The 9 Pettiest Historical Moments


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Oddly enough, this isn’t the only statue in Germany featuring a man pulling down his pants.

CARVED IN STONE. Bonn and Beuel are neighboring German towns located across the Rhine from one another. The towns first decided to build a bridge connecting them in 1898, but Beuel later backed out of paying, so Bonn had to finance the whole thing. Bonn still built the bridge, but added a small statue of a man sticking his butt out in the direction of Beuel.

TWIST! The pettiest part is that now that the bridge has been rebuilt, and relations with Beuel are good (the town has made quite a bit of money marketing the cheeky statue), Bonn has repositioned the butt man to face a new foe: Frankfurt, the city that was chosen as the capital of West Germany.

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In 1805, the administration of the University of Cambridge delivered an edict that profoundly displeased Lord Byron, the famous poet: No dogs allowed on campus.

LORD OF THE BEARS. Not content to keep, say, a cat, Byron made a bold choice and announced to the university that, despite its rules about dogs, nowhere in the rules was there an admonition about bears. It’s not entirely clear where he acquired it, but before long the 17-year-old poet was seen walking a bear around campus. (It supposedly lived with him as well.)

IN HIS OWN WORDS:I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear,” Byron wrote at the time. “When I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was, ‘He should sit for a fellowship.’”

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POSTSCRIPT! Strangely, Lord Byron wasn’t the only notable figure looking for loopholes in rules about owning pets. Whitey Bulger, the recently deceased Boston mafia kingpin, also bent the rules. From his incredible Boston Globe obit:

“Even as a boy, Mr. Bulger was a rule breaker. He once brought home an ocelot, a small leopard, and his mother was appalled, fearing they would be kicked out of their apartment, his brother William wrote in his 1996 autobiography, While the Music Lasts: My Life in Politics. But James Bulger reassured his mother, saying he had read the lease and noted that it only specifically barred cats and dogs. ‘It doesn't say anything about ocelots,’ Mr. Bulger told his mother.”

“Pettiness in presidents is always attached to ego.”

THIN-SKINNED FOUNDING FATHER. If you know John Adams only as the force behind the 1798 Sedition Act, which criminalized published work that criticized the government, you are merely scratching the surface of his extremely petty nature. From presidential historian and author Alexis Coe:

“As Adams's private letters reveal, he was incredibly petty toward his contemporaries, too. He knew that George Washington had to, as the head of his widowed mother’s household, drop out of school while still a teen, and worked hard to catch up to his more educated peers, and yet, Adams wrote, ‘That Washington is not a scholar is certain ... That he is too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station is equally beyond dispute.’ But what he said about Alexander Hamilton was even pettier: ‘That bastard brat of a Scottish peddler! His ambition, his restlessness and all his grandiose schemes come, I’m convinced, from a superabundance of secretions, which he couldn’t find enough whores to absorb!’”

Hard to discipline Mother Nature, but this king tried.

NEPTUNE’S REVENGE? Xerxes I reigned as the king of Persia from 486–465 BCE. He was not known as a temperate man (he once stole and melted down a sacred golden statue to spite his Babylonian foes), and he spent most of his time as ruler trying to conquer parts of Greece and getting pushed back. But perhaps his most dramatic action was his attempt to force the sea to bend to his will.

As recorded in Herodotus’s Histories, Xerxes ordered his men to build a bridge across the Hellespont—a Turkish strait now known as the Dardanelles that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia—during one of his Greek invasions. The bridge collapsed during a storm, and Xerxes ordered his men to whip the sea with lashes and throw chains into it as punishment. No word on how the water changed its ways as a result.

This is the story of how a sprawling estate owned by George Washington’s adopted son became the source of a fight as bitter as the one that divided the United States—but for considerably lower stakes.

FROM FOUNDING FATHERS TO CONFEDERATE GENERAL. It all started in 1802, when the property in question, Arlington House, on 1,000 or so acres in Arlington, Virginia, began to undergo construction. Owner George Washington Parke Custis spared no expense on the home’s Greek Revival design (a style new to America), completing the property in 1818. A frequent visitor to Arlington House was Robert E. Lee, the future leader of the Confederate Army, second cousin to Custis’s wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, and the future husband of the Custises’ only surviving daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis. The two were, you guessed it, married in at Arlington House, and when the elder Custis died in 1857, he left the property to Mary Anna and Lee.

After officially joining the rebels in 1861, Lee had to abandon the beloved Arlington House, which now had military significance because of its relative closeness to the nation’s capital. But with the Lees gone, there was no one to pay property taxes, so the American government seized the mansion and land around it. To further add insult to injury, in 1864 Union generals began ordering dead bodies to be buried on the property’s grounds. Soon there were the remains of Union soldiers all around the Lee estate.

After the war, though, Lee’s son sued the US government for unlawful property seizure and won—choosing then to flip the land back to the government and collecting an impressive amount of money for the place (the equivalent of almost $4 million today). It is now, of course, the location of Arlington National Cemetery, where the fallen members of our armed services are honored.

Most wars are pointless, but a bloodless border dispute between Michigan and Ohio set the bar extremely high (or low?).

THE WAR OF NORTHERN AGGRESSION. The problem arose from poor mapping operations in the recently formed United States. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 drew a line from the bottom of Lake Michigan to claim the area for Ohio, but when Michigan Territory was created in 1805, cartographers realized that the actual southern tip of the lake was farther down. This created a wedge-shaped contested area of around five by eight miles that Ohio still wanted to fight for. And fight they did: Ohio tried to block Michigan’s entry into the Union over the Toledo Strip, as it became known, even though Michigan had begun policing the area because it was actually in Michigan.

Both sides began to build up militias, but save for one stabbing in a barroom brawl, no one was actually hurt. Finally, President Andrew Jackson stepped in, and Michigan caved to Ohio’s terms for becoming a state. According to the official website of Michigan, the state gained as compensation the area of the peninsula: “9,000 square miles of the most valuable timber, iron, and copper country in America.” As the site goes on to say, “In retrospect, it’s obvious who won the War.”

When you take a new job, it’s important to set a strong tone. In Pope Stephen VI’s case, that involved digging up the body of the previous pope, Pope Formosus, and putting the corpse on trial for heresy.

TRIAL AND ERROR. In his 1969 book The Bad Popes (1969), E. R. Chamberlin details this spectacle: “The corpse was provided with a council, who wisely kept silent while Pope Stephen raved and screamed his insults at it. The pretext for the trial was that Formosus, contrary to canon law, had accepted the bishopric of Rome while he was still bishop of another diocese. But few, if any, in the council chamber were impressed by the charge.”

NO BAD DEED WENT UNPUNISHED. The story ended badly … for both popes. Formosus’s corpse was found guilty, stripped, mutilated, and dragged through the streets before being reburied in a common grave. Pope Stephen, for this part, was not long for this world either; by the following year, he had been thrown in prison and strangled to death.

In 1325, two Italian city-states, Modena and Bologna, came to blows over a wooden bucket.

KICKING THE BUCKET. A group of Modena soldiers conducted a raid to seize the bucket, which was the property of Bologna. Allegedly full of loot, the bucket was just one element of a long-standing feud between the regions over who they believed should head the Catholic Church. The bucket theft prompted a declaration of war by Bologna, resulting in a conflict that claimed over 2,000 lives.

MISSED CONNECTION. Even though the fighting ended, Bologna never got its bucket back. It is currently housed in a Modena bell tower.

Were we this petty before Twitter? Probably, but it wasn’t as fun.

THE WAY WE WERE. If social media is where petty goes to thrive, then Twitter is its ground zero. The “microblogging" platform is home to the best and pettiest clapbacks, meme responses, and GIF threads. Short and sharp, thrown effortlessly like basement darts, petty tweets distill discourse into a 280-character (formerly 140-character) counts. Whether the tweets exist as a response to some real or imagined affront—practically everyone’s at your disposal to @reply—or just a missive to the universe at large, Twitter was a great place to drop something you’ve been dying to say, with no one to say it to. A cleverly deployed retweet could pack a wallop. Take model Chrissy Teigen, who, in a now-deleted 2017 tweet, RT-ed a hateful missive saying that Donald Trump’s block was the “best thing” that would happen to her and added: "I have a best selling book, great boobs, a family I love, am literally eating pasta on a lake in Italy and I married rich." How is this website free?!

It was Black Twitter, of course, that took the perfectly crafted insult to a new dimension. As Amanda Hess put it in a 2017 New York Times piece,On Black Twitter, a certain brand of pettiness—the kind that involves gleefully asserting yourself over the smallest points and meticulously cataloging and avenging the tiniest of slights—is celebrated as a virtue and a skill, the comedic equivalent of possessing strong attention to detail.”

THE WAY WE ARE. Before Donald Trump ruined petty Twitter for everyone by being our first Twitter-troll president—one who retweets racist nonsense and conspiracy theories (for more on that, see number two on this list)—the platform was a battle of the wits, where everyone had a chance to practice insult comedy without feelings getting hurt. (Most of the time.) We still have a few fleeting moments (the 2017 Trump misfire #covfefe, for instance, which gave everyone a few hours of fun) but apart from the always-fabulous Bossip headlines, there’s not much pride (or enjoyment!) left in being petty. The downfall of Twitter probably began in earnest with 2014's rancid Gamergate controversy; by 2016, it became a place where Nazis hung out, and anyone could, at any point, be mercilessly targeted, abused, and harassed. The question is: after Twitter is completely left to the haters and losers, where will petty go next?

For more Petty Young (and Old) Things, see the full list.

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