Shocking Photos from the Past That Will Leave You Speechless

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Can you recognize Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Chances are you can easily pick out these classic works of art just as easily as you can pick out a family member in a crowd. While there are hundreds of famous paintings throughout history, there are also certain photos that have special historical significance such as the sailor kissing the woman in Times Square after World War II or the man standing in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square in China.

Many of these historic and iconic photos have resonated with people for generations and have easily become the gold standard in photography. But, we couldn’t help but wonder if there were any other rare photos in history the world might have forgotten? What happened to them and why aren’t they celebrated?

From circus acts and musicians to politics and war, join us as we dust off the signs of age and dive deep into world history for a sneak peek at 20 shocking photos from the past that will leave you speechless. Will you recognize any of the photos or the events? Let’s get started on a high note as we start with one of the world’s most beloved skiing elephants in history and end with one of the biggest events of the 20th century!

#20 – Elephant on Skis

Elephant-on-Skis
“But I be done seen about everything, when I see an elephant fly…” But what about waterski? It’s not every day that you see an elephant skiing alongside two beautiful women like you do in this 1950s-era photograph. The elephant in question is none other than Queenie, who dazzled audiences throughout the late 1950s and 1960s after being born in the wild in Thailand in 1952 and transported to the United States months later where she was put up for auction. Purchased by Bill Green and his daughter Liz, the 250-pound baby elephant was destined for stardom.

Initially moved to a private zoo in Vermont, Queenie and Liz traveled to Florida where the elephant was trained as “The World’s Only Water Skiing Elephant” after replacing Sunshine Sally. Despite accusations of animal cruelty after an incident when Queenie tipped over and needed a snorkel while a crane lifted her from the water, Green and his daughter assured the world that Queenie loved to swim. Eventually retired in 2003 and sent to a private Georgia zoo, Queenie passed away on May 31, 2011 as one of the oldest Asian elephants in North America.

#19 – Coca-Cola Crosses Borders

Coca-Cola-Crosses-Borders
“Drink Fresh, Coca-Cola.” First produced in Columbus, Georgia in May 1886 as a patent medicine to replace morphine, Coca-Cola grew exceedingly popular in the southern part of the country before implementing a marketing strategy that established them as the cornerstone of the soft drink industry. Eventually expanding their production and becoming a nationwide brand known for their trade secret recipe found in beverages like Coke and Diet Coke, Coca-Cola has spent the last 130 years as one of the most valuable and influential brands in the world.

After gaining its footing in America, Coca-Cola decided to branch out across the globe and made its way to France officially in 1933. Although the beverage was unofficially in the country as early as 1919, it wasn’t until 1950 when Coca-Cola actually started to market across France after World War II. At the time, traveling Coke salesmen transported the iconic American beverage by van throughout the towns offering men and women their first sample. Obviously a huge hit, Coke became a staple and was served at every major establishment much to the delight of the French.

#18 – Batman

Batman
Na na na na Batman! Much like Coca-Cola is the first name you think of when it comes to soda, Batman is often the first name that comes to mind when people think of superheroes. Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, Batman made his official appearance as Bat-Man in the 27th issue of Detective Comics in May 1939. Getting his own comic book title the following year, the Caped Crusader made his television debut in 1966 and enjoyed the perks of building an even bigger audience.

To prove just how far Batman and special effects have come over the years, this picture dates back to the original series featuring Adam West as the Dark Knight and Burt Ward as his trusty sidekick, Robin. Pictured here trying to scale a wall in the making of the first episode, the camera was turned sideways as West and Ward did their best to make it appear like a vertical struggle. Though the effects weren’t all that great (as you can tell), the series was a huge success that left Batman comics flying off the shelves.

#17 – Tennis, Anyone?

Tennis-Anyone
It’s your serve! Every year the best tennis players in the world anxiously look forward to the most important tournament of the year—The Championships at Wimbledon. Dating all the way back to 1877 and becoming one of the four Grand Slam tournaments among the Australian Open, the French Open and the US Open, Wimbledon is an international spectacle held in London that offers rich traditions and two weeks of competitive play for over 100 of the best tennis professionals in the world.

With humble beginnings in 1877 with only 22 competitors and around 200 spectators, invitations were sent out to anyone who subscribed and read the advertisement in The Field magazine. It didn’t take long, however, before news of the tournament spread around the country as people planned special trips to England to watch their favorite singles and doubles teams compete. In this picture from 1883, crowds gathered for Wimbledon’s first international match between the Renshaws of England and the Clarks of the United States, which leaves us to wonder exactly who took home the title?

