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5 Disturbing Historical Practices You Should Never, Ever Try

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Before you read these "how to" guides for foot binding and hara-kiri, take a moment to feel grateful that you live in the 21st century.

1. Dueling

A proper duel was meant to be a controlled exercise girded with structure and regulations. It was intended to prevent feuds, brawls, and other unnecessary bloodshed. Different cultures and eras had different rules, the most widespread being 1777's Irish Code Duello. Irish men were to keep a copy of it with their pistols, so that "ignorance might never be pleaded."

A duel starts with an insult. (Double points if you insult a lady under the care of the man you will duel with). If no apology is forthcoming, satisfaction is demanded and the duel is on. The Code Duello encourages apologies and reconciliation at almost all stages of the dueling process. Unless you hit someone. You can't apologize for that, you can only give him your cane and allow him to beat you if you want to avoid a duel.

The challenged may choose the weapon, unless the challenger swears he doesn't know how to use that weapon (usually a sword). The seconds, friends accompanying the duelers (primaries), are there to make sure rules are observed and to step in if necessary. They choose the time for the duel, prepare the weapons in sight of each other, and set the exact terms. The challenged chooses where the duel will be; the challenger chooses how far apart they will stand. Duels are not to be conducted at night, indicating a good sleep will help prevent hot headedness. If one man's nerves are unsteady, so that his hand shakes, everyone goes home and tries again tomorrow. After both men have shot an acceptable number of times (it varies depending on the offense) the seconds try to get them to reconcile. Death is not necessarily the objective. A lot depends on the kind of man you are dueling. President Andrew Jackson famously waited for the man who insulted his wife to fire a wild quick shot, which hit Jackson in the chest. Then, instead of deloping (firing into the ground, which although gentlemanly for a person of Jackson's status is forbidden in Code Duello), he took careful aim and shot the helpless man dead. If they can't reconcile, they stand their ground and fire at will.

2. Keelhauling

Bournville Village Trust, Birmingham, England

In the 1850s, a British ship and a French ship were anchored off the coast of the Mediterranean, refilling their water supply from a freshwater stream. A fight started between the two filling teams, as the British claimed the French were washing their clothes upstream, making the water undrinkable for the British. A French sailor struck a British officer, and for this he was keelhauled by his own crew. One of the British sailors recorded a first-hand account of the punishment. The offender was tied to a heavy grate, which itself was tied to two ropes, one on either side of the ship. The man was dropped into the ocean, allowed to sink, and then drug across the hull under the ship. This is what is known as a "keelhaul." The British crew insisted the French stop punishing the man, but the author records that the man "never recovered."

There are two options in a keelhaul. A short rope, which ensures you're shredded by the barnacles under the ship (seriously enough to tear limbs or decapitate), but makes the whole ordeal quicker. Or a long rope, which might spare you the deadly impact of the hull, but increased your chances of drowning.

3. Hara-kiri

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At first, only honored Samurai warriors had the right to engage in the Japanese ritualistic suicide by disembowelment and decapitation called hara-kiri. The first recorded act of ceremonial hara-kiri (or seppuku) came in 1180. It was an honorable form of suicide used to avoid capture, or a more dignified method of execution allowed for warriors who had committed crimes. Hara-kiri fell out of fashion as the years wore on, but was still used plentifully by high-ranking officials after Japan's defeat in World War II. It was, at its height, a respectable and involved ritual. He who was to perform it was fed a lavish dinner, wrote out his death poem, and prepared himself while wearing a special white kimono, all with the attendance of spectators.

Disembowelment is a horrible way to die. Luckily, it wasn't the actual cause of death in traditional seppuku. A man preparing for this ritual had a second, a trusted man who was an excellent swordsman. Or, in cases of capture, a respected warrior would receive the services of an equally respected warrior from the opposing side to act as his second. As soon as the warrior had driven the blade of the tanto, (a short sword with cloth tied around the blade to keep the man who held it from cutting his hand) into his own stomach, and made the traditional left to right cut, his second would decapitate him with the blow of a sword. Eventually some forms of the ritual bypassed the tanto altogether, allowing the second to strike his blow as soon as the doomed man reached for his ceremonial knife.

4. Civil War field amputation

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First of all, if you have yourself a nice bottle of antiseptic, some clean bandages, and some soap, you can really cut down on your required number of field amputations. Unfortunately, the doctors tending the wounded on Civil War battlegrounds did not know this. They had no concept of sterilization, germs, or the need for cleanliness (not that cleanliness was an option on a bloody battlefield). Bones were shattered by the heavy, slow-moving bullets of the day, tearing and infecting the flesh beyond repair. Wounds, even small ones, would turn septic, then gangrenous, and then the only way to save a soldier's life before the infection took over his body was to cut off the offending part.

