CLOSE

The Brutal Ladies Behind Some of History's Biggest Bullies

THE WHITE-BONED DEMON: MAO'S MAIN SQUEEZE Jiang Qing, better known as Madame Mao, was Communist China's answer to Lady Macbeth. A beautiful and ambitious actress, she seduced Mao Zedong when his first wife fell ill. Then, as the leader of the notorious Gang of Four (the political group, not the band), Madame Mao helped spearhead the Cultural Revolution beginning in 1966, during which all Chinese schools were shut down, intellectuals were beaten or murdered, and anyone expressing "bourgeois" attitudes was eliminated. More moderate elements of the government plotted against her, and she became known as the "White-Boned Demon." After Mao died, her enemies arrested her and the other three Gang members. Her death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment, but she took her own life when she was on release for medical reasons in 1991.

catphoto.jpg

POL POT-STICKER: KHIEU PONNARY You don't get to be the wife of a mass-murdering Cambodian dictator by acting like a timid homemaker. Khieu Ponnary was a revolutionary Communist firebrand for decades in Cambodia before her husband's Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. As Party Secretary of Khampong Thom province, she oversaw the brutal enforcement of party policies that led to countless executions. But like any great tyrant, she began showing signs of insanity. Pol Pot left her for a much younger woman (don't they always?) in 1979, and she spent the remaining years of her life in the care of family members and various mental institutions. She passed away in 2003.

113152.jpg

LADY MACBETH: BEHIND THE STORY (CA. 1007-1060 C.E.) Don't believe the hype. The real Lady Macbeth (the wife of Macbeth, an 11th-century Scottish king) was nothing like the power-hungry she-devil that Shakespeare made her out to be. But it's not all Will's fault. You can blame that on James I, the king of England and Scotland and a friend of the Bard's. In the play, Macbeth is the villain who kills rival king Duncan, but it was really Duncan who should have played the bad guy. By all historical accounts, Duncan was not only an awful king, but also a real jerk. Being a descendent of Duncan, however, James I wanted to preserve the image of his lineage, so he "encouraged" Shakespeare to make Macbeth the villain. If that weren't enough, he also suggested that Will make Lady Macbeth equally evil by depicting her as the scheming mastermind behind Duncan's death. Why? It was just James' way of saying "screw thee" to his wife, Anne of Denmark, with whom he had long been unhappy.

**************************
FAMILY TIES (That Really Bind)
Spending time with family can feel like torture, especially if you've got a tyrant for a dad.

StarWarsV01.jpg
SAVE THE MUSIC Sometimes a son deserves a slap on the wrist. Saddam Hussein once placed his boy, Uday, in solitary confinement after he'd beaten someone to death for (you guessed it) playing music too loudly. Of course, this wasn't the only time Uday made a murderous mistake. He also "accidentally" took Saddam's valet's life during a late night brawl. The furious Saddam first sentenced his son to death, but later decided instead to exile him to Switzerland for a year after Jordan's King Hussein calmed him down.
THIS BEEF IS MAKING ME THIRSTY Placed terrifyingly close to the cliff's edge in Wick, Scotland, Girnigoe Castle is definitely worth the visit. While it's mainly in ruins today, it still showcases a secret chamber and dungeon, where the 4th Earl of Caithness kept his son imprisoned. And just how strong was this father's love? Clearly, not very. The Earl kept his heir apparent on a strict diet of salted beef, so he'd die mad with thirst.
BAD SEEDS AND THE FAMILY TREE While it's common for tyrants to imprison activists (and their immediate relatives) for being critical of the regime, North Korea's Kim Jong-Il takes it a few steps further—three generations further to be exact. According to Kim, it's important to imprison a dissident's next three generations in order to root out any bad blood or seeds of dissent.

More bully-licious factoids flow from the pen of Christopher A. Smith in mental_floss volume 3, issue 4.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
literature
Can You Decipher the Playful 1817 Letter Jane Austen Sent to Her Niece in Code?
iStock
iStock

Jane Austen—homebrewer, musician, and, oh, one of the most famous novelists in the English language—didn’t limit her prose to the fictional world. She was a prolific correspondent, sending missives to friends and relatives (and occasionally soliciting feedback on her work). Some of these were quite playful, as a letter highlighted recently on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog shows.

Austen’s 1817 letter to her young niece, Cassandra Esten Austen, is a bit hard to read even if you are an expert in 19th century handwriting styles. That’s because all the words are spelled backwards. Instead of signing off with “Good bye my dear Cassy,” for instance, Austen wrote “Doog eyb ym raed Yssac.” The letter served as both a New Year’s greeting and a puzzle for the 8-year-old to solve.

A close-up of a handwritten letter with words written backwards
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

The letter is currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City as part of the museum’s "Treasures From the Vault" exhibition, having been donated to the institution in 1975 by a Jane Austen collector and Morgan Library regular named Alberta Burke.

While any of Austen’s communications would be of interest to fans and literary scholars, this one is particularly unique as a historical object. In it, Austen wishes Cassandra a happy new year and writes about a visit she received from six of Cassandra’s cousins the day before, telling her about the cake they ate, feeding robins, Frank’s Latin studies, and Sally’s new green dress.

A handwritten letter from Jane Austen
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

“Those simple details give a sense of the texture of Austen’s everyday life—and that she thinks to communicate them to her young niece makes clear that ‘Aunt Jane’ knew just the kinds of tidbits a child of that age would relish,” Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s literary and historic manuscripts curator, tells Mental Floss.

Austen would die just six months later, making it a valuable look at the end of her life. As far as we know, no other backwards-written letters like the one sent to Cassandra have survived in Austen’s archives, according to Nelson, but she says she wouldn’t be surprised if the famous author wrote more. “Given her love of riddles and linguistic games (which comes through, of course, in her novels), I have to believe that other family members were the recipients of similarly playful epistolary gifts,” Nelson says.

If you make it to New York City, you can go decode the letter yourself in person. It will be on display at the Morgan Library until March 11, 2018.

[h/t Two Nerdy History Girls]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images
arrow
geography
This 1940 Film on Road Maps Will Make You Appreciate Map Apps Like Never Before
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images

In the modern era, we take for granted having constantly updated, largely accurate maps of just about every road in the world at our fingertips. If you need to find your way through a city or across a country, Google Maps has your back. You no longer have to go out and buy a paper map.

But to appreciate just what a monstrous task making road maps and keeping them updated was in decades past, take a look at this vintage short film, "Caught Mapping," spotted at the Internet Archive by National Geographic.

The 1940 film, produced by the educational and promotional company Jam Handy Organization (which created films for corporations like Chevrolet), spotlights the difficult task of producing and revising maps to keep up with new road construction and repair.

The film is a major booster of the mapmaking industry, and those involved in it come off as near-miracle workers. The process of updating maps involved sending scouts out into the field to drive along every road and note conditions, compare the roads against topographical maps, and confirm mileage figures. Then, those scouts reported back to the draughtsmen responsible for producing revised maps every two weeks. The draughtsmen updated the data on road closures and other changes.

Once those maps were printed, they were "ready to give folks a good steer," as the film's narrator puts it, quietly determining the success of any road trip in the country.

"Presto! and right at their fingertips, modern motorists can have [information] on any road they wish to take." A modern marvel, really.

[h/t National Geographic]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios