Before becoming one of the most famous recluses of his time, the billionaire oil mogul, aviation enthusiast, and Hollywood producer, Howard Hughes was known for producing provocative films and womanizing in his free time. Born into a wealthy Texas oil family, he used his inheritance to create movies, some of which — like Scarface and Hell’s Angels — are considered to be classics and still have their cult followings. He also used his money on flying, founding his aircraft company and even setting some of his world records in aviation during the 1930s. An airplane accident in 1946 led him to spend much of the rest of his life as a recluse.
Howard Hughes dated the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, actresses who are still considered to be the gold standard of beauty and femininity. The one woman that he couldn’t seem to win was Joan Crawford. His romantic escapades led to him contracting syphilis, which progressed to the degree that it incapacitated him mentally. He also had head injuries from multiple plane crashes and was suspected of becoming a drug addict in his later years. He ultimately succumbed to kidney failure, due to a drug overdose.
When it comes to charismatic leaders, perhaps none tops the list quite like Napoleon Bonaparte, the so-called “little emperor.” He took over the rule of France in the chaotic period following the Reign of Terror, when Maximilien’s policies and the Guillotine had turned the people of France against each other, and the country was out of control. He was also a skilled diplomat who understood the needs of the people, of society as a whole, and how to negotiate with leaders both in France and in other countries, such as Italy. Where he differed from other leaders of his time was in his willingness to push limits far beyond what other leaders would even consider.
Napoleon moved from being a consul and military leader within the French state to declaring it to be an empire in 1804. He was coronated as emperor at Notre Dame and famously took the crown from the hands of the pope and placed it on his head, effectively crowning himself. He went on to expand the French empire in such a way that would not be seen until Hitler began his conquests in the 1930s.
Napoleon probably died of arsenic poisoning but was likely not intentionally poisoned, as some have suggested. Instead, evidence suggests that the little emperor had syphilis, which at the time was treated with arsenic. Like those whose STDs were treated with mercury, the drug given to them was poisonous and proved to be fatal.
Nothing and no one symbolizes the work of the Italian mafia in the US quite like the notorious gangster, Al Capone. He was active during Prohibition, an era in the early 1900s in which the sale and consumption of alcohol were utterly illegal. Of course, the result was increased gang activity because people were desperate to get their hands on alcohol. Enter Al Capone, aka Scarface, who amassed a fortune estimated to be worth $100 million. He is believed to be behind the infamous Valentine Day Massacre, in which thugs dressed as police officers violently murdered members of a rival gang.
By the time he was released from Alcatraz prison in 1939, Al Capone was suffering from advanced syphilis and checked into a hospital in Baltimore under the alias “Mr. Martini.” The media soon found out that Mr. Martini was the notorious Chicago gangster, so the doctors covered for him by saying that he had a problem with his nervous system. Mr. Martini, aka Mr. Scarface, had deteriorating health that was not helped by his syphilis. His obituary mentioned that he suffered from paresis, a psychiatric problem that can be brought on by syphilis before a heart attack claimed his life. Syphilis, which is known to cause cardiac problems, may have had a hand in the heart attack.
Tallulah Bankhead was born into Southern aristocracy who, despite a strict upbringing by conservative parents, had a penchant for garnering attention, particularly for her looks. She began acting in 1918, at the age of 16. Despite a lack of formal training, her beauty and profound, baritone voice helped create an indomitable stage presence. She traveled extensively as part of her acting career and became known for scandalous behavior, both on stage and off: she had multiple romances and would even go on stage wearing nothing more than lingerie, even if the script didn’t call for it.
The starlet’s pleasure-seeking lifestyle came at a cost, as alcoholism and drug use led to declining health by the time she was in her forties. She also contracted gonorrhea, something that may have been expected given her extravagant lifestyle. By the time it was discovered, it had progressed so severely that she had to have an emergency hysterectomy. She famously declared, referring to the disease, “Don’t think this has taught me a lesson!” Still, she continued to act in both movies and television series, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and the Batman series. In addition to a licentious lifestyle, she was known for works of charity, including helping disadvantaged foster children.
Scott Joplin, the “king of ragtime,” was a composer who specialized in the jazz-like form that is characterized by syncopation, complex bass lines, and seemingly awkward stop times. He lived from 1867 until 1917, a time when African Americans were being treated particularly harshly and was able to make his name among both black and white musicians and music lovers. Scott Joplin grew up in Texas and began his career as a big-name performer when he played at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, while he was studying music in Missouri. He moved to New York in 1907, where he continued to write and publish music. Many of his compositions, like “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” are still performed and enjoyed today.
In 1916, a year before he died, Joplin suffered from a condition known as dementia paralytica, a severe disease in which both his mental and physical faculties completely broke down. In fits of mania and rage, he destroyed many of his manuscripts and became unable to care for himself at all. He went on to be institutionalized, but doctors were overwhelmed by the number of patients in their care and lacked the resources necessary to help them. Joplin died shortly thereafter. By the time he became ill, he had probably been suffering from syphilis for 20 years.
9. Actor Maurice Barrymore Went Insane From Syphilis
Herbert Blythe, who went by Maurice Barrymore, was born in India in 1849 to a father who worked for the British East India Company. He was sent to get an education at Oxford, where his parents hoped that he would study law. However, much to their chagrin, Barrymore found his calling in the theater and began what would become a family dynasty. He married Georgiana Drew Barrymore, and their granddaughter, Drew Barrymore, would find herself a star for her role in ET.
Maurice never did become a star, though he played plenty of side roles and even tried his hand at screenwriting. However, his penchant for acting got passed down to his granddaughter, who has lived most of her life in the limelight.
His acting career may have been stymied by one of history’s archnemeses: syphilis. A bout of insanity during a performance, in which he delivered a “blasphemous attack on the Jews,” led to him being diagnosed in 1901, at the age of 52. The rest of his life was spent in institutions, in which he, in melodramatic fashion (though not acting) fought the aides attending to him and even attempted to strangle his daughter. Fortunately, granddaughter Drew is not known to have the disease that incapacitated him.
While Al Capone was serving time at Alcatraz for tax evasion, gangster John Dillinger went on a crime spree that spanned much of the continental United States. Born in 1903, he joined the navy but soon deserted and lived much of the rest of his life on the run. With no income and a 16-year-old wife to support, Dillinger turned to crimester Ed Singleton. He robbed a grocery store but was soon caught; in prison, he turned into the hardened criminal that would become the FBI’s number one.
Following his release, he and his gang robbed banks, broke criminals out of prisons, and even stole guns and bulletproof vests from police officers. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the nascent FBI, assigned a special team to apprehend Dillinger. He was killed in a firefight with FBI officers.
In 1924, when Dillinger was first sent to prison, he was diagnosed with gonorrhea. During his six-year prison term, the treatments that he received were painful injections straight through his penis, which probably did little to alleviate the disease and exacerbated his contempt of the American justice system. He may have even tried to flee, and his antics earned him an extra year added to his prison sentence.
11. Confederate General Ambrose Powell Hill, Jr. Had Gonorrhea
Ambrose Powell Hill, Jr., better known as AP Hill, began his rise to prominence in American military history during the Mexican-American War. Hailing from Culpepper, Virginia, when the state seceded, his allegiances lay with the newly-formed Confederate States of America. He joined the Confederacy’s military and quickly rose through the ranks to become a general. He led a unit known as the Light Division, possibly because of the quick speed with which they moved, and proved to have decisive leadership during the Second Battle of Bull Run and Battle of Fredericksburg.
Hill contracted gonorrhea while he was studying at West Point (where he was ironically friends with to-be Union General George McClellan). He was forced to miss so many classes due to an illness that he had to repeat his third year. In fact, Hill’s gonorrhea may have had a hand in the Confederates losing the Civil War, as his inflamed genitalia caused him to be ineffective at the Battle of Gettysburg and other, smaller battles. He would be struck by bouts of illness throughout the Civil War, which sidelined him and forced his unit to fall under different leadership. He died at the Third Battle of Petersberg, just a week before the war ended and General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.
12. Occultist Aleister Crowley Had Syphilis and Gonorrhea
Aleister Crowley, born Edward Alexander Crowley, was a famous British occultist who claimed that he was the “beast” spoken of in the Biblical book of Revelation and gave himself the mark 666. Though reared as a Christian, Crowley rejected organized religion and became fascinated with the occult, particularly an esoteric group known as the Rosicrucians. He traveled to the United States during World War I and worked on propaganda for both Germany and Italy. Crowley returned to Britain during the 1930s and died destitute and in squalor. After his death, though, he became a cult symbol, particularly in the Thelema religion that he founded and of which he claimed to be a prophet. He is also credited with writing the Book of Satan. Today, he is reviled by some as the evilest man who ever lived.
While attending Tonbridge School in England, Crowley traveled to Glasgow, Scotland, where he claimed that he contracted gonorrhea from a prostitute. This notion led to him being expelled from the prestigious school. While attending university at Cambridge, his consorting with prostitutes led to him also contracting syphilis. It is unclear what the effects of the illnesses were on his overall health and well-being, but they may have contributed to mental illness and delusions.
13. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the Post-Impressionist Painter, Died From Syphilis
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a post-impressionistic painter who lived in the second half of the 19th century. His parents were first cousins who came from a long line of inbreeding, so he and his relatives had various genetic problems that caused difficulties throughout his life. He may have suffered from a condition now known as Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome, which caused him to have very short legs — he stood at only 4 ½ feet tall — and walk with a cane.
He found meaning and expression in art and began painting at an early age, inspired by the impressionist painters of the early nineteenth century. His paintings, though, were imbued with more realism, such as depictions of sex workers where they may have generally stood on the street.
Though Toulouse-Lautrec depicted sex workers in a way that was factual rather than erotic, he was known for his own lifestyle of debauchery. He contracted syphilis, possibly from one of the women that modeled for him, and was a known alcoholic. His syphilis may have been treated with mercury (this was before its toxicity was established when it was still used in medical treatments), leading to his death from the disease at the age of 36.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, George “Beau” Brummel was at the forefront of men’s fashion in England. Educated at Eton, he was presented to the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, with whom he developed a long friendship. Brummel went on to study at Oxford, where he was known for his taste in clothing. After college, he was able to live off of a large inheritance and enjoy the patronage of the Prince of Wales as he moved to the forefront of London’s elite in fashion. He was known as an arbiter of men’s dress and developed the modern pantsuit, which replaced the previous stockings and breeches. He was said to be so tedious about pieces fitting that he had every part of his suits made at a different tailor. Even his patron copied his attire.
Beau Brummel was possibly the first modern celebrity and had the scars to prove it. His extravagant lifestyle, coupled with compulsive gambling, led him to amass significant debts. He also had a falling out with his prestigious patron and fled to France to avoid his creditors. He was institutionalized and died in squalor, demented and living in delusions of his grandiose past. His demise may have been sped along by syphilis. While in an institution, he was known to be incontinent and drooled constantly.
15. Scottish Biographer James Boswell Had Gonorrhea
James Boswell (1740-1795) is famous among Scots for being the biographer of the famous British writer, Dr. Samuel Johnson. During his childhood, he was known to suffer bouts of depression, nervousness, and depression, some of which may have been hereditary. Born into prestige and surrounded by affluent circles, yet plagued by isolation and mental illness, he aspired to become a writer. His parents were strict — his mother brought him up as an austere Calvinist, and his father despised his penchant for the literary and theatrical arts — which possibly led to him frequently consorting with prostitutes throughout his youth and adult life.
From the very first time that he met with a prostitute, during his time in London, he picked up a venereal disease. He probably didn’t learn his lesson, as in his diary, he kept meticulous records of his consortations. He went on to have at least 19 attacks of gonorrhea, something that probably did little to help the mental torment and isolation that had plagued him since childhood. His wife would note the swollen size of his genitalia due to venereal disease and would apply a poultice to them every night.
What is the moral of the story? Kids will find a way to escape a harsh upbringing, even if doing so brings disaster upon them.
Franz Schubert, the classical composer, showed an early aptitude for music, including a prodigious talent for the piano and voice. He studied under Antonio Salieri (the same guy who was Mozart’s rival) and began composing music as a young adult. Living in Vienna, Austria during the 1800s, on at least one occasion he passed by Beethoven while walking down the street! Hearing one of his own pieces performed in public inspired Schubert to quit his day job as a teacher and pursue music full-time. He struggled financially, though, as his music was not as traditional as what patrons were accustomed to financing. He went on to contract syphilis — which was common in Vienna — as a young adult, which may have affected his career as a composer.
Schubert’s health deteriorated, likely due at least in part to syphilis, which he self-medicated with mercury (before mercury’s toxic effects became known, it was widely used in medicine). In fact, he was so secretive about his disease that he had his friends burn all of his paperwork associated with it. He died an early death at the age of 31. Ironically, his final performance brought in enough money for him to finally buy a piano. His music didn’t become well-known until after his death; should he have lived a few more years, he may have died a wealthy man.
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