The concept of revenge is as old as history. Almost since the dawn of the written word, humans have had the desire to exact vengeance on others who have wronged us. For example, The Code of Hammurabi, the code of law from the sixth king of Babylon, was implemented about 1760 B.C., making it the oldest recorded set of laws in human history. The code is rooted firmly in the belief in an eye for an eye; in fact, that's almost exactly how the concept was phrased.
The Code of Hammurabi marked the official beginning of standardized revenge. It informs our way of thinking today. Indeed, our modern legal system is based on society's ability to carry out revenge against those who break its laws.
Yet our thirst for vengeance goes far beyond the social contract. The desire to see harm befall those who wrong us begins on a very personal level, within the brain of the victim. Neuroscientists have found that the dorsal striatum, a part of the brain responsible for reward, also governs revenge.
What follows, in no particular order, are 10 examples of people where someone's dorsal striata kicked into overdrive, leading to some of the biggest cases of revenge in human history.
In 2003, enough people had access to the Internet that spam e-mail had become a problem worthy of national attention. At the heart of the controversy was a Michigan entrepreneur named Alan Ralsky, who became known as the "spam king," for sending millions of bulk e-mail come-ons for a variety of businesses. As a result, some critics of his business model called Ralsky "vermin" and "scum" [source: Kurth].
When an article in a local paper spotlighted Ralsky's lavish lifestyle, including his 8,000-square-foot (743-square-meter) home, some of those critics managed to find the spam king's physical address. In a bid for revenge for all of the spam e-mail they'd received through his business, the naysayers signed Ralsky's address up for junk mail on a number of sites around the Internet. Eventually, thousands of Internet trolls propagated the address across the Web. At the peak of the revenge scheme, Ralsky's home received hundreds of pounds of junk mail each day [source: Leyden].
The 47 Ronin
What has become a lasting legend of Japanese loyalty and revenge -- and the basis for a number of films and books -- is rooted in historic fact.
In the Edo period of Japan, samurai served largely as military advisors, landowners and bodyguards for wealthy noblemen. The samurai's oath of loyalty included an agreement between a samurai and his daimyo (nobleman) to avenge his master's death. The 47 samurai sworn to protect their master, Asano Naganori, took this oath seriously.
During a 1701 visit to Tokyo (then known as Edo), Naganori slashed at another nobleman, Kira Yoshinaka, the result of an unknown dispute between the two. For his transgression, the ruling group decided that Naganori should commit seppuku, or ritual suicide, which he did later that day.
Naganori's men lied in wait and planned. Two years later, the 47 ronin (the term for a samurai who lacks a master) crept into the Yoshinaka's home and confronted him, telling him why they had come and offering him the chance to commit seppuku himself. When he didn't, the ronin removed his head, carried it to the castle where their master was buried and placed it in front of his tomb. They surrendered to authorities, who ordered the ronin to commit suicide. Forty-six of the 47 ronin committed seppuku. There are conflicting stories of the fate of the 47th ronin; he either died or was pardoned.
St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre
When the Protestant Reformation created an entirely new branch of Christianity in the mid-16th century, the Catholic Church smarted from the break for some time. In addition to losing millennia-old face, the church risked losing land, power and funding, as formerly all-Catholic areas began to turn towards Protestantism.
This was the atmosphere under which Paris found itself in August 1572, when the city was filled with both Catholics and visiting Huguenots, or French Protestants. These two warring groups were in town for the marriage of a Catholic noblewoman to a Huguenot aristocrat. Almost as soon as the wedding ended, the Catholic French king, Charles IX, decided that the Huguenot military leader may as well be captured and killed for his trespasses against the church. To ensure that he needn't hear any complaints from the visiting Huguenots, he ordered all of the ones found in Paris killed as well. Over the course of just a few days, in what came to be called the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, between 1,000 and 4,000 French Protestants were murdered in Paris.
For good measure, King Charles carried the massacre into the countryside, ordering the revenge killings against all Huguenots found in France, leading to the murders of between 30,000 and 100,000 of them following the initial massacre [source: Oberhofer].This is how the Huguenots came to live in England.
There are few stories of political rivalry in American history as legendary as that between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. And there are few cases of revenge as straightforward as their duel.
Burr and Hamilton both served in the revolutionary army under Washington. Both had political careers and aspirations for high office, which both achieved. And neither was above underhanded dealings to rise to power.
Hamilton is best known as the author of most of the Federalist Papers and as the first Treasury Secretary of the U.S., but he was also adept at influencing the political outcome of elections and nominations. In his 47 years, he managed to run afoul of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, mainly due to his backroom deals with underlings who could undermine their power.
But it was Burr whose line Hamilton would ultimately cross. After he lost the presidency to Thomas Jefferson by a decision Hamilton helped engineer in the House of Representatives, Burr accepted his fate and served as Vice President. He went onto run for governor of New York, only to find Hamilton working against him there as well. Burr had had enough; he challenged Hamilton to a duel and mortally wounded him on July 11, 1804 [source: Congress.gov].
When the Canadian folk-pop group Sons of Maxwell began their tour of Nebraska in 2008, they were disheartened to find from their seats in the rear of the United Airlines flight that baggage handlers were heavily tossing their guitars onto the plane. Upon landing and traveling to a hotel in Omaha, the band found that while the bass was intact, a $3,500 Taylor guitar had been broken.
The guitar's owner, guitarist Dave Carroll, began what would be a long plight toward reimbursement for his instrument. After nine months of calling customer service and following their suggestions in filing a claim, as well as spending $1,200 to repair the guitar, Carroll's claim was finally denied by United, based on several points, including that he hadn't shown the guitar to officials in Omaha [source: Carroll].
So Carroll decided that he would exact revenge by recording a series of songs, which came to be called the "United Breaks Guitars" trilogy. He uploaded them onto YouTube, where they went viral and racked up more than 4 million views in less than a month. Carroll's revenge on United may have had an impact on the company's bottom line: Within four days of the first video's launch, United's stock dropped in value by $180 million, or 10 percent of its market cap [source: Ayres].
Dr. Hawley Crippen
Revenge is sometimes best served confusingly and possibly from beyond the grave -- and perhaps by someone else entirely, or possibly unfairly.
Such is the case with Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, a homeopathic doctor living in London with his concert singer wife, Cora. Mrs. Crippen discovered her husband was having an affair and announced she was ready to move on with the couple's money, which was mostly hers. Shortly after, she went missing and was never seen again.
Dr. Crippen told friends that she'd fallen ill and died during a series of performances in Los Angeles. In short order, Dr. Crippen sold his wife's jewelry, gave his landlord three month's notice and set sail with his mistress for a new life in the U.S. Soon, however, Mrs. Crippen's friends alerted Scotland Yard they suspected foul play and Dr. Crippen's home was investigated. A body turned up in the cellar; Dr. Crippen was arrested and convicted of his wife's murder and hanged in 1910.
In 2007, forensic evidence proved the remains hadn't been Mrs. Crippen's. In fact, they belonged to a man [source: MSU].Some aficionados of the case suspect that Dr. Crippen successfully disposed of his wife's remains, but was hanged for her murder based on the remains of someone else. It's possible those remains belonged to another person Dr. Crippen had murdered. It's also possible that he was wrongly executed.
Lorena Bobbitt understandably served as the punchline to late night monologues for some time after she cut off her husband's penis. Yet her story is much sadder -- and hopeful -- than it appears at first blush.
The former Mrs. Bobbitt alleges that her ex-husband victimized her, using physical violence and even marital rape as a means of maintaining control over her. In 1993, on the night she got her revenge, she says John Wayne Bobbitt came home intoxicated, then assaulted and raped her. After he fell asleep, she retrieved a carving knife from their kitchen and used it to remove his penis. She left the house with it, driving some distance at around 3 a.m., before she rolled down her car window and tossed the dismembered organ out of the car.
She maintains she doesn't remember cutting off the penis, and her ex-husband was acquitted of domestic abuse charges. His penis was surgically reattached. They divorced in 1995.
