Think history is all dry dates and boring biographies? Think again. There's plenty of sex in history, and some of the most famous figures of all time have some wild stories about getting down and dirty. Fashions and social mores may have changed, but people are still people – and that means that we have always loved to spread scandalous rumors about our most important figures.
You may have heard some of these rumors from history. A persistent tale about Catherine the Great, for instance, claims she perished while getting intimate with a horse. One beloved composer may have had a surprising proclivity, and a couple of American presidents were whispered to have had scandalous affairs. And then there's the story of Rasputin's penis. It supposedly continued to travel the world long after he'd left the earth.
From carnal addiction to sexual contraptions and everything in between, here are some of the juiciest rumors not covered in your textbooks.
Grover Cleveland, the only American president elected to serve two non-consecutive terms, was a popular guy. So popular, in fact, that he became president after knocking up a widow, committing her to an insane asylum, and tossing his bastard in an orphanage.
During the 1884 election, news broke that the then-unmarried Cleveland had fathered a child a decade earlier with a widow named Maria Halpin. Afterward, Halpin was sent to an asylum; her son, Oscar Folsom Cleveland, was placed in an orphanage. When the story came out, Cleveland allegedly instructed his managers to “tell the truth,” which, according to him, was this: he and Halpin had hooked up, and while he wasn’t positive the kid was his, he supported them financially. He also claimed Halpin was placed in a halfway home, not an asylum, because she was alcohol-dependent and a threat to her son. As for the child, he was eventually adopted by a wealthy couple. These admissions bolstered his reputation of honesty, and he went on to win the election.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, Halpin’s account is a lot darker. According to her 1874 affidavit, Halpin agreed to get dinner with Cleveland, who had been relentlessly pursuing her. Afterward, he walked her back to her boarding house and had relations with her "[b]y use of force and violence and without my consent." When she threatened to take legal action, he "told me he was determined to ruin me if it cost him $10,000, if he was hanged by the neck for it. I then and there told him that I never wanted to see him again [and] commanded him to leave my room, which he did."
She found out she was pregnant a few weeks later. According to author Charles Lachman, the child was forcibly removed from Halpin, while Halpin was shipped off to the Providence Lunatic Asylum. She didn’t stay long, though, because doctors determined she was not insane. She passed at 66 with nothing but $200 and a scandal to her name. Grover Cleveland passed with two presidencies and the nickname "Grover the Good."
Marie Antoinette was no prude: she partied, she gambled, she even had a "close friendship" with her side-piece Hans Axel von Fersen. Add to that her entanglement in an odd scandal involving a prostitute and a stolen 2,800 carat necklace, and you’d think the Queen’s detractors would have plenty of ways to ruin her reputation. But instead, they upped the ante by painting her as an immoral lesbian harpy.
Pre-Revolution, the French needed a scapegoat for all of the country’s problems, and Queen Marie Antoinette fit the bill. She was out of touch with common people, Austrian, and supposedly quite kinky, so clearly the crumbling economy was her fault. Enter widely-circulated fictional pamphlets like The Royal Orgy, and hundreds of illustrations of the Queen as a prostitute, in which she was typically accompanied by her impotent husband King Louis XVI.
Campy and ridiculous as they were, the rumors weren’t harmless. They laid the groundwork for more serious allegations – namely, that Marie Antoinette was so depraved she couldn’t keep her hands off her own son. The Revolutionary Tribune who tried her forced her eight-year-old son, Louis-Charles, to testify that the allegations were true. This, coupled with charges of high treason, was enough to send her to the guillotine in 1793. Her son passed away as an imprisoned orphan at the ripe old age of 10.
Grigori Rasputin was born a peasant and perished as an influential advisor to Czar Nicholas II. Impressive, right? Apparently, not as impressive as his massive 13-inch member, which was rumored to have been recovered after someone took his life. Its storied life continues to overshadow his other accomplishments more than a century later.
Rasputin, a mystic and drunk, gained favor from the royal family in 1908 after stopping the Czar’s hemophiliac son from bleeding to death. In eight short years, he became indispensable to the Czar and Czarina. But Rasputin’s mystic skills weren’t appreciated by everyone; his access to power was seen as a threat. Soon, a small group of nobles, including the Czar’s cousin, grew determined to take him out.
But according to legend, Rasputin didn’t go quietly. First, the nobles attempted to do him in with cyanide. Rasputin was fine. Next, they shot him at close range, leaving him to die. He was found trying to escape the castle a couple of hours later. Then, the nobles clubbed him, but Rasputin endured. Running out of ideas, the nobles bound him up and tossed him into a freezing river, at which point Rasputin was well and truly dead.
His penis, on the other hand, was just getting started. Supposedly, the day after he expired, a maid found Rasputin's member in his bedroom and hid it, or his daughter Maria recovered it and had a relative sneak it into Paris. By the 1920s, the body part had fallen into the hands of a group of Russian women living in France who worshipped it as a relic.
In the 1970s, Maria began working with a writer named Patte Barham. Barham told Maria she’d once been approached at a Paris hotel by a man who claimed to have Rasputin’s member. He took her to the suburbs and showed it to her. She also told Maria about the women who had been worshipping it for decades. Appalled, Maria set out on a mission to reclaim it, and somehow succeeded. She had it in her custody until her passing in 1977.
In 1994, a collector named Michael Augustine surfaced. He claimed he’d purchased the item from a storage locker sale in California, where Maria lived at the time of her passing. The "penis" turned out to be a dehydrated sea cucumber.
Finally, Dr. Igor Knyazkin opened the Museum of Russia Erotica in 2004. He then erected a Rasputin exhibit, complete with a large pickled member in a jar. Its origins are unknown.
More than a hundred years before America elected its first black president, did it unknowingly elect a gay one? Probably, according to queer theory professor C.A. Tripp. His book, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, suggests Lincoln regularly stepped out on Mary Todd with men.
What spurred these rumors? Some of the "evidence" is sketchy at best, such as that Lincoln was awkward with women and didn’t spend his youth chasing girls. Other stories suggest that Lincoln shared his bed, and heart, with his friend Joshua Speed. The two did have an intimate friendship, but some historians argue that sharing a bed with another man was pretty common in the 19th century. Then there’s the other man Lincoln allegedly slept with: his bodyguard.
Accounts of the relationship are found in Virginia Woodbury Fox’s diary and Thomas Chamberlain’s book History of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Second Regiment, Bucktail Brigade. Both allude to a more-than-friends situation between Lincoln and bodyguard David D. Derickson.
"Captain Derickson, in particular, advanced so far in the President's confidence and esteem that, in Mrs. Lincoln's absence, he frequently spent the night at his cottage, sleeping in the same bed with him, and – it is said – making use of His Excellency's night-shirt!," wrote Chamberlain, who was Derickson’s commanding officer during that time. Fox’s diary records a rumor she heard from an acquaintance: "'There is a Bucktail soldier here devoted to the president, drives with him, and when Mrs. L. is not home, sleeps with him.' What stuff!"
But the rumors, which come from two ostensibly independent sources, are still just rumors. Maybe Lincoln was gay; maybe he was bisexual. Only Lincoln and his male friends knew the truth.