20 Treasured Historical Figures Who Did Truly Awful Things

Greatness, it seems, occasionally comes at a cost. After all, there’s no doubt that these 20 historical heroes achieved remarkable things, and yet their paths to becoming legends were marred by unsavory, immoral or, in some cases, downright illegal events. Despite their misdemeanors, however, these icons’ statuses have, by and large, remained intact.

20. Winston Churchill

Former British prime minister Winston Churchill – who successfully led his country through the Second World War – may have been responsible for one of India’s worst-ever famines. This is according to author Madhusree Mukerjee, who in her book Churchill’s Secret War argued that during the conflict the statesman deliberately diverted food away from an already-hungry subcontinent to feed European mouths. What’s more, as an army officer and later war reporter during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902, Churchill described white-Boer concentration camps, which claimed the lives of nearly 28,000 people, as causing “the minimum of suffering.”

19. Gandhi

He may have spearheaded India’s independence movement during the early part of the 20th century, but Mahatma Gandhi didn’t always practice what he preached, especially where chastity was concerned. In fact, despite telling married couples to have a cold bath when they felt the urge, Gandhi slept and washed with Sushila Nayar, his physician. He even went to bed with his 18-year-old grandniece, apparently to test his restraint.

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18. Martin Luther King Jr.

He’s one of history’s most revered characters, but Martin Luther King Jr. did have a dark side. The last night of his life, for example, was spent with a woman who wasn’t his wife in Memphis, Tennessee’s Lorraine Motel. His womanizing was so profound, in fact, that it disgusted those closest to him. Oh, and the Civil Rights hero also plagiarized some of his doctoral thesis.

17. Enid Blyton

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Her books are beloved by children and adults the world over, but Enid Blyton was, in the words of her youngest daughter Imogen, “arrogant, insecure, pretentious… and without a trace of maternal instinct.” Blyton also had an affair while married to her first husband, Major Hugh Pollack. However, it was Pollack, under pressure to protect Blyton’s reputation, who later admitted to nulling the marriage. So how did his ex-wife show her gratitude? By denying Pollack access to his children.

16. Chuck Berry

Where to start with Chuck Berry’s criminal convictions? Perhaps by stating that the rock-and-roll legend was already a convicted armed robber by the time he left high school. Of course, he then made it big in the mid ’50s, but in 1962 he took a 14-year-old girl over state lines – a misdemeanor that landed him three years behind bars. And, in 1979, he received another jail sentence, this time for 120 days for tax evasion.

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15. Charlie Chaplin

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In 1926 Charlie Chaplin told Vanity Fair that his perfect woman was someone with whom he was not “entirely in love with” but who was entirely in love with him. This might have been on his mind when, around the time of his 30th birthday, the silent movie icon impregnated 16-year-old actress Mildred Harris. In fact, Chaplin’s next relationship, which also ended in disaster, was with 15-year-old child star Lita Grey, whom he also made pregnant.

14. John Lennon

In September 2015 VICE journalist Lauren Oyler wrote a less-than-complimentary piece about John Lennon. It seems that while the legendary Beatle was wedded to Cynthia Powell, his first wife, he apparently hit his son, Julian, and had numerous affairs. Furthermore, Lennon had another affair after marrying Yoko Ono, this time with his assistant. Plus, in a 1980 interview with Playboy, which Oyler recounted, he admitted to hitting women.

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13. Elvis Presley

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Worldwide fame aside, there aren’t many similarities between Elvis Presley and Charlie Chaplin. But “the King,” it seemed, also had a thing for girls who were way too young for him. Lamar Fike, a long-term member of his entourage, recalled in Baby, Let’s Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women who Loved Him, by Alanna Nash, how Elvis “was fascinated with the idea of real young teenage girls.” In fact, when the rock-and-roll superstar met Priscilla Beaulieu, his future wife, she was 14 and he was 24.

12. Don King

Few contemporary historical figures can say that they’ve killed more than one man, but Don King can. You see, before King became a boxing promoter he was an underground bookmaker. So when robber Hillary Brown broke in to one of his gambling houses, King fatally shot him. Then, more than a decade later, King stomped one of his employees – Sam Garrett – to death over a $600 debt.

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11. Caravaggio

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For centuries, the art world long assumed that in 1606 Renaissance painter Caravaggio killed a fellow artist, Ranuccio Tomassoni, over an argument about a tennis match. But in 2002 art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon revealed that their disagreement was actually over a woman named Fillide Melandroni, whom Tomassoni was pimping out. Caravaggio had apparently only intended to slice off Tomassoni’s testicles, but he brutally botched the job.

10. Mother Teresa

It’s fair to say that the late Christopher Hitchens wasn’t a huge fan of Mother Teresa. “She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women,” the contrarian said in 2003. What’s more, a report in 2013 alleged that homes for the poor under her management were underfunded and did not provide proper healthcare to those in critical need.

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9. Abraham Lincoln

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He may have led the U.S. through the Civil War and outlawed slavery, but Abraham Lincoln said some pretty unforgivable things during his time in office. For example, according to author Lerone Bennett Jr., Lincoln regularly used the N-word to describe black people. Bennett also argued that the 16th president was actually against the Emancipation Proclamation and only approved it to preserve party unity.

8. Frank Sinatra

Much was made of Frank Sinatra’s mafia connections in the press, but it was the Rat Pack singer’s relationship with Ava Gardner that appeared to bring out his truly dark side. In his book Sinatra: Behind the Legend, biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli claimed that when Gardner phoned her ex-husband after an argument, Sinatra, who arrived at their hotel suite a long while later, fired his gun into their mattress and threatened to take his own life.

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7. Michael Jackson

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The late King of Pop’s alleged abuse of children is well documented, but in June 2016 it emerged that Michael Jackson may, according to detectives, have also molested his own nephews. An anonymous, now-retired official told the New York Post, “Jackson spirited the one boy off to an island. Well, when that boy returned, Jackson had also purchased him a brand new car which we understood, along with the trip, was to shut the nephew up.”

6. Thomas Jefferson

Given his role as the Founding Father who penned “all men are created equal,” you’d think Thomas Jefferson would have had a few things to say about slavery. But the third U.S. president, a rich landowner, actually relied on it. His will stipulated that only five of his slaves could be freed after his death, and approximately 200 more were sold to other slave owners.

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5. Johnny Cash

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Back in the ’60s Johnny Cash was, it’s safe to say, a bit reckless. In June 1965, for example, the country superstar was on a fishing trip in California’s Los Padres National Forest with his nephew Damon. Shockingly, the nephew later claimed it was his drugged-up uncle who lit the fire that ended up destroying huge swathes of protected land and killing 49 of the park’s 53 at-risk California condor vultures. And though it was likely an accident, Cash didn’t help his case any when he told investigators, “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.”

4. Ernest Hemingway

Gregory Hemingway once wrote to his father, Ernest, “When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons… Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered s**t, the stories or the people?” The stories, it seemed, ended up mattering more. Charles McGrath of The New York Times wrote, “Hemingway lived for his stories, and they were his justification.”

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3. Roald Dahl

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In September 2016, on the 100th anniversary of author Roald Dahl’s birth, another writer thought it important to recall Dahl’s anti-Semitic statements from a 1983 interview with the New Statesman. Dahl – who died in 1990 – said of the Jewish people that Hitler “didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” He even went on to add, “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity.” Author Jasmine Donahaye, who previously tweeted that the remarks were “well known and ugly,” told BBC Radio Wales that they needed to be acknowledged and discussed.

2. Henry Ford

In 1919 Henry Ford bought The Dearborn Independent – a relatively unknown newspaper that the industrialist then proceeded to use as a soapbox for his anti-Semitic views. These scandalous opinions included blaming the “international Jew” for the First World War. In fact, Ford’s views even attracted the attention of Hitler, who cited him in Mein Kampf. Then, in 1938, Nazi Germany awarded Ford the Grand Cross of the German Eagle – much to the disgust of his fellow Americans.

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1. John Wayne

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In April 2016 California’s state assembly rejected the idea of declaring May 26, John Wayne’s birthday, John Wayne Day. Why? Because legislators didn’t look kindly on a 1971 interview that the Hollywood star conducted with Playboy. In the interview, the Western star 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.”

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