Since we invented the first camera in 1816, photography has allowed us to document hundreds of historical moments, encapsulating humanity’s trials and triumphs on Earth.
While some of the snaps in time show how far we’ve come as a species, others have captured the hair-raising yet fascinating moments we would much rather forget. Whether it’s morbid curiosity or just a fascination with the macabre, one can’t help but wonder how some images came to be. What are their backstories?
We’ve gone in search of eerie images of the past and can’t wait to share them with you.
Here are 25 Historical Photos That Will Haunt You.
A Pile of Bison Skulls
The world is facing a period of unprecedented species extinction due to human exploitation, global warming, and pollution – to name but a few factors. But this is hardly the first time our activities have caused catastrophic species loss. An eye-opening photograph from 1892 of bison skulls from the North American West illustrates one horrific event perfectly.
To put it into perspective, you have to realize that there were between 30 and 60 million bison on the continent before the settlers arrived. By the time someone snapped this photograph, that population was reduced to a mere 456 wild bison. 456…
A Norwegian Christmas Card
Chrismas cards are supposed to be festive, fun, and preferably in shades of red and gold. But that’s just me – what can I say? I love Christmas. In the late 1800s, though, people had different ideas altogether.
“Everybody,” wrote Christmas cards, from the elves to the dolls. And even though this particular image gives serious momento mori vibes, where photos would be taken of the dead, we can assure you that the little girl is only pretending to be asleep.
This particular card is in the private archive of Oscar Andersen, a preacher involved in the Mission Covenant Church of Norway.
People Posing With Mummies
Have you ever heard of the mummies of Venzone?
The Black Death swept over Venzone in the 14th century. Many people died, and unfortunately, there wasn’t enough space to bury everyone. The townspeople decided to put 42 bodies in a mass grave in the basement of the church of San Michael. 300 years later, the coffins had to be moved when it was time to rebuild the chapel. Upon opening the coffins, people were amazed to discover their ancestors had been mummified.
As mummies were an unknown phenomenon, the villagers believed that God had sent their ancestors back to protect the village, and an everyday life of eating, drinking, and sleeping with the mummies ensued. The mummies were treated like family – which, in a way, they were. The tradition lasted until the 1950s.
A Sales Meeting in 1936
There’s nothing like a sales meeting, right? Well, I wouldn’t really know, but I know this much. There are sales meetings, and then there are sales meetings. Take, for instance, this photo from the 1936 sales meeting of Ce-Lect Baking Co. I have so many questions.
But let’s stick to this: creepy as this image might be, the employees met to discuss the Mickey Mouse Bread Campaign. We know it looks like something straight out of a horror movie, but they were probably all in high spirits. In fact, let me know in the comments if you can spot the woman in the photo!
The Golden Age of Anatomy
If you were an aspiring serial killer – or grave robber, for that matter – the late 18th and 19th centuries would have been the place to be. During this golden age of anatomy, medical schools received the bodies of executed felons for dissection and study as it was seen as a vile act that would, in effect, be additional punishment for the deceased’s crimes.
The “Murder Act” of 1752 legalized this tradition by requiring that medical schools dissect every murderer’s body after he or she was executed. Unfortunately, it also led to a rise in black market activities as there were never enough bodies to be dissected.
Victorian Woman With Syphilis
The first European cases of syphilis were recorded in Europe in 1495. People would usually be covered with pustules from head to knees, eventually resulting in their flesh falling from their bodies. Most died within months after contracting the disease.
Historically, syphilis was incredibly difficult to cure. Patients would frequently believe that their condition had vanished or been treated, only to see the symptoms return. Unfortunately, sexism played a major role in its spread. The doctor would conceal the cause of the illness if a wandering husband caused it. And they didn’t see anything wrong with it. They believed they knew what was best; I mean, if a woman found out her husband infected her with a VD, she might make a fuss… And since the husband usually paid the bill, his interests took priority.
The Female Resistance Fighters
Whether you want to call them resistance fighters, activists, or guerillas, you don’t often find photos from the “winning” side of the Vietnam War. These female resistance fighters were snapped while meeting in the Nam Can forest and wore masks to hide their identities to ensure that they would not be able to identify one another if they were captured.
It is a haunting image even before you start looking deeper into the picture and notice the irregularities. There is so much going on once you start looking at their hands, feet, and whatever the photographer managed to capture in the frame by the porch and roof. Tell me, can you see it?
A Woman Condemned To Death
This shot was taken in July 1913 by Stéphane Passet, a French photographer hired by Albert Kahn – a billionaire banker who invented color photography using the Lumière brothers’ technology.
They took this picture in Mongolia, where a woman was condemned to slow and painful starvation after being buried inside a wooden crate that was to become her tomb.