As a result of her first marriage, Lorena became an advocate for victims of domestic abuse. She's founded Lorena's Red Wagon, an aid organization for women who've been abused. In 2003, John Wayne Bobbitt was convicted on domestic abuse charges unrelated to his first wife, Lorena.
In 2006, Indiana man Anthony Stockelman was charged with molesting and murdering 10-year-old Katie Collman. It was a fairly airtight case for prosecutors: Red carpet fibers that matched those found in Stockelman's mother's house were found on the scene, his DNA was found on the body and on a cigarette butt nearby. If that wasn't enough, an eyewitness saw Collman riding in Stockelman's pickup truck. He pled guilty to avoid the death penalty. The court accepted and sentenced the man to life in prison.
Locals watching the case found Stockelman too at ease in prison for their comfort in early interviews. This would soon change: He'd been transferred to Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, where prison officials hadn't realized Katie Collman's cousin was also serving time [source: Zambroski]. Several months after his intake, Stockelman turned up in the prison with a fresh, amateur tattoo applied to his forehead. It read, "Katie's Revenge." Officials looked into the incident, believing that fellow inmates had forcibly applied the permanent tattoo to Stockelman's forehead.
In late April 1945, in the waning days of World War II, members of the 45th Thunderbird Army Infantry Division were ordered to take the Bavarian concentration camp at Dachau.
The members of the division soon discovered what came to be called the "death train" -- 39 rail cars filled with the corpses of 2,310 camp inmates lying stationary on the tracks just within the camp's fenced walls.
Some members of the division said this sight drove them to commit one of the worst atrocities committed by American infantry troops in World War II. In an act of revenge for their crimes against the civilians found dead and dying in the camps, the American liberators of Dachau executed a number of unarmed SS officers who had come to the camp to surrender. The Americans lined up 75 German soldiers against a wall inside the camp and mowed them down by machine gun. In total, 17 were executed at the wall and another 11 were killed elsewhere in the camp the day it was captured.
Army officials covered up the war crime; it was only revealed in 2001 after World War II records were declassified.
One can only wish that James Annesley's story ends much more happily, but, alas, it concludes instead with his early death.
James Annesley was born to a wealthy family in Ireland in the early 18th century, to a vast amount of wealth and a noble title. His uncle Richard was determined to inherit James' wealth, and methodically dispensed of everything that stood between him and the family fortune, starting first with James' father -- Richard's own brother. Historians suspect that Richard poisoned his brother Arthur.
With Arthur Annesley out of the way, only James stood between Richard and the family entitlement. At the age of 12, James was kidnapped by men hired by his uncle and smuggled aboard a ship to America, where he was held as an indentured servant in Delaware for 12 years. At 25, he worked off his servitude, took a ship to Jamaica and eventually London, and set about restoring his identity and reclaiming his fortune from his uncle in the courts.
He died before he could, with his uncle still in control of the family wealth. Annesley had the last laugh, however. The decades of court cases dragged his uncle's reputation into the public sphere, where he was decried as a schemer, bigamist and scoundrel.
Sociologist Arthur B. Shostak thinks stories of hope hold a critical place amid the teachings of the Holocaust. HowStuffWorks talked to Shostak to learn more.
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- Kurth, Joel. "Junk e-mail foes target spam king." Detroit News. August 4, 2002.http://www.cmsconnect.com/News/CMSInPrint/DN-020804.htm
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- The Oprah Winfrey Show. "Lorena Bobbitt's infamous crime." April 23, 2009.http://www.oprah.com/world/Lorena-Bobbitts-Unforgettable-Story/1
- Smith, Henry D. II. "Rethinking the story of the 47 Ronin."Columbia University. August 2003.http://www.columbia.edu/~hds2/47ronin/47ronin_rev.htm
- Zambroski, James. "Officials investigating after 10-year-old's killer gets prison tattoo on forehead: 'Katie's Revenge'." WAVE 3 News. Accessed November 2, 2010.http://www.wave3.com/story/5467204/officials-investigating-after-10-year-olds-killer-gets-prison-tattoo-on-forehead-katies-revenge?redirected=true