First, wounded men would be triaged. Those most seriously wounded—shot through the head, belly, or chest—were set aside to die. There was nothing to be done for them. Soldiers wounded in extremities (which most were) still had a fighting chance. The doctor would clean the wound with a much-used but never-really-washed cloth, trying to remove shrapnel, cloth, and bone fragments.

The patient would be chloroformed. A tourniquet would be applied above the cut to control blood loss. Then incisions would be made around the leg, through the skin and muscle, leaving a flap of extra skin to cover the eventual exposed tissue. When the scalpel hit bone, the surgeon would change over to the bone saw, hack through the limb, and toss it on the pile with the rest. His attendants would stanch the severed arteries, binding the wound with horsehair, silk, or cotton threads. The surgeon would close the wound with the extra flap of skin, leaving a hole for drainage. It could be done in 10 minutes by a good surgeon. The patient was then left to survive any number of infections resulting from his unsterilized, unsanitary, but occasionally lifesaving procedure.

5. Foot binding

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There was a time in China when, if you were a good mother, and if you cared about your daughter's future, you would cripple her. Chinese foot binding, the process of folding a girl's foot into a fist shape over the span of her childhood to make an exceptionally tiny foot as an adult, began in the 10th century and was banned in the 20th. Mothers would begin the painful process, folding the toes in toward the bottom of the foot and securing them with bandaging, from the time a little girl was 2 years old. An especially kind mother would begin the process in winter, as cold feet feel less pain. The foot was soaked to soften it, and the nails closely cut to prevent ingrowing. The child's mother would break her toes, (and eventually her arch), and bind them tightly to the sole of the foot. As the girl grew her bandages were removed, the foot cleaned, and then re-bandaged tighter. Bandages were wrapped in a figure "8" that would draw the heel and toes as close together as possible.

The result of this, when the woman reached adulthood, were what looked like tiny little doll feet, on the outside. On the inside, there was (fair warning before you click!) terrible deformation, necrosis, and infection.

Mothers did this because it ensured their daughters a better future. A wife with tiny bound feet was a showpiece. She was elegant and delicate. She could not do labor because of her feet, which separated her from common women.

Communism dealt the final official blow to foot binding, as health and hard work became associated with happiness instead of peasantry.

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In Defense of Hashtags

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How the Global Bird-Poop Trade Created a Traveling Mummy Craze
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Mummy of Christopher Delano; image from the 1864 French translation of the 1854 A Descriptive Narrative of the Wonderful Petrifaction of a Man into Stone. Image Credit: Courtesy of Garrett Scott

Bird poop has been a favored fertilizer for centuries—and, it turns out, is an excellent preserver of human flesh. These two factors came together in the 19th century as the global trade in guano, the excrement of seabirds (or bats), took off, leading to some unexpected travelers coming along for the ride—and raking in the cash.

Guano contains essential nutrients for plant growth and naturally accumulates near nesting areas. Its Miracle-Gro properties were prized and regulated by the Incas (the word wanu is Quechua in origin), but it wasn’t until 1802 that the European world learned of this resource through the writings of Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled extensively along the west coast of South America.

By the 1840s, Europe and the U.S. were importing guano for fertilizer. When it was discovered the poop could also make gunpowder, a veritable guano mania began. Guano was soon going for about $76 per ton, and the U.S. imported over 100,000 tons of it in 1861 [PDF]. That's about $250 million in today’s dollars.

In the race to control the world’s guano deposits and secure bird poo futures for its people, the U.S. created the Guano Islands Act in 1856, allowing any U.S. citizen to claim guano-covered islands. Control over guano resources became part of the justification for the Chincha Islands War (1864–1866) between Spain and Peru and Chile, as well as for the War of the Pacific (1879–1883), in which Chile stole Peru’s guano.

In the midst of this fervor for feces, guano miners were hard at work chipping away at the hardened mounds of poo on islands in the Pacific, Caribbean, and Atlantic. Strangely, on some of these islands, among the guano they also found mummified humans.

The most well-known guano mummy is that of Christopher Delano. On the island of Ichaboe, a teeny speck of land off Namibia, a crew of guano miners found a canvas hammock containing a human body under about 6 feet of guano, with a wooden plaque saying “Christopher Delano, 1721.” A cheery pamphlet from 1854 describes his mummified corpse and its travels: “But for the hair and teeth, which were quite perfect, [it] appeared a mass resembling stone, all the natural and component parts, of the body being changed by the process of petrifaction … [and] composed chiefly of lime and ammonia.”

In spite of the quite scientific understanding at the time of both natural and artificial mummification (thanks to early interest in ancient Egypt), even with the knowledge of the formation of adipocere, or “grave wax,” on recently interred corpses, the perception of what guano could do appears to have been wrong. Delano was not “changed into a mass of lime and ammonia.” We know now that in the short term, guano can help seal dead bodies, creating an oxygen-poor and salt-rich environment that is good for preservation. In a warm, arid climate like Namibia, the guano helped dry Delano’s body and shield it from scavengers.

Captain Wethers, who commanded the crew, brought the mummy from Ichaboe to Liverpool, where it traveled to the British Museum. From there, poor Delano went on a tour of Great Britain and Ireland, where he brought in more than $150,000—the equivalent of about $4 million today.

Upon examination of Delano, British and French scientists determined that he was European and not African, and the amount of wear on his teeth suggested he was in his mid to late 30s when he died. His right shoulder is elevated and contracted, and his open mouth revealed “a death of agony” (though it's not unusual to see a gaping jaw on a mummy). His cause of death? Likely a spear wound to his right shoulder.

The writer of the 1854 pamphlet took liberties with the sparse facts available: “About 1721, the Island of Ichaboe had been the resort of nests of Pirates…. In all human probability, the most satisfactory conjecture that can be arrived at is that the unfortunate Christopher Delano was a Spaniard, joined in some piratical enterprises, and leagued with a gang of desperadoes, from one of whom, while visiting the Island of Ichaboe, he most probably received his death wound in some bacchanalism origies [sic] or sudden quarrel.”

With this amazing manufactured backstory, Delano’s body was brought to Philadelphia and exhibited before being shipped to France by the mid-1860s. Although billed as the “only one in the world” and “the solitary known example in the Universe of its kind,” it was only a matter of time—and feverish digging—before more mummies preserved by bird poop materialized. Just a few years after Delano was discovered, the British ship Octavia also docked in Liverpool with a load of guano—and the mummies of a man, woman, and child from Peru [PDF]. Like Delano, they were eventually exhibited at the British Museum in London.

In 1868, British natural historian Francis Buckland noted that he saw yet another guano mummy in a “penny show” in Edinburgh; according to the show's handbill, the body was brought from Possession Island off the west coast of Africa by Captain Dunlop’s ship Echo. The mummy was well preserved, with an oaken board that was carved “Peter Creed, 1790.” Buckland spoke with the owner, who reportedly announced that the mummy “is as good as a pension to me,” earning him today’s equivalent of $2000 in under two weeks. The owner was aware of the Delano corpse, which at that point he claimed had disintegrated due to its travels, but mused “he ain’t no use as a scientific mummy now; the more’s the luck for me as long as my Peter Creed holds together.” (Given England’s humidity, though, it is doubtful that his Mr. Creed survived for very long.)

By the early 20th century, the guano trade had tapered off. Industrialized countries found new sources of fertilizer, and it turns out that guano was not a very good source of saltpeter for gunpowder. Many islands and atolls had been completely stripped, but the legacy remains: Many remain in U.S. possession after being claimed for their guano 150 years ago. Seven of these make up the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the world’s largest marine reserve. As for the islands that produced Delano and Creed, these today support Cape gannets and endangered African penguins, and wildlife conservationists still often visit to monitor these populations.

While guano mummies are occasionally discovered in these areas, today new finds are largely made by archaeologists excavating prehistoric caves sites in arid locations like Nevada, New Mexico, and Durango, Mexico. Still, with the popularity of bat guano as an organic fertilizer on the rise today, it’s likely more poop-preserved mummies may yet turn up.

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A Smelly Bike Locks Drives Thieves Away By Making Them Vomit
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There’s no city that’s safe from bike thieves. A 2014 survey found that half of cyclists will at some point have their bike stolen. So what’s a cyclist to do when even the best U-lock can’t deter a serious thief? A pair of inventors thinks bad smells are the answer, The Guardian reports. The crowdfunded product SkunkLock looks like a regular U-lock, but if someone tries to break it, it releases a smell so vile that the thief is left puking.

According to the company, when the lock is breached, it emits a non-toxic but terrible formula—like pepper spray, its active ingredient is capsaicin, the compound that makes chili peppers spicy—that makes it difficult to see or breathe without vomiting. (SkunkLock swears it’s legal, but it still has to go through some legal vetting before the product can ship.)

Presumably, the puking thief would then flee the scene without the bike. The lock doesn't prevent a good lockpick from making off with your bike and your intact SkunkLock, but it will at least punish opportunists wielding bolt cutters.

It’s not the only useful application of disgusting odors. The vile-smelling spray Liquid ASS is used in military training to expose soldiers and medics to the horrible smells of war.

SkunkLock is taking pre-orders for $99 on Indiegogo.

[h/t The Guardian]

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