History is filled with great individuals who achieved monumental successes in their lifetimes. These are people who led revolutions, fought for the little guys, and spread joy across the world. More often than not, we look back on them fondly, but deeper investigations into the lives of some beloved figures can often reveal something less idyllic.
Though they accomplished great things, history’s heroes were still human, and therefore, often flawed. Whether they were blinded by goals, tempted by lust and rage, or afflicted with screwed-up ideologies, these 20 renowned figures weren’t as pure and kind-hearted as their most famous actions led us to believe…
1. Mahatma Ghandi: An activist who preached love and peace, Ghandi spearheaded Indian independence from Britain. Through his letters and words, some scholars and historians saw him as a paragon of good in the world. But…
Ghandi didn’t always practice what he preached, especially regarding chastity. While he routinely told married couples to take a cold bath when they felt sexual urges, the man himself carried on an affair with his physician, Sushila Nayar, for a number of years.
2. Winston Churchill: One of the most famous men to hail from England, former Prime Minister and army officer Winston Churchill’s leadership during World War II led the Allies to victory. But he wasn’t all peaches and cream.
The Prime Minister deliberately diverted food away from India to feed Europeans at a time when India desperately needed it, worsening one of the worst famines in the country’s history and leading to the deaths of as many as three million people.
3. Mother Teresa: Through the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, a congregation of women, the Catholic nun and missionary devoted herself and life to lifting up and helping the sick and impoverished of the world. Wasn’t she the pinnacle of love?
Not always. Many people, including the late Christopher Hitchens, were critical of Mother Teresa’s work, alleging that the hospitals and homes that she ran didn’t provide proper medical care. Additionally, she opposed basic measures for women’s equality.
4. Abraham Lincoln: As the 16th president of the United States, Lincoln gained notoriety for leading the country through the Civil War and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, the first steps in the abolishing of slavery. Still…
Author Lerone Bennett Jr. argued that Lincoln was actually quite racist, regularly using slurs to describe African-Americans and initially opposing the Emancipation Proclamation, only giving in to preserve party unity.
5. Don King: Ever heard of “The Thrilla in Manilla,” the boxing bout between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier? How about “The Rumble in the Jungle?” Those were all set up and promoted by America’s most famous hype man, Don King.
But when he first got into boxing as a bookie, a robber broke into one of his illegal gambling sites. King shot him dead. Ten years later, he stomped an employee to death over a $600 debt.
Airman 1st Class Sheila deVera / U.S. Air Force photo
6. Enid Blyton: Since the 1930s, Blyton sold over 600 million copies of children books, her most famous of which included The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. But her own daughter didn’t think so highly of her…
Blyton’s daughter called her mother “arrogant, insecure, pretentious … and without a trace of maternal instinct.” Blyton had an affair while married to her first husband, and he filed for divorce. Afterward, she denied him visitation rights with their children. In 2009, Helena Bonham Carter (below) portrayed her in Enid.
7. Elvis Presley: Those hips! Those moves! That voice! The King of Rock ‘n Roll made women of all ages swoon in the 1950s and 1960s with happenin’ tunes like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.” And “Women of all ages” was not a lie…
The King apparently had a predilection for teenage girls. In fact, Elvis couldn’t help falling in love with a 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, his future wife. Elvis was 24. Talk about a burning love, huh?
8. John Lennon: One of the founders of the Beatles, Lennon wrote about peace and love, leading the rock band to astronomical heights. In fact, the Beatles became the most commercially successful band of all time. But Lennon had a dark side…
He was abusive toward his first wife, Cynthia Lennon, and that relationship ended fairly quickly. Throughout the years, he explored numerous affairs, even after he married Yoko Ono.
9. Roald Dahl: Dahl often wrote about kids facing off against “evil” parents in his children’s books. The stories were often accompanied by delightful watercolor pictures with a very distinct style. But Dahl wasn’t always kid-friendly…
In a 1983 interview, Dahl suggested that Hitler “didn’t just pick on [the Jews] for no reason,” adding that “there is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity.” He didn’t put that in his children’s books!
10. Henry Ford: Ford is remembered as an industry visionary and the business magnate responsible for Ford Motor Company and the assembly line. It was a revolutionary invention in the production process as we knew it. But…
He was also terribly anti-Semitic. Ford bought the Dearborn Independent newspaper to use as a platform for his unsavory views, and his insistence that Jews started World War I was even cited by Hitler in Mein Kampf.
11. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Baptist minister, an activist, and an orator unlike the world had ever seen before, Dr. King became the face of the civil rights movement and one of the most respected men in history. But what about his personal life?
For starters, King allegedly plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis on systemic theology. But the most eye-opening part of his personal life were his numerous extramarital affairs, which lead to Lyndon B. Johnson calling him a “hypocritical preacher.”
12. Frank Sinatra: With a rich and powerful voice, Sinatra influenced 20th-century American music in a way only few others did. One of the most notable Las Vegas performers of all time, Sinatra also toured the country, performing classics like “New York, New York.”
Along with very real mafia ties, Sinatra had some sour relationship moments in his life. During one argument with actress Ava Gardner, he supposedly fired a gun into a hotel room mattress to threaten her; then he threatened to take his own life to make her stay.
13. Michael Jackson: The King of Pop changed the world with tunes like “Thriller,” and his onstage moonwalking captivated audiences everywhere. As one of the most iconic entertainers ever, he sold between 250 and 750 million albums.
Jackson’s history of impropriety with young boys was also well-documented. In 2016, seven years after his death, rumors broke that Jackson had actually gone so far as to molest one of his own nephews.
14. Johnny Cash: The artist shook airwaves across the world with his rock ‘n roll-, gospel-, and country-inspired songs. He sold over 90 million albums worldwide and nurtured a rugged, outlaw persona.
It didn’t emerge until after his death, but an inebriated Cash likely started an infamous 1965 wildfire at Los Padres National Forest. The blaze ended up killing 49 of the park’s 53 endangered California condor vultures.
15. Ernest Hemingway: The famous writer known for terse, preposition-laden prose churned out classics like For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises. But “all things truly wicked start from innocence,” he said, and he was living proof.
Bipolar, his erratic behavior often caused serious problems for those around him, and sometimes drinking got the better of him. Apparently, when fellow writer James Joyce got into bar fights, he’d have Hemingway beat up his opponent.
16. Chuck Berry: When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1986, Chuck Berry was one of the very first people inducted—and for good reason. The museum declared that he “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.”
Unfortunately, Berry had already been convicted of armed robbery by the time he graduated high school. He has had numerous run-ins with the law throughout his life, including one in which he took a 14-year-old girl across state lines in 1962, and one in 1979 for tax evasion.
17. Charlie Chaplin: His financial independence allowed him to give in to his inner perfectionist, as he often spent years on development and production for his slapstick funny movies. Chaplin, though, had a troublesome taste in women…
Like Elvis, this groundbreaking funnyman filmmaker also had a bad habit of chasing underage girls. When he was 30, he impregnated a 16-year-old actress, and his next relationship after that was with 15-year-old Lita Grey.
18. John Wayne: If you ever needed someone to ride into town on a horse and notch a big-time victory in a sunset duel, Wayne was your guy. King of the western genre, Wayne was one of the biggest box office draws for three decades. But he wasn’t entirely a hero…
In a 1971 Playboy interview, Wayne said: “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”
19. Caravaggio: An Italian painter active in the late 16th century, Caravaggio’s famous works include the oil-on-canvas paintings A Basket of Fruit and The Calling of St. Matthew. Talk about a diverse portfolio!
The Renaissance master behind Judith Beheading Holofernes (pictured) actually killed a fellow artist named Ranuccio Tomassoni in 1606. It wasn’t revealed until recently that their dispute was over a woman that Tomassoni had been pimping out.
20. Thomas Jefferson: One of the founding fathers and the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson (far right) famously wrote “all men are created equal” when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. But did he truly believe that?
Jefferson owned slaves his entire life, even engaging in a long-term affair with one named Sally Hemings. And while this affair was held as nothing more than suspicion for decades, a recent discovery made the controversial relationship irrefutable.
The primary author of the Declaration of Independence and the 3rd President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson is easily one of the most recognizable figures in American history. But there are things about him that have long gone unexplained.
At the age of 26, Jefferson began construction on a 5,000-acre plantation that would go on to serve as his permanent residence until his death in 1826. Located just outside Charlottesville, Virginia, the plantation was dubbed Monticello, which is Italian for “Little Mountain”.
While Monticello quickly grew to become a top producer of tobacco and wheat, it also gained notoriety for employing hundreds of slaves. With this in mind, a group of historians decided to delve deeper into the history of Monticello…
The various research and restoration efforts undertaken at Monticello over the years have collectively become known as the Mountaintop Project. It is through this $35-million initiative that historians hope to bring transparency to the plantation’s questionable past.
In 2017, archaeologists began an extensive excavation of Monticello’s main grounds. More specifically, they believed that the foundation of Jefferson’s original home (and the items within) was buried beneath the structure that stands on the grounds today.
Shortly after the excavation began, archaeologists uncovered what was once the original mansion’s kitchen. This unexpected find lead to the further excavation of the area, which resulted in the discovery of what was known as the Jefferson mansion’s South Wing.
As historians explored the South Wing, they came upon a peculiar set of slave quarters. After inspecting the area, they were stunned to learn that these quarters had once belonged to the notorious Sally Hemings.
According to the history books, Hemings wasn’t just an ordinary slave: she was actually the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha, conceived from an affair between Martha’s father, John Wayles, and one of his slaves, Betty Hemings.
As part of Martha’s inheritance, Hemings and her family came to Monticello in 1773, when Sally was just an infant. Described as “mighty near white” by a fellow slave, Hemings’ mixed race lineage still wasn’t enough to free her from the bonds of servitude. Or so she thought.
In 1787, a 14-year-old Hemings accompanied young Mary Jefferson to Paris where her father was serving as the United States’ minister to France. It is here that many historians believe that Jefferson and Hemings began a romantic relationship.
As Sally began having children, rumors swirled throughout Virginian society about Jefferson’s relationship with his slave. Not only were Sally’s children considerably more light-skinned than she was, but a few of them even looked suspiciously like her master…
A journalist who had been slighted by Jefferson years earlier published a scathing accusation in the Richmond Recorder in an attempt to discredit Jefferson’s legitimacy as a presidential candidate. Jefferson denied the rumors, of course, and was elected President in 1801.
Although Jefferson never admitted to his affair with Hemings, he did eventually free all four of her children. It has also been confirmed that following Jefferson’s death, Hemings was granted her freedom by Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha, and went on to live as a free woman with her two sons, Madison and Eston.
Eston Hemings went on to play a key role in solidifying the claim that Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children during a 1990 DNA study. After comparing DNA taken from descendants of both Jefferson and Sally Hemings, scientists conclusively determined that, at the very least, Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings.
So how does the discovery at Monticello relate to the controversy surrounding Jefferson and Hemings? Well, after historians consulted the blueprints of Jefferson’s original home, they found that Jefferson’s bedroom was actually connected to Hemings’ quarters.
Physical evidence discovered at the site also confirmed that Hemings maintained a lifestyle that was significantly better than that of her fellow slaves. Rather than living in cramped shacks, Hemings had her own quarters and other special treatment.
Jefferson in Paris
Since the discovery of Hemings’ quarters, special efforts have been made to restore the entirety of the South Wing as a tourist attraction dedicated to Hemings’ life. For the first time, there will be a space at Monticello to commemorate this previously unknown woman’s place in American history.
The Mountaintop Project has also made a dedicated effort to teach the visitors of Monticello about the lives and struggles of the slaves who resided there during Jefferson’s lifetime. With these new revelations about Hemings coming to light, several tours have also been added that shed light on Sally and her family.
As historians and curators work to restore Monticello to its former glory, the story of Sally Hemings has become an integral part of the shaping of Jefferson’s narrative. It is their hope that by incorporating Hemings’ existence into Jefferson’s story, the two can finally hold a permanent place in history together.
Sally Hemings: An American Scandal
Check out the video below to learn more about the history of Monticello and the complicated story between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
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