Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People

Shannon Quinn - March 6, 2023

The historian Lord Acton once said, “Great men are almost always bad men.” There is something about power, money, and fame that truly does cause people to become terrible. Or, maybe they were always a bad person, and they were just good at hiding it from the masses. In today’s article, we’re going to go over famous figures throughout time who have been praised in the history books, but they have actually done terrible things.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Portrait of Gabrielle Chanel. Credit: Vogue

Coco Chanel Collaborated with the Enemy During WWII

Most people idolize Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, and see her as the epitome of high fashion. However, During World War II, when the Germans occupied France, Gabrielle decided to collaborate with the enemy. The alternative would have been to close down her shop in Paris, which would have put her out of business. To make matters worse, she entered a romantic relationship with a high-ranking German officer named Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage. The cherry on top of the cake to damn her reputation is the fact that she sold out her Jewish business partners Pierre and Paul Wertheimer. However, some who want to defend her will point out that she had been taken advantage of by the Wertheimers due to her inexperience in business, and that she actually maintained a friendship with Winston Churchill. So there is a chance that she might have been a double agent.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Pablo Picasso in his Paris studio. Credit: Bettmann Archive

Pablo Picasso Was an Abusive and Violent Person

Nearly everyone has learned about Pablo Picasso in art class, and we have seen his work displayed among great masters like Leonardo DaVinci. However, a lot of people fail to realize that Picasso was a fairly modern artist who died in 1973. If he was still alive just a few decades later, Picasso would have totally been called out during the #MeToo movement. He was incredibly abusive to the women in his life. These women devoted themselves fully to becoming his next “muse”, and were completely used in the process. There are far too many stories to tell in a short paragraph, but he burned a woman’s face with a cigarette, cheated on his wife, abandoned his illegitimate children, and so much more. Two of his partners eventually committed suicide, while others had complete mental breakdowns.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Photo of Glover Cleveland. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

President Grover Cleveland Was a Predator Who Ruined Multiple People’s Lives

Grover Cleveland served as the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. Not much is said about him in history class, because he didn’t make any monumental changes to the country. But in reality, he was a very creepy guy. He groomed his best friend’s daughter from the time she was a baby. He married her when she was 21 years old, and he was 49. Frances Cleveland was the youngest First Lady in history. A decade earlier, when he was 37, he assaulted a 38-year old woman named Mariah Halpin. She became pregnant with his child. When she tried to expose him for his crime, he used his power to get her committed to an insane asylum. Then he put his own son in an orphanage. He also ruined a journalist’s entire career for trying to write about the fact that he had cancer.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Portrait of Oliver Cromwell. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Oliver Cromwell Put An Entire Irish Town in a Church and Set it on Fire

In the United Kingdom, Oliver Cromwell is considered to be one of the most important statesmen in English history. But a lot of people like to forget about the Drogheda Massacre, which happened in Ireland in 1649. At the time, England and Ireland were engaged in the Eleven Years War. Oliver Cromwell showed up at an Irish village called Drogheda, and claimed that the town was full of rebels. So his soldiers sacked the town, slashing people in the streets. He then forced a large group of people into their church, and then set it on fire. Cromwell was quoted saying, “The righteous judgment of God on these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their hands with so much innocent blood”. Here’s the thing, though. There was never any evidence that the rebels were in Drogheda at all. So he chose a random village and killed 3,552 people.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Photo of Joseph Kennedy Sr. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Joe Kennedy Sr. Was An Awful Father and Human Being

Many people regard President John F. Kennedy as an amazing President before he was assassinated. And they give a lot of credit to his father, Joe Kennedy Sr., for raising not just one, but multiple sons who would go into politics. But it turns out that Joe was actually an awful person. He swindled a woman named Gloria Swandon out of her money, under the guise that he was “investing” it for her. Then he forced his daughter, Rosemary, to get a lobotomy because she was rebellious and had mood swings. He brought her to the hospital to get the procedure done, and did not even tell his wife about it until it was over. The operation completely ruined Rosemary’s life. She was no longer able to speak intelligibly, lost the ability to walk, and had to be put in an institution.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Hans Asperger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Hans Asperger Would Pick and Choose Which Autistic Children Would Be Sent to the Gas Chamber

Today, there is a book that has become a bestseller among parents of kids with autism called NeuroTribes. In the book, the German pediatrician, Hans Asperger, is touted as the “hero” who saved the lives of many autistic children during World War II. But in reality, he was part of a committee that helped to classify autistic children by their “usefulness”. For those who were high-functioning enough to work, they were classified with his newly coined “Asperger’s Syndrome”. But he is still complicit in the deaths of 35 children, who he deemed to be eligible for euthanization under Hitler’s regime. He sent them all to the Am Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna, where they were all used as science experiments and then killed.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Saint Mother Teresa wasn’t so saintly. Credit: Shutterstock

Mother Teresa Pocketed Money While People Died Slow and Painful Deaths

The Catholic Church glorified Mother Teresa as being one of the most selfless women in history, and they quite literally made her a Saint. During her lifetime, Teresa opened 517 missions around the world, many of which were in impoverished parts of India. She raised millions of dollars for her cause, under the guise that she was giving the poorest people in the world medical care, food, and shelter. But it turns out that over one-third of the people in these missions were dying, and they didn’t receive any medical care at all. The people were suffering so badly that investigators compared them to concentration camp prisoners from the Holocaust. When someone tried to confront Mother Teresa about the condition of these patients, she said, “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.”

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Martin Luther. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Martin Luther Was Violently Hateful Towards Jewish People

If you’re a Christian, you already know that Martin Luther was a 16th Century monk who broke away from the Catholic Church and began the Protestant Reformation. Plenty of Catholics followed him, and he began his new religion. But Jewish people refused to budge, and kept believing in their original faith. This made Martin Luther so angry, that he wrote an entire book titled On the Jews and Their Lies. As you can imagine, the book was incredibly anti semitic. He even encouraged his followers to burn down synagogues if they wanted to prove their loyalty to Christianity. He had the ability to make people so angry, that he was a major cause of a bloody uprising known as the German Peasants War.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Helen Keller. Credit: Britannica

Helen Keller Advocated for Euthanizing Disabled Children

As shocking as it may sound, Helen Keller– the woman who became famous for graduating college and writing a book despite being both blind and deaf- actually believed that disabled children should be euthanized. This is mind-boggling, considering that she is disabled herself. She proved to everyone that it’s possible to have a fulfilling life despite her difficulties. In 1915, there was a famous case of a child who was born severely deformed. The doctor refused to perform surgery on the baby, because he felt it was more merciful to let the infant die than for it to live a life being disabled. This caused a huge uproar in society, with the majority of people arguing that the child had the right to live. But Helen Keller said that most people were spouting “cowardly sentimentalism”, and that she believed the child deserved to die.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Yoko Ono and John Lennon. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

John Lennon Was an Abusive Person With a Twisted Mind

Musician John Lennon is mostly known for being one of The Beatles, and many people think of him as being a peace-loving hippie. But it turns out that he was an incredibly abusive person. He beat both his wife and children, and even made one of his kids go deaf in one ear. His violence wasn’t secluded to his home, either. One day, he was drinking at a party when one of his friends, Bob Wooler, made a joke over the fact that John Lennon had just been on a romantic vacation to Barcelona with his manager, insinuating that it was sort of gay. John punched Bob so hard, he had to be taken to the hospital, and nearly died. And the cherry on top is that he once shared during an interview that he had elicit fantasies about his own mother.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Theodore Geisel better known as Dr. Seuss. Credit: Getty Images

Dr. Seuss Cheated On His Wife When She was Ill, So She Ended up Killing Herself

Countless numbers of people have grown up reading Dr. Seuss books, and they are still staples in children’s libraries to this day. There is even a holiday called National Read Across America Day in honor of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. But it turns out that he had a problematic past. Namely the fact that he cheated on his first wife Helen. For more than a decade, Helen was partially paralyzed due to Guillain-Barré syndrome. When she found out about his affair, she killed herself. He married his mistress, Audrey, who divorced her first husband to be with him. In 2021, it was announced that six of his books are no longer going to be published, due to racist undertones.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Musician Jerry Lee Lewis. Credit: The New York Times

Jerry Lee Lewis is Suspected of Killing Two of His Wives

Musician Jerry Lee Lewis is remembered as being a rock-and-roll star of the 1950’s, most famous for his song “Great Balls of Fire”. Throughout his lifetime, Jerry Lee Lewis used a lot of drugs and alcohol. He was known to be a violent person. One time, he nearly strangled a High School teacher to death. He ruined his reputation when he married a 13-year old girl who also happened to be his first cousin. Throughout his life, he was married a total of 7 times, and two of those wives died under mysterious circumstances. Lewis was even given the nickname “The Killer”, because he very well may have been a murderer. But it didn’t stop there. In 1976, he “accidentally” shot his bass player, Butch Owens.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Credit: Thought Co.

Alfred Hitchcock Assaulted Actresses and Played Sadistic Pranks

Another director who would have been put on the chopping block if he was alive during the #MeToo Movement is Alfred Hitchcock. During the filming of his film The Birds, he literally threw live birds at Tippi Hedrin’s face, and this caused them to actually attack her. This went on for up to 8 hours a day, and she still has scars to this day. While she was on set during their second movie together, Marnie, Hitchcock assaulted Tippi in her trailer. He threatened to ruin her career if she did not meet his demands. Later, he sent Tippi’s daughter, Melanie Griffith, a lifelike doll of her mother dead in a coffin when she was just 8 years old. Aside from his obsession with Tippi, he was generally an asshole to the actors that worked with him. He played cruel and sadistic pranks on people.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Circus owner PT Barnum. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

P.T. Barnum Was a Slave Owner and Cruel to Animals

The 2017 musical The Greatest Showman depicted the life of P.T. Barnum, one of the famous founders of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. In reality, Barnum was a very controversial person. One of the first things that people condemn him for is that he got his start in show business from buying a slave named Joice Heth. She was conveniently left out of the movie. He was also the first circus owner to introduce the bull hook to hurt elephants, making them obey their human master. They also jammed hot pokers up an elephant’s trunk. He also exploited people with disabilities for profit in his “freak” shows.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Dr. John Kellogg. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

John Kellogg Was a Racist Who Tried to Prevent People From Having Intimate Relations

If the name John Kellogg sounds familiar, it’s because his brother William was the founder of Kellogg’s Cereals. John was a doctor who opened the Battle Creek Sanitarium. This was a place for wealthy people to help improve their health. Kellogg is credited as being the founder of the “wellness” industry. He wrote a book called Plain Facts About Sexual Life, where he stated that people should never fornicate, unless they wanted to make babies. He also believed that self pleasure was evil, so he recommended circumcision for men and young boys. Young girls were also circumcised by pouring acid on their privates. John Kellogg was incredibly racist, despite the fact that he fostered several black children in his home. He was pro-segregation, and started an organization called the Race Betterment Foundation. This promoted eugenics to erase non-white people from the gene pool.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Photo of Henry Ford. Credit: History

Henry Ford Was Incredibly Anti-Semitic, and Spread Hate Across the World

Most people remember Henry Ford as the founder of the Ford Motor Company. He was the first to automate making cars on an assembly line. This helped a boom in production of automobiles through the United States. However, few people realize that Henry Ford was actually anti-semitic. In 1919, he bought a newspaper called “The Deerborn Independent”, and used the paper to slander Jewish people. The newspaper became popular, and they soon had 1 million subscribers. In 1920, Ford wrote a book called The International Jew, which sold 2 million copies around the globe. Even Adolf Hilter once said, “I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration.” Once word got out, people began to boycott Ford vehicles. So he stopped publishing the newspaper, and in 1927, he came out with a public apology to save the company. Even so, his hateful book is still circulated to this day.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Actor Charlie Chaplin and his wife Lita Grey. Credit: Page Six

Charlie Chaplin Got a 15 Year Old Girl Pregnant

Actor Charlie Chaplin is remembered as being one of the greatest actors of the silent film era. He was famously known for his character called The Tramp, wearing a bowler hat and a tiny mustache. But fewer people know the fact that he pursued 12-year old Lita Grey, who he met on set of a movie they did together called The Kid. He got her pregnant when she was 15, and married her at 16. Marlon Brando once said that Charlie Chaplin was one of the cruelest men he had ever seen. They did a film together called A Countess From Hong Kong. Charlie would beat and humiliate his son Sydney in front of the cast and crew. Lita would later divorce Chaplin, and she wrote an autobiography called My Life With Chaplin.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Marlon Brando, sitting on the porch, during the filming of”The Men”. Credit: Static

Marlon Brando Mistreated Women Both on and Off Screen

Speaking of Marlon Brando, it’s ironic that he was criticizing Charlie Chaplin, because he was known for being a monster himself. Rita Moreno was in an 8-year long relationship with Marlon Brando, and she says that he treated her so badly, she attempted suicide because she wanted to escape the pain. One of his co-stars, Maria Schneider, also felt incredibly violated by Marlon Brando when they worked together filming a movie called Last Tango in Paris. There is a scene in the film that was not in the script, where Brando assaults Schneider. She was not told about this ahead of time, which makes the assault very real. Later, Schneider said, “I was so angry. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Portrait of Andrew Jackson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

President Andrew Jackson Was a Racist Who Was Responsible For “The Trail of Tears”.

The 7th President of the United States was “Old Hickory” Andrew Jackson. He is celebrated so much today, that his face appears on the $20 bill. But in reality, he was a very cruel person. He was a slave owner and obvious racist. Jackson also signed a bill called the Indian Removal Act. This forced thousands of Native Americans to leave their homes and relocate to designated “Indian Territory”. It resulted in the Trail of Tears where thousands of people had to walk hundreds of miles on foot to Oklahoma. They walked while wearing chains, and the government did not give them any food or supplies for the journey. So thousands of people died along the way. The land that once belonged to the Native Americans was stolen by the federal government and then sold to white people.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
President Woodrow Wilson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Woodrow Wilson Was Very Racist and Popularized Segregation in the United States

The 28th US President, Woodrow Wilson, is remembered for a variety of accomplishments, including winning a Nobel Peace Prize. However, most people ignore that he was a huge racist. As soon as he became President, he immediately segregated all federal offices, and publicly called black people an “ignorant and inferior race”. In 1914, he even threw a Civil Rights leader named William Monroe Trotter out of the White House. This began a ripple effect across the whole country. Now, private businesses were also opting to segregate. And with a racist President in office, it only gave other Americans justification for being vocal about their own racism.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Portrait of President Thomas Jefferson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Jefferson Got a Teenage Slave Pregnant

As one of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson is considered to be the main author of the Declaration of Independence. He would later go on to become the 3rd President of the United States. But the truth is that Thomas Jefferson impregnated one of his slaves, a 14-year old girl named Sally Hemings. She was half-white herself, being the illegitimate daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles. Jefferson’s family tried to deny this for centuries, but it was later confirmed through DNA in 1998. They had 6 children together, and 4 survived to adulthood- Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston. He eventually freed all of the children. Three of the kids were so light-skinned that they were able to “pass” as white people. They went on to live normal lives in white society. However, he never freed Sally. When Jefferson died, she was finally able to leave Monticello.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Credit: ThoughtCo.

Alexander Graham Bell Advocated For Not Allowing Deaf People to Get Married or Have Children

Most people know that Alexander Graham Bell was the inventor of the telephone. But fewer people know that he was a teacher for deaf people. His own mother was hearing-impaired, and he even married a deaf woman named Mabel Hubbard. However, he believed that deafness was a “contamination” of the human race. He believed that deaf people would give birth to deaf children, and that it would spread through the population. In 1883, he presented a paper called Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race. He suggested that deaf people should not be allowed to get married. (Which is hypocritical, since he married a deaf woman and had four children with her.) And he did not want people to use sign language.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Writer Rudyard Kipling. Credit: The Poetry Foundation

Rudyard Kipling Was Pro-Colonialism & Pro-British Empire

People remember Rudyard Kipling as the author of The Jungle Book, which went on to inspire the beloved Disney film. In 1907, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. As a child, he grew up in both India and England. But during his lifetime, he was a racist and a huge advocate for Colonialism. He is the one who came up with the phrase “the white man’s burden”, which is the belief that it’s white people’s moral duty to conquer non-white races and teach them about civilized society. Some people try to defend Kipling, saying that this thought process was normal back then. Almost all British people felt that way, not just him. Interestingly enough, he did end up moving to the United States, and married a woman from Vermont.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Credit: Apple Insider

Steve Jobs Was a Huge Jerk and A Terrible Dad

A lot of people look up to Steve Jobs as being the genius co-founder of Apple. But he was known for yelling and cursing at employees and friends alike. One time, he even berated an elderly Whole Foods employee. In his personal life, he denied being the father of his daughter, Lisa. She and her mother had to live on welfare because of it. He was sued for child support, and forced to take a DNA test. Even then, he did not spend much time with Lisa, and did not help her out financially until she was much older. Something else that rubs people the wrong way is that he refused treatment for his pancreas cancer. Ashton Kutcher tried to do the same all-fruit diet while filming the Jobs biopic, and he ended up in the hospital because his pancreas started to shut down.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Inventor Thomas Edison. Credit: History

Thomas Edison Stole Ideas and Electrocuted Animals

In every history class in America, Thomas Edison is revered and misattributed as the inventor of the lightbulb. He actually bought the rights to make the lightbulb from the actual inventors, Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans. In reality, he stole a lot of his ideas from other scientists, like Nicola Tesla. One awful, but accidental thing that Edison did was run X-Ray experiments on his assistant, Clarence Dally. They had no idea of the dangers of radiation poisoning, so Clarence ended up with burns and sores all over his body. Arguably the worst thing about him was that he killed many animals with electricity. In 1903, Edison filmed a demonstration on electrical currents at the Luna Park Zoo in Coney Island, New York. He electrocuted and killed an elephant named Topsy, just to make a point.

Historic Figures Who Were Secretly Terrible People
Explorer Christopher Columbus. Credit: History

Christopher Columbus Enslaved Indigenous People

Growing up, you were probably taught that Columbus “discovered” America. In reality, he wasn’t actually the first person to discover America. And on top of that, he was a downright terrible person. Columbus and his crew took many of the native peoples they encountered as slaves. Many of these people were forced to work under inhumane conditions. His men engaged in violent acts against the native peoples, including murder, rape, and torture. The arrival of Europeans in the Americas led to the spread of diseases that the native peoples had no immunity to. This led to devastating epidemics that wiped out large numbers of the indigenous population. Columbus was primarily interested in exploiting the resources of the Americas for the benefit of Spain. All of these reasons are why we are trying to change it to “Indigenous People’s Day” rather than Columbus Day.

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On This Day: War criminal Oliver Cromwell’s Massacre of Drogheda in 1649. Frances Mulraney Irish Central. 2022.

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Mother Teresa Was Kind of a Heartless Bitch. Mitchell Sunderland. Vice. 2015.

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You Don’t Have to ‘Imagine’ John Lennon Beat Women and Children—It’s Just a Fact. Lauren Oyler. Vice. 2015.

10 Things You May Not Know About Dr. Seuss. Christopher Klein. History. 2021.

Jerry Lee Lewis: A toxic cocktail of scandal, addiction and violence. BBC. 2022.

Why Celebrate ‘Terrible’ PT Barnum at All in ‘The Greatest Showman’? Lisa Lange. The Wrap. 2017.

Meet the Psycopath Who Invented Your Breakfast. Thoughty2 on YouTube. 2022.

Ford’s Anti-Semitism. PBS.

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So It Turns Out Marlon Brando Wasn’t Great to Women. Inside Hook. 2022.

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Alexander Graham Bell and Deafness. Jamie Berke. Verywell Health. 2022.

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16 Examples Of Steve Jobs Being A Huge Jerk. Dylan Love. Business Insider. 2011.