Thinking about historical figures often conjures up images of wizened old men and women staring gravely out of sepia photographs. Many of our famous historical people achieved notoriety later in their lives, so we often only know their faces in their older age. For example, most only see the face of Joseph Stalin as a heavy-set older man in photos edited to hide his numerous smallpox scars. Few realize that, as a young man, he would have been right at home in the pages of a magazine as a male model. Numerous older icons and historical figures were quite lovely in their youth, even by our modern standards of beauty.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known by his honorific Mahatma or simply Gandhi, was a revolutionary figure in independence movements in South Africa and India. Gandhi became renowned for his extensive use of non-violent resistance tactics in the effort to dismantle British colonial rule over India. He first employed these tactics in South Africa to aid a local Indian population that lacked civil rights under the Apartheid regime. It was South Africa that first gave him the honorific Mahatma, meaning venerable in Sanskrit.
In India, Gandhi used a variety of tactics including extreme fasting to encourage non-violent resistance to British rule. He also helped cross-religious cooperation with Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist Indians. He encouraged mass boycotts of all foreign-made goods, but especially those coming from Britain. The movement was successful, with India gaining independence in 1947, only a year before Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of a Hindu nationalist.
The popular image of Gandhi is as an old man in traditional Hindu robes. However, as a young man, he cut a striking figure in a tailored suit. He studied law in London in the early 1900s and adopted the current styles of the time. With neatly parted hair and a dapper mustache, Gandhi is barely recognizable as the shrunken older man of international renown.
The Irish playwright John Millington Synge can claim an honor few other writers have achieved: his most famous play caused actual riots. A Protestant from an upper-middle-class background, his comedy The Playboy of the Western World incited a great deal of anger with its perceived insults to working-class Catholic Irish people. The first night of the production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin led to such an uproar that the third act had to be pantomimed.
Subsequent productions of the play continued to lead to riots. A political leader of the Sinn Feín party described the play as a “vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform” and encouraged the rioting. The play’s patricide combined with the unfavorable portrayal of rural Irish people, especially the women dressed in shifts which were, at the time, a symbol of adultery and wantonness, drove the hostile reception to work.
John Millington Synge sadly did not live long past his young prime. Diagnosed with Hodgkins’ Lymphoma in his 30s, which was untreatable at the time, he died at 38 years while attempting to finish his last play. He cut a striking figure with his thick, black hair and long mustache with a sharp, triangular goatee. With a handsome face, it’s easy to picture someone like Josh Brolin playing him in a film.
Sir Richard Francis Burton was a British adventurer, from a time when being a professional adventurer was still an actual career. A truly epic figure, Sir Richard was a spy, geographer, soldier, translator, fencer, historian, writer and polyglot who, at one count, had a working knowledge of almost 30 African and Asian languages. In addition to a genuinely impressive skill set, Sir Richard was also extremely progressive by his era’s standards concerning racial and sexual taboos. Burton spoke openly about sexuality and translated the Kama Sutra into English for publication.
A highlight of Sir Richard’s career was a disguised trip to Mecca at a time when no whites were allowed to visit it upon pain of death. He also was on the first European expedition to the African Great Lakes to search for the source of the Nile. Interestingly, Burton was strongly opposed to the ethnocentrism of colonial Britain, and he enjoyed interacting with and learned from the local cultures in Britain’s empire.
As if being a real-life action hero and anti-colonialist progressive weren’t enough, Sir Richard was also a roughly handsome man with a face that fit his heroic life. While the long, thick mustache is rather unfortunate by our modern beauty standards, one can see the strong chiseled face behind the mustache.
Alma Mahler, the wife of famed Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, was a tremendous musician and composer in her own right. Born Alma Margaretha Maria Schindler to a wealthy Viennese family, Alma was a renowned socialite known for her beauty and spark of intelligence and personality. Alma was mentored in music from a young age and showed a talent for composition. Her marriage to Gustav Mahler was quite turbulent, as he did not approve of his wife attempting to compose music. She fell into a depression due to being stifled and controlled by Mahler and began an affair with the architect who would become her second husband after Mahler’s death.
Her second husband, famed architect Walter Gropius, did not share Mahler’s hang-ups about his wife’s work and encouraged Alma with her compositions. Alma eventually had an affair with novelist Franz Werfel, who became her third and final husband. They fled Europe in 1938 after the Anschluss, as Werfel was Jewish. They settled in the United States, and Alma’s homes became noted cultural salons.
Alma was, in her youth, a classical Edwardian beauty. She had the long, gently curling dark hair that was so prised in the era as well as clear, pale skin. She also possessed the wit, charm and artistic skills valued in high-class women at the time.
Tenzing Norgay, a Nepali-Indian Sherpa mountaineer, became one of the first two people to scale Mount Everest when he climbed it alongside British mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. While Sherpa is often believed to be a vocational term for mountaineers, it is actually the name of an ethnic group native to the mountains around Nepal, Bhutan, China, and India. The name comes from the Sherpa words for east and people, referring to their geographic location in the Himalayas.
Norgay began mountaineering in the 1930s, when British mountaineer Eric Shipton chose him, partly based on his warm, attractive smile, to accompany a British led expedition in 1933. He was part of several unsuccessful British attempts to scale Mount Everest throughout the 1930s and 40s. Norgay was named a sirdar, which is a term used among Sherpa mountaineers to denote a leader after he rescued another sirdar who had fallen and become injured on an expedition. Sir Edmund chose Norgay to accompany him on his successful Everest journey due to a previous climb where Norgay’s quick thinking saved him from falling into a crevasse.
It isn’t surprising that Eric Shipton noticed Norgay’s smile, as he had a broad, beaming grin with perfect bright white teeth. This is a feature that he maintained throughout his life, with later photos often showing his radiant smile.
Charlotte Brontë was the eldest of the three Brontë literary children, along with her younger sisters Anne and Emily. Charlotte is most famous for her novel Jane Eyre, while Emily was famed for Wuthering Heights and her sister Anne wrote what is now widely considered to be one of the first feminist novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Charlotte had a sad and short life, having to witness the death of all five of her siblings in her short time on earth. The deaths of her two sisters, Emily and Anne, within a year of each from tuberculosis hit her particularly hard.
Charlotte did not marry until unusually late in life by Victorian standards. She wed a strict Irish pastor, Arthur Bell Nicholls, at the age of 38 in 1854. Her father strongly opposed the union, as Brontë was already famous in London due to her writing and Nicholls was merely a poor rural pastor. Brontë became pregnant shortly after her marriage and sadly died, along with her unborn child, of a wasting disease believed to either has been tuberculosis or dehydration and malnutrition from hyperemesis gravidarum caused by her pregnancy.
Brontë epitomized the beauty standards of the Victorian era. She was incredibly small and frail, with contemporary accounts putting her under five feet tall. She had very fair skin and the kind of large, bright eyes that women used toxic nightshade drops to achieve. Her personality was timid and retiring, which was also attractive to many men in the era. Her death at only 38 of either typhus or tuberculosis would likely have given her the wasting, pale appearance that was all the rage in London at the time.
Harry Houdini, born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, to a Jewish family, became the world’s most famous illusionist and stunt artist. He began his career in the United States in vaudeville reviews and began a trip of Europe performing escape stunts after his tricks began to earn him wider recognition. In addition to performing magic tricks and escaping standard items such as handcuffs and straight jackets, Houdini would go on to develop his stunts, such as the Chinese Water Torture Cell, that would become parts of future magicians’ acts.
Over his career, Houdini would perfect many daring escape acts including the water torture cell, being sealed into a milk can full of water, rope escapes, and even being buried alive. While many believed his acts to be faked, he rigorously pursued legal action against spiritualists and magicians he considered to be demeaning the art through obvious fake displays. He also would sue anyone who attempted to copy his own invented stunts too closely.
Houdini’s death has been the subject of much speculation. It is known that he died of peritonitis, due to a ruptured appendix, at the age of 52 in 1926. What is not known, is what role the punches to the abdomen he received from overeager students played in his death. The connection between abdominal trauma and appendicitis complications is not clear.
Hunter S. Thompson was a journalist who created the “Gonzo” style of journalism, which blends nonfiction and fiction and often features the writer as a first-person character in the narrative. Thompson began his career as a traditional journalist, writing extensively for an English language newspaper in Brazil before returning to the United States to write for the National Observer. Once back in the states, Thompson began to get heavily involved in the drug and counterculture movement of the hippie era.
Thompson’s big break came with his famous publication Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. He spent almost a year living with the club to complete the story, but his relationship with the gang fell apart when they began to feel he was exploiting their lives for personal gain and demanded a share of the profits of his writing. His most famous novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was initially published as a serial in Rolling Stone and is a highly fictionalized retrospective of the early parts of the counterculture era.
There is a tragic element to young photos of Hunter S. Thompson, as he committed suicide in 2005 at the age of 67 in part due to fears of aging and upcoming surgeries he was scheduled for. Friends reported that he frequently said “this kid is getting old” about himself.
Rupert Brooke was an English poet famed for his poetry that romanticized war and the lives of soldiers. Written at the opening of World War I in 1914, his poem “The Soldier” was very well received by the public. It even came to the attention of Winston Churchill, serving at that time as First Lord of the Admiralty, who drafted Rupert Brooke into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant. It is sadly ironic that Brooke’s poetry romanticizing war would lead to his death while drafted on a naval vessel.
Brooke had mental illness as a young man, with his most serious episodes being referred to generally as “nervous collapse,” a term familiar to the era that was applied to any mental illness that interfered with daily living. His paranoia regarding his friends and love interest led to a falling out from the group of fellow poets he had been working with known as the Dymock Poets.
His contemporaries well noted Brooke’s good looks. Irish poet W. B. Yeats was quoted as calling him “the handsomest young man in England.” Sadly he, like many others on this list, died while still in the blossom of youth. Brooke died in 1915 at the age of only 27 from sepsis developed from an infected mosquito bite while on route to the landing at Gallipoli as part of Britain’s World War I naval force.
Nikola Tesla is often best known as the rival of Thomas Edison, rather than as an inventor and scientist of his renown. He has been immortalized in board games, television specials and more as the eternal rival of Edison. Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American inventor who was raised and educated in the Austrian Empire before immigrating to the United States. Tesla’s first job in the United States was working for Thomas Edison’s company, Edison Machine Works. The long-running animosity between Tesla and Edison began at this point, reportedly over bonuses and wages that Tesla claimed Edison did not pay.
After leaving Edison Machine Works, Tesla worked various odd jobs before founding the Tesla Electric Company. His various patents for AC-powered technology made him a wealthy man. His AC power became the source of the bitterest competition with Edison, as Edison championed the DC power system and tried to paint Tesla’s AC power system as wild and unsafe.
Ironically, despite hating each other and refusing to work together in life, their power systems continue to work together in death. AC power is used in the large-scale electrical infrastructure of the United States, while DC power is used inside our homes in our electrical devices. The heat generated by your laptop’s power brick is the result of AC being converted to DC.
Margaret E. Knight, a prolific American inventor, created her first invention while working in a cotton mill with only an education that ended when she was 12. She witnessed an industrial accident in which a man was stabbed by a shuttle that came out of a cotton loom. She invented an unknown safety device for the loom that was reportedly adopted by other looms throughout the northeastern United States.
After moving to Massachusetts from New Hampshire, Knight began working at a paper bag factory. While working there, in 1868, she invented a press to create the flat-bottom, sealed paper bags that we still use today. A man who worked in the machine shop where Knight’s iron prototype of the press was being built stole her idea and patented the device. She sued him for patent interference and was successful, receiving a patent for the invention in 1871.
At her death, at the age of 76, in 1914 she held 87 U.S. patents. She patented designs for numerous items including motors, reels, cutting machines, and more. She was posthumously inducted into the inventor’s hall of fame in 2006. Her original iron prototype paper bag machine is preserved in the Smithsonian Museum.
Bonnie Parker is best known when combined with her other (certainly not better) half: Clyde Chestnut Barrow. Together, they were the infamous bank robbers known as Bonnie and Clyde. Parker was born into a poor Texas family. Her father died when she was only four, leaving her mother, a seamstress, to provide for three children alone. Parker married at just 15, to a husband who had frequent brushes with the law. They separated, but never legally divorced, after only a few years of marriage.
Parker met her notorious partner in crime at a friend’s home while she was recovering from a broken arm and unemployed. Reportedly, the two were smitten with each other immediately. In 1932, after being released from jail, Clyde began assembling a gang of robbers and Parker joined up. She was briefly jailed soon after for a botched hardware store robbery. She and other members of the group lived in what was widely known as a wild party house in Joplin, Missouri.
Over the course of their criminal career, Parker and Clyde were involved in the deaths of at least nine people including several law enforcement officers. Their final and most notorious criminal act was the murder of two highway patrolmen in what would come to be known in the media as the Grapevine Killings. The pair were ambushed and killed by four officers in May 1934.
Frederick Douglass is a truly legendary person. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, Douglass managed to teach himself to read in secret while still a slave, believing that literacy was the path to freedom. With the aid of a free black woman with whom he’d fallen in love, Douglass escaped slavery in 1838. He married Anna Murray, who helped him reach freedom, only 11 days after he reached her home in New York.
Despite being a self-taught reader, Douglass published the famous autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, an abolitionist work so eloquent that many scholars of the era argued that a black man would have been incapable of writing it. He went on to write further abolitionist works My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
In addition to fighting for the abolition of slavery and equal rights of black Americans, Douglass also fought for women’s suffrage. He was the only black person to attend the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights in 1848, at which Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked for a resolution in favor of suffrage. Douglass spoke eloquently in support and helped secure the resolution’s passage. While Douglass indeed was handsome, it hardly bears mentioning next to the towering weight of his accomplishments.
It would appear Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla are, despite their lifelong feud, truly inseparable from each other, even when it comes down to their handsomeness in youth. Thomas Edison, born in 1847 in Ohio, is one of America’s most famous inventors and businessmen. He truly reshaped the American landscape through his advances in mass power generation, mass communication, and the light bulb. He also shaped ideas of mass production and established the first industrial research laboratory. He also played a significant role in the development of motion pictures and took a keen interest in films. Unfortunately, he was quoted as saying his favorite movie was the deeply racist The Birth of a Nation.
In addition to being a prolific inventor who held over 1,000 patents in his lifetime, Edison was also an excellent businessman. He founded 14 companies during his lifetime, the largest of which, General Electric, is still one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world. He had a lifelong feud with Nikola Tesla, often dubbed the War of Currents, as a large part of the dispute was based around their current competing systems, with Tesla supporting AC and Edison backing DC.
Much like his rival Tesla, the young Edison was a sternly handsome man with intelligent, piercing eyes.
When one imagines Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, one doubtlessly pictures the mustachioed, bow-tie-clad elderly gentleman. Twain was often photographed in his later years, and the images of him in a white suit with heavy mustache are icons of American literary history. Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri which would inspire the setting of his most famous novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the latter of which is often referred to as “The Great American Novel.” Twain himself is often seen as the father of American literature.
Despite growing up in a conservative home in a state with legal slavery, Twain became close to numerous abolitionists and liberals, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe, through his wife, Olivia Langdon. Twain was also profoundly interested in science and had a lifelong close friendship with Nikola Tesla, often spending time in his laboratory.
Twain, along with his friends Nikola Tesla and Frederick Douglass, who also appear on this list, was a rather handsome young man. Without the bushy mustache of his older years, Twain cut a rather rogueish figure with his clean-shaven face and slicked back high dark hair. One can imagine he was a hit with young women as he worked the steamboats along the Missouri River.
Johannes Brahms, born in 1833 in Hamburg, Germany, was a noted composer of the Romantic period. He spent much of his working life in Vienna, Austria, a cultural center that was the home of many of the era’s noteworthy musicians. Brahms came from a musical family. His father, Johann, was a horn player in the Hamburg militia and double-bass player in the Hamburg Philharmonic Society. His father gave him his first music lessons as a child in both the violin and cello. Johannes’ brother Fritz was a pianist, but upon being overshadowed by his famous brother, he resigned himself to teaching music.
Brahms achieved great success later in life, with his first and second symphonies being very well received. He also had numerous friendships within the community, being particularly close with the Austrian composer Johann Strauss II. He also encouraged the young composer Antonín Dvořák, after serving on a jury for the Austrian State Prize for composition, which Dvořák won. Brahms helped to open doors for Dvořák throughout his career.
While Brahms looked appropriate for the styles of the times in his later years, he would have seemed rather stuffy and odd to our modern eye. He bore a full, long white beard that is quite rare nowadays. However, in his younger years, Brahms would have fit the image of a California surf model. His long, slicked-back blonde hair is quite modern looking.
Given the countless thousands of images of Barbara Bush as a beaming, white-haired First Lady and mother of another US president, it is understandably easy to forget that she was once a young woman. Barbara Bush was born Barbara Pierce in New York, to a wealthy family. Her father was the president of the McCall corporation which published the famous women’s magazines Redbook and McCall’s. She met a young George H. W. Bush at a country club dance in Greenwich, Connecticut when she was just 16.
Though both she and her husband were from the east coast, the young Bush family settled in Texas so George could enter the oil business. He eventually started the successful Zapata corporation and soon after was elected to be Republican Party county chairman for Texas’ most popular county. An unsuccessful run for US Senator of Texas followed, with a successful run for US Representative two years later. In 1980, Bush became Ronald Reagan’s vice president, and the rest is history.
As was expected of a woman of her status at the time, Barbara Pierce was a thin and athletic girl. She enjoyed the various sports of the wealthy including tennis and swimming. As the wealthy young daughter of a prominent east coast businessman, she doubtlessly would have had access to the most beautiful clothing and beauty products available at the time which, combined with her free time available for outdoor activities, would have made her an epitome of the tanned, lithe and healthy beauty standard of the time.
Few would likely guess that legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin’s early life was one of extreme poverty. His mother, who had two illegitimate children by two different men, separated from Charlie’s father when he was still very young. She had no reliable source of income, after a failed career in entertainment, and his father paid no financial support to the family. At the age of seven, he was sent to a workhouse for destitute families. Two years later, he was sent to an institute for impoverished children.
His mother developed psychosis soon after, from a combination of syphilis and malnutrition. She was institutionalized in an asylum in London. The boys briefly lived with their father who was a violent alcoholic. He died from cirrhosis of the liver shortly after they moved in with him. During all of this turbulence in his personal life, the young Chaplin began to perform on stage doing comedy and vaudeville routines.
Chaplin’s life story is often regarded as one of the most dramatic rags to riches stories the world has ever seen. What people may not know, is that under the goofy mustache and makeup of his most famous character, the tramp, Chaplin was a handsome young man. While he rarely showed his natural face on the screen, he certainly could have been a leading man with his youthful good looks.
A fact often forgotten in the discussions of Lincoln’s assassination is that his killer, John Wilkes Booth, was not acting alone. Instead, he was part of a conspiracy that had as its aim the killing of not only Lincoln but also his vice president, Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward. The conspirator responsible for the murder of William H. Seward was Lewis Powell.
Powell visited the home of Seward, under the guise of a messenger delivering medicine as Seward had recently been injured. When a family member demanded the medication from Powell and denied him entry to Seward’s room, Powell attempted to shoot him. When the gun misfired, he beat the man with the gun. He entered Seward’s room and stabbed him several times. Powell also stabbed a guard and messenger while fleeing the scene. Everyone he injured in the attack made a full recovery.
The infamous image of a young Powell in wrist irons aboard the USS Saugus is another picture which could very believably be from our time. It isn’t hard to imagine the photo being part of a Vogue shoot meant to look vintage with his youthful, clean shaved face and a somewhat whimsical pose. It is hard to believe the photo was taken shortly before his military tribunal and execution for playing a role in the assassination of an American president.
Hermann Rorschach was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who followed the teachings of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Hermann was fond of inkblots his entire life, so much so that his classmates called him “Klex,” a reference to klecksography, the art of making images out of inkblots. Rorschach’s father was an art teacher, and Hermann himself struggled with whether to pursue science or art for his career.
He ultimately decided to pursue medicine and traveled Europe attending conferences on the emerging field of psychoanalysis. While still in medical school he began showing children inkblots and recording their responses. He prepared a dissertation on the results that became the foundation of his inkblot experiment. In 1921 he published the manual Psychodiagnostik, which contained the ten inkblots that ultimately became known as the Rorschach test.
Rorschach is another talented and handsome young person who sadly died quite young. He died of peritonitis, likely from an untreated ruptured appendix, at the age of only 37 in 1922. The photos of Rorschach as a young man show a shockingly modern-looking face that wouldn’t be out of place in films. One could easily picture a young Brad Pitt portraying Rorschach, as he looks somewhat like his character Lt. Aldo Raine from the movie Inglourious Basterds.
Few images of historical leaders are as iconic as the grey-haired and mustachioed Joseph Stalin, in full military regalia, on a field of red with the hammer and sickle of the USSR behind him. Images of Stalin during his rule were often doctored to hide evidence of the numerous smallpox scars that marred his face. He similarly employed photo doctoring to remove allies who later became political enemies and those who were murdered by his dictatorship.
Joseph Stalin is, of course, most famous for the drastic and often deadly reforms he instituted in the USSR. The most famous of these is the Great Purge, which Stalin implemented to destroy “enemies of the working class.” In reality, he purged many of his political opponents within the communist party and solidified a dictatorship that would last for over thirty years until his death. He is also famous for the implementation of the gulag, a system of political prisons and labor camps which caused the end of the thousands.
What would likely shock many is what an attractive, modern-looking young man Stalin was. With his gently styled, swept-back hair, close-trimmed beard, and stylish pea coat and scarf, the young Stalin would have been right at home in a hipster coffee shop in Brooklyn or on the pages of a Dior ad. If you want a surprise, Google how similar the young Stalin looks to former One Direction star Zayn Malik.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: