A lot of historical figures have been accused of having STDs. Before doctors could properly diagnose a disease like syphilis, it was easier for someone with a grudge – like a political opponent, for example – to spread nasty rumors about someone’s health, especially if it was already in decline. There are a ton of people from history who had STDs, of course, but they’re not necessarily the figures you'd think of first.
A Google search for “historical figures with STDs” will get you pages and pages of unconfirmed rumors and theories about presidents, dictators, kings, and other famous figures who supposedly had syphilis or gonorrhea. “Did Hitler have an STD? Did Hitler have syphilis?” Not likely. What about presidents with STDs? None have been confirmed. Nietzsche? Nope. Oscar Wilde? No. So which famous people definitely had STDs? Read on!
Ragtime Composer Scott Joplin Had Syphilis
Composer and pianist Scott Joplin (1867-1917), the so-called “King of Ragtime Writers,” was stricken with dementia paralytica in 1916 after suffering from syphilis for around two decades according to Ray Argyle’s Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime.
Towards the end of the year, Joplin’s “fevered mind provoked outbursts of anger and aggression” during which he destroyed his manuscripts, saying they were trash. By Christmas, he was “unable to speak or walk.” Joplin was admitted to a series of hospitals in early 1917, but all the doctors could do was watch him slowly deteriorate due to the unmanageable number of patients and a lack of treatment options.
- Age: Dec. at 48 (1867-1917)
- Birthplace: Linden, Texas
Actor Maurice Barrymore Had Syphilis
Famous stage actor Maurice Barrymore, great-grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore, was committed to an asylum in 1901 after going on an incendiary tirade in the middle of a performance. The breakdown was a symptom of tertiary syphilis. He spent the rest of his life in institutions, where he fought attendants and even tried to strangle his daughter. He died in his sleep at a private sanitarium.
- Age: Dec. at 55 (1849-1905)
- Birthplace: Agra Fort, Agra, India
Gangster John Dillinger Had Gonorrhea
Gangster John Herbert Dillinger was diagnosed with gonorrhea in 1924. To make matters worse, he was diagnosed when he was first sent to prison, which must have been a great start to his then-six-year sentence. In John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal, biographer Dary Matera describes the treatment as “the painful injection of silver nitrate through the penis into the urethra,” which could have only increased his urge to get out of prison.
- Age: Dec. at 31 (1903-1934)
- Birthplace: Indianapolis, Indiana
Fashion icon George Bryan “Beau” Brummel, considered “The Ultimate Dandy” and one of England's first celebrities, died of syphilis at the age of 61. He popularized what later became the modern men’s suit, with full-length trousers instead of stockings. While Brummel was known for thoughtfully composed outfits and a high level of cleanliness for his era, he ended his life in an asylum due to syphilitic symptoms. According to the biography Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style, the disease was the result of "a fairly active, though ill-considered, sex life.”
- Age: Dec. at 61 (1778-1840)
- Birthplace: London, United Kingdom