14 Eye-Opening Facts About Historical Leaders We Learned In 2021

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Vote up the most enlightening facts about some of history's best-known leaders.

Leaders come in different shapes and sizes. Political leaders like Presidents of the United States, kings, queens, and other heads of state serve atop the governmental hierarchy while men and women like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Joan of Arc guide followers in social and military spheres. As a result, history is full of leaders whose names we may know - but that's about it. 

In 2021, we found out a lot about the lives, actions, and careers of leaders from throughout history. Some of the facts we learned are surprising, fun, and light-hearted. Others are more serious and even a bit macabre. Everything we did discover is fascinating and opened our eyes to a new side of each and every individual listed - and piqued our interest to find out more.

Take a look at the facts we learned about historical leaders in 2021 and vote up the ones that offer a new look at them for you, too. 

  • Marie Antoinette Adopted A Young Senegalese Boy
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI did not have their first child until 1778 - nearly eight years after they were married. From 1778 to 1786, Marie gave birth to four children, although two, Louis Joseph and Sophie, perished young. 

    Marie Antoinette purportedly loved children and adopted at least five during her lifetime. Four of the adoptees were orphans of royal attendants, while the fifth was presented to her as a "gift" during the 1780s. Known as Jean Amilcar, the boy was from Senegal and, instead of taking him on as a servant, Marie Antoinette had him baptized and cared for him as her own. 

  • King George V Was Euthanized, But Some Scholars See It As Murder 
    Photo: Bain News Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    According to the royal physician attending George V, Lord Dawson, Queen Mary and the future King Edward VIII told the physician not to prolong the King's life if his ailment was fatal. Decades later, the truth of the King's death was finally uncovered: Lord Dawson took that instruction and administered fatal doses of morphine and cocaine to the King.

    In the notes he made after the King's death, physician Lord Dawson wrote,

    It was evident... that the last stage might endure for many hours, unknown to the patient but little comporting with the dignity and the serenity which he so richly merited and which demanded a brief final scene.

    Dawson's notes also indicate that while the King was being given a small dose of morphine to help him sleep, he uttered his final words: "God damn you." 

    Whether this was euthanasia or murder has long been the subject of debate. King George V's death was hastened by an injection of drugs late on the evening of January 20th, 1936. Conversations were had the previous night about breaking the news in the next morning's paper - the most effective mode of announcing events at the time. This discussion, according to some observers, amounted to premeditation. The news of the euthanization was kept quiet for nearly 50 years.

  • In a 2009 interview, former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev mentioned that President Ronald Reagan once asked him what the Soviet Union would do if aliens invaded. This was during the 1985 Geneva Summit when the two world leaders were strolling around with their interpreters. According to Gorbachev:

    From the fireside house, President Reagan suddenly said to me, "What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?"

    I said, "No doubt about it."

    He said, "We too."

    So that's interesting.

    According to the Smithsonian, Reagan was a big science fiction fan, and read the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter of Mars, Tarzan) while growing up. 

  • Juan Perón Kept Eva Perón's Corpse In His Dining Room
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    During Juan Perón's first presidency, Eva Perón (AKA Evita) became an important figure for the "shirtless ones," the lower-income and working-class Argentinians who saw hope for the future with the Peróns. She'd been planning to run for the vice presidency before her failing health made it impossible; she passed from cancer in 1952.

    But Evita's story, and symbolic status, didn't end there. After a military coup overthrew Juan Perón in 1955, the new regime worried that Eva's carefully embalmed corpse might be a rallying point for the opposition - adorers came in droves to hold vigils and leave gifts.

    Military leaders played a bit of corpse keep-away for the next few years, hiding Evita's body in various military locations and attics. Still, the mourners would manage to find it and drop flowers in the general vicinity. Eventually, the military decided to ship the body to Italy, where it remained for 16 years.

    In 1971, after a government overthrow put Juan Perón back in good graces, he had his wife's body exhumed and returned to Argentina. Now remarried to Isabel Perón, Juan kept Eva's corpse in an open casket on his dining table - until he built her a shrine in the attic. Lest you worry that the new wife might have some qualms about this unique centerpiece, Isabel combed the corpse's hair every day as a devotional ritual. 

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Loved 'Star Trek'
    Photo: Yoichi Okamoto / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    After the first season of Star Trek premiered in 1966, Nichelle Nichols (who played Uhura) wanted to leave the show for a role on Broadway. Nichols told showrunner Gene Roddenberry about her decision, and he asked her to reconsider. That weekend, Nichols attended a fundraiser with Martin Luther King Jr., who was an unabashed fan of the sci-fi show. As Time reports,

    Star Trek was, he said, the only show he allowed his children to stay up late to watch. When she told him that she was planning to leave the show, he told her that she just couldn’t: though African-Americans were making great strides toward equality, she represented one of the only examples of that equality on American television. Uhura was intelligent and beautiful and commanding and, he pointed out, a role that wasn’t specifically the role for a black woman. Her presence on that space ship showed the world that a black woman could be all of those things.

    King convinced Nichols to stick with the show.

  • Teddy Roosevelt's Wife And Mother Died On The Same Day
    Photo: Rockwood Photo Co. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    Teddy Roosevelt's Wife And Mother Died On The Same Day

    Teddy Roosevelt was a successful politician by 1884 when both his wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, and mother, Martha "Mittie" Roosevelt, passed on February 14. Teddy and Alice had married nearly four years earlier, shortly before the former became a member of the New York State Assembly.

    Teddy spent much of his time in Albany (or on some sort of adventure), while Alice stayed in New York City. His affection for his wife was clear from diary entries about how much he loved, trusted, and wanted to worship her. Despite the distance, their marriage was strong and Alice became pregnant.

    Alice gave birth to their first child, also named Alice Lee, on February 13, but took ill and perished the following day. Just hours earlier, Teddy lost his mother when she succumbed to typhoid fever. 

    Teddy penned in his diary, "For joy or for sorrow my life has now been lived out." In remembrance of both Alice and Mittie, he wrote:

    Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving, tender, and happy as a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be but just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her - then by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.

    Teddy retreated from politics, leaving his infant daughter with his wife's sister. For two years, Teddy ranched and worked as a sheriff in the Dakota territories. He returned to New York in 1886 and reentered politics. He also reunited with his daughter and remarried that same year.