Initially, the bowls next to the crate had water in them, but they would not be refilled. The woman was allowed to beg for food, but any assistance would only prolong her agony as men and women sentenced to die this way never received enough food and water from passersby to sustain them. Unfortunately, Stéphane and Albert could do nothing for the woman and had to leave her in the box, as they were not permitted to interfere.
The Michelin Men
115 years ago, the Michelin Man, Michelin Tires’ mascot, used to be an overweight, cigar-smoking beer drinker. Those days, however, are long gone.
While Bibendum, as he’s also known, now sports a more athletic body, the earliest designs of his likeness are absolutely horrifying.
The Rat Catcher
If you have a pet rat, it might be a good idea to get some coffee quickly.
Humans have had a rocky relationship with rodents since immemorial, but the most severe escalation of issues happened in Victorian England. Luckily, those in power in the major cities quickly devised a solution – bounties!
The government was willing to pay big money to those who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, and the rat catcher was born. Every rat could earn rat catcher money. They even got special privileges if they caught more than 5000 a year. Most rat catchers went after wild rats; however, the more innovative rat catchers hunted for rats in the sewers and weren’t afraid to use animal helpers.
A War Orphan
Apart from the images we listed at number one and five on today’s list, you won’t find a more unforgettable photo anywhere in the world. I think it’s because the image encapsulates the rupture of childhood innocence during times of war.
In 1937, the Japanese army bombed the Shanghai South Railway Station in China. Where there had previously been a vibrant city, the aftermath was catastrophic destruction. The child in the photo lost his mother in the bombing, but there is one silver lining in the story. His father survived and they were later reunited. Unfortunately, the true horror is that mankind has apparently learned nothing from the past and innocent civilians continue to be bombed to this day.
The Babies Wearing Gas Masks
During the course of WW2, London was exposed to a year of bombing that left substantial portions of the city in rubble, and experts feared a chemical attack from Germany was fast approaching. As you can see in this image, gas masks were made for people of all ages, even babies. The gas masks covered everything apart from their little legs.
If you have any experience with babies and toddlers, you will know that it must have been awful to get them into it.
The Facial Expression Photographs
In the late 1800s, the French neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne created an electrical stimulation machine, which he used on several people. We would be putting it mildly if we said he administered electrical currents to their faces. Duchenne photographed the involuntary emotions displayed on their faces, which were often twisted and, at times, painful due to the electric shocks. The older man in this photo appeared in many of his pictures.
Because these facial expressions appeared too quickly to be sketched or painted, photography became the best tool because it can capture an event in a split second. Duchenne became one of the first scientists to use photography for medical research, and his work led to major advancements in electrophysiology.
Integrating Segregated Schools Was Essential
I know I said you wouldn’t find a more unforgettable photo in the world than the one we had at number 15, but this one might be a strong contender.
Dorothy Counts, the young lady in this photo, was among the first black students accepted to Charlotte’s Harry Harding High School as part of the city’s first efforts to desegregate schools. After four days of harassment by her peers, her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Herbert Counts, removed her from the school as they feared for her safety. The attempt at desegregation failed when the three remaining black students withdrew as well.
What I find most harrowing is that it plainly illustrates racism in a school that had once been exclusively white. You can almost breathe the hatred through the photo.
Have you ever heard of the Skull and Bones Club? The secret society made their way to three Hollywood franchises, the most famous probably being the 2000 movie The Skulls.
This picture shows some of its members with the Jolly Roger, the group’s symbol, on a table before them. Many believe that the society has been grooming young men to become prime ministers, presidents, and world leaders since its conception – So, looking at this, we can almost believe that it’s an 1800s snapshot of men plotting to take over the world. Who knows, it just might be…
The Club from Hell
Antonin Alexander founded the Cabaret de l’Enfer (The Cabaret of Hell) in November 1892, and it was knocked down in 1950 to clear the way for the development of a Monoprix store. The walls were reputed to be scorching hot, and visitors were tormented by a guy dressed as Satan.
Notwithstanding the fact that they are eating in hell, the people in this photo look to be in high spirits.
Photographed By Her Murderer
The serial killer Harvey Glatman would become known as the “Glamor Girl Slayer” because he liked to lure women to his home under the pretenses of modeling work. He liked to dress his victims up for photoshoots (among other things) before tying them up and murdering them
This is an incredibly horrific photo as it is the last known photograph ever taken of Judy Dill, his first known victim. He was arrested as he attempted to abduct his fourth victim in 1958. His trial lasted only three days, and he was sentenced to death.
The Fate of the Aborigines
Aborigines are Australia’s oldest residents, having lived on the continent for hundreds of thousands of years before the arrival of the immigrants a few hundred years ago. They experienced cruelty at the hands of the colonists and, according to an old urban legend, were legally classified as animals until 1967. Even though the legend is nothing but a – legend – they were treated like animals.
Thousands of Indigenous people were killed during the late 18th and early 20th centuries. In fact, according to a special report by the newspaper The Guardian, there were over 270 massacres in the country over 140 years. These disparities continue to linger between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians today, with non-Indigenous Australians having higher literacy rates, better career possibilities, and longer life expectancy.
The Horrific Death Shadows
In the seconds following the atomic bomb’s blast on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, so many people were incinerated entirely that it is impossible to calculate the exact number of people who were killed. The radiation from the nuclear weapon left impressions on the walls and other surfaces of the city where people were vaporized that it left thousands of what can only be called “death shadows” everywhere around the city.
This photo looks like the remains of something that was possibly spilled on a porch. It is, however, the only thing that has remained of someone who was incinerated by the blast. It is a grim reminder of the horrors we so easily inflict on one another.
The Turkish Bride
I know you’re eager to get to number 5, but bear with me.
This picture was taken in 1919 and shows a Turkish bride. Before I continue, take a moment to look at the bride’s face and then take a look at her hands.
Despite her elderly appearance, the bride is, in fact, only 16 years old. When you take the time to look at her hands, an accurate account of her age is revealed. As part of the Vrajne Turkish modesty tradition, the girl in the wedding photo had her face covered with a gilt leaf, giving her the ancient appearance. According to tradition, she would put on a veil once her husband removed the gold leaf and wear the veil publicly for the rest of her life.
The Runaway Slave
Can you imagine the horror of being tied to an immovable object and being whipped until your back looks like that? The slave in this picture was named Peter.
Peter had been severely whipped in the fall of 1862 for unknown reasons. In March 1863, Peter fled the 3,000-acre plantation of John and Bridget Lyons, where he and 40 other people were enslaved at the time of the 1860 census. The picture was taken on April 2, 1863, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As they took the picture, Peter said: “Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master came after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer.”
Even though it is one of the most haunting images on today’s list, I can’t help but be amazed by the strength of the human spirit.
Acid in the Swimming Pool
On June 18, 1964, shortly after noon, an interracial group of Civil Rights protestors leaped over a low chain fence and jumped into the Monson Motor Lodge swimming pool. Jimmy Brock, the proprietor of the motel, arrived shortly after and had no qualms about throwing muriatic acid into the pool to force them out. Can you even imagine the hatred that took?
Photos of the incident landed St. Augustine’s increasingly vexing Civil Rights campaign on the front pages of newspapers throughout the country, and the harrowing image contributed to the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public places.
Now that you’ve seen our image at number 4, you must be wondering what we left for number 1?
The Omagh Bombing
This photo seems quite ordinary, doesn’t it?
We can see a smiling man wearing a bright yellow jumper with a happy boy on his shoulders. Just a lovely day out, right?
Wrong. The Spanish tourists were visiting the town of Omagh in Northern Ireland in 1998. Moments after this photo was taken, an IRA bomb placed inside the red car next to them detonated. Packed with over 500 pounds of explosives, the explosion killed 29 people, injured over 200, and sparked international outrage.
The man and his son miraculously survived. The photographer didn’t.
The Red Rebels
The 1918 Finnish Civil War erupted as Finland transitioned from its prior status as a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire to its newfound independence. The social upheavals of World War I flowed into Finland, and conflicts arose about how the newly established government should be managed.
The “Reds,” led by the Social Democratic Party, opposed the “Whites,” led by the conservative Senate’s socialist-averse majority. Roaming paramilitary organizations patrolled the countryside, with Red Guards (industrial and agrarian workers) fighting White Guards (made up primarily of peasants and middle and upper-class individuals).
Our photo captured the perfectly silent moment in time before two men were brutally executed.
The Burning Monk
This shocking photograph, at number one on our list today, shows Quang Duc, a monk who set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963. He died resisting the South Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists. The regime did its best to make life hard for the Buddhists, from forbidding them to fly their traditional flag to banning them from exercising their faith and spiritual activities. The Buddhists had had enough.
Quang Duc and two other monks emerged from a car near the Cambodian Embassy. He sat quietly in a customary contemplative stance as another monk drenched him in gasoline from head to toe. Quang Duc didn’t even blink as the other monk lit a match and set him on fire. Passers-by were generally astonished, but a few stopped to pray as the monk burnt alive. His protest was not ignored. Within hours, the image was making headlines all over the world.
To this day, it’s hard to look at the image without noticing the monk’s peaceful demeanor while he’s burning to death. The pain must have been excruciating. I believe nobody said it better than JFK himself when he said: “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”