner circle. It’s the same size as the southern one (approximately 328 feet in diameter), and for all we know, it may also contain the remains of an important Neolithic house for the Stone Age “one percent.”

READ MORE: The Man Who Bought Stonehenge
READ MORE: What Made Stonehenge’s Builders Collect Massive Stones from 180 Miles Away?

…read more

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The Secret World War II Mission to Kidnap Hitler's A-Bomb Scientists

April 11, 2019 in History

By Joseph A. Williams

Anticipating the Allied arrival, German researchers hid their files inside a watertight drum and sunk it into a cesspool.

One of the Allies’ greatest fears during and Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster.

…read more

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Black Holes Were Such an Extreme Concept, Even Einstein Had His Doubts

April 10, 2019 in History

By Ian O’Neill

Einstein’s theory of relativity paved the way for black holes’ discovery, but the concept behind their existence was so bizarre that even the scientific visionary was not convinced.

More than a century ago, Albert Einstein stunned the world when he explained the universe through his theory of general relativity. The theory not only described the relationship between space, time, gravity and matter, it opened the door to the theoretical possibility of a particularly mind-boggling phenomenon that would eventually be called black holes.

The concept that explains black holes was so radical, in fact, that Einstein, himself, had strong misgivings. He concluded in a 1939 paper in the Annals of Mathematics that the idea was “not convincing” and the phenomena did not exist “in the real world.”

The first image of the shadow of the black hole in the center of M87 taken with the Event Horizon Telescope in 2019.

The unveiling of the first-ever picture of a black hole by the Event Horizon Telescope in April 2019, however, not only confirmed Einstein’s original theory, but also provided indisputable proof that the gravitational monsters are, in fact, real.

The Space-Time Theory

As described by American physicist John A. Wheeler, general relativity governs the nature of space-time, particularly how it reacts in the presence of matter: “matter tells space-time how to curve, and space-time tells matter how to move.”

Picture a flat rubber sheet (space-time) suspended above the ground. Place a bowling ball in the middle of the sheet (matter) and the sheet will distort around the mass, bending half way to the floor— this is matter telling space-time how to curve. Now roll a marble (matter) around the rubber sheet (space-time) and the marble’s trajectory will change, being deflected by the warped sheet— this is space-time telling matter how to move. Matter and space-time are inextricably linked, with gravity mediating their interaction.

Now, place a singularity—a theoretical point of infinite density—onto the sheet, what would happen to space-time? It was German theoretical physicist Karl Schwarzschild, not Einstein, who used general relativity to describe this hypothetical situation, a situation that would become the most extreme test of general relativity.


Gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of space-time that propagate as waves traveling outward from their source.

At a certain threshold, Schwarzschild found that the hypothetical singularity would literally punch through space-time. In mathematics, singularities are interesting numerical …read more

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Previously Unknown Human Species Discovered in the Philippines

April 10, 2019 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Beneath the rocky floor of Callao Cave on Luzon island in the Philippines, researchers have uncovered a number of fossils from what they believe is a previously unknown ancient human species.

Dubbed Homo luzonensis, the newly identified species inhabited Luzon more than 50,000 years ago, during the Late Pleistocene epoch. This means they shared the Earth with other relatively advanced hominins, including Homo neanderthalensis (a.k.a. , they trace the remains to three different individuals, including at least one juvenile.

The fossils found in the cave—including several foot and hand bones, a partial femur and teeth—shared some morphological features with more primitive hominin species such as Australopithecus and Homo erectus, as well as more advanced ones, including Homo sapiens and Homo floresiensis.

“What makes them a new species is actually the combination of all features taken together,” Détroit said in an email interview. “If you take each feature one by one, you will of course find it in one or several hominin species. But if you take the whole package, no other species of the genus Homo is similar, thus indicating that they belong to a new species.”

READ MORE: Did Humans Kill Off the Hobbits?

Molars and premlars found of the Homo luzonensis.

In particular, the teeth found in Callao Cave differ from those of other known hominin species. The premolars have two to three roots, while in Homo sapiens, premolars usually have only one root, or two at the most. These distinct premolars, as well as the tooth enamel and dentin (the hard bony tissue that makes up the body of the tooth) are similar to Australopithecus and more ancient species of the genus Homo, such as Homo habilis and Homo erectus.

On the other hand, the molars are very small and simply formed, like those of modern humans. “An individual with these characteristics combined cannot be classified in any of the species known today,” said Détroit.

The foot bones identified as Homo luzonensis also stand out for their combination of primitive and developed features, which indicates members of the species might have had a distinctive way of walking. The proximal phalanx (which forms the base of the toe) is curved, with highly developed insertions for the muscles involved in the flexion of the foot.

“These characteristics do not exist in Homo sapiens,” Détroit pointed out. In fact, the foot bones found in Callao Cave are …read more

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Legendary musician and megawatt star Prince dies at 57

April 9, 2019 in History

By History.com Editors

On the morning of this day in 2016, Prince, the polymathic musician who created more than 30 albums and won seven Grammy Awards over a 40-year career, is found dead in Paisley Park, his Minnesota home and recording studio. The cause of death was an accidental overdose of the opioid fentanyl. He was 57 years old.

In the hours and days after the news broke, fans around the world mourned his death with massive memorials. In a statement, President Obama said, “Few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly, or touched quite so many people with their talent.”

Prince Rogers Nelson was born on June 7, 1958, in Minneapolis, to musicians Mattie Shaw and John Nelson. As a teenager, Prince played in bands with his friends. In 1978, when he was 20, he signed his first record contract with Warner Bros., and that same year released his debut album, For You. Nearly every year after that he released a new album.

Prince’s sixth studio album, Purple Rain, released in 1984, was a high point. The album spent 24 consecutive weeks at number one on the Billboard 200 chart, spawned two hit singles (“When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy”), won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance, and sold 13 million copies. The accompanying film of the same name, which starred Prince in a loosely autobiographical role, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. Both the album and the film’s success launched Prince to international stardom.

Throughout his career, Prince defied and transcended genre. His music fused elements of funk, R&B, rock and pop into what later became known as Minneapolis Sound. Famously, he usually played all of the instruments on his albums himself—including 27 (ranging from piano to electric guitar to finger cymbals) on For You. He also toured frequently and was known as an especially electrifying live performer.

In the years before his death, Prince had been taking prescription pain medication for chronic hip pain. It is believed he was struggling with opioid addiction. He still recorded and performed during this time. His last album, Hit n Run Phase Two, was released in December 2015.

In October 2016, six months after Prince’s death, Paisley Park opened to the public for tours. In 2016, Prince’s estate sold more albums than any other artist that …read more

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Stockholm Syndrome: The True Story of Hostages Loyal to Their Captor

April 9, 2019 in History

By Christopher Klein

How a six-day hostage drama inside a Swedish bank christened the psychological phenomenon known as “Stockholm Syndrome.”

On the morning of August 23, 1973, an escaped convict crossed the streets of Sweden’s capital city and entered a bustling bank, the Sveriges Kreditbanken, on Stockholm’s upscale Norrmalmstorg square. From underneath the folded jacket he carried in his arms, Jan-Erik Olsson pulled a loaded submachine gun, fired at the ceiling and, disguising his voice to sound like an American, cried out in English, “The party has just begun!”

After wounding a policeman who had responded to a silent alarm, the robber took four bank employees hostage. Olsson, a safe-cracker who failed to return to prison after a furlough from his three-year sentence for grand larceny, demanded more than $700,000 in Swedish and foreign currency, a getaway car and the release of Clark Olofsson, who was serving time for armed robbery and acting as an accessory in the 1966 murder of a police officer. Within hours, the police delivered Olsson’s fellow convict, the ransom and even a blue Ford Mustang with a full tank of gas. However, authorities refused the robber’s demand to leave with the hostages in tow to ensure safe passage.

The unfolding drama captured headlines around the world and played out on television screens across Sweden. The public flooded police headquarters with suggestions for ending the standoff that ranged from a concert of religious tunes by a Salvation Army band to sending in a swarm of angry bees to sting the perpetrators into submission.

Press photographers and police snipers lie side by side on a roof opposite the bank where hostages were being held on August 24, 1973.

Holed up inside a cramped bank vault, the captives quickly forged a strange bond with their abductors. Olsson draped a wool jacket over the shoulders of hostage Kristin Enmark when she began to shiver, soothed her when she had a bad dream and gave her a bullet from his gun as a keepsake. The gunman consoled captive Birgitta Lundblad when she couldn’t reach her family by phone and told her, “Try again; don’t give up.”

When hostage Elisabeth Oldgren complained of claustrophobia, he allowed her to walk outside the vault attached to a 30-foot rope, and Oldgren told The New Yorker a year later that although leashed, “I remember thinking he was very kind to allow me to leave the vault.” Olsson’s …read more

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