Mental Floss

Catching Up With The Plague

Stefanie Fontanez
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The plague. It's not just a disease of the past.

This highly contagious killer is striking again across the globe. Nearly 3,000 people caught the plague last year, and hundreds have died. It's an ugly and painful death "“ if you're really curious and really brave, here are the some examples via Google Images.

Just days ago the WHO (not that "The Who," the World Heath Organization) issued a warning, pointing out that precautions need to be taken in case the plague is used as a biological weapon. If an attack like that happened, it most certainly wouldn't be the first time the plague has been used as a weapon of war. For the last 700 years, the practice has been more common that you might think.

The Corpses of Caffa

In 1346, The Tartar Army was doing its best to capture Caffa, a walled city on the Black Sea in present-day Ukraine. They weren't having much luck, especially after an outbreak of the plague started killing them off. So in what can only be called a strange bit of inspiration (and one of the first instances of biological warfare), the Tartars gathered up the plague-infected corpses and catapulted them over the city walls, using the flying bodies to spread the disease. After the plague started killing off the city's inhabitants, the Tartars easily took Caffa. But although they may have won the battle, the Tartars really lost the war. The newly infected fled the city of Caffa to Italy, spreading the plague everywhere they went, effectively starting the outbreak of Black Death that would kill off much of Europe. [Image courtesy of StupidBeaver.com.]

Unit 731

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Someone came up with the idea of using the animal behind the original spread of the plague: the flea. Ceramic bombs filled with infected fleas were dropped on several unsuspecting cities in China (where in a sad twist of fate, the bubonic plague is said to have originally started before making its way to Europe and the rest of the world). The resulting epidemic killed thousands. In all, Unit 731 would be responsible for the deaths of nearly half a million people. [Image courtesy of BU.edu.]

The Cold War Race to the Plague "“ USSR

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The Cold War Race to the Plague "“ USA

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Holding Tucson Hostage

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If all these attempts at weaponizing the plague aren't enough to keep you up at night, then how about this: In 1995, a man in Ohio with "suspect" motives was able to buy plague bacilli using fraudulent means through the mail. In the southwestern U.S., there are reports of extremist groups capturing plague-carrying animals. You might be perfectly healthy now. But just remember, someone out there has the plague, and wants you to catch it.

Stefanie Fontanez is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. She won't always be this scary.

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