20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made

Larry Holzwarth - September 23, 2018

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
The Rose Bowl game on New Years Day was football’s preeminent contest during the 1920s. USC Digital Library

6. Going the wrong way in the 1929 Rose Bowl

The 1928 University of California football team included among its players a center who earned All American honors and served as team captain. Named Roy Riegels, he was a talented and smart football player, who became famous nationally for a mistake made in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1929, as the California Bears were playing the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Riegels picked up a fumble on the thirty yard line, and in the act of evading a tackle and another blocker, got turned around, lost his bearings, saw an open field in front of him, and carried the ball sixty-nine yards in the wrong direction. A teammate finally stopped him before he crossed the wrong goal line, when he was tackled by a swarm of Yellow Jackets.

The ensuing play led to a safety, and the error only cost California two points, but Georgia Tech ended up winning the game by a score of 8-7, and the national championship. During halftime, Riegels told his coach that he was too embarrassed to return to the field for the second half. “I wanted a hole to open in the ground so I could jump in it,” Riegels later said. His entire football career, which was one of considerable success and earned the respect of teammates and opponents, came to be summed up by that one play. Over 4,000 stories of the mistake appeared in America’s newspapers, since the game had been the Rose Bowl, the pre-eminent football game of the year at the time. Forty-two years later Georgia Tech inducted him into their Lettermen Club, which he accepted by saying, “Believe me, I feel I’ve earned this”.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
Although Galileo took advantage of the tower’s flawed construction to observe his experiments with weightlessness, the building was not designed to lean. Wikimedia

7. The Leaning Tower of Pisa

The identity of the famous tower of Pisa’s original designer remains uncertain, by the dawn of the twenty-first century it was argued that the tower was designed by an Italian architect named Diotisalvi, rather than the long attributed Bosanno Pisano. Whoever designed it and began construction in 1173 didn’t live to see it completed, it was 199 years before the structure was finished. During the first phase of construction the tower began to sink, due to its being provided with an inadequate foundation on unstable soil. Construction was then halted for nearly a century, with three floors complete. When construction began again in 1272, floors were deliberately designed to have one side taller than the other, to compensate for the lean of the tower.

The tower continued to increase its lean, though gradually, throughout its history until 2008. Stabilization efforts and anchoring it with cables were completed in the 1980s and 1990s, and buildings which would be in the way should the tower fall over were evacuated. The tower was pulled back towards the vertical in the 1990s, though it was allowed to keep its distinctive lean, once it reached a position which was deemed safe by structural engineers. The lean was corrected by removing supporting soil under the raised end of the tower. When the work was completed it was announced that the tower would remain stable for three centuries. Seven years later that estimate was reduced to 200 years.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
Winston Churchill at the White House in January 1942, during his first visit to Washington. Imperial War Museum

8. Churchill received President Franklin Roosevelt naked

In December 1941, Winston Churchill traveled to the United States, arriving by ship at Norfolk, Virginia, and then flying to Washington in a US Navy aircraft. Rather than stay at the British Embassy Churchill remained at the White House as a guest, and he and Roosevelt developed the habit of late night conferences fueled with drinks, cigars in Churchill’s case, and cigarettes in FDR’s. During his stay Churchill roamed the residence freely. Together the leaders discussed the nature of what became the United Nations, using the name “Associated Powers”. On the night of January 1, 1942, Roosevelt, who had been working in his private study, hit upon the name United Nations, and wheeled himself to Churchill’s rooms to inform the Prime Minister.

Roosevelt expected Churchill to be working, as was his wont, but when he entered the rooms being used by the Prime Minister he encountered Churchill having just emerged from his bath, stark naked. Both Roosevelt and Churchill later related that the nonplussed FDR was greeted by Churchill saying, “You see, I have nothing to hide from the President of the United States”, though the exact wording of the statement changed in its many retellings. Churchill later recounted the tale to the King, explaining that he was the only Prime Minister in history to receive a head of state while naked, a line which he also included in his extensive memoirs. Despite FDR being clearly startled, he presented the new name to Churchill, who later said that as he donned a robe he agreed to the change.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
The scandal which rocked his government during the Profumo so embarrassed Harold MacMillan that he resigned his office as Prime Minister. Wikimedia

9. The Profumo affair brought down a government

The Profumo affair was a British scandal which involved high government officials, a teenaged “model”, a Soviet naval attache, a socialite who was charged with living off immoral earnings, a showgirl, and various subplots and rumors which kept London tongues wagging and embarrassed the government to the point that Prime Minister Harold MacMillan resigned. At the heart of the entire scandal was an affair between Secretary of State for War John Profumo, and Christine Keeler, nineteen years of age, who lived with Stephen Ward, the socialite who was later charged with being her pimp. Keeler also was involved with Yevgeny Ivanov, the Soviet naval attache and GRU officer in London. Showgirl Mandy Rice-Davies became involved after meeting Keeler and Ward, and was later cited as one of the sources of Ward’s immoral income.

As the affair unraveled in the press and television, Profumo first denied, and then later admitted to the affair with Keeler, for which he resigned. The Conservative government was shaken by the scandal and MacMillan’ confidence in his ability and that of his cabinet to restore control fell. The exposure of the entire tangle of sex, implied liaisons with the Soviets, and illicit relationships, reached its height during the summer of 1963. In October of that year MacMillan, citing health issues, resigned as Prime Minister. In the general election of 1964 the Conservative Party was defeated by the Labor Party, and led to Harold Wilson becoming Prime Minister after 13 years of Conservative control of the government. Ward committed suicide while awaiting sentencing, and it was later determined that Keeler committed perjury in her testimony.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
Robert McNamara commissioned the Pentagon Papers as a DoD study of the history of American involvement in Southeast Asia. White House

10. The US government was caught lying about the Vietnam War

In the 1960s American strategy in Vietnam was focused on attrition – killing more of the enemy than he killed. The strategy evolved because territory in South Vietnam was already, at least on paper, under the control of the government of South Vietnam. Without the seizure of enemy territory as a measure of military success, the much higher death rates of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were substituted. Junior officers in the field and their superiors in both Vietnam and the Pentagon began submitting exaggerated casualty reports, which were reported to the American people via official government releases and the media from the battlefields. That ended when the Pentagon Papers were leaked from the military and revealed the magnitude of the deceptions perpetrated by the government over Vietnam.

The Nixon administration was incensed at the national embarrassment imposed by the release of the Pentagon Papers, which covered the period of the preceding Johnson years, as well as those of American involvement in Southeast Asia going back to 1945. The embarrassment led to the creation of the White House Plumbers, a group of political operatives and security specialists who later participated in assorted illegal activities including the Watergate break-in. In defending the release of the Pentagon Papers Senator Birch Bayh, a Democrat, said, “The existence of these documents, and the fact that they said one thing and the people were led to believe something else, is a reason we have a credibility gap today, the reason people don’t believe the government”. The revelation that the government had lied about the war for decades further split an already divided country.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
An aerial view of the Potomac River and Tidal Basin, into which Fanne Foxe jumped to escape DC police while enjoying an evening with Congressman Wilbur Mills. Library of Congress

11. Fanne Foxe and the tidal basin escape attempt

Fanne Foxe was a stripper of little note until on the night of October 9, 1974, the car in which she was riding was pulled over by US Park Police officers, at around two in the morning. With her in the car was Congressman Wilbur Mills, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who was driving, without lights, and had been drinking. As the officers approached the car Foxe leaped from the vehicle and tried to escape the scene by jumping into the nearby Tidal Basin. The press was ecstatic over the story of a drunken stripper and the powerful congressman, though Mills’ wife was not. Gradually the scandal faded from the headlines, but not before Mills won re-election to his seat in Congress in the election of 1974.

Less than a month following his re-election, Congressman Mills attended a performance by Fanne Foxe in Boston’s Pilgrim Theater, as the guest of Foxe’s husband. Afterwards he held a brief, impromptu press conference from the stripper’s dressing room, apparently quite drunk. Following the second indiscretion, he announced he would resign from the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee and seek help from Alcoholics Anonymous for his drinking issues. Mills never expressed much in the way of remorse from his actions with Foxe, nor did he demonstrate public embarrassment for his antics with the stripper, but in 1976 he declined the opportunity to run for his seat yet again, ending 38 years of representing the people of Arkansas.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
When two dozen prostitutes were paraded across Washington’s 14th Street Bridge it drew the attention of a sharp eyed Washington Post photographer. National Archives

12. Marion Barry and the parade of prostitutes

On Tuesday, July 25, 1989, a strange parade crossed the 14th Street Bridge from Washington DC into Virginia. District police officers rounded up two dozen prostitutes and gave them the choice of marching across the bridge into Virginia or being charged and jailed in Washington. Police cruisers, lights flashing, escorted the exodus. Once on the Virginia side of the Potomac the women were released, and according to eyewitnesses the majority of them took taxis back to Washington. The parade was witnessed and photographed by reporters of the Washington Post, and others. The operation had been ordered by DC Mayor Marion Barry, no stranger to prostitutes and drugs himself.

Barry refused comment on the incident at the time, referring to DC’s exploding violent crime rate as a subject more worthy of his time than the actions of a “few officers.” Senator John Warner of Virginia denounced Barry’s actions on the floor of the Senate. Six months later Barry was arrested after he was videotaped smoking crack in a Washington hotel room during an FBI sting operation. His lack of any remorse or shame was evident throughout his trial, and the embarrassment of his mayoralty ended just before he was sentenced to six months in federal prison. He later returned to city council and eventually the mayor’s office, while racking up multiple traffic citations, suspended licenses,charges of conflicts of interest, and stalking.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
A patient receives a placebo injection during the Tuskegee Study. National Archives

13. The Tuskegee experiments led to an official apology by the United States

In 1932 the Public Health Service and the Tuskegee University, a historically black institution, joined together to conduct experiments and studies in the treatment of syphilis. In time, 622 black men were enrolled in the study, with 431 entering into the study already infected with the disease. The men, who were nearly all impoverished, were enticed to participate through the promise of free meals and treatment, though the majority received no treatment at all and were used to monitor the natural progression of the disease. They were also offered free burial insurance. The study ran for forty years, and despite the proven success of penicillin in treating the disease none of the men received the antibiotic as treatment.

In July 1972 the story of the study and its ethical implications was told to the public in the Washington Star, and Congressional hearings were called for by Senator Edward Kennedy. The Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control hastily convened an investigation into the study and found that its participants had done so voluntarily, but nonetheless ended the study that year. Numerous investigations and counter-investigations kept the study in the public eye for two decades, as more of its abuses were revealed, to the embarrassment of the doctors involved and to the agencies for which they worked. In 1997, Bill Clinton publicly apologized on behalf of the United States for the ethical violations and the damage done in the Tuskegee Study, which had led to federal regulations enacted for the purpose of controlling studies conducted on human beings.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
Finnish Ski troopers in actions against the invading Soviets, who were embarrassed by the performance of their military against the Finns. Wikimedia

14. The Winter War embarrassed the Soviet leadership and encouraged Adolf Hitler

In November, 1940, just weeks after joining the Germans in dividing conquered Poland, where they had encountered little resistance, Soviet troops invaded Finland, intent on seizing Finnish territory which included a large percentage of their industrial base. The action led to the Soviet expulsion from the League of Nations. Expecting an easy conquest, they instead ran into spirited Finnish resistance. Soviet military leadership was largely inept, the troops in the field performed poorly and the Finns, in a fighting withdrawal, inflicted heavy casualties on the invaders. The Finns, though suffered a defeat which led to the loss of just more than 10% of their territory when the war ended by the Moscow Peace Treaty in March, 1940. It was a humiliating victory for the Soviets.

The vaunted Red Army had been embarrassed by the much smaller Finnish military, and the Finnish ski troops became heroic in the eyes of the Free World. The much smaller and poorly equipped Finnish Air Force shot down over 200 Soviet airplanes against losses of 62 aircraft. The poor performance of the Soviet military was noted by the German High Command, and influenced Hitler’s decisions in the planning for the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. When that attack did get underway, the Finns launched the Continuation War to regain the territory lost to Stalin in 1940, receiving support from Germany, though Finland never officially allied itself with Germany by joining the Tripartite Pact and formally entering the Axis.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
The blustering Benito Mussolini promised a new empire centered by Rome, but his military was inadequate to the task. Wikimedia

15. Italian military operations during World War II

Benito Mussolini boasted of creating a new Roman Empire, and his military adventures in North Africa began in 1935 when Italian troops invaded Ethiopia in October. In May of the following year the Italians announced victory, when Italian troops occupied Addis Ababa. Despite the claim, fighting continued between the Italian army and Abyssinian troops for several more years. The Ethiopian Empire was absorbed in the colony of Italian East Africa, despite the clear preference of the Ethiopians to remain free of Italian influence. During the campaigns in North Africa following the beginning of the Second World War Italian troops performed poorly, their fleet was unable to keep the colonial garrisons resupplied, and the new Roman Empire dissolved quickly.

After war broke out in Europe, Mussolini was hesitant to enter the fray, not joining his German ally in Poland, and not invading France until the outcome of that campaign was certain. In October 1940, despite the objections of Hitler, the Italians invaded Greece in what turned into a disastrous campaign for the Italian Army, which found that though it had superior numbers over the Greeks, the enemy was entrenched in fortified positions. The debacle forced the Germans to enter the war in support of their inept ally, to prevent a British stronghold in their rear as they moved into the Soviet Union. By the time of the British entry into the fighting in Greece the Italian military was an international joke, considered incompetent by their German allies, and nearly immaterial by the allies. Mussolini became a puppet of his German master.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
The Beatles arrive in New York, February, 1964, already the most popular act in Britain. Wikimedia

16. Remember Brian Poole and the Tremoloes?

On New Year’s Day, 1962, two bands auditioned for Decca Records in London. The company was looking for a new act which would appeal to younger audiences. After evaluating the auditions, the executives chose the second group to have auditioned, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. They notified the first group’s manager of their decision, informing him that his band was too reliant on guitars, and that in their opinion, “guitar groups were on the way out”. The manager, Brian Epstein, continued a search for a record label for his group, an act from Liverpool known as The Beatles. Another factor in the decision not made public at the time was that the Tremeloes were from the London area, which reduced travel costs in an England still economically crippled from World War II.

The audition the Beatles performed had been taped, and Epstein used the tapes to try to generate interest in the band he called “his boys”. He received rejection after rejection until they were heard by George Martin, a trained classical musician who at the time was working for EMI, producing comedy records for the Parlophone label. After the band played for him live he offered Epstein a recording contract, and in 1963 Beatlemania exploded. The band Decca rejected went on to sell over 800 million records and became one of the most influential and popular acts in the history of music. The man who rejected the Beatles at Decca, Dick Rowe, overcame his embarrassment by later signing The Rolling Stones to the label, after George Harrison told him of the band during a mutual appearance on the television show Juke Box Jury.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
As Napoleon prepares to crown Josephine as Empress of the French, Pope Pius VII raises his hand in blessing, a fictitious happenstance which the Emperor insisted upon. Wikimedia

17. Napoleon embarrasses Pope Pius VII

When Napoleon decided to become Emperor of the French and establish a dynastic Imperial Throne, he recognized the need to include the Papal endorsement, since the divine right of kings was established by the Roman Catholic Church throughout Europe. While negotiating with the Vatican Napoleon agreed to follow the Catholic liturgy, but after Pius VII arrived in Paris Napoleon informed the Pontiff that several French rites would be included, to the detriment of the Roman rites. Traditionally the Pope was to place the crown on Napoleon’s head after reciting the designated rites. Instead, while the Pope was reciting, Napoleon took the crown from the altar where it rested during the ceremony and standing, rather than kneeling before the Pope as ceremony demanded, placed the crown on his own head.

The act symbolized that Napoleon owed his crown to his own actions, rather than to any outside authority. Napoleon reinforced his actions by having his empress, Josephine, kneel before him, placing her crown on her head with his own hands. The Pope retired to the sacristy over objections to the civil oath Napoleon had prepared for him to take, clearly irritated by the Emperor’s actions, although he remained through the Mass which preceded the oath. When artists painted the scene later, Napoleon insisted that the Pope be depicted with his hand raised in blessing, as if the Pontiff approved of the new Emperor’s actions during coronation. Pius VII later excommunicated the Emperor of the French following the invasion of the Papal States in 1809, and Napoleon had him imprisoned under house arrest in France.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made

Cuban commandos train with CIA operatives for the ill fated Bay of Pigs invasion. Wikimedia

18. The Bay of Pigs disaster and JFK

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, it was in a campaign which presented an idealistic vision of the future, with peaceful coexistence with regimes which ran counter to American traditions. Early in his administration Kennedy came to the conclusion with the support of his advisors that the Soviet Union was developing Cuba as a satellite state, under Fidel Castro. The removal of Castro became a goal of the administration. When the CIA presented the president with the long-planned invasion of Cuba by CIA trained Cuban exiles (supported by CIA operatives), they assured the president that American military participation would be unnecessary. Kennedy approved the operation, an invasion at the Bay of Pigs, which quickly bogged down. Kennedy refused to support the invaders with air strikes.

The Bay of Pigs fiasco was a political nightmare for the new president, and an international embarrassment as the level of US involvement in its planning and execution became known. Kennedy publicly acknowledged responsibility for the operation, but privately raged at the CIA which misled him. Believing that Kennedy’s refusal to support the invaders was a sign of weakness, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev began installing missiles in Cuba, which led to another confrontation between the superpowers, one of the worst of the Cold War, in October, 1962. During that crisis Kennedy was again exhorted to launch airstrikes against Cuba, which he again refused, choosing a diplomatic option to resolve the confrontation successfully.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
The protests over Johnson’s treatment of his beagles Him and Her were long, loud, and angry. Wikimedia

19. Lyndon Johnson and Him and Her

Lyndon Johnson was not a man who was easily embarrassed. He was famous for carrying on conversations through an open door while relieving himself, in either manner, with no doubt cringing aides and secretaries. During meals, when he noticed his wife Lady Bird looking the other way, he would reach with his fork or spoon to a nearby plate before another diner and help himself to whatever took his fancy. His language was pithy, even coarse, and his opinions shared in private with aids and friends were often blunt. “Jerry Ford is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time”, he once said of the man he asked to serve on the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy. He also said, “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac, the headline that afternoon would read: The President Can’t Swim.”

Johnson owned a pair of beagles, from the same litter, one male and one female. With impressive creativeness he named them Him and Her. Johnson liked to walk the dogs himself, and during one such walk, while accompanied by photographers, Johnson picked up one of the dogs by the ears. When the photos appeared in newspapers animal lovers excoriated him for his cruelty. Thousands of letters to the editor and telegrams complained about the president’s indifference to his pets (in fact he was devoted to both). Johnson was forced to take extraordinary steps throughout 1964 to improve his public image to pet owners, including allowing photographers to take pictures of his dogs for a spread in Life Magazine. But privately, in response to the continuing controversy in the newspapers, Johnson remarked, “The fact that a man is a newspaper reporter is evidence of some flaw of character”.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
Jimmy Carter was ridiculed when reports to his staff that he had been attacked by a rabbit were revealed by the press. White House

20 Jimmy Carter fended off a rabbit attack

On April 20, 1979, the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, was alone in a fishing boat in Plains, Georgia, when a swimming rabbit raced towards his boat in a menacing manner. According to Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell, to whom Carter told the story, “What was obvious however, was that this large, wet animal, making strange hissing noises and gnashing its teeth, was intent upon climbing into the Presidential boat.” Carter managed to fend the rabbit off by splashing an oar at it, and it swam away. Most of Carter’s staff initially did not believe the president’s story, thinking he was merely telling a fisherman’s tale, until film taken by the White House photographer, who was not in the boat but ashore nearby, revealed it to be true.

The press, and Carter’s political opponents, enjoyed keeping the story of the averted rabbit attack alive for weeks, after learning of the event months later. A cartoon in the Washington Post aped the poster for the popular movie Jaws, retitling it PAWS and featuring a giant rabbit with a gaping maw. Political opponents used the incident to enhance the meek nature of the Carter Presidency. The White House would not release the footage of the incident, but during the Reagan Administration it was found and given to the press. By August 1979, the Carter Presidency was nearing its nadir, with a struggling economy, a growing crisis in Iran, increased support within his own party for Ted Kennedy to run against him in 1980, and a general dissatisfaction for Carter’s policies. The rabbit tale, which he could have kept to himself and didn’t, added to his woes.


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

“Richard Nixon’s Palace Guards”. Megan McArdle, Washington Monthly. August 2013

“The Wicked Bible: The perfect gift for collectors, but not for William and Kate”. Rick Gekoski, The Guardian. November 23, 2010

“News credibility sank with Titanic Accuracy”. Ernest F. Imhoff, The Baltimore Sun. December 19, 1997

“The True Story of ‘Wrong-Way’ Corrigan’s Atlantic Adventure”. Chris Fasolino, History Net.

“Metric mishap caused loss of NASA orbiter”. Robin Lloyd, CNN. September 30, 1999

“Top Ten Blunders in History”. History Revealed. March 2016

“Why I Spared the Leaning Tower of Pisa”. Rory Carroll, The Guardian. January 13, 2000

“Churchill at the White House”. Eleanor Roosevelt, The Atlantic. March, 1965

“Everyone in the Profumo scandal got redemption – except Christine Keeler”. Tanya Gold, The Guardian. December 7, 2017

“The Untold Story of the Pentagon Papers Co-conspirators”. Eric Liechtblau, The New Yorker. January 29, 2018

“In 1974, a stripper known as the ‘Tidal Basin Bombshell’ took down the most powerful man in Washington”. Laura Smith, Timeline Magazine. September 28, 2017

“Virginia congressmen denounce D. C. prostitution march”. Kathleen McHugh, UPI. July 26, 1989

“How the Public Learned About the Infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study”. Olivia B. Waxman, Time Magazine. July 25, 2017

“Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of the World War”. David Glanz. 1998

“Mussolini and His Generals”. John Gooch. 2007

“The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul”. Walter Everett. 2001

“Napoleon: A Political Life”. Stephen Englund. 2005

“Bay of Pigs – The Untold Story”. Peter Wyden. 1979

“Pup Culture: 50 Years Later, LBJ’s still in the Doghouse”. Bud Boccone, American Kennel Club. July 7, 2015. Online

“A Tale of Carter and the ‘Killer Rabbit'”. Archives, The New York Times. August 30, 1979