Historical figures can sometimes seem just like characters in a book; sure, we can read about their accomplishments, but we forget that they were real people, like us. And just like us, major historical figures had some interesting… quirks.
Some ate bugs, some refused to bathe, some even built fake villages so they could pretend to be peasants. These are the juicy details about famous figures that you definitely didn’t read about in history class.
Winston Churchill: Everyone likes to be comfortable, but Churchill took it to another level. He’d frequently hang out in his office, naked. Reportedly, FDR once rolled in on him in the nude — not the meeting he’d anticipated, I’m sure.
Ulysses S. Grant: On the other hand, Grant hated for people to see him naked. Most high-ranking generals would have servants bathe and dress them, but Grant insisted on doing it privately.
Walt Disney: Because he amassed a net worth of about $1 billion over his lifetime, Walt Disney liked to reward those who worked for him. In fact, he gave his housekeeper company stock every Christmas and birthday. By the time she was in her 70s, she was a multi-millionaire.
Leonardo da Vinci: You might have known that history’s most famous artist was a vegetarian, but da Vinci actually took his quest for animal rights a little further. He’d even buy caged birds just to set them free.
Andy Warhol: One of the 20th century’s greatest artists, Warhol had some… interesting hobbies on the side. For years, he put together over 600 time capsules and filled them with various objects like toenail clippings, dead bees, and a mummified foot.
Marie Antoinette: The Queen of France was known for her lavish lifestyle, but once in awhile, she’d get a taste of how the other half lived. She had an entire fake village built just so she could pretend to be a peasant!
Albert Einstein: Physicist, philosopher, mustache enthusiast, Einstein did it all. But his experiments didn’t stop when he left the lab. The genius was known to occasionally snack on some unusual grub — namely insects right off the ground.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Most geniuses have their share of quirks, and we’re here to spill the beans about Beethoven’s. The famed pianist would apparently start every morning with a cup of coffee brewed with exactly 60 beans, counted out. Yikes.
Napoleon: One of history’s greatest commanders, sure. But did you know Napoleon had a side gig as a romance novelist? He once wrote a spicy novella about a soldier in the army, which may or may not have been based on personal experience.
Hans Christian Andersen: If you know “The Little Mermaid,” you know Hans Christian Andersen. He’s renowned for his fairy tales, but he had one weird quirk. He carried rope with him everywhere, in case he needed to escape from a fire.
Frida Kahlo: Kahlo was one of the greatest creative minds of the 20th century, but she had a little secret. Though Kahlo repeatedly told people she had been born in 1910, she was actually three years older.
Charlie Chaplin: Hollywood’s classic comedian might have been a bit of a creep! When women would audition for roles in his movies, he’d make them strip naked so he could throw pies at them. Clean up your act, Charlie.
Benjamin Franklin: He was a Founding Father and prolific inventor, but in his personal life, Ben Franklin was a bit of a womanizer. He had numerous affairs, but all the women had one thing in common: they were older than him.
Eleanor Roosevelt: She was a groundbreaking First Lady, diplomat, and civil rights advocate, and she wasn’t opposed to unique ways of getting things done. She once made $35,000 by starring in a margarine commercial, which she immediately donated to impoverished families.
Alexander Graham Bell: The inventor of the telephone (and founder of AT&T) had some… odd ideas about moonbeams. He was so worried about their effects that he covered all his windows with curtains every night to keep them out.
Charles Dickens: If he had Great Expectations about anything, it was his hair. The renowned author was obsessed with his hair being straight and combed it hundreds of times a day.
Ronald Reagan: As a Hollywood actor and later president, Reagan developed a strange way of showing his affection for people. If he was particularly fond of someone, he’d softly grab their earlobe.
Nikola Tesla: Every genius has their methods, and Tesla certainly had a controversial one. He believed that celibacy was a vital part of ensuring his continued success and remained a bachelor his entire life.
Michelangelo: Sure, the legendary painter will forever be known for his work on the Sistine Chapel, but Michelangelo wasn’t always so popular in his time. He rarely bathed or washed his clothes — they had to be peeled off him after his death!
Thomas Edison: If Edison saw someone salting their food before trying it, he would immediately dismiss hiring them in the future. Why? He refused to hire someone who acted before testing their theory.
Henry Ford: Ford revolutionized transportation across the world. As an inventor, he always had a soft spot for Thomas Edison but took his devotion to new heights when he asked his son to collect Edison’s dying breath in a test tube. Gross.
Malcolm X: He wrote and spoke with so much charisma that it’s hard to believe he could barely read for much of his life. While serving a prison sentence for theft, he copied the entire dictionary by hand to improve his language skills. Malcolm then read his work aloud every day.
Alan Turing: The father of the modern computing, he helped crack German codes during World War II, but this brainiac had brawn too. A gifted runner, he once completed a marathon in 2 hours and 46 minutes. That was only 11 minutes shy of the winning time at the following year’s Olympics.
Twitter / Prof S Barry Cooper
Fidel Castro: Throughout the Cold War, the CIA made over 600 attempts to assassinate or humiliate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Some of the wackier plans involved an exploding cigar, a poisoned wetsuit, and a holographic Virgin Mary spouting propaganda. Of course, Castro managed to evade each scheme.
In 1916, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman to ever serve in Congress. That alone is impressive, but the really impressive part is that she clinched her seat a full four years before women won the right to vote in the United States.
When Elvis Presley’s girlfriend found him dead on the floor of the bathroom, most doctors figured a regular heart attack did him in. However, recent theories about his poor health and the massive size of his colon suggest the King of Rock’s heart actually gave out due to incredibly severe constipation.
Elvis Presley In Concert
In 1856 — a few years before his Presidency — Abraham Lincoln delivered a ground-shaking speech against slavery at the Bloomington Convention. He was so captivating that no reporter present remembered to take notes, so there is no surviving transcript of the speech today.
For a writer as exceptional and prolific as William Shakespeare, it’s only fitting that he should pen the words that would cover his own grave. He composed the epitaph below to scare off would-be grave robbers. The verse is now a famous sight at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon.
In a 1938 battle against French forces, Mexican General Santa Anna took a bullet to the leg. When doctors had to amputate the limb shortly thereafter, Santa Anna ordered his removed lower leg receive its own funeral with full military honors.
Always an independent woman, Amelia Earhart insisted that she and her fiance George Putnam write a prenup. She included some pretty bold terms, including a call for an open marriage! She wrote, “I shall not hold you to a medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly.”
Fine Art America
King Henry VIII of England kept up a large court, including four gentlemen known as “Grooms of the Stool.” No, they weren’t responsible for carrying around his chair. These Grooms took care of all of Henry’s most intimate toilet needs, chiefly wiping his bottom after he took a royal flush.
The reign of the extravagant Roman emperor Caligula only lasted for a few years, but he packed a lot of madness into that period. He even appointed Incitatus, his favorite horse, to the Roman Senate! This may not have been a sign of insanity, however. It’s likely Caligula did it to mock the Senate and keep them from gaining more power.
Mahatma Ghandi: An activist who preached love and peace, Ghandi spearheaded Indian independence from Britain. Through his letters and words, some scholars and historians saw him as a paragon of good in the world. But…
Ghandi didn’t always practice what he preached, especially regarding chastity. While he routinely told married couples to take a cold bath when they felt sexual urges, the man himself carried on an affair with his physician, Sushila Nayar, for a number of years.
Mother Teresa: Through the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, a congregation of women, the Catholic nun and missionary devoted herself and life to lifting up and helping the sick and impoverished of the world. Wasn’t she the pinnacle of love?
Not always. Many people, including the late Christopher Hitchens, were critical of Mother Teresa’s work, alleging that the hospitals and homes that she ran didn’t provide proper medical care. Additionally, she opposed basic measures for women’s equality.
Don King: Ever heard of “The Thrilla in Manilla,” the boxing bout between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier? How about “The Rumble in the Jungle?” Those were all set up and promoted by America’s most famous hype man, Don King.
But when he first got into boxing as a bookie, a robber broke into one of his illegal gambling sites. King shot him dead. Ten years later, he stomped an employee to death over a $600 debt.
Airman 1st Class Sheila deVera / U.S. Air Force photo
Enid Blyton: Since the 1930s, Blyton sold over 600 million copies of children books, her most famous of which included The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. But her own daughter didn’t think so highly of her…
Blyton’s daughter called her mother “arrogant, insecure, pretentious … and without a trace of maternal instinct.” Blyton had an affair while married to her first husband, and he filed for divorce. Afterward, she denied him visitation rights with their children. In 2009, Helena Bonham Carter (below) portrayed her in Enid.
John Lennon: One of the founders of the Beatles, Lennon wrote about peace and love, leading the rock band to astronomical heights. In fact, the Beatles became the most commercially successful band of all time. But Lennon had a dark side…
He was abusive toward his first wife, Cynthia Lennon, and that relationship ended fairly quickly. Throughout the years, he explored numerous affairs, even after he married Yoko Ono.
Roald Dahl: Dahl often wrote about kids facing off against “evil” parents in his children’s books. The stories were often accompanied by delightful watercolor pictures with a very distinct style. But Dahl wasn’t always kid-friendly…
In a 1983 interview, Dahl suggested that Hitler “didn’t just pick on [the Jews] for no reason,” adding that “there is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity.” He didn’t put that in his children’s books!
Frank Sinatra: With a rich and powerful voice, Sinatra influenced 20th-century American music in a way only few others did. One of the most notable Las Vegas performers of all time, Sinatra also toured the country, performing classics like “New York, New York.”
Along with very real mafia ties, Sinatra had some sour relationship moments in his life. During one argument with actress Ava Gardner, he supposedly fired a gun into a hotel room mattress to threaten her; then he threatened to take his own life to make her stay.
Johnny Cash: The artist shook airwaves across the world with his rock ‘n roll-, gospel-, and country-inspired songs. He sold over 90 million albums worldwide and nurtured a rugged, outlaw persona.
It didn’t emerge until after his death, but an inebriated Cash likely started an infamous 1965 wildfire at Los Padres National Forest. The blaze ended up killing 49 of the park’s 53 endangered California condor vultures.
Ernest Hemingway: The famous writer known for terse, preposition-laden prose churned out classics like For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises. But “all things truly wicked start from innocence,” he said, and he was living proof.
Bipolar, his erratic behavior often caused serious problems for those around him, and sometimes drinking got the better of him. Apparently, when fellow writer James Joyce got into bar fights, he’d have Hemingway beat up his opponent.
Chuck Berry: When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1986, Chuck Berry was one of the very first people inducted—and for good reason. The museum declared that he “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.”
Unfortunately, Berry had already been convicted of armed robbery by the time he graduated high school. He has had numerous run-ins with the law throughout his life, including one in which he took a 14-year-old girl across state lines in 1962, and one in 1979 for tax evasion.
John Wayne: If you ever needed someone to ride into town on a horse and notch a big-time victory in a sunset duel, Wayne was your guy. King of the western genre, Wayne was one of the biggest box office draws for three decades. But he wasn’t entirely a hero…
In a 1971 Playboy interview, Wayne said: “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”
Caravaggio: An Italian painter active in the late 16th century, Caravaggio’s famous works include the oil-on-canvas paintings A Basket of Fruit and The Calling of St. Matthew. Talk about a diverse portfolio!
The Renaissance master behind Judith Beheading Holofernes (pictured) actually killed a fellow artist named Ranuccio Tomassoni in 1606. It wasn’t revealed until recently that their dispute was over a woman that Tomassoni had been pimping out.
Thomas Jefferson: One of the founding fathers and the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson (far right) famously wrote “all men are created equal” when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. But did he truly believe that?
The History Channel
Jefferson owned slaves his entire life, even engaging in a long-term affair with one named Sally Hemings. And while this affair was held as nothing more than suspicion for decades, a recent discovery made the controversial relationship irrefutable.
The primary author of the Declaration of Independence and the 3rd President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson is easily one of the most recognizable figures in American history. But there are things about him that have long gone unexplained.
At the age of 26, Jefferson began construction on a 5,000-acre plantation that would go on to serve as his permanent residence until his death in 1826. Located just outside Charlottesville, Virginia, the plantation was dubbed Monticello, which is Italian for “Little Mountain”.
While Monticello quickly grew to become a top producer of tobacco and wheat, it also gained notoriety for employing hundreds of slaves. With this in mind, a group of historians decided to delve deeper into the history of Monticello…
The various research and restoration efforts undertaken at Monticello over the years have collectively become known as the Mountaintop Project. It is through this $35-million initiative that historians hope to bring transparency to the plantation’s questionable past.
In 2017, archaeologists began an extensive excavation of Monticello’s main grounds. More specifically, they believed that the foundation of Jefferson’s original home (and the items within) was buried beneath the structure that stands on the grounds today.
Shortly after the excavation began, archaeologists uncovered what was once the original mansion’s kitchen. This unexpected find lead to the further excavation of the area, which resulted in the discovery of what was known as the Jefferson mansion’s South Wing.
As historians explored the South Wing, they came upon a peculiar set of slave quarters. After inspecting the area, they were stunned to learn that these quarters had once belonged to the notorious Sally Hemings.
According to the history books, Hemings wasn’t just an ordinary slave: she was actually the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha, conceived from an affair between Martha’s father, John Wayles, and one of his slaves, Betty Hemings.
As part of Martha’s inheritance, Hemings and her family came to Monticello in 1773, when Sally was just an infant. Described as “mighty near white” by a fellow slave, Hemings’ mixed race lineage still wasn’t enough to free her from the bonds of servitude. Or so she thought.
In 1787, a 14-year-old Hemings accompanied young Mary Jefferson to Paris where her father was serving as the United States’ minister to France. It is here that many historians believe that Jefferson and Hemings began a romantic relationship.
trialsanderrors / Flickr
As Sally began having children, rumors swirled throughout Virginian society about Jefferson’s relationship with his slave. Not only were Sally’s children considerably more light-skinned than she was, but a few of them even looked suspiciously like her master…
A journalist who had been slighted by Jefferson years earlier published a scathing accusation in the Richmond Recorder in an attempt to discredit Jefferson’s legitimacy as a presidential candidate. Jefferson denied the rumors, of course, and was elected President in 1801.
Although Jefferson never admitted to his affair with Hemings, he did eventually free all four of her children. It has also been confirmed that following Jefferson’s death, Hemings was granted her freedom by Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha, and went on to live as a free woman with her two sons, Madison and Eston.
Thomas Jefferson Monticello
Eston Hemings went on to play a key role in solidifying the claim that Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children during a 1990 DNA study. After comparing DNA taken from descendants of both Jefferson and Sally Hemings, scientists conclusively determined that, at the very least, Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings.
New York Amsterdam News
So how does the discovery at Monticello relate to the controversy surrounding Jefferson and Hemings? Well, after historians consulted the blueprints of Jefferson’s original home, they found that Jefferson’s bedroom was actually connected to Hemings’ quarters.
The Mary Sue
Physical evidence discovered at the site also confirmed that Hemings maintained a lifestyle that was significantly better than that of her fellow slaves. Rather than living in cramped shacks, Hemings had her own quarters and other special treatment.
Jefferson in Paris
Since the discovery of Hemings’ quarters, special efforts have been made to restore the entirety of the South Wing as a tourist attraction dedicated to Hemings’ life. For the first time, there will be a space at Monticello to commemorate this previously unknown woman’s place in American history.
The Mountaintop Project has also made a dedicated effort to teach the visitors of Monticello about the lives and struggles of the slaves who resided there during Jefferson’s lifetime. With these new revelations about Hemings coming to light, several tours have also been added that shed light on Sally and her family.
As historians and curators work to restore Monticello to its former glory, the story of Sally Hemings has become an integral part of the shaping of Jefferson’s narrative. It is their hope that by incorporating Hemings’ existence into Jefferson’s story, the two can finally hold a permanent place in history together.
Sally Hemings: An American Scandal