25 Legendary Historical Heroes Who Did Unspeakable Things
They're known for their incredible accomplishments that changed the world, but these beloved historical figures were actually kind of terrible in their personal lives.
So many famous figures throughout history who are lauded as geniuses, pillars of morality, even saints, are actually just as terrible as the rest of us (some, even worse!). These are people known for being wonderful. They're still today held up as exemplary members of society above reproach. Yet, when you dig even a little bit below the surface of their persona, you discover they were ridiculously flawed human beings who did some terrible, terrible things. Without further ado, these are the historical figures we should stop admiring with such rose-colored glasses.
Mother Teresa is the person you reference when you're comparing someone to a living saint. In fact, she literally became a saint in 2016. But her selfless image was just that... an image. Mother Teresa believed poor people should suffer, basically, so most of her missions didn't provide adequate medical care to most who arrived there. She cavorted with dictators while purportedly misuging the charitable funding meant to help those less fortunate than her.
Much like Mother Teresa, Gandhi is the name one invokes when speaking about peaceful resistance in the fight for freedom. But he had weird sex behaviors, y'all! He preached celibacy for newlyweds while he engaged in sexual behavior with many women, some who were married to other men, many of home were much younger than he, and at least one who was related to him. He believed he was exempt from his own teachings, a more powerful being. But it seems like he was just a hypocritical old horndog.
Abraham Lincoln is the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, effectively ending slavery. He's become a symbol for progressive politics and belief in equality, but surprise, surprise: Abraham Lincoln was extremely racist. This tall skeleton man is on record saying he was, in fact, not in favor of "the social and political equality of the white and black races." He didn't want black people to vote or hold office or marry white people. He may have hated slavery, but he did not in the least bit believe in equality.
Matin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a legendary fighter for civil rights. We have a whole holiday dedicated to celebrating his legacy. But it turns out the vision we have of MLK is pretty simplified and sanitized. As a student, he plagiarized passages of his dissertation, had a string of mistresses, and reportedly watched as a friend and pastor raped a woman, according to recently uncovered FBI documents. All that said, the FBI tried their darndest to ruin MLK when he was alive, so take all this with a grain of salt while the documents are still sealed (until 2027).
John Lennon was all about peace, man. Right? Well, not exactly. The legendary world-peace-loving Beatle was actually extremely abusive. He cheated on his first wife, Cynthia Powell, and hit his son. He hit a lot of people, women mostly, at one point saying, "That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace." Classic dude who thinks acknowledging his own bad behavior absolves him of that behavior. Not cool!
So many extremely famous men who are beloved were weirdly into underage girls. It sucks, but it's true. And Elvis was one of them (the first on this list, but unfortunately, not the last). He treated women terribly, preyed on 14-year-old girls, cheated on his 15-year-old girlfriend while he was in his 20s, and ultimately settled down with Priscilla, who was 14 years old to Elvis' 24 when they met. He also installed a two-way mirror in his Pam Springs home and would spy on couples having sex during his wild parties. After he and Priscilla split, he pursued another 14-year-old girl. He eventually moved in with 21-year-old Ginger Alden, who recounted his erratic behavior, abuse, and habit of shooting guns in the air threateningly.
As far as people who have giant statues of themselves in the middle of London go, Winston Churchill is quite controversial. He is legendary for leading Britain through World War II, but he was far from perfect, and his legacy will forever be blemished by a few (quite notable) asterisks. First, he, like many others of his time, was pretty racist, a condition that served to explain some of his other atrocities, including his treatment of an Indian famine in 1943. He refused to provide wheat to millions of starving people, letting them go hungry and blaming them for their misfortune.
He wrote some of the best, most imaginative children's books of all time: Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, James and the Giant Peach, and he did all that while being wildly, viciously anti-Semitic. There were once plans to commemorate the beloved author with a coin in Britain, but those plans were scrapped on account of statements he made like this: "There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity... even a stinker like Hitler didn't just pick on them for no reason." Sorry if your childhood is now ruined! At least I didn't go with that Roald Dahl-themed bat mitzvah idea.
Did you know Johnny Cash was responsible for a devastating wildfire? Neither did I, until researching this article. We all knew he started his relationship with June Carter married to somebody else, but it was news to me that, in 1965, he sparked a fire in Southern California that burned more than 500 acres and nearly wiped out populations of endangered condors. He paid $82,000 in damages, which, with inflation, would be over half a million dollars today.
Charlie Chaplin may have been one of film's first comedy stars, but his personal life wasn't so funny. He was known to be quite cruel and selfish. He claimed to have slept with over 2,000 women, many of them too young to consent according to the law. He married 16-year-old Mildred Harris after she convinced him she was pregnant (she was not), and he treated her so poorly she had a breakdown. After they divorced, Chaplin became enamored with Lita Grey, a 12-year-old whom he refrained from pursuing until she was 16. He married several other very young women, including Oona O'Neill, when she was 18 and he was 54.
In 1971, John Wayne revealed himself publicly to be extraordinarily racist and homophobic in an interview with Playboy magazine. The actor literally said, "I believe in white supremacy" (wow, he just came right out and said it!). He also used a homophobic slur when referring to the movie, Midnight Cowboy.
Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel may be responsible for one of the world's most iconic scents, but she was also a straight-up Nazi! I thought this was common knowledge by now, but I recently saw people surprised by this. Yeah, she dated a Nazi officer and "was also a Nazi intelligence operative and an incorrigible anti-Semite," according to The New Yorker. She even went on missions with her BF to recruit new agents to the Third Reich.
If you've seen any of the numerous movies about Steve Jobs, you probably know the Apple founder wasn't a saint of a guy. He was very much a "bad boss" a lot of the rime, berating and insulting his employees. He also denied he had a daughter for years, and she and her mother lived in poverty while he made millions. He eventually reconnected with his daughter and started paying child support, but only after years had passed.
He may be responsible for most of the entertainment every young kid in the U.S. consumes, but Walt Disney, like several others on this list, wasn't a fan of the Jews! He welcomed Nazi director Leni Riefenstahl to his studios in 1938, and there are several anti-Semitic portrayals of characters in old cartoons. While he may not have personally had much against the Jews, he didn't do much to quell the voices of others who did. He was also racist and sexist in all of the usual ways in the 1930s. Not quite as outwardly sinister as some others on this list, but still bad!
So, sure, it was a long time ago, but Aristotle's view of women was extremely terrible. Aristotle believed women were inferior to men, even referring to the woman as a "deformed male," because women's bodies were too cold to produce semen. To Aristotle, women were good for one thing, and that was making babies. He believed them to be irrational, weak, and imperfect. As many years ago as that was, and as far as science has come, there is still a concerning number of men who still hold practically this same belief today.
Chuck Berry was put in jail for almost two years because he transported a young girl across state lines for "immoral purposes." Later, he was accused of filming women while they were using the bathroom. And in 1988, he punched his wife in the mouth. He may have been a legend of rock and roll, but he was also an abuser whose victims never got the justice they deserved.
I thought Teddy Roosevelt was all about walking in the woods and riding horses and speaking softly while carrying a big stick but turns out, he was all about that and hating black and indigenous people! He was a white nationalist and a fan of eugenics, and while he was an opponent of slavery, he believed America was a "land for racially superior peoples descended from Europeans," so that's not good.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
FDR was hailed as a heroic president, but he turned away tons of refugees seeking asylum because he believed they were a "threat to national security." Sound familiar? He also cheated on Eleanor a lot, even rewriting his will to leave one mistress, Missy HeHand, half of his estate.
Frank Lloyd Wright
According to The New York Post, legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright was "a narcissist and control freak, a spendthrift and adulterer who led a life marked by scandal, debt, and even murder." He bragged about himself like none other and was so obsessed with himself and his work, he ran out on his wife and kids (and into the arms of a client's wife, whom, along with her children, were one day murdered by their houseman).
Legendary trumpet player Miles Davis had two sides to him, apparently. If you weren't in his inner circle, he was "evil," prone to "volcanic outbursts," according to Rolling Stone. He abused the women in his life, but that side of him is rarely discussed in conversation.
What is it with beloved children's authors being terrible people? Theodore Geisel, known to us as Dr. Seuss, wrote some of the most classic stories of our childhood. He did a lot of political cartooning in his early days, and while he was generally quite liberal, he had a blind spot when it came to Japanese people. His cartoons were terribly offensive, and he supported the mass-incarceration of Japanese-Americans.
Joe DiMaggio is often uttered in the same breath as Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle in discussions of the greatest baseball players of all time, but he was incredibly abusive in his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. H was obsessed with her, wanted her to remain modest, and thought she should give up her career after they married. When she wouldn't, he exerted as much control over her as he could. He had to approve all her films, she couldn't outshine him, and when she "stepped out of line," he beat her. After their divorce, nine months after they married, he remained obsessed, stalked her, and bought a sex doll that looked like her.
Patrick Henry shouted, "Give me liberty or give me death!" and helped shaped the country, but he also locked his wife in the basement. To be fair, he reportedly did so because he didn't want to send her to a mental hospital, which would have been brutal back then. There could have been another rationale for his actions though. Some believe his reputation and political ambitions were at stake. Either way, we're betting Sarah Shelton Henry did not get the help she needed.
Thomas Edison is like, the only inventor we learn about in school, but he was a whiny bully. I mean, look at his face. It's all right there. He had no problem torturing animals and exploiting people for his experiments, stealing other people's work, and getting way too competitive about ostensibly making the world a better place.
T.S. Eliot seemed to be a raging anti-Semite, but there is one more offense of the poet's that I simply cannot get over, and that is that he is responsible for CATS. Evil, I tell you. Pure evil.