Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey
Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey

Romance Through the Ages, Ranked from Sweet to Cringey

Khalid Elhassan - September 30, 2021

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 were 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 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. Pintrest

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.

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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

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