#16 – Horse by Another Name

Horse-by-Another-Name
Is it a donkey? A horse? A zebra? Officially known as a quagga, the odd mammal pictured here is an equine subspecies of the plains zebra found only in the Orange Free State of South Africa. Related to Burchell’s zebra and considered wild and lively but more docile than its striped relatives, quagga were once heavily hunted in the region with only a few domesticated at European zoos where breeding proved to be unsuccessful. By 1883, the quagga was officially declared extinct when the last captive died in Amsterdam.

The first extinct species to ever have its DNA analyzed, studies in 1984 found that quagga typically measured around eight feet long and four feet tall with zebra stripes primarily on the head and neck with a horse-like body. Typically traveling in herds of 30 to 50 and named for its call sound of “kwa-ha-ha,” this is the only photograph ever taken of a quagga while still alive, which makes this one of the most historic pictures on our list!

#15 – Baby Cages

Baby-Cages
Do you remember when Michael Jackson made headlines in 2002 after dangling his son “Blanket” over a hotel balcony in Germany? While most parents today would never imagine putting their children in that kind of harm, parents in the early 20th century might have had other ideas. Here in the United States, Emma Reed applied for a patent on an outdoor baby cage in 1922 with the idea that her invention would allow her children to get some fresh air and boost their immune systems. Sounds completely logical, right?

Nearly a century ago, parents jumped on the bandwagon with Reed and thought it perfectly acceptable to suspend their babies over busy streets in high rises while giving moms a free hand to fix dinner, clean the house or do the laundry. Fortunately, common sense eventually took over in the 1950s when the baby cages were completely abandoned. As to how many tragedies came from these cages is a mystery and, quite frankly, it’s a statistic we don’t want to know.

#14 – Hitler Shows Humanity

Hitler-Shows-Humanity
Often considered the vilest and cruelest person to ever walk the planet, German dictator Adolf Hitler led the Nazi Party and initiated World War II when he invaded Poland in 1939 and left Britain and France no other choice but to respond. Intending to create a New Order of socialism to purify the race, Hitler promoted his anti-Semitic views by leading the Nazi regime in conducting a genocide that killed 5.5 million Jews and millions of others in what became known as the Holocaust.

With his name typically associated with great hatred and negativity, Hitler rarely showed any signs of emotion or humanity apart from his aggression. This rare photo offers a glimpse into perhaps a softer side as Hitler is seen here with a soldier formerly deployed to Russia in what became one of the biggest tactical errors in combat history. Frostbitten and still attempting to salute his leader, Hitler pushed the soldier’s arm back down, thanked him for his service and told him to rest and recover from his injuries. Looks like Hitler was only kind to the soldiers ordered to carry out his vile plans.

#13 – Einstein’s Desk

Einsteins-Desk
From Germany’s most hated man to the country’s most intelligent and influential theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein was born in 1879 and made his way to the United States in the early 1930s just as Adolf Hitler came into power. Known for scientific contributions like the world’s most famous equation (E=mc2), Einstein received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 and was also part of the Manhattan Project that later developed the first atomic bomb. On April 18, 1955, the German genius passed away in New Jersey at 76 years old.

Publishing over 300 scientific papers throughout his lifetime as well as over 150 non-scientific works, Einstein spent countless hours in the office pictured here. Taken by Ralph Morse of LIFE magazine just hours after Einstein was rushed to the hospital and eventually laid to rest, Morse captured the true essence of Einstein’s genius with his messy desk and chalkboard scribbles. While the photo wasn’t released until years later at the request of Einstein’s son, Morse was nearly 100 years old and 60 years removed from being able to share his iconic photo with the world.

#12 – Riding the Rails

Riding-the-Rails
How quickly can you get from point A to point Z? Though many people have negative opinions about subways being messy, poorly run and cramped in bustling metropolitan areas like New York City, the large train-like cabins and frequent stops are undeniably convenient for travelers. After three decades of running an elevated line, New York unveiled its new underground transportation system in 1904 that resembled a slow-moving roller coaster offering passengers rides for a nickel under the city’s busy streets.

A huge event for the city, this photo is from October 27, 1904 when Mayor George McClellan hopped on board for the first ride on the subway. Opening up to the public later that day and welcoming over 150,000 passengers, the line traveled just over nine miles and made 28 stops. Today, the New York City Subway is among the world’s oldest public transit systems (after London opened in 1863 and Boston in 1897) and is also one of the most used with its 24-hour service offered 365 days a year.

#11 – East Bay Dragons

East-Bay-Dragons
Launching a new chapter in American history, the Civil Rights movement started in the United States in the 1950s when African Americans fought for equal rights through nonviolent protests and civil disobedience like boycotts, sit-ins and marches. Among the most forgotten parts of the movement were clubs like Tobie Gene’s East Bay Dragons of Oakland, California. The infamous East Bay Dragons started as an African American car club before making the switch to choppers and becoming the first all-black motorcycle club in the country.

At the time, seeing a black man driving a motorcycle in the United States was practically unheard of, which made the Dragons an even greater force (and target) in the 1950s movement. Pictured here in a group outside of Helen’s Bar-B-Que, Dragon riders were often confronted with racial stereotypes from the police and other bikers who didn’t take kindly to change. Gene and the crew persevered through the tension and unrest, however, and became a staple in Oakland history that is still together today.

#10 – Neck Brush

Neck-Brush
“Now for the low, low price of $19.99!” There have been hundreds of goofy inventions throughout the years and, if you don’t believe it, just take a look at the baby cage from earlier on our list! Many crazy inventions are seen today on late night infomercials that promise to solve the world’s problems with products like the Clever Cutter, Hamper Hoops, Woof Washer or the Shake Weight. But, surprisingly enough, even the 1950s had its fair share of odd inventions including the neck brush pictured here.

The Los Angeles Brush Corp. really thought they were onto something spectacular when they marketed this dog collar neck brush with the promise to keep even the most adventurous children’s necks clean without having to use soap or water! Unfortunately, kids like five-year-old Tim Gregory pictured here threw a huge fuss when they were forced to wear the contraption leaving mothers little other choice but to resort to nightly bath time rituals of a good soap and water scrub.

#9 – Larger Than Fiction

Larger-Than-Fiction
“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” First making a name for himself in 1975 with the Academy Award-winning Jaws, Steven Spielberg became a household name and one of the youngest millionaires in Hollywood at only 29 years old. Now considered one of the pioneers of the New Hollywood era, the 69-year-old Spielberg is the revolutionary mind behind classic films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park as well as the 1981 hit starring Harrison Ford, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Intending to make the Raiders unlike anything else, Spielberg is pictured here trying to set up the perfect shot for the Tanis Digs location. At the time, overhead shots were difficult to get without the use of computer-generated imagery so movie makers like Spielberg frequently relied on miniatures to create the necessary look. More than just a behind-the-scenes photo op, this picture shows how Spielberg’s attention to detail was one of the key factors in the film’s success after bringing in nearly $400 million at the box office and spawning three sequels.

#8 – Fear of Flight and Landing

Fear-of-Flight-and-Landing
With World War II ending in 1945, the world faced widespread political and military tension in what became known as the Cold War. During a period of proxy wars and small-scale fighting, one of the greatest feats of the era was the advancement of aircraft technology that included the American SR-71 and B-52 as well as England’s Electric Lightning. An interceptor plane, the Lightning made its first flight on August 4, 1957 and was publically introduced in December 1959 with one of the models, the XG332, pictured here.

Seen here catapulting to the ground with George Aird in the pilot’s seat, all 20 of the Lightning XG332 models were tested above rural areas in England before officially being put to use. England farmer Jim Meads heard about the testing and gathered his children and his camera equipment to watch from one of his fields. In a once in a lifetime moment, Meads snapped the photo as Aird was ejected from the plane only to land in a greenhouse with two broken legs. Waking up moments later by sprinklers hitting his face, Aird luckily made a full recovery.

#7 – Pharoah Louis Armstrong

Pharoah Louis Armstrong
Praised as one of the most influential figures in jazz from the roaring 1920s to the 1960s, Louis Armstrong made a name for himself as an exceptional trumpet and cornet player. Born in New Orleans and recognized by his gravelly voice and scat singing, the great Satchmo was a charismatic figure in music and was one of the first popular African American entertainers in the industry whose talent was awarded with a Grammy as well as inductions into the Rock and Roll and Grammy Halls of Fame. Affectionately known as “Pops,” Armstrong passed away in 1971 at the age of 69 years old.

Traveling abroad to show off his talents, Armstrong is pictured here playing his trumpet in front of the Pyramids of Giza with his wife, Lucille Wilson, in 1961. Armstrong’s trip was incredibly important at the time as new reporters flocked him at the airport asking him about his views on Zionism. Responding in his truly charismatic and endearing nature, Armstrong said, “I help anybody…I got a trumpet, and I got a young wife, and I ain’t got time to fool with none of the stuff you guys are talking about.”

#6 – Transmission Over

Transmission-Over
Leaving the realm of music and returning to science, Albert Einstein isn’t the only genius on our list as we turn our attention to Nikola Tesla. Born in what is known today as Croatia, Tesla moved to the United States in 1884 to work for Thomas Edison in New York City. Eventually striking out on his own and earning the reputation as a “mad scientist,” Tesla was a brilliant inventor who contributed to the modern design of the AC electrical supply system in addition to creating an improved version of his Tesla coil transmitter with the magnifying transmitter.

Helping to construct the first transmitter in Colorado in the late 1800s just as he became a naturalized United States citizen, Tesla took this photograph as part of the publicity campaign to promote his work. The arcs of the transmitter measured over 20 feet long but Tesla remained true to his character as he sat calmly and seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. Living another 40 years after the invention (and the photo), Tesla died at 86 years old in 1943.

#5 – Big Bed

Big-Bed
Just call him the “Jolly Green Giant!” Born in Alton, Illinois in 1918 as the eldest of five kids, Robert Wadlow was already taller than his father by the time he was eight years old. Reaching an astonishing height of 8’4” by his senior year in high school, Wadlow dreamt of pursuing a career in law but his size eventually started to take a toll on his health. Using leg braces to walk and with little feeling in his legs and feet, Wadlow grew to an astonishing 8’11” tall and weighed 439 pounds when he took the Guinness World Record title as the world’s tallest man.

Known as the “Giant of Illinois” as well as the “Alton Giant,” Wadlow found it difficult to find clothes that fit his towering frame not to mention a bed that was long enough for him to rest comfortably at night. Shortly before his death in 1940, however, Wadlow received the gift he’d been dreaming of when he was presented with a custom-made bed that stretched nine feet long. Providing him great comfort in his last months as his pain grew unbearable, Wadlow passed away from an infection at 22 years old on June 27, 1940.

#4 – Not Much of a Psycho

Not-Much-of-a-Psycho
Long before Steven Spielberg first made his mark in cinema in the 1970s, Alfred Hitchcock had already paved the way in the 1940s and 1950s as “The Master of Suspense.” Achieving his first taste of success in silent films in his native England, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood in 1939 where he used his master storytelling to build dramas like no other. Now considered one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, Hitchcock is a legend thanks to films like Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo and Rear Window.

As a pioneer of suspense and the mastermind behind scenes like the shower stabbing in Psycho, few people knew Hitchcock off the set, which did little to help his otherwise dark and mysterious reputation. However, when the cameras weren’t rolling, he was rather normal and enjoyed spending time with his family. In this rare photo, the legendary director and producer is seen breaking character while playing in the snow with his three grandchildren. How’s that for letting your hair down?

#3 – Constructing Rushmore

Constructing-Rushmore
An iconic symbol of patriotism in the United States and attracting over two million visitors each year, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial stretches across two square miles of the granite Mount Rushmore located in Pennington County, South Dakota. Carved out of the side of the Black Hills, the sculpture was originally intended to feature western heroes like Lewis and Clark and Buffalo Bill but was ultimately deemed a national tribute to former United States Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

With funding secured and construction underway in 1927, the photo shows the attention to detail that the 400 workers took in building the 60-foot high carvings as a tribute to American history. Spending seven years carving out the mountain before starting on the presidential faces in 1934, it took a total of 14 years before construction on Mount Rushmore ended and the faces were dedicated. Interestingly enough, the project remains unfinished as the presidents were supposed to be shown from the waist up; however, a a lack of funding beyond the $1 million budget brought the project to a halt as we see it today.

#2 – The Kiss of Life

The-Kiss-of-Life
The shock of a lifetime! Working on electric poles can be a dangerous job, which is why it pays so much and has hundreds of union regulations today. In the 1960s, photographer Rocco Morabito saw just how dangerous this line of work was when Randall G. Champion was doing routine maintenance on a low voltage power line. Attached to his safety harness and climbing the pole, Champion brushed one of the wires when he was electrocuted and fell backwards unconscious.

Luckily for Champion, his coworker J.D. Thompson was working below him and saved the day as he climbed above Champion and performed mouth to mouth resuscitation while his coworker hung lifeless in the air. Once Champion was revived, Thompson carried him down to safety but not before Morabito—who was driving by at the time—called an ambulance and then grabbed his camera to capture the incident. Titled “The Kiss of Life,” the photo earned Morabito a Pulitzer Prize for his Spot Photography and undoubtedly became an iconic moment in two linemen’s lives.

#1 – Bet on Red

Bet-on-Red
It only seems appropriate to end our gallery of historic photos with one of the most important days of the 20th century—the Fall of Berlin. Soviet Union troops descended onto the capital of Germany on April 16, 1945 in what became a pivotal moment in ending World War II as Adolf Hitler committed suicide marking the end of the Nazi regime. With the Soviet troops waiting nearly two weeks for the Germans to finally surrender, nearly 200,000 deaths were recorded in addition to over half a million wounded soldiers and civilians.

At the end of the long battle, the statue of Hitler was forcefully and joyously taken down in Berlin to officially mark the end of Nazism in Germany. The Russian soldier pictured here was lucky enough to grab the head of Hitler’s statue as it fell and is shown in complete jubilation over his newest prize. Though no one is quite certain where the statue’s head ended up, many imagine it’s used as a paperweight or a door stop somewhere in Russia today.