History's Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals

Khalid Elhassan - January 11, 2021

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
Elagabalus made a dramatic entry into Rome. People Pill

10. An Emperor Who Got a Kick Out of Scandalizing His Subjects

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, better known to history as Elagabalus (203 – 222), Roman emperor from 218 until his assassination four years later, enjoyed scandalizing his subjects. His religious practices, which would have weirded-out contemporary Romans if performed by a private citizen, were shocking coming from an emperor. He had been a priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus. After ascending the throne as a teenager, he took the god’s name as his own and brought his worship to Rome.

There, he built Elagabalus a lavish temple, whose inauguration astonished everybody. Senators, high-ranking officials, and the public, were astonished on opening day to witness the unprecedented sight of a Roman emperor dancing around the deity’s altar, to the accompaniment of cymbals and drums. Elagabalus further offended sensibilities by attempting to incorporate his religion into the Roman pantheon. He made the sun god Elagabalus a supreme deity, above Jupiter, and transferred the most sacred relics of the Roman religion to his new temple. He also ordered that adherents of other religions, including Jews and the nascent Christians, transfer their rites to Elagabalus’ temple.

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
Elagabalus. Pinterest

9. Elