6 Incredibly Dangerous Jobs from the Annals of History

Thank modern technology for doing these jobs so you don’t have to

David Arv Bragi Tech (November 11, 2015)

Plenty of dangerous jobs still exist. Think fishing, roofing and mining, to name a few. Heck, you can hurt yourself just by typing or sitting too much all day .

But some risky occupations of yore have long since fallen by the wayside thanks to modern technology and scientific progress. Today, no one has to search through swamp waters for armies of blood-sucking worms, for instance. (Yes, that used to be someone’s job.)

Here are six death-defying trades science has saved us from.

Related: The Most (and Least) Dangerous Jobs in the US

1. Donkey puncher

Donkey puncher in Tillamook County, Oregon Donkey puncher in Tillamook County, Oregon Photo: Russell Lee/Library of Congress

Nope, it's not a job that involves punching stubborn four-legged animals. In the late 1880's, loggers began using a portable steam engine called a donkey to drag fallen trees from the forest to the river, where they would float them into a sawmill, according to the University of Washington Libraries. It replaced the use of horses and oxen, who moved too slowly and didn't handle steep terrain very well, according to the Mendocino Coast Model Railroad and Historical Society.

The engineer who operated the machine held the title of donkey puncher. Working in remote, rugged terrain, he was constantly in danger because donkeys had a habit of suddenly exploding, starting forest fires or flinging heavy winch cables through the air.

Steam donkeys reigned supreme for about nearly a half-century. Beginning in the 1930s, modern gasoline and diesel engines replaced them, with the last steam models falling into disuse in the 1950s.

2. Pony Express rider

The first Pony Express The first Pony Express Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

During 1860 and 1861, some 80 riders braved rugged wilderness, untamed rivers and Indian wars to deliver the mail on horseback. Using a relay system, they rode between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, in only 10 days.

The first rider to die fell when his horse tripped over an ox (aka a castrated bull) lying in the road, according to the Pony Express National Museum. Over the next 18 months, at least three more died en route, from drowning, hypothermia or unknown causes.

In October 1861, the U.S. Government canceled its contract with the Pony Express operators after the completion of a new, high-tech form of communication — the telegraph system. Ironically, Californians thought the riders were more reliable, because telegraph wires would sometimes break without warning.

3. Powder monkey

Powder monkey on a Union ship during the American Civil War Powder monkey on a Union ship during the American Civil War Photo: /Wikimedia Commons

Back in the days when naval artillery consisted of cannonballs and grapeshot, gunpowder ruled the waves. During sea battles, sailors hand-carried small amounts of gunpowder between the ship's storage hold and its cannons.

Marksmen on enemy ships would shoot at them as they raced back and forth. So, the task was given to small, sturdy and agile young boys just starting their seafaring life. Older sailors commonly referred to them as powder monkeys, for the way they scampered among the ropes, barrels and other obstacles littering the decks, “like monkeys swinging through trees,” according to the U.S. Naval Institute.

In the years before World War I, the introduction of shipboard elevators to transport artillery shells, plus a US Navy crackdown on the conscription of children, ended the days of the powder monkey.

Related: Boating Safety: Could You Pass the U.S. Coast Guard Test?

4. Ice cutter

Ice cutting on Sand Lake in South Dakota around 1938 Ice cutting on Sand Lake in South Dakota around 1938 Photo: /Wikimedia Commons

“Beautiful, powerful, dangerous, cold,” the ice cutters sang in the Disney movie “Frozen.” In the days before refrigerators, men living in northern climates could earn money over the winter by removing blocks of ice from lakes and rivers. Then they shipped them to warmer locales such as New Orleans and the West Indies, according to the Cambridge Historical Society.

If the ice was too thin, the men and horses could fall through it. Since it was hard to pull horses back to the surface, they were outfitted with safety ropes, according to East Stroudsburg State College.

Even passersby were in danger. One day in 1899, after a team removed ice along the frozen Rock River in Wisconsin, a snowfall covered the spot where the ice cutters had removed the thick ice. Two young girls ventured onto the river, fell in and nearly drowned, according to the Watertown Historical Society.

5. Leech collector

Leech Leech Photo: SeDmi/Shutterstock

Once upon a time, doctors used leeches to suck blood out of sick patients, hoping the worm also would suck out whatever made the patient sick. It didn't work out very well, either for the patients or the poor souls who earned their living collecting leeches from swamplands.

Leech collectors, including women and children, worked as human bait, standing in the water until hungry leeches covered their legs. Then they waded out to a nearby doctor, had the leeches removed and sold them, according to the Rhode Island Medical Society. Leech collectors suffered from blood loss and bacterial infections.

Eventually, the practice of “bloodletting” fell out of favor. Doctors still use leeches occasionally, for instance to prevent blood from clotting during surgery. But now they are grown and harvested in hospitals under safer, sterile conditions, according to the University of Wisconsin.

6. Plague doctor

Plague doctor Plague doctor Photo: /Wikimedia Commons

When the Black Death swept through Europe during the late Middle Ages, most physicians were unwilling to risk their own lives to visit the households of the sick. So a town would contract with second-rate country doctors with limited skills, luring them with the offer of a steady paycheck, according to The Medieval City” by Harry A. Miskimin.

Many plague doctors died on the job because no one knew then how plague spread from person to person. They wore dramatic beak-shaped masks filled with aromatic herbs they believed would protect them from infection, according to Boston University.

It didn't help much because most plagues were transmitted by fleas. Fortunately, modern medicine has taught physicians how to better protect themselves. Plus, modern antibiotics can often cure plague if given promptly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Related: "Black Plague" Facts and Symptoms (Yes, It Still Exists)

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