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!
Famous gangster Alphonse Gabriel "Al" Capone was suffering from an advanced case of syphilis when he was released from prison in 1939. He checked into the Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore for treatment using the totally smooth and inconspicuous fake name “Mr. Martini.” When the media found out “Mr. Martini” was actually Mr. Scarface, doctors hid his condition by claiming he had a “nervous system disorder.” His New York Times obituary didn’t mention the syphilis, but it did mention that he died from paresis, a severe neuropsychiatric disorder often caused by syphilis.
- Age: Dec. at 48 (1899-1947)
- Birthplace: New York City, New York
Famous occultist Aleister Crowley contracted gonorrhea as a teenager. Or, as Crowley later wrote in the margin of one of his own books: “I caught the clap from a prostitute in Glasgow.” The incident led to Crowley getting booted from the Tonbridge School in England. He also later caught syphilis from a different prostitute while attending Cambridge.
- Age: Dec. at 72 (1875-1947)
- Birthplace: Leamington Spa, United Kingdom
Accounts show that post-impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec died due to a combination of alcoholism and syphilis. Toulouse-Lautrec was famous for his genetic abnormality – a normal-sized upper body and torso with abnormally short legs – and his frank paintings of French prostitutes. Fellow painter Edgar Degas rudely claimed these paintings “stank of syphilis.” Art historians think Toulouse-Lautrec may have contracted syphilis from one of his models, but that could just be a rumor. Penicillin, unfortunately, was unavailable at the time, so Toulouse-Lautrec may have been treated with mercury.
- Age: Dec. at 37 (1864-1901)
- Birthplace: Albi, France
Stage and screen actress Tallulah Bankhead, known for her deep and enchanting voice, once had a case of gonorrhea so bad she had to have an emergency hysterectomy to save her life. As recounted in The New Yorker, she checked into the hospital complaining of an “abdominal tumor,” and was surprised to discover it was actually a venereal disease that nearly killed her. She weighed only 70 pounds when she got out of surgery and allegedly later said to a doctor, “Don’t think this has taught me a lesson!”
- Age: Dec. at 66 (1902-1968)
- Birthplace: Huntsville, Alabama