Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey

Khalid Elhassan - September 30, 2021

Just like today, people’s quest for romance back in the days was often filled with all kinds of awkwardness, with the occasional outright disasters thrown in. Take the dying duelist whose last wish was to spend his final moments married to the woman in defense of whose honor he was mortally wounded. She acceded to the moving romantic request, and the couple were hurriedly wed. Soon as he officially became her husband, he made a miraculous recovery, took her for every penny she had, and made her life a living hell. Following are thirty things about that and other fascinating romance facts from history.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Victorian courtship, with a chaperone just a few feet away, put a crimp on romance. Pinterest

30. Victorians Had to Get Creative to Kick Off Romance

The Victorian Age is often perceived as a particularly uptight era of stifling social mores, and extreme prudishness that was often taken to absurd lengths. Compared to what had gone on before and what came after, it really was a buzzkill period, at least for young people of the middle and upper classes. Far as interactions between the genders, especially interactions that involved unmarried young women, the era’s fixation on propriety was not exactly conducive to the flowering of romance.

Victorian rituals of courtship did not lend themselves to spontaneity. Especially with ever-present and often dour chaperons who watched over the young ladies in their charges like hawks, and cast a baleful eye upon all young men in the vicinity. With such social dragons guarding maidens fair, it could be pretty daunting for an aspiring beau to even approach the object of his desire, let alone try to romance and sweep her off her feet. As seen below, one way to get around that was to discretely slip a young woman an “escort card” when her chaperone was not looking.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
The nineteenth-century version of Tinder. PBS

29. Escort Cards Meant Something Else in the Victorian Era

Victorian “escort cards” were not business cards with the contact information of those who offered “intimate” favors for money. Instead, they were printed cards that allowed nineteenth-century single men to cheekily get around the era’s rigid rules of social interaction between men and women, and ask a woman if they could, literally, escort her home. The cards were basically the Match dot Com or Tinder of the day in ink and paper. Many posed variations of the question: “May I see you home?” Some put that in abbreviated slang along the lines of “May I.C.U Home?”

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Victorian attempt at romance in the presence of a chaperone. Wellcome Images

Others went for cute rhymes like “If You Have No Objection, I Will Be Your Protection”. Others simply got down to the point: “Not Married And Out For a Good Time”. To bypass the strict social mores that frowned upon men simply approaching women with whom they were unacquainted to chat them up, a man would surreptitiously slip her an escort card. If she was piqued enough to want to read it, she might hide it inside her glove or fan.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Victorian eye flirting code, used to facilitate romance. Whores of Yore

28. Victorians Developed Secret Romance Codes to Flirt

Escort cards cost about a penny each, so young Victorian men – especially those who cast their net as wide as possible – often went for a nineteenth-century kind of romance recycling. If the object if their affection was not interested, some cards asked that they be returned. If she was interested enough to explore the possibility of taking it further to see how it goes, Victorians developed a romance code between men and women, to surreptitiously communicate without alerting a young woman’s chaperone.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
A reusable Victorian escort card. Flickr

For example, different winks, based on their number, which eye was used, and the kind of eye motion, could mean different things, from compliments to warnings, to declarations of love or declamations of hatred. It all seems pretty tame by modern standards, but at the time, Victorian parents were greatly alarmed about those kinds of secret communications. They feared, often rightly, that the wrong kind of man with the wrong kind of intentions could lead an innocent young woman astray.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Awareness that some people were doing this sent moralists into paroxysms of indignation. Toronto Star

27. The Moral Panic Over Canoe Romance

Before car ownership spread across the land and the backseat became the mobile ground zero for romance, America’s youth often coupled in canoes. In the early twentieth century, young Americans’ options for make out spots were pretty limited, so they took to the water. Canoes, which had recently become widely available, offered young folk an escape from finger-wagging parents and baleful chaperones, and a bit of privacy for a bit of romance. Once that bit of knowledge spread, canoe sales and permits exploded, and teenagers took to the water with the urgency of salmon fighting their way upstream to spawn. In Minneapolis, for example, 200 canoe permits were issued in 1910. Two years later, that number had exploded to more than 2000.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
A comic postcard advertisement for Old Town Canoes makes an open joke of their preferred use for above water romance. Collectors Weekly

A term was even coined for the watery romance: “canoedling”. Unsurprisingly, buzzkill pious and prudes, appalled at the thought that some people might be having fun somewhere, hit the alarm buttons for a full-blown moral panic. A contemporary Minneapolis Tribune warned the public that: “Girl Canoeists’ Tight Skirts Menace Society”. Other coverage decried the “misconduct in canoes” that threatened to “bring shame upon the city”. Accordingly, a midnight curfew was declared, and park police began to patrol the waterways in motorized boats equipped with spotlights to catch and fine canoedling canoeists. The canoe romance trend finally died out in the 1920s, when cars and car backseats became more widely available to the masses.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Rome was centered around male strength and virility. Probably why they made a whole symbol around the male anatomy. Encyclopedia Britannica

26. Romance Was in the Air in Ancient Rome With All These Flying Phalluses

Romance was very much in the air in Ancient Rome. The Romans had a rich religious pantheon that included over 200 gods. One of the lesser-known ones today – although he was quite popular with back then – was Fascinus, the winged male deity. Fascinus was literally all male anatomy, his body was quite literally made of the male “member”, that sported its own anatomy of its own, had a phallus for a tail, and for legs as well. Sometimes he had claws, in which he clutched even more male symbols. Fascinus also had wings, so he could fly around and spurt his blessings upon lucky mortals. The god of masculine regenerative power, his symbol was a phallus.

Fascinus was believed to be lucky, so worshipers carried him around in the form of amulets or pendants that hung from their necks, just like pious Christians wear crosses around their necks today. Except that instead of a cross, what dangled from the necks of Ancient Romans was an explicit male part – it was a different culture, with different mores. Fascinus, what with his being incarnated as this symbol that sported multiple male parts, was constantly on the prowl. He had a particular preference for sleeping women. Many Roman art motifs and tales revolve around sleeping maidens, usually getting some shuteye in bucolic settings, who wake up to discover that Fascinus had flown between their legs to bless them.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
A depiction of a Roman maiden. Bonhams.

25. Some of the Roman Phallic God is Still With Us Today

The most famous Roman maiden supposedly impregnated by Fascinus was Ocrisia, the mother of Rome’s sixth king, Servius Tullius. Ocrisia was a foreign noblewoman captured in war and made a slave in the household of Rome’s king Tarquinius. As the legend went, Ocrisia was a virgin, and one day, while performing the sacred rites of the Vestal Virgins, a disembodied winged male part flew in and impregnated her. The result was Servius Tullius, who was raised in the royal household. Although a slave, he so impressed King Tarquinius that he eventually freed him and gave him his daughter’s hand in marriage. After Tarquinius’ death, he was succeeded on the throne by Servius, his son-in-law and son of the divine flying phallus.

Fascinus’ name gave rise to the Latin verb “fascinare”, which means the power to use the Fascinus in order entrance or cast a spell since the flying god was supposed to have such ability. The romance that surrounded Fascinus and his worship went into decline with the rise of Christianity and eventually vanished, along with the rest of antiquity’s pagan pantheon. Nonetheless, a trace of Fascinus is still with us today: the etymology of the modern English word “fascinate” traces back to the Latin word “fascinare”, and the Ancient Roman flying god of male anatomy.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Aleksander Pushkin. Wikimedia

24. Romance Was the Death of Russia’s Romantic Poet

Rose maiden, no I do not quarrel,
With these dear chains, they don’t demean.
The nightingale embushed in laurel,
The sylvan singers’ feathered queen,
Does she not bear the same sweet plight?
Near the proud rose’s beauty dwelling,
And with her tender anthems thrilling
The dusk of a voluptuous night.
Pushkin – Dear Chains

Russia’s greatest poet Aleksander Pushkin (1799 – 1837) was a towering figure of romance. Not only did he pen sublime verse, he was also an outstanding novelist, short story writer, playwright, and dramatist who is deemed the founder of modern Russian literature. His poetry and prose addressed conflicts between personal happiness and duty and the rebellion of loners against the system. His works were rife with vigorous life-affirming themes such as the triumph of human goodness over oppression, and of reason over narrow-minded prejudice.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Bust of Abram Petrovich Gannibal. Wikimedia

23. An African Descendant in Russia

A born aristocrat, Pushkin was a descendant of Abram Petrovich Gannibal, an African kidnapped and sold into slavery as a child. Gannibal ended up in Istanbul, and from there was taken to Russia and presented as a gift to Peter the Great. The Tsar adopted Gannibal and raised him in the imperial household as his godson. He rose to prominence as a general and courtier during the reign of Peter’s daughter Elizabeth – an extraordinary life described in Pushkin’s biographical novel The Negro of Peter the Great. Gannibal’s great-grandson Pushkin was a precocious youth, who published his first poem when he was fifteen years old while a student at the elite Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Fourteen-year-old Pushkin reciting his poem at the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum. Wikimedia

