One prolonged look at basically any historical moment brings into sight a plethora of irrational and unstable behaviors on the part of significant historical figures. As such, the role of syphilis in history – and its potential explanatory power for these seemingly inexplicable behaviors – has been the subject of a great deal of historical speculation. Famous people with syphilis include some of the most high-profile artists – including one Ludwig van Beethoven – and rulers – like Henry VIII – across every conceivable background and nationality, their previously enigmatic behavior suddenly rendered completely in line with the symptoms associated with this dreaded disease. Unfortunately, assertions about syphilis in history frequently cannot be verified; conjectures about behavior and personality and how they might have resulted from an STD must remain theoretical. Still, it is quite reasonable to assume that many historical figures were affected by syphilis.
Add syphilis to the litany of revisionist historical claims that are currently damaging (and/or correcting) the historical reputation of Christopher Columbus. While it is by no means definitive, there is a lot of evidence that indicates that Columbus's crew became infected with the disease while in the New World – where it was rampant among the natives – and brought it back to Europe. And genetic studies of strains of the disease have indicated that it originated in South America.The first recorded epidemic of the disease occurred in 1495 in Naples, taking place among the invading French army of Charles VIII. Columbus's death occurred with a historically unclear cause, but his symptoms included arthritic pain, mental confusion and instability, inflammation of the eyes, and gout – all of which are consistent with undiagnosed and untreated syphilis.
Age: Dec. at 55 (1451-1506)
Birthplace: Genoa, Italy
Profession: Navigator, Sailor, Explorer
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When Al Capone assumed control of the Chicago Mob, one of the rackets that he took over was prostitution. His status afforded him the opportunity to consort with many of his female employees, and, unfortunately, Scarface would contract syphilis, which he was too ashamed to address medically. As syphilis lies dormant in the body for many years after an initial infection, it was not until Capone's incarceration in Alcatraz that his condition was diagnosed. By then, Capone's brain function was already being affected to such a degree that he was eventually released from jail in 1939. When the public speculation began as to how soon Capone would reassert himself as mob boss in Chicago, Capone associate Jake (Greasy Thumb) Guzik famously stated that this wasn't going to happen.
"Al is nuttier than a fruitcake."
Capone quietly spent the rest of his life at his Miami, FL, waterfront home, so delusional that he would frequently fish in his mansion's swimming pool. He died of heart failure, another symptom of syphilis, on January 25, 1947, aged 48.
Age: Dec. at 48 (1899-1947)
Birthplace: New York City, USA, New York
Profession: Gangster, Mafioso, Racketeering
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Because Adolf Hitler blatantly manifested many of its physical and mental symptoms throughout his life, syphilis has been frequently cited as a potential cause of his chronic illness and mental instability. Hitler was deeply concerned with his health and kept several doctors within his inner circle, one of whom, Theodore Morell, was an acknowledged expert on treating syphilis. Hitler was diagnosed with heart, digestive, and nerve-related issues, which resulted in chest pain, tremors, digestive problems, and insomnia. Most of all, the paranoid delusions and psychotic rage episodes that occurred later in his life are frequently the signs of late-stage syphilis. However, many of these symptoms could also be explained by other causes, including side effects of the bomb plot that almost killed him, his strict vegetarian diet, and methamphetamine and opiate abuse, a practice introduced by Dr. Morell, who injected Hitler with these drugs on a routine basis. As far as syphilis and Adolf Hitler, any diagnosis will always remain in the realm of speculation.
Age: Dec. at 56 (1889-1945)
Birthplace: Braunau am Inn, Austria
Profession: Politician, Soldier, Writer, Artist
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Abraham Lincoln did not marry until age 33. After the President's assassination, his farmer law partner claimed that Lincoln contracted syphilis around 1835 and personally admitted as much. Lincoln spent time on the Mississippi River and in New Orleans and is also rumored to have patronized brothels while in the city. Indications that Lincoln might have had syphilis and passed it on to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, provide an excellent explanation for her eventual descent into madness and hysteria. Additionally, she also experienced many of the symptoms of untreated syphilis: knife-like back pain, dementia, impaired coordination, weight loss, and, eventually, blindness and death in 1882. Upon his assassination, only Lincoln's brain was autopsied, so his possible affliction will never be determined.
Age: Dec. at 56 (1809-1865)
Birthplace: Kentucky, Hodgenville, United States of America, United States, with Territories, + more
Profession: Statesman, Politician, Lawyer
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