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7 Outlandish Alternate Histories

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Getty Images/Erin McCarthy

We’ve already explored some of the fascinating alternate histories (as fiction writers call them) or “counterfactuals” (as historians call them) in this list and this one. Here are some of the more peculiar questions that people have pondered over the decades. Perhaps not all of them should be taken seriously…

1. What if Shakespeare was a renowned historian?

Effect: Due to advanced technology, the Industrial Revolution happens 200 years early.

Explanation: Shakespeare has impressed scholars not only with his literary brilliance, but also with the historical detail of his plays. He did get a few things wrong, however—such as having a clock strike in Julius Caesar, 1500 years before such clocks were invented. The acclaimed 1974 novel A Midsummer Tempest, by popular science fiction and fantasy author Poul Andersen, was set in a world where Shakespeare’s plays are utterly accurate, and the Bard is renowned not as a creative genius, but as a great chronicler of history. Hence, fairies and other magical beings exist on this world, and the clockwork technology of Ancient Rome advanced to the stage where, in the age of Cromwell, steam trains are already running through England.

2. What if Woodrow Wilson had never been US president?

Effect: World War II would have been avoided.

Explanation: In Gore Vidal’s 1995 novel, The Smithsonian Institution, the great political scribe made one of his rare entries into science fiction. In the book, a teenage math genius is mysteriously summoned to the Smithsonian Institution in 1939, where he glimpses the upcoming World War II. Determined to prevent it, he goes back in history to seek its origins. At one stage, he concludes that the fault lay in President Woodrow Wilson’s vision for the League of Nations. Well-meaning as the organization was, Vidal blames it for causing Germany’s struggles in the 1920s, paving the way for the rise of Hitler.

3. What if Frank Sinatra was never born?

Effect: Nuclear devastation.

Explanation: In "Road to the Multiverse," a 2009 episode of Family Guy, Stewie and Brian find themselves hopping between universes. They find themselves in a Disney universe, where everything is sweet and wholesome (as long as you’re not Jewish); a universe inhabited only by a guy in the distance who gives out compliments; a universe where Christianity never existed, meaning that the Dark Ages didn’t happen; and a universe in which the positions of dogs and people are reversed. One of the most intriguing was a universe where Sinatra was never born, and is therefore unable to use his influence to get President Kennedy elected in 1960. Instead, Nixon was elected, and “totally botched the Cuban Missile Crisis, causing World War III.” This caused devastation all around them. Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t shoot Kennedy, but shot Mayor McCheese instead. (That bit was never explained.) 

4. What if Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in 1933?

Effect: Colonization of the moon, Venus, and Mars by 1962.

Explanation: Any reality envisioned by Philip K. Dick was bound to be fascinating. His 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, which established him as a top science fiction writer, is set in a world where the Axis powers win World War II in 1947 and divide most of the world between them. This happens because, in this world, Giuseppe Zangara’s attempted assassination of President-elect Roosevelt is successful. Under the government of John Nance Garner (who would have been Roosevelt’s VP), and later the Republican candidate John W. Bricker, the U.S. doesn’t prevail against the Great Depression, and maintains an isolationist policy in World War II, leading to a weak and ineffectual military. In the America of 1962, slavery is legal once again, and the few surviving Jews hide out under assumed names. However, the Nazis have the hydrogen bomb, which also gives them the technology to fuel super-fast air travel and colonize space. This book, with its historical commentary, made many critics take sci-fi far more seriously, showing that it was more than just alien invasions and spaceships. Unlike many of Dick's later works, it has yet to be turned in to a movie, though a SyFy TV series is currently in planning stages, produced by Sir Ridley Scott.

5. What if Germany had invaded Britain by sea?

Effect: World War II might have ended earlier—but Hitler would still have lost.

Explanation: After capturing France, Nazi Germany planned to invade Britain with Operation Sea Lion, in an air and naval attack across the English Channel. The plan was shelved in 1940, but some 30 years later, the Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst started a war-games module, set in a world where Sea Lion had happened. (Military academies, in their war-games, often speculate about how different strategies might have changed history.) According to the module, the Germans would not have been able to withstand the might of the British Home Guard and the RAF—and as the Royal Navy had superiority in the English Channel, they would not have been able to escape. It would have severely weakened the German army, and hastened the end of the war.

6. What if Martin Scorsese had directed Pretty Woman?

Effect: One of America’s favorite rom-coms of the 1990s would have been a gritty tragedy.

Explanation: The British movie magazine Empire joined in the counterfactuals game in 2003 by suggesting some possible stories from recent Hollywood history. Somehow, we’re not convinced that they took the job seriously, as they pondered worlds where The Godfather had flopped (forcing Francis Ford Coppola’s return to directing porn movies and Al Pacino’s return to his job as a furniture removalist), Sean Connery was gay (so that, rather than James Bond, he wins stardom in camp British comedies), and, most cruelly, Keanu Reeves was born ugly (“He would have starved to death at a very young age”), among other twisted scenarios. Perhaps the most intriguing was the reality in which Martin Scorsese, rather than Garry Marshall, directed Pretty Woman (1990), the rom-com that turned Julia Roberts into a star. As imagined by Empire scribe Richard Luck, Scorsese would retitle the film The Happy Hooker, and it would become a hard-hitting study of life on the streets. It would end not with the prostitute (Roberts) and her wealthy client (Richard Gere) living happily ever after, but with her dying of a heroin overdose while he drives into the sunset, cackling maniacally. 

7. What if Al Gore became U.S. president?

Effect: The President is an idiot.

Explanation: In the 2004 anthology What Might Have Been, historians pondered scanarios from the Spanish Armada invading England to Margaret Thatcher being assassinated in 1984. The final chapter, “The Chads fall off in Florida,” was written by David Frum, conservative historian, and author of such books as The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush and An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. Frum imagined Al Gore becoming president in 2000, as a comic dialogue, in which Gore calls on his joint chiefs of staff following the September 11 terrorist attacks. In Frum’s scenario, Gore wanted to capture Osama bin Laden alive and give him a fair trial; make war with Afghanistan “the first environmentally sensitive war in history” (partly by raising petrol prices); look for domestic al Qaeda operatives without using ethnic or religious profiling; and let terrorism take a back seat as he focused on his plan for universal health insurance. (“Arms are for hugging,” he says.) As it was written in 2004, Frum didn’t suggest how Gore would handle the economy, whether he would find bin Laden, or whether his soft-touch war would be a success. Nor did he explain how this formerly intelligent Vice-President would become such a dope. Still, it’s a funny story.

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This Newspaper Article Was Hyping the 2017 Eclipse All the Way Back in 1932
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If you’ve turned on a news station or browsed the internet recently, you’ve likely learned of the total solar eclipse set to pass over the U.S. on Monday, August 21. Many outlets (Mental Floss included) have been talking up the event for months, but the earliest instance of hype surrounding the 2017 eclipse may have come from The New York Times.

Meteorologist Joe Rao presented this news clip at a recent panel on the solar eclipse at the American Museum of Natural History, and fuel analyst Patrick DeHaan shared the image on Twitter earlier this year. It shows a New York Times article from August 1932, selling that year’s eclipse by saying it will be the "best until Aug. 21, 2017."

The total solar eclipse on August 21 won’t be the first to fall over U.S. soil in 85 years. The next one to follow the 1932 eclipse came in 1970, but an author at the time apparently predicted that "poor skies" would be likely for that date. That early forecast turned out to be correct: There were clouds over much of the path of totality in the southeastern U.S. The next total eclipse visible from America, which the article doesn’t mention, happened in 1979. Overcast skies were a problem for at least some of the people trying to view it that time around as well.

The upcoming total eclipse will hopefully be worth the decades of hype. Unlike the previous three, which only skimmed small sections of the lower 48 states, this next eclipse will be visible throughout day as it travels from coast to coast. Check out our field guide for preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

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10 of the Worst Jobs in the Victorian Era
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Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.

1. LEECH COLLECTOR

Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to "hysteria." But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collectors’ legs, the individual would prise them off and collect them in a box or pot. Leeches can survive for up to a year with no food, so they could be stored at the pharmacy to be dished out as required. Unsurprisingly, leech collectors were in danger of suffering from excess blood loss and infectious diseases.

2. PURE FINDER

Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as "pure" because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.

3. TOSHER

A Victorian illustration of a tosher, or sewer collector
An 1851 illustration of a sewer-hunter or "tosher."
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. Toshers made their living down in the dark sewers, sifting through raw sewage to find any valuables that had fallen down the drain. It was extremely dangerous work: noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was a lucrative business for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.

4. MATCHSTICK MAKERS

Matchsticks are made by cutting wood into thin sticks and then dipping the ends into white phosphorus—a highly toxic chemical. In the Victorian era, this work was mainly performed by teenage girls who worked in terrible conditions, often for between 12 and 16 hours a day with few breaks. The girls were forced to eat at their work stations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the dreadful condition known as “phossy jaw”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.

5. MUDLARK

Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.

6. CHIMNEY SWEEP

A photograph of a very happy chimney sweep
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Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.

7. FUNERAL MUTE

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.

8. RAT CATCHER

An illustration of a group of Victorian men watching rat-baiting.
Getty Images/Rischgitz

Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor disease, but their bites could cause terrible infections. One of the most famous Victorian rat catchers was Jack Black, who worked for Queen Victoria herself. Black was interviewed for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which he revealed that he used a cage which could store up to 1000 live rats at a time. The rats could be stored like this for days as long as Black fed them—if he forgot the rats would begin fighting and eating each other, ruining his spoils.

9. CROSSING SWEEPER

The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.

10. RESURRECTIONISTS

An 1840 drawing of a group of resurrectionists at work
Getty Images/Hulton Archive

In the early 19th century the only cadavers available to medical schools and anatomists were those of criminals who had been sentenced to death, leading to a severe shortage of bodies to dissect. Medical schools paid a handsome fee to those delivering a body in good condition, and as a result many wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.

The "profession" was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed victims to their boarding house, plied them with alcohol and then suffocated them, ensuring the body stayed in good enough condition to earn the fee paid by Edinburgh University medical school for corpses. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their body to medical science.

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