While still at the Lyceum, he began his first major work, the romantic poem Ruslan and Ludmilla. It used folkloric Russian themes in an epic romance about a hero who overcomes numerous obstacles to rescue his bride. It flouted accepted genre rules with a rejection of the traditional Russian style of classic poetry, and broke barriers to use colloquial speech in verse. The poem was violently attacked, but it brought Pushkin fame and cemented his place as an innovator. By the time he graduated, Pushkin was a committed social reformer, which upset the Tsarist authorities and secret police, who placed him under surveillance for the remainder of his life.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Aleksander Pushkin. Recorte Lirico

22. The Codes of Romance That Got a Great Poet Killed

When he was twenty-one, Pushkin was exiled from St. Petersburg to southern Russia. In exile, he traveled through the Crimea and the Caucasus, and the impressions gained furnished material for his “southern cycle” of romantic poems, such as The Robber Brothers and Prisoner of the Caucasus. Pushkin’s literary outflow was frequently interrupted by the authorities, who often censored his work and prohibited or otherwise impeded its publication. Despite officialdom’s ham-handedness, he kept writing. His poetic novel Eugene Onegin revolutionized Russian literature as the first to take contemporary society as its subject matter, and led a wave of realistic Russian novels.

Pushkin’s use of the Russian language was both simple and profound and became the foundation of the style adopted by novelists such as Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev. Pushkin’s life was the embodiment of romance, and romance eventually did him in. In 1837, he discovered that his brother-in-law had attempted to seduce his wife. The code of honor of the day compelled Pushkin to challenge the offender to a duel, in which he was fatally wounded. Thus, his life was cut short at the height of his literary career, but the tragic ending was somehow fitting for a man who embodied the Romantic movement.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Petrarch. Wikimedia

21. The Poet Who Kicked Off the Renaissance

I’d sing of Love in such a novel fashion
that from her cruel side I would draw by force
a thousand sighs a day, kindling again
in her cold mind a thousand desires;

I’d see her lovely face transform quite often
her eyes grow wet and more compassionate,
like one who feels regret, when it is too late,
for causing someone’s suffering by mistake;
Petrarch – excerpt from Sonnet 131

Petrarch (1304 – 1374) was another great poet who embodied romance. He composed sonnets that became models for lyrical poetry imitated throughout Europe, and his verse and prose became a foundation of the modern Italian language. Disdaining the ignorance of preceding centuries, he coined the term “Dark Ages” to describe them, and founded Humanism, or the study of classical antiquity. His rediscovery and publication of Cicero’s letters is believed to have initiated the fourteenth-century Renaissance, which makes Petrarch one of history’s most influential scholars.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Laura crowns Petrarch with a laurel. Pinterest

20. The Renaissance’s Greatest Unconsummated Romance

Petrarch’s father was a lawyer who compelled his son to study law at the universities of Montpellier and Bologna. However, Petrarch’s interests lay in writing and Latin literature, and he detested the legal profession. After his parents’ death, he worked in clerical offices, which gave him time to devote to his true passion, writing, and his first major work, an epic about the Roman general Scipio Africanus, won him acclaim. His poems to Laura, an idealized beloved who was beyond his reach, contributed to a flowering of lyrical poetry. Laura’s death during the Black Death led Petrarch to renounce sensual pleasure, but his love for her continued for the remainder of his life.

That chaste love and unconsummated romance formed the basis of his most celebrated work, the Italian poems Rime, which he divided into rimes during Laura’s life, and rimes after her death. Even before he penned Rime, Petrarch’s poetry had earned him considerable praise such that, in 1341, he became only the second poet laureate crowned since antiquity. He became known as the “first tourist” for his propensity to travel for pleasure. While on the road, he visited monastic libraries to collect manuscripts from antiquity and was prominent in the recovery and propagation of knowledge from Greco-Roman writers. That became his scholarly life mission, and it lasted until his death in 1374.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Lord Palmerston was a randy old goat to the very end. String Fixer

19. Illicit Romance Was The Death of This Aged British Prime Minister

Lord Palmerston, formally the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, born Henry John Templeton (1784 – 1865), dominated British foreign policy from 1830 to 1865 when Britain stood at the height of her power. He served as Secretary at War from 1809 to 1828, as Foreign Secretary from 1830 to 1841 and again from 1846 to 1851, and twice as Prime Minister, from 1855 to 1858, and again from 1859 to 1865. In his private life, he seems to have been a randy old goat who tried to get it on whenever and wherever he could, with eventually fatal consequences.

Lord Palmerston is the only British Prime Minister to have ever died in office, and oh what a death it was. On October 18th, 1865, the eighty-year-old Prime Minister, who enjoyed robust health well past his biblical three score and ten, reportedly was loving up one of his maids on a billiard table. He seems to have overexerted himself, which led to his demise in the midst of his illicit romance, just two days short of his eighty-first birthday.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Felix Faure. Numismag

18. This French President’s Death Mid Romance Blew That of the British Prime Minister Away

The French would probably be mortified if the British outdid them in any sphere of romance. It is thus unsurprising that a French politician had to die mid romance in a spectacular manner that wholly eclipsed the demise of Lord Palmerston. Such was the fate of Felix Faure (1841 – 1899), who was President of France from 1895 until his death four years later, when his coitus was interrupted by a massive seizure. He basically came and went (to meet his Maker) at the same time.

A self-made man, Faure was the son of a small furniture maker. In his youth, he worked as a tanner, then became a successful and very wealthy industrialist and merchant in Le Havre. He was elected that city’s mayor, and at age 40, he was elected to the National Assembly as a member of the Left. He focused his attentions on economics, the French Navy, and railways, held a series of undersecretary positions in the 1880s, and became a cabinet minister in 1894.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Failed attempt to assassinate Felix Faure in 1896. Wikimedia

17. The Unexpected President

In 1895, Felix Faure was unexpectedly elected president when the incumbent resigned, and Faure was chosen as a compromise candidate who had not offended anybody who mattered. His presidency was marked by colonial expansion, a rapprochement with Russia, conflict with Britain, and the running sore of the Dreyfus Affair. He approved the French conquest of Madagascar and exchanged state visits with Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, which eventually led to an alliance. As to Britain, France almost went to war with the British in 1898 over the Fashoda Incident – a colonial confrontation in Sudan.

France was forced to back down, which diminished Faure’s popularity at home. Most salient, however, was the Dreyfus Affair, which polarized the nation over a Jewish officer framed by higher-ups in the French Army for treason, and unjustly convicted and imprisoned. Even after it became clear that Dreyfus was innocent and that the culprit was another officer, Faure refused to reopen the investigation. Another thing that marked Faure’s presidency was how it ended, in the midst of passionate romance.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Felix Faure’s mistress, Marguerite Steinheil. Gutenberg Org

16. Passionate Romance Was the End of This Head of State

President Felix Faure had always had an eye out for the ladies, and in 1897, he met Marguerite Steinheil, a French woman who became famous for her many affairs with prominent men. Faure was a prominent man, Steinheil soon became his mistress, and the duo frequently met and consummated their romance in the presidential Elysee Palace. On February 16th, 1899, Faure telephoned Steinheil and asked her to swing by the palace later that afternoon. She arrived and was ushered into the palace’s Blue Drawing Room, where Faure awaited her. Soon thereafter, servants heard screams.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
The death of Felix Faure. Le Petit Journal

When they burst into the room, they found a disheveled and distraught Steinheil, with the president’s convulsed hands tangled in her hair. The President of the French Republic had suffered a fatal stroke while receiving oral… compensation. Naturally, the French press, political class, and public had a field day. Typical was the French daily, Gil Blas, which reported: “Felix Faure passed away in good health – indeed, from the excess of good health”. George Clemenceau quipped: “Il voulait être César, il ne fut que Pompée” – French wordplay that means “he wanted to be Caesar, but ended up as Pompey”, but since pomper is also French slang for a blow job, it carried a double meaning.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Benito Mussolini, Italian dictator, speaks at the dedication ceremonies of Sabandia, central Italy, on Sept. 24, 1934. Associated Press

15. Mussolini Could Not Get Enough of Writing Explicit Romance Letters

Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945), founder of Italy’s Fascist Party, went on to become prime minister and leader of his country from 1922 to 1943. He was the first European fascist dictator and was an inspirational figure for Adolf Hitler, who sought to model himself after Mussolini during his own rise to power. Eventually, the Italian dictator was overshadowed by his German imitator, and Mussolini ended up as Hitler’s sidekick. He had delusions of grandeur and sought to revive the Roman Empire. Neither he nor Italy was up to the task, however, and Mussolini kept biting more than he or his country could chew.

The results were often farcical and humiliating setbacks and defeats. Towards the end of his career, having dragged an unprepared Italy into World War II and bungled it badly, Mussolini’s image had morphed from that of a great statesman to a hapless buffoon. It ended badly for him, when his countrymen captured him in the final days of WWII in Europe. They killed him and his mistress, and displayed both in downtown Milan, suspended upside down by their ankles from meat hooks. As seen below, however, there was a side to Mussolini, one of passionate and explicit romance, that few knew about.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Clara Petacci. The Fanatic

14. Il Duce Was a Total Hound

When he was not inspiring would-be fascist dictators, or getting his unwarlike countrymen into wars they neither wanted nor could win, Benito Mussolini liked to unwind with explicit romance. To wit, he could not get enough of writing erotic letters. They were often cringe-worthy, as was discovered when the diary of Clara Petacci, the mistress killed and strung up by his side, came to light in 2009. For all his shortcomings, one thing Il Duce (Italian for leader) had going for him was an incredible libido and remarkable intimate stamina. As described by Petacci, Mussolini often had up to 14 mistresses at a time, and would regularly go through three or four different women in a single evening.

He was also jarringly loud while participating in intercourse: “his screams seem like those of a wounded beast”, as Petacci put it. He was a total hound, who seemed to lust after every woman he met. As he described it, after his first intimate encounter with a lady of the night when he was seventeen: “Naked women entered my life, my dreams, my desires. I undressed them with my eyes, the girls that I met, I lusted after them violently with my thoughts”. Luckily for him, many Italian women had the hots for him as well, and at the height of his power, thousands of women sent letters that propositioned him every day.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Il Duce demanded that he be hit, hurt, and punished. BBC

13. The Fascist Who Liked to Get Hit, Hurt, and Punished

Mussolini had underlings sort the letters from female admirers into “known” and “new” piles. After police background checks on the “new” women, the more interesting ones were put in folders and passed on to him. The ones who caught his eye – usually big breasted and broad hipped – would then be summoned for an afternoon liaison at his palace. He wasted no time, and usually got down to turning the romance physical right then and there on the carpet, against the wall, or on a stone window seat.

Those who pleased him would get added to his many mistresses, and in correspondence with them, Mussolini held little back. For example: ” Orgasm is good for you: it sharpens your thoughts, it widens your horizons, it helps your brain, makes it vivid and brilliant”. Or “Be afraid of my love. It’s like a cyclone. It’s tremendous; it overwhelms everything. You must tremble.” And “I tremble in telling you, but I have a feverish desire for your delicious little body which I want to kiss all over. And you must adore my body, your giant…”. Or “Your flesh has got me – from now on I’m a slave to your flesh.” And ” I’m bad – hit me, hurt me, punish me, but don’t suffer. I love you. I think about you all day, even when I’m working.”

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Mary Bowes. Westminster Abbey

12. The Rake and the Unhappy Countess

Andrew Robinson Stoney (1747 – 1810) was an Anglo-Irish rake and adventurer – a conman who gained infamy when he tricked a noblewoman into a horrific marriage. That marriage was to Mary Bowes, Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne (1749 – 1800), an ancestress of Queen Elizabeth II. She became known as “The Unhappy Countess” as a result of her marriage to Stoney, which scandalized England and ended in a riveting divorce case. She was born in London to a wealthy coal baron who died when Mary was eleven-years-old, and left her millions of pounds as an inheritance – Paris Hilton type money in those days. It made Mary the wealthiest heiress in Europe, and one of Britain’s most desirable women.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
A contemporary cartoon mocking the Earl of Strathmore and Kingmore for his wife’s licentiousness. Wikimedia

Aristocrats wooed her, and she enjoyed and encouraged their attentions, before she finally married the Earl of Strathmore and Kingmore on her eighteenth birthday. The couple had five children, but when the Earl caught tuberculosis, Mary grew frustrated with his increasing debility and lack of libido. She sought romance elsewhere, and began to cheat on her husband with a series of lovers, and earned a reputation for licentiousness in the process. When the Earl finally succumbed in 1776, the widowed Mary resumed control of her fortune, and took up with a lover, George Gray. He got her pregnant four times within a year, and Mary aborted each one.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Andrew Robinson Stoney, circa 1781. Meister Drucke

11. A Gesture of Romance That Turned Out to be a Con

Mary Bowes, the Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne, finally resigned herself to marry George Gray after the fourth time he got her pregnant. Then she met and was seduced by Andrew Robinson Stoney, a British Army lieutenant who styled himself a “Captain”. In 1777, Stoney wrote anonymous scurrilous articles about Mary, and arranged to have them published in a newspaper. He then feigned outrage over the insult to Mary’s honor, and challenged the newspaper’s editor, who was in on the scam, to a duel. In the ensuing fake fight, Stoney pretended to have been “mortally wounded”. He then appealed to Mary’s romantic side, begged her to grant him his dying wish: her hand in marriage.

Moved by such a gesture of romance, and figuring that the marriage would only last a few hours, Mary agreed to wed Captain Stoney, who was carried down the aisle on a stretcher. Soon after the vows were exchanged and the ceremony concluded, Stoney made a miraculous recovery. In those days, husbands had the right to control their wives’ finances, but Stoney discovered that a prenuptial agreement stood between him and his wife’s wealth. Undaunted, he forced Mary to revoke the prenuptial and hand control of her fortune over to him.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Andrew Robinson Stoney. Wikimedia

10. Georgian England’s Worst Marriage

Andrew Robinson Stoney began to squander his wife’s wealth like a drunken sailor on shore leave, and kept Mary a prisoner in their home. Over the next eight years, he made his captive wife’s life a living hell, abused her physically and emotionally, and assaulted and impregnated her maids. He also brought lady escorts home, carried on numerous consensual affairs, and fathered a brood of illegitimate children in the process. Mary finally escaped in 1785 and filed for divorce, but Stoney was not about to give up on his meal ticket. So he tracked Mary down and kidnapped her.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Andrew Robinson Stoney in court. UK National Portrait Gallery

He took her to northern England, where he tortured her, and threatened to assault and kill her. He also made her ride around the countryside on horseback during an extremely cold winter, in the hope she would sicken and die, so he could inherit her fortune. She was eventually rescued when a hue and cry was raised, and Stoney was tracked down and arrested. The divorce case resumed, with criminal charges against Stoney added to the mix. The legal proceedings captivated Britain for years. Stoney and his accomplices were eventually convicted of abduction and sentenced to three years imprisonment, and Mary finally got her divorce in 1789.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Maria Bickford. Daily Mail

9. A Nineteenth-Century Romance that Went Terribly Wrong

In his early 20s, Albert Jackson Tirrell, the scion of a well off family from Weymouth, Massachusetts, scandalized society with a romance that struck his peers as being beyond the pale. He left his wife and two children to be with Maria Bickford, a married lady of the night who lived in a Boston brothel. Tirrell did not care: he was passionately in love with Mrs. Bickford. She seemed to return the affection, although that did not stop her from continuing her profession. That did not sit well with Tirrell, and it was a constant bone of contention between the pair throughout their relationship. On the night of October 27th, 1845, loud noises were heard from Mrs. Bickford room.

Soon thereafter, the brothel owner awoke to the smell of smoke to discover that somebody had set three fires in his establishment. After he doused the flames, he entered Mrs. Bickford’s room, to discover that she had been brutally murdered, savagely beaten and with her throat slit from ear to ear with a razor that cut so deeply it almost severed her head. Suspicion immediately fell on Tirrell, the last person known to have seen her alive, according to multiple witnesses, who saw him enter the victim’s room that evening after her last customer had left.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Murder of Maria Bickford. National Police Gazette

8. A Crime That Gripped the Country

A bloody razor was found near the body of Maria Bickford, along with pieces of Tirrell’s clothes and broken-off sections of a distinctive cane known to belong to him. Police immediately began a search for Tirrell, but he had fled. He had last been spotted bargaining with a livery stable keeper, reportedly saying that he was “in a scrape” and needed to get away. Tirrell was eventually tracked down to New Orleans, where he was arrested on December 6th, 1845, and extradited to Massachusetts to face trial for murder. The story quickly became a local and national sensation. It combined the salacious details of a seedy romance with a courtesan, the sin of adultery, and the class divide briefly bridged between a scion of a wealthy and respectable family who abandoned his wife and children for a fallen woman.

All of that was capped off with a gruesome murder, nationwide manhunt, arrest, and trial. Tirrell’s parents hired Rufus Choate, a former US Senator and respected Boston lawyer known for his creative defense strategies. At the trial, prosecutors called in numerous witnesses who established strong circumstantial evidence that Tirrell was the culprit. The defendant’s lawyer, Choate, emphasized that the evidence was circumstantial and that nobody had seen Tirrell actually murder the victim, and built his defense on the then-innovative sleepwalking defense.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Rufus Choate, the lawyer who litigated America’s first sleepwalking defense case. Harvard Law Museum

7. America’s First Sleepwalking Defense

Rufus Choate argued at the trial of Albert Tirrell that his client was a chronic sleepwalker, and that if he did kill Mrs. Bickford, he must have done so while in a somnambulistic state. As such, he would have been unaware of his actions and so could not legally be held responsible for them. Defense witnesses testified that Tirrell had seemed to be in a trance on the morning of the murder, and that he sounded weird and appeared “in a strange state, as if asleep, or crazy”. Another witness testified that he spoke with Tirrell when he arrived in his hometown of Weymouth, and that the defendant claimed that sought to flee from an adultery indictment. When the witness informed Tirrell of Mrs. Bickford’s murder, he seemed genuinely shocked.

Choate also attacked the victim and her character. He argued that as professional practiced in the arts of romance, she had ensnared the hitherto innocent Tirrell with her charms and seduced him away from his wife and children. Then, probably guilt stricken at what she had done, she committed suicide. As Choate pointed out, courtesans often killed themselves in disgust and despair over their lifestyle and profession. It was an argument that resonated with the jurors’ cultural mores in early Victorian America. It was a time of disquiet over a recent proliferation of “fallen women” who handed their cards to passersby on city streets, so it was not difficult to convince them that the victim was as morally culpable as her killer.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
A contemporary pamphlet about the Bickford murder. Project Gutenberg

6. The Man Who Got Away With Murder

After Rufus Choate delivered a six-hour closing argument, the jury retired to deliberate. It returned two hours later with a not guilty verdict, on grounds that Tirrell was unaware of his actions at the time, and was thus not legally responsible. Other defendants in subsequent years were acquitted based on a sleepwalking defense, but ironically, America’s first successful sleepwalking defense was probably a sham. While people in a somnambulistic state are capable of complex actions, Tirrell’s failed attempt to set fire to the brothel after the murder indicates that he sought to destroy evidence of his crime and cover his tracks.

Such actions denote that he was well aware of his actions and their consequences. By contrast, real sleepwalkers do not try to destroy evidence of their crimes while sleepwalking. Tirrell was probably guilty of the murder of Maria Bickford. He was almost certainly guilty of the attempted arson of the brothel and the consequent attempted murder of its occupants, or at least the reckless endangerment of their lives. Today, it is highly unlikely that a defendant in similar circumstances would be acquitted on a sleepwalking defense.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Medal of Elagabalus. Louvre Museum

5. The Teenager Who Went From Priest to Emperor

Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, better known to history as Elagabalus (203 – 222), was Roman emperor from 218 until his death four years later. His eastern religious practices, which would have been highly unusual in contemporary Rome if performed by a private citizen, were bizarre and shocked Roman sensibilities when carried out by an emperor. As a youth, he had served as a priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus. Although he was related to the imperial family, nobody expected him to ever become emperor.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Elagabalus made a dramatic entry into Rome. People Pill

Then his cousin, the Emperor Caracalla, was assassinated, and the teen priest’s grandmother proved herself a wily politician, and successfully intrigued to have him succeed the deceased as ruler of the Roman Empire. The new teenage ruler took his deity’s name as his own and brought its worship to Rome, where he built it a lavish temple. There, before the eyes of astonished senators, high ranking dignitaries, and the public, he danced around the deity’s altar to the sound of cymbals and drums.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Elagabalus. Rome 101

4. Too Much Romance Got This Emperor Killed

Elagabalus further offended sensibilities when he tried to unify the Roman pantheon with his religion, with Elagabalus as supreme god, above Jupiter, king of Rome’s gods. To that end, he had the most sacred relics of the Roman religion transferred to his new temple. Additionally, he ordered that other religions, including Jews and the nascent Christians, transfer their rites to Elagabalus’ temple. What got the new emperor in the most trouble, however, is that he might have been the most flamboyantly homosexual ruler in history, who openly went about in women’s clothing and publicly fawned upon male lovers.

He elevated his partners in romance to high positions, such as a charioteer whom he sought to declare Caesar, and an athlete given a powerful position at court. He also reportedly solicited himself in the imperial palace. Homosexual practices were not unusual in Ancient Rome – respected emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian had male partners, and Hadrian created a religious cult for a youthful lover who had accidentally drowned. However, Elagabalus was the passive, or receptive partner, and that was considered shameful by contemporaries. That and the open effeminacy, especially from an emperor, made Elagabalus an object of contempt, and led to his assassination in 222.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Kichizo Ishida. Iron Spike

3. Japan’s Most Painful Romance

Kichizo Ishida (1894 – 1936) was a Japanese businessman and restaurateur with a reputation for being a ladies’ man. He began his career off as an apprentice in a restaurant that specialized in eel dishes, and at age twenty four he opened what became a highly successful restaurant, the Yoshidaya, in the Nakano neighborhood of Tokyo. By 1936, he seems to have left the management of his other business affairs to his wife, and dedicated himself to womanizing. Early in 1936, he began a torrid romance with a recently hired employee, Sada Abe, that ended badly.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Sada Abe. Wikimedia

Sada Abe (1905 – 1971) had been a Geisha and a former courtesan before she was hired on as an apprentice at Kichizo’s restaurant. It did not take long after she started work before her boss made advances, which advances she eagerly welcomed. The duo became infatuated with each other, and spent days on end engaged in marathon nooky sessions at hotels, where they did not pause even when maids came in to clean the rooms. Unfortunately for Kichizo, Sada’s infatuation with him grew into obsession.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Still from a movie about Sada Abe. Ozy

2. A Lover Who Mistook Attempted Murder For Attempts to Spice Up the Romance

Sada Abe began to get jealous whenever her lover Kichizo Ishida returned to his wife, and she began to toy with the idea of murder as a means to keep him forever to herself. She bought a knife and threatened him with it during their next marathon session, but Ishida assumed it was role play to spice up the romance and was turned on rather than concerned. That threw Sada off. Later during the marathon session, she again steeled herself to kill him, this time via strangulation with a Geisha belt during love making.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
The love motel where Kichizo Ishida met his end. Wikimedia

That only turned her lover on even more, and he begged her to continue, which again threw her off. Finally, Kichizo fell asleep, at which point Sada, gathered her nerve one more time to do the deed, and she went ahead and strangled her sleeping lover to death with a Geisha scarf. Then she took out the knife and castrated him, carved her name on his arm, and with his blood wrote “Sada and Kichizo together” on the bed sheets before she fled.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Contemporary Japanese newspaper article with a photo of Sada Abe and Kichizo Ishida. Christian Phelps

1. The Horrific End of This Romance Threw a Country Into a Panic

The corpse of Kichizo Ishida was discovered the next day. When news of the gruesome murder and mutilation broke, and that a “sexually and criminally dangerous woman was on the loose”, Japan was gripped with what became known as “Sada Abe panic”. Police eventually caught up with and arrested her, at which point they discovered Kichizo Ishida’s genitals in her purse. When questioned why she had Kichizo’s appendages her purse, Sada replied: “Because I couldn’t take his head or body with me. I wanted to take the part of him that brought back to me the most vivid memories”.

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Sada Abe in police custody. Pinterest

She was tried and convicted and served five years in prison before she was released. She went on to write an autobiography and lived until 1971. The Sada-Kichizo romance and its painfully weird conclusion became a sensation in Japan, embedded in its popular culture and acquiring mythic overtones ever since. The story and variations thereof has been depicted in poetry and prose, both fiction and nonfiction, portrayed in movies and television series, and interpreted over the decades by various philosophers and artists.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

All That is Interesting – Andrew Robinson Stoney May Have Been England’s Worst Husband, Ever

AV Club – Wikipedia Erected a Page to Explain Ancient Rome’s Fascination With the Phallus

Cassius Dio – Roman History, Books 79-80

Collectors Weekly – Love Boats: The Delightfully Sinful History of Canoes

Cracked – 5 Ways Love and Dating in the Past Were Weird

Encyclopedia Britannica – Aleksander Pushkin

Encyclopedia Britannica – Petrarch

Encyclopedia Dot Com – Albert Tirrell Trial: 1846

Fuess, Claude Moore – Rufus Choate, the Wizard of the Law (1970)

Goldsworthy, Adrian – How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (2009)

Hertfordshire Life – The Dramatic Life and Passing of Prime Minister Lord Palmerston

Historia Augusta – The Life of Elagabalus

History Collection – Interesting Love Stories That Helped Shape the Modern World

Medium – Felix Faure, the French President Who Died Getting a Blow Job

Messy Nessy Chic – When the Phallus Was Fashion

Moore, Wendy – Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match (2009)

Murderpedia – Sada Abe

National Geographic – Saucy ‘Escort Cards’ Were a Way to Flirt in the Victorian Era

National Post, April 18th, 2017 – ‘I Want to Harm You, Be Brutal With You’: How Mussolini’s Last Love, Fueled by Se* and Power, Shaped Him

National Public Radio – When Flirtation Cards Were All the Rage

Northern Echo, November 24th, 2017 – Andrew Robinson Stoney, the Man Who Locked His Wife in a Cupboard Until She Was Dead

Smithsonian Magazine, April 30th, 2012 – The Case of the Sleepwalking Killer

Spiegel, November 26th, 2009 – In Bed With Benito: S*x Diaries Reveal Mussolini’s Soft Side

Star Tribune, August 1st, 2013 – Canoe Craze Marked by Romance, Ribaldry

Wikipedia – Albert Tirrell

Wikipedia – Felix Faure

Wikipedia – Sada Abe