18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures

D.G. Hewitt - December 6, 2018

While they may have enjoyed great wealth, power and privilege, kings, queens and generals are human too, just like everybody else. And just like everybody else, they have their little quirks and obsessions. What’s more, thanks to their social status, they were often free to indulge these obsessions, no matter how seemingly irrational they may have been.

In some cases, historical figures were overly obsessed with sex. At other times, their fixations were more innocent, even understandable if looked at in the context of the times. And sometimes, the obsessions of the great and the good of yesteryear were just downright weird. So, here we have 18 cases of strange obsessions from years past – and many of them will make you see historical figures in a whole new light.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
The King of Prussia loved giants and would regularly inspect his special regiment. Wikimedia Commons.

18. King Friedrich Wilhelm I had a thing for tall men – and since he was ruler, nobody could stop him from creating an entire personal army of giants

“The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me,” King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia once said. “But tall soldiers—they are my weakness.” So obsessed was he that Friedrich Wilhelm built a whole regiment of ‘giants’. He charged his officials to scour the land for men 6 feet tall or more. And the ranks of his ‘Potsdam Giants’ were swollen by men given as gifts by other rulers and foreigners who volunteered, usually in the belief that they would be pampered by the crazed king.

Certainly, life was good for the giants. He made sure they never went to war. Instead, he would order them to march through his quarters while he lay in bed. However, rumors that he tried to make them even taller by stretching them on racks hit morale hard, and so after a while new recruits were obtained through kidnapping. The King also set up a breeding program to produce a new generation of fighting giants. Unsurprisingly, few shared the king’s obsession. His son and successor. Fredrich the Great, inherited 3,200 tall men in 1740, but had the unit disbanded.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
Ulysses Grant took great satisfaction in claiming nobody had ever seen him in the nude. Wikimedia Commons.

17. Ulysses S Grant is said to have been obsessed with keeping his naked body hidden from the world – and, according to the man himself, he succeeded

Ulysses S. Grant may well have been one of the finest soldiers the United States has ever produced, plus an astute politician who made it all the way to the White House, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t human, with the same quirks and weird obsessions as everyone else. For instance, despite leading soldiers in numerous battles during the horrific American Civil War, Grant hated the sight of blood. And not just human blood. He would always ask for his steaks to be cooked right the way through and served to him with charcoal on.

What’s more, during the Civil War, Grant’s men and fellow officers soon learned that he would never wash or change his uniform in front of them. Instead, he would wash in a tent, with the entrance firmly laced up. Of course, he carried this obsession with him into peacetime, too. Indeed, when he was in his 60s, Grant allegedly claimed – or, some say he even boasted – that nobody had seen him fully nude since he was a young boy. Interestingly, Grant was married twice and had children with each of his wives.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
The Danish King Christian VII was immature, vain, and obsessed with his penis. Wikimedia Commons

16. Christian VII of Denmark’s obsession with his own penis worried his doctors and was just one reason why he wasn’t allowed to wield any real power

King Christian VII of Denmark is a regular feature on lists of ‘history’s maddest monarchs’ – and with good reason. According to Christian’s biographers, the future king showed an unhealthy obsession with masturbation from an early age. His guardians and his doctors were troubled, especially as he got older. Then, when he was crowned King of Denmark in January 1766, the head physician to the court explicitly warned Christian that if he didn’t curb his self-loving obsession, he risked not being able to father children.

When Christian was married to his 15-year-old cousin Caroline Mathilda, he showed no interest in his young wife. Indeed, he remarked that it was “unfashionable to love one’s wife”. Instead, he carried on pleasuring himself and frequenting the brothels of Copenhagen. By 1772, the rest of the royals had had enough. His half-brother was appointed regent of Denmark, with Christian’s own son taking over two years later. Unlike his father, the new regent showed no obsession with his own penis, nor did he inherit his old man’s habit of slapping visiting dignitaries around the face or leapfrogging over bowing courtiers.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
General Patton was obsessed with the idea he had been a warrior in many past lives. Wikimedia Commons.

15. General George S Patton was obsessed with reincarnation and firmly believed he had fought in many of history’s most important wars

As the head of the U.S Third Army, General George S. Patton saw extensive action in the Mediterranean during the Second World War. But he also firmly believed he had lived several lives before coming back to lead troops in the Second World War – and it was a belief he was only too ready to share with others. Of course, Patton was convinced that his past lives were as eventful as the one that began in San Gabriel, California in 1885.

He spoke openly of his belief that he had been a warrior several times before. More specifically, he was obsessed with his past as first a Roman legionary and then as an officer in the army of Napoleon. He also believed that he had fought – and died – as a Viking warrior and that he had been present at the Siege of Tyre in 332BC. Patton held this obsession for all his life. This is despite the fact that he was also deeply religious, and the idea of reincarnation was by no means compatible with his Christian faith.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
He may have been a useless ruler, but being Tsar gave Fyodor the power to ring all the bells he wanted. Wikimedia Commons.

14. Tsar Fyodor I of Russia was so obsessed with church bells that he earned the name ‘Fyodor the Bellringer’

Tsar Fyodor I was most definitely not his father’s son. He was the son, and heir, of Ivan the Terrible. Fyodor inherited his crown in May of 1584. And from the start it was clear that he wasn’t really up to the job. He was far from ruthless or ‘terrible’. In fact, he was the quiet, retiring type. And he much preferred indulging his unique obsession to ruling over Russia. Indeed, so central was this obsession to Fyodor’s character that it led to him being given one of the most colourful nicknames in history: Fyodor the Bellringer.

Fyodor was a sickly child. This, combined with the fact he grew up afraid, living in the shadow of his infamous father, meant that he was extremely pious from an early age. The future Tsar would shut himself away for days at a time, praying and reading the Bible. When he became the ruler of all of Russia in 1584, he remained as pious as ever. But now he was able to travel freely across Russia. According to some, he was on a mission to visit every Orthodox church in the land – and ring the bells of each one.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
John Adams was more than just a pushy parent, he was obsessed with his sons’ futures. Wikimedia Commons.

13. John Adams was determined that his son would follow in his footsteps, and his obsession set John Quincy Adams on the path to greatness

Lots of historical figures were driven to greatness by pushy parents. But arguably few fathers were as demanding as John Adams. In fact, it’s fair to say that the Founding Father and second President of the United States was obsessed with his son’s fate. Nothing short of the Presidency would do. Indeed, as surviving correspondence between Adams and his son John Quincy Adams makes clear, the demanding father was only too ready to dish out harsh feedback and brutal criticism.

By the 1790s, the father had identified John Quincy as the most likely to make it to the top, and so his future became the older man’s obsession. In 1794, he wrote his son: “You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre. And if you do not rise to the head not only of your own profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness, slovenliness and obstinacy.” In later life, the older man regretted his pushiness and warned his son not to be so obsessed with his own boy’s future.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
John Quincy Adams was an obsessive who went for nude swims early each morning. Wikimedia Commons.

12. John Quincy Adams was obsessive about his daily routine, not least his insistence on swimming naked at 5am each morning

As we’ve seen, John Quincy Adams was groomed for greatness from an early age. And so it’s hardly surprising he inherited his father’s obsession with seeing his sons go on to greatness. But this was by no means the sixth President of the United States’ only quirk. Famously, he was also obsessed with naked swimming. In fact, Adams is often credited with being the founder of the ‘skinning dipping’ movement, even if he was several decades ahead of his time.

Adams was obsessed with routine. He wrote in his journal every day, without fail, between the ages of 12 and 80. He also woke and rose at the same time each day. And then, when he was serving as President, he made a habit of rising before dawn and going to the Potomac River to swim. Moreover, he would always swim fully nude, even if there were people around. On one occasion, an enterprising female journalist hoping to get an interview with the President took his clothes, promising to return them only when he agreed to speak with her.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
King James of Scotland became so obsessed with witches, he wrote a manual on finding them. Wikimedia Commons.

11. King James I of Scotland developed an unhealthy obsession with witches and vowed to rid his kingdom of all black magic

King James ascended to the Scottish throne in 1583. He was just 17 but already had an unhealthy interest in the occult. This turned into a full-on obsession a few years later. He was wed to Anne of Denmark in 1589. However, an astrologer to the Royal Court warned James that witches had cursed the union. Sure enough, her first voyage was cancelled due to a storm. Then, when James went to rescue her, he was hit by foul weather. Finally, a third storm was blamed on witches.

The Danish royal family had six people executed for supposedly trying to use nature to keep Anne from Scotland. After that, James became obsessed with making Scotland a witch-free zone. Under him, more than 100 people were arrested on suspicion of witchcraft. The King personally oversaw many trials. And understandably so; he was the nation’s number one expert on the subject and published his Daemonologie, a guide to the occult, in 1597. Thanks to him, people now had a definitive guide to identifying if their neighbour was a witch – and tips on how to get a confession out of them!

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
Catherine de Medici would regularly consult seers before making decisions. YouTube.

10. Catherine de Medici was one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages, but did her obsession with the occult affect her judgement?

Growing up in Florence, Catherine was taught both astronomy and astrology from an early age. She took this knowledge with her when she moved to France as the 14-year-old bride of King Francis I. Her beliefs and superstitions would also drive her during the reigns of her third son, Henry III. According to some historians, she was the true power behind the throne. Above all, Catherine’s obsession with the occult has been blamed by some scholars as the main cause of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the bloody day in 1572 when thousands of Huguenots were ruthlessly killed.

Catherine’s unhealthy obsession with the so-called dark arts led her to surround herself with questionable characters. Nostradamus was one of her most-trusted advisers. She also developed an obsession with dwarves. She believed they could keep her safe from curses and spells, so ensured dwarves were always part of her court. At the same time, Catherine employed some 300 spies, many of them using their ‘magic powers’ to warn her of plots and threats. And perhaps it worked, too – in the end, Catherine died from natural causes at the age of 69 in 1589.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
William Gladstone was so obsessed with saving prostitutes, he walked the streets at night looking for them. Wikimedia Commons.

9. William Gladstone might have been Prime Minister, but the responsibilities of office didn’t bring his obsession with prostitutes to an end

In 1868, William Ewart Gladstone became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for the first time. Despite taking on the top job in British politics, however, he insisted on carrying on with his ‘second job’. Much to the frustration – and confusion – of his fellow politicians, Gladstone would continue to stroll through the streets of London in search of prostitutes. It was something he had been doing since the year 1840 and the idea of finding and ‘rescuing’ fallen women had long become something of an obsession for the Liberal politician.

Gladstone had only been married a year when he started trying to save prostitutes. He would walk the less-salubrious parts of London and speak to working ladies. Driven by his Christian faith, he hoped to convince them to give up sex work. For some, he arranged marriages, for others, he helped them emigrate from England and build a new life in Australia or the United States. Gladstone maintained that he only had the ‘fallen women’s’ interests at heart. However, it may well be that Gladstone loved testing his self-discipline, walking the line of temptation but resisting.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
King Charles was just one of many people who feared they were made of glass. Wikimedia Commons.

8. Charles King VI of France became obsessed with the idea that he was made of glass – and his people were ordered to keep their distance

King Charles VI of France wasn’t born “mad”. In fact, he was only given that nickname when he was in his 20s. These days, of course, the monarch would have benefitted from the help of mental health professionals. But 14th century France was different. When the King started to lose his mind, his strange obsessions were largely indulged, including his number one preoccupation – that he was actually made of glass and might shatter if he was touched.

Interestingly, Charles wasn’t the only one to seriously believe he was made of glass. For around 200 years, from the 14th century onward, the so-called ‘glass delusion’ was relatively widespread across the whole of Europe. Sufferers genuinely feared that, since they were made of glass, they would shatter if they exerted themselves too much. The French King, therefore, took special measures to keep himself safe. According to some contemporary accounts, he had metal rods sewn into his trousers for extra protection. Additionally, people at the Court were banned from touching the King lest he break into small pieces.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
Pythagoras had many obsessions, not least his intense hatred of beans. Atlas Obscura.

7. Pythagoras wasn’t just a philosopher and math genius, he was an obsessive maniac who had a particular fear of fava beans

The Pythagoreanism movement started in the 6th century BC. For more than 200 years, people lived according to the beliefs of the great man. And this included taking on some of his strange obsessions, including his fear of beans. He believed that they took away a piece of one’s soul. As he told his followers: “Eating fava beans and gnawing on the heads of one’s parents are one and the same.” One version of his death has him even refusing to run across a field of fava beans, preferring to let the men chasing him catch him and slit his throat.

This obsession with beans may have been partly understandable. Some types were known to be poisonous and almost all caused flatulence, which, Pythagoras believed, led to some of the soul escaping the body. But most of the philosopher’s other obsessions were simply bizarre. He worshiped the number 10, always put his right shoe on first – and warned his followers of the dangers of not doing so – and abstained from sex and meat, although he was quite a weak-willed hypocrite on both counts.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
The great ballet dancer Nijinsky was obsessed with prostitutes, even when he was married. Wikimedia Commons.

6. Vaslav Nijinsky’s diaries revealed the ballet legend to be obsessed with prostitutes, especially young male sex workers

In 1936, Romola Nijinsky published the diaries of her husband, the world-famous ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The memoirs gave an insight into his colourful life, from a young boy in Kiev to triumphant performances in New York City. Perhaps understandably, however, Romola edited huge parts of her partner’s diaries. Above all, she refused to make public the sections of his diaries where he recorded his sexual adventures. Only when the diaries were re-released decades later did the world get to know about Nijinsky’s insatiable obsession with prostitutes – both male and female.

The diaries reveal what most people assumed – Nijinsky was a tortured soul with many demons. Alongside bland recollections of his meals and toiletry habits, the dancer kept a detailed dairy of his masturbatory habits and put down on paper his obsession with sex workers. The ballet legend loved masochistic sex and preferred younger prostitutes, both male and female. Notably, the diaries also confirm that he indulged his obsession not only before his marriage to fellow dancer Romola but after the pair wed. Despite this, Nijinsky remained devoted to his wife, and he loved his daughter deeply too, as the memoirs also show.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
Napoleon was said to be so obsessed with licorice, he asked for it when dying. Wikimedia Commons.

5. Napoleon’s obsession with licorice turned his teeth black, and he even demanded his favorite treat on his death bed

Almost all portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte show the military genius looking resplendent in his military dress. None, however, show him with black teeth. As his valet, Louis Constant Wairy, recalled, the Emperor would wash, shave, dress and then ask to be handed “his handkerchief, his snuffbox, and a little shell box filled with licorice flavored with aniseed and cut very fine”. Before he started his day, then, Napoleon’s teeth would have been stained black.

Several of Napoleon’s contemporaries noted how he relied on licorice to keep him free from coughs and colds. But more than this, he used it to calm his nerves in battle. In fact, he would never fight a war without some licorice in his pocket. What’s more, Napoleon even asked for licorice on his deathbed. As his last valet, Joseph Marchand, recalled: “He asked me for a small bottle and some licorice, poured a small quantity, and told me to fill it with water, adding that in the future he wished to have no other beverage but that.”

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
Kant was so obsessive that everybody knew his daily routine. Wikimedia Commons.

4. Immanuel Kant was obsessive about many things, not least his daily routine, and his neighbors used to set their clocks by the philosopher

In retrospect, Immanuel Kant may well have suffered from numerous obsessions, but his undoubtedly strange habits certainly worked for him. Above all, Kant was obsessed with sleep. He firmly believed that he should get up before dawn. To help him achieve this, in 1762, he employed an ex-soldier called Martin Lampe to wake him each morning. Lampe was even under strict orders to use force if necessary. The former military man worked for Kant for 40 years, during which time the philosopher boasted that he had never even got up more than 30 minutes after dawn.

Kant was as obsessed about the rest of his daily routine as he was about his sleeping habits. For instance, he liked to smoke, but only permitted himself a single pipe, and this was to be enjoyed right after he got out of bed. After that, he would work for four hours straight – no more, no less. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around while thinking. Again, he was so obsessive compulsive that Kant’s neighbors would quite literally set their watch by him when he walked past at the exact same time each and every day.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
People still lay lemons at Jackson’s grave, a nod to his strange obsession. Pinterest.

3. Stonewall Jackson was obsessed with his health, refusing to sit and always sucking on a lemon, even in the heat of battle

According to some biographers, Thomas Jonathan ‘Stonewall’ Jackson became convinced that evil spirits had inhabited his body. As a young man, he became obsessed with his own well-being. And his eccentricities were only too obvious to students at the Virginia Military institute, where he worked as an instructor before the Civil War. He tried to avoid sitting down, preferring to stay standing, his back straight so as to redress a perceived lack of internal balance. That’s why he rode into battle with one hand held high above his head, much to the confusion of his own men.

Jackson’s health obsession translated into a strict daily routine. His diet consisted of plain bread, milk and fruits. Above all, he believed sucking on lemons would rid him of ongoing stomach problems, plus he would regularly cover his stomach with wet towels to ease his discomfort. Notably, some biographers believe that this might have been his downfall. Jackson survived being shot several times by his own men (by accident). He also survived having his arm amputated. Could it be that ordering his servant to drape wet towels over his wounds caused the infection that killed the ultimate man of action?

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
Peter III only ruled Russia for a few months and spent most of that time playing dolls. Wikimedia Commons.

2. Peter III was crazy about dolls and toy soldiers – but no so interested in ruling Russia

Peter III only ruled Russia for six months, from January of 1762 until July of that same year. He was deeply unpopular with almost all of the Russian elite, not least since he was actually German and made very little effort to learn how to speak the language of his new kingdom. What’s more, according to his wife, Sophia Augusta Frederica – who would go on to reign as Catherine the Great – he was a “good for nothing idiot” who was regularly drunk. Moreover, he remained a man-child, scandalizing Russian society with his obsession with dolls and toy soldiers.

Catherine the Great’s own memoirs reveal that her husband kept a large trunk full of dolls and toys under his bed. He would lock his bedroom door and arrange his toy soldiers in formation, playing with them and recreating famous and imagined battles. Of course, Peter himself was the commander of his toy army, complete with military uniform, and he would even order his servants to dress up and play with him. While obsessive and certainly strange, Peter’s childish ways were generally harmless. Indeed, it was his pro-Prussian foreign policy rather than his immaturity that was his downfall.

18 Strange Obsessions Shed New Light on these Historical Figures
Martin Luther was alleged to have taken his obsession with purifying sin to an extreme. Wikimedia Commons.

1. Martin Luther was so obsessed with the idea of sin that he followed a strict personal regime that included regular self-beatings

The German monk Martin Luther was a key figure in the Protestant Reformation. Due to his work, people across Europe came to reject the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, seeking to get closer to God. One of the reasons Luther was able to persuade so many people to follow his lead was because he quite literally practiced what he preached. Luther was obsessed with living a good life, often taking this to extremes.

In recent years, some experts have argued that, if he were alive today, Luther would be diagnosed with suffering from OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Back in the 15th and 16th centuries, however, his behavior was simply regarded as proof that he was a devoted and pious monk. During his 20 years in a German monastery, Luther would rise at 3am without fail and then pray in silence for hours. Even then, he was still convinced he had been sinful. This obsession led to self-flagellation and even extreme fasting. During the winter months, meanwhile, Luther would lie outside on the snow until his fellow monks, fearful for his life, would carry him back inside.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The people who think they are made of glass.” BBC News, May 2015.

“The real-life army of giants.” The Vintage News, June 2018.

“James I and Witchcraft.” Englandcast, November 2017.

“These are the 8 reincarnations of General George S. Patton.” We Are the Mighty, August 2017.

“John Adams Was A Tiger Dad. So Was John Quincy.” New England Historical Society.

“The 6th US president rose before dawn for his favorite morning habit: skinny-dipping.” Business Insider, February 2017.

“The dictatorial doctor, aristocratic adulterer and mad masturbator.” The Copenhagen Post, November 2015.

“Sex and Mr Gladstone.” History Today, May 1998.

“No nonsense scholarship about tragedy of fabled Russian dancer.” CNN, February 1999.

“The Many ‘Demons’ of Stonewall Jackson.” American Hauntings, May 2013.

“A Tsar is Born.” New York Post, January 2012.

“Why beans were an ancient emblem of death.” Atlas Obscura, May 2018.