Thursday, 31 October 2013

Some More Terrifying Things People Did With The Dead (Historical Figure Remix)

My 6th article for Cracked was published today - The 6 Most Terrifying Things People Used to Do With the Dead.

This one had a bit of a convoluted history. It's actually an amalgamated version of two different articles, combined by the Cracked editors as a Halloween special. My original idea was written under the premise of Undignified/ridiculous journeys and adventures of esteemed dead people and their body parts, which itself was modified from an earlier, and abandoned idea, in the Cracked workshop. Only two entries you see in today's Cracked article survived the new premise and modifications - Rasputin and Blackbeard.

If you follow my blog, you'll probably know that dead people's body parts don't crop up too much. Mostly, I just talk about buildings and history, and funnily enough this provided the inspiration for the entries that ended up being cut: St Mark, John the Baptist, the 1st Emperor of China, and Abraham Lincoln. Three of these are directly associated with Wonders on my list (St Mark's Basilica, Amiens Cathedral (among others), and the Terracotta Army, with the Lincoln Memorial not actually being on my list but still being a very famous monument. This demonstrates, I think, that a great building is always more than just a building. It is history, culture, legend, and people. And sometimes it also involves people's body parts.

Anyway, without any further musings on the nature of construction, there were four submitted entries that the editors didn't end up using in their final cut. They are below. Hope you enjoy them. Remember, they don't follow the premise of the actual Cracked article, they are about ridiculous adventures of famous corpses and their body parts.


One thing we can usually count on is that no matter how crappy our lives and how sick and tired of it we may feel sometimes, is that we can still enjoy a good rest upon death. And we’re just people who make jokes about dicks, surely the great and the good can enjoy the privileges of a peaceful burial and long time nap in the afterlife. Not so...

St. Mark- smuggled in a basket of pork

You've heard of St. Mark - he's the guy out of the "Matthew, Mark, Luke, John" of the Bible. Think ‘N Sync – if Jesus was Justin Timberlake, Mark would have been Lance Bass. Or something like that. Mark was kind of a big deal in these early Christian days. He spread the word and was the founder of the Coptic Church, which is the version of Christianity that Middle Eastern Christians generally follow. An all-round good guy, he was an early Christian martyr, and was rewarded for his good work with having a kick-ass winged lion as his symbol.

And could totally take Jesus out in a fight if he wanted to.

He's also the patron saint of Venice, and that came about near the early days of Venice's history. Venetians regarded themselves as direct descendents of St. Mark, and wanted him to be the centrepiece of the city. That meant having his actual corpse  - in the forms of religious relics – buried there. The good news was that even though it was now 828 AD – something like eight centuries after Mark's death - his bones were still around. The bad news was that the body was in Alexandria, Egypt, which had been in Muslim hands for almost 200 years.

The first part was easy. Two merchants went over there and got heavy-handed with the elderly priest that guarded St Mark’s shrine, "persuading" him the relics would be safer in their hands. However, the local Muslim authorities were a bigger problem. St Mark was a premier-grade saint and his bones were the saintly equivalent of the WWE Championship belt - they weren’t going to give them up without a fight. The merchants thought about it and came up with the perfect solution. What did Muslims hate? Pork. So they got a basket, filled it with pork and cabbage, then carefully mixed in St Mark’s corpse.

“Eh… still better than Taco Bell”

At the harbour, the customs officials got suspicious – what were these shifty looking Venetian merchants doing with this giant basket? But when they took a closer look at the contents they were so disgusted by the pork that, according to one account, they ran away screaming “pork! pork!” in horror – evidently 10th Century Muslims were easily-spooked cartoon stooges. The merchants were able to escape, and deliver St Mark’s pork-covered bones to Venice, where they were presumably given a good wash. A mosaic inside the appropriately named St Mark’s Basilica now commemorates the escapade.

“Cabbage, fine, human bones, fine, OH SH... RUN FOR IT GUYS HE’S GOT PORK!”

The First Emperor of China - on tour with some fish

If you want a giant figure in history, look no further than Qin Shi Huang, the 1st Emperor of China. This is the guy that, in 221BC, unified China – without him, there would likely be no such thing as the nation of China today. Of course, back then you didn’t unify a huge country by sweet-talking, you waged almighty war on everyone and pulled stunts like burning books, burying scholars alive, and enslaving and castrating entire male populations. But it wasn't all bad - he also standardised stuff like currency, weights, and the Chinese writing system, and built the first version of the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors, and a crazy booby-trapped mountain.

He also pioneered the whole "pimp-daddy" look
But in the manner of most power-crazed megalomaniac leaders, Qin ShiHuang became paranoid. The prospect of death terrified him and he became obsessed with immortality. He continued pulling wild stunts, like sending shiploads of people to look for a magical mountain of eternal life. Failure meant execution - so they just didn’t bother to return. Legend says they reached Japan and colonised it - so Qin ShiHuang created China and Japan (by mistake). It didn’t help him live forever though. Desperate for some sort of elixir of life, he started munching mercury pills – which promptly killed him.

"Hey guys, I'm not feeling so great. Get me more of these magic pills."

This happened while on a tour of his new kingdom, far away from his capital. His advisors flew into a panic – news of this would destabilise the kingdom. So instead, they simply decided not to tell anyone and continue with the tour. The show must go on, even if that show meant the emperor was always “resting” in his carriage. Kind of like a pop star dying on tour and their entourage pretending everything was fine. Just, you know, the star felt like wearing shades, a sombrero, and had a really sore throat.

"Yeah, Jay-Z's fine, he's decided to try out the whole "Mexican" look for the next few weeks."

The problem was that it was the middle of summer and there were two months left of the tour. The 1st Emperor’s body was to rot and attract flies. So to conceal the appalling smell coming from his carriage, they hitched a couple more carriages behind it, and filled them with rotting fish. If any villagers wondered what the terrible smell was, hell it was just these two carriages of rotting fish. And if any of them wondered why the emperor was travelling with two carriages of rotting fish... well, that's just how the emperor rolled. And if they valued their lives and child-producing capabilities, they knew not to ask any more questions.

Did it work? Kind of. The emperor's bloated, rotting corpse trundled through the kingdom without attracting suspicion, and after two months, they made it back to the capital where the news of the emperor’s death could be broken. Whereby his dynasty fell and the empire immediately plunged into chaos and war for decades. Oh well.

John the Baptist's skull and bones multiply and goes forth

John the Baptist was one of the main men of the New Testament. He was Jesus’s cousin and was also the guy who baptised Jesus - which is a bit like being the guy who handed Jimi Hendrix his first guitar and showed him how to strum. In the Bible, John the Baptist bows out when King Herod beheads him as a present for his dancing granddaughter. Jesus's disciples bury his body, but the last we hear of his head is Herod's granddaughter proudly showing the head to her mother. But every family has its peculiarities, eh?

"Oh sweetie, I've told you before that just a card and some flowers are fine."

But it was just the beginning of his adventures, as John the Baptist’s head became hot property. Christianity in its early days loved collecting body parts of its holy people, and competition could be fierce between churches trying to establish a reputation. Holy bones meant big money, as pilgrims would travel from great distances to visit churches and give donations. As early as the 5th Century, two skulls of John the Baptist were noted in circulation. One had been saved by monks after his tomb had been attacked by pagans, and a different set of monks found his head in a cloth sack after being guided by John the Baptist in a dream.

"Seriously, Frank, can't you dream about a sack full of money for once?"

And this kept happening. By the 11th Century, three heads were in circulation, and even medieval pilgrims were getting suspicious. Fortunately, the Archbishop of Canterbury came to the rescue, when asked to adjudicate between two rival claims. Both places had authentic skulls, he said – but one was of John the Baptist as a young man, the other as an older man.

This one is John the Baptist from his days as a glam-rock spaceman.

These days, John the Baptist’s head is all over the place – up to nine different heads are recorded in cathedrals, museums – and even a mosque. And that’s not counting the rest of his body. Seriously, John the Baptist has so many body parts he could form his own skeleton army.

"Hey there John! Fancy raiding a church to get another arm?"

And in case you think this was just a case of monks in the Middle Ages getting over-excited, modern science is getting into the John the Baptist game too.  As recently as last year, his bones were found again this time in a Bulgarian monastery – and scientists (kind of) have confirmed it.

Lincoln’s body went on tour and was moved constantly for decades

There are certain rituals and procedures that most bodies go through after death – undertakers, a coffin, and a burial for a long and dignified rest in peace. Surely this is the very least you would expect for a US president, especially one as venerable as the 16th, Abraham Lincoln. Nope. After Lincoln was assassinated, his body wasn’t buried – in full rock star fashion, it went on tour.

Lincoln: getting groupie ass since 1865.

Within less than a week of his death, Lincoln’s body went on a two week, 1654-mile tour of the nation. Around five million people packed the streets to get a look at him, with some windows along the route with a good view being rented for $100. Most evenings, the body was moved to a town hall, so long lines of people could get a good look, with queues often continuing through the night. Of course, touring takes its toll on the living, and after two weeks of touring while dead, Lincoln’s corpse was noticeably suffering. By May 2nd it is noted: “The body's discoloration, noticeable in New York, had reached the extent of distressing the viewers.”

"Well! He could at least have managed a smile. And been less rotted."

The funeral train went round 12 cities, 444 communities and seven states until eventually Lincoln’s slowly decomposing body was allowed its final rest... oh hang on, no. It still had another 36 years of upheaval.

For several weeks there was a somewhat undignified tug-of-war between Lincoln’s wife, Mary and the authorities about where his body would end up. Mary wanted it buried in a quiet spot outside Springfield but the town wanted it nearer downtown – where it would be a bigger tourist site. Mary narrowly won the town’s vote but only because she threatened to take his corpse and rebury it in Washington, D.C.

Then, in November 1876 – during election night - there was an attempt at a grave robbery. Some counterfeiters entered the unlocked tomb and removed the marble lid from Lincoln’s coffin. Their plan was to ransom for the corpse for $200,000, but they only managed to drag the 500-pound lead coffin a few feet before being arrested. But the tomb’s authorities were spooked – if a bunch of idiot amateurs could almost get away with stealing the president’s body, what would happen if professionals tried it? The solution? Hide it in the basement and not tell anyone. They buried Lincoln in an unmarked grave below the main tomb. One reburial wasn’t enough – due to tomb reconstructions and ongoing fears for the body’s safety, it was moved 17 times over the next 25 years. He was dug up and reburied almost on an annual basis, a bit like a spring clean.

"Yes honey, after I've washed the lettuce I'll rebury the president in another unmarked grave."

Finally, in 1901, it was decided that enough was enough. This time they would rebury Lincoln properly and safely. His body was exhumed for the final time, and 23 specially selected people gathered round to confirm that, yes, this corpse was that of Abraham Lincoln. It is recorded that he was in remarkably good condition for a long-dead corpse, with his hair, beard and mole perfectly preserved, although his eyebrows had gone and his suit was covered in yellow mold.

The quality of groupie ass had also gone way downhill

The 16th president is now buried safe from any potential grave robbers – encased in concrete in a 10-foot deep steel cage.

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