Disturbing Facts About Historical Figures That May Just Keep Us Up At Night

List Rules
Vote up the most troubling tidbits about historical figures.

Books often present people from history in a positive light, leaving out gritty details and shocking stories. That doesn't mean disturbing facts about historical figures aren't out there - it's just a matter of finding them. And we did.

The stories behind the facts here are full of unexpected details, many of which made us pretty uncomfortable. Vote up the ones that make you squirm a little bit, too.


  • Eben Byers was a champion golfer who injured his arm in 1927. Due to the pain he experienced, his doctor recommended Radithor, a concoction purported to expedite healing. Radithor was developed by William J.A. Bailey, a pseudo-physician, and contained radium dissolved into water.

    Byers began drinking Radithor several times a day, consuming excessive amounts of radium in the process. Despite assertions that Radithor was "harmless in every respect," Byers began to experience health problems. In 1931, he underwent "two successive operations in which his whole upper jaw, excepting two front teeth, and most of his lower jaw had been removed." 

    Byers did lose his jaw, but after he passed in March 1932, his autopsy revealed he had "necrosis in both jaws, anemia, and a brain abscess, all symptomatic of radium poisoning." 

    Bailey was forced to stop selling Radithor in 1931, although he denied his product caused any harm. Bailey indicated he drank "more radium water than any man alive," and when his body was exhumed 20 years later, it was still "hot" with radiation.

    • Age: Dec. at 51 (1880-1932)
    • Birthplace: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
    983 votes
  • Founding Father Gouverneur Morris Perished After Giving Himself A Whalebone Catheter
    Photo: Charles Willson Peale / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Gouverneur Morris signed the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution before serving as an ambassador to France and in the US Senate. Morris resembled George Washington in appearance, although he experienced severe burns as a child and lost a leg as a young man.

    Outspoken and somewhat eccentric, Morris attempted to remedy a urinary tract obstruction by using a whalebone catheter in 1816. Prone to urethral strictures (a narrowing of the urethra), Morris had previously used "a flexible piece of hickory" to open up his urethra. 

    However, when he "unskillfully forced a piece of whalebone thro' the canal so [he] lacerated the parts," he inflicted internal damage and developed an infection that ultimately felled him.

    • Age: Dec. at 64 (1752-1816)
    • Birthplace: New York City, Morrisania, Area code 917, Contiguous United States, New York
    781 votes
  • Mercy Lena Brown Was The Last 'Vampire' Exhumed In The US
    Photo: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    3
    671 VOTES

    Mercy Lena Brown Was The Last 'Vampire' Exhumed In The US

    Mercy Lena Brown lived with her parents and siblings in Exeter, RI, during the late 19th century. In 1883, Lena's mother, Mary Eliza, perished from "consumption" - the term used at the time for tuberculosis. The following year, Lena's older sister, Mary Olive, passed from the disease as well.

    Lena's brother, Edwin, moved to Colorado to escape the illness while Lena remained with her father. Lena got tuberculosis in 1892, and when Edwin returned to the East Coast, he became sick, too. 

    Concern over what was happening to the Brown family got tied up in superstition and the supernatural. The cadavers of all three Brown women were exhumed to determine if they still had blood in their hearts - which would indicate they were vampires. 

    Mary Eliza and Mary Olive were significantly decomposed, but because Lena had been gone only a few months when the cadavers were examined in March 1892, she still had blood in her heart. Her heart and liver were burned, the ashes mixed with water, and the concoction served to Edwin in the hopes of ending the curse.

    He perished a few months later, and Lena was reburied without a heart.

    671 votes
  • 4
    791 VOTES

    Thomas Granger Was The First Juvenile Executed In Colonial North America

    The date of Thomas Granger's birth isn't known for certain, but his life ended on September 8, 1642. Granger, no more than 16 or 17 years old when he was executed in the Plymouth Colony, was convicted of "buggery w[i]th a mare, a cowe, two goats, divers sheep, two calves, and a turkey" one day prior.

    Granter had confessed to the acts, claiming he'd heard of the practice in England. He was hanged by John Holmes, and in accordance with Leviticus 20:15, the animals were slain as well.

    Based on the diary of Gov. William Bradford, Granger's offenses were especially heinous and perhaps indicative of social decay in the colony. According to historian Peter Drummey:

    Granger learned this from some other people who learned it in England. So here they are being tainted by the old world. There's a paradox. They're surviving and growing. They're successful but maybe not in the way they intended to be.

    791 votes
  • Napoleon Bonaparte's Private Part Is Reportedly In New Jersey
    Photo: Henri-Daniel Plattel / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    After being exiled a second time, Napoleon Bonaparte spent his final days on the remote island of St. Helena. Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, and his body was autopsied by Francesco Antommarchi. The Italian physician reportedly cut off Napoleon's penis and other parts of his body - perhaps unintentionally, but maybe for some sort of personal gain.

    According to Tony Perrottet, author of Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, the organ was later taken to Corsica by a priest, then made its way to England in 1916. Less than a decade later, Napoleon's member was supposedly displayed in New York (it was said to resemble "a piece of leather or a shriveled eel") and auctioned off numerous times.

    Urologist John J. Lattimer reportedly bought the member in 1977 and took it to New Jersey. It was placed alongside other relics Lattimer had collected from history, like President Abraham Lincoln's bloody shirt.

    Lattimer passed in 2007, but reportedly, Napoleon's private anatomy remains a family possession and is still in New Jersey.

    • Age: Dec. at 51 (1769-1821)
    • Birthplace: Ajaccio, France
    653 votes
  • Michael Rockefeller Was Likely Killed By Cannibals
    Photo: HurayforZay / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Michael Rockefeller, the grandson of J.D. Rockefeller, left the United States after his graduation from Harvard University in 1960. He went to Dutch New Guinea in 1961 to work on a documentary and gather items for the Museum of Primitive Art.

    From March to November 1961, Rockefeller worked among the region's Asmat people - cannibalistic headhunters who traced their origins as far back as 2000 BCE. Asmat society, described by author Carl Hoffman as a "world of sacred reciprocal violence," was in the middle of an out-of-balance time thanks to several recent unreciprocated deaths.

    It was in this context that Rockefeller vanished on November 19, 1961. He and anthropologist Rene Wassing had spent the previous night grasping onto their overturned ship, and when morning came, Rockefeller said he was going to swim to shore. He never arrived.

    Officially, Rockefeller was lost at sea, but further investigation points to cannibalism. The prevailing theory is that Rockefeller made it to shore but was seized by members of the Asmat community, slain, and eaten. Hoffman believes cannibalism was involved; he told NPR:

    If you ask them [the Asmat], they don't want to talk about it. They say, yes, we used to be cannibals, but we don't want to talk about it. We're not cannibals anymore. They have been converted to Catholicism, but they also have multiple wives and live in this rich spirit world that is outside of Catholicism, so it's very difficult to get them to talk about actual cannibalism, and Michael Rockefeller in particular. They're frightened to talk about it.

    • Age: Dec. at 23 (1938-1961)
    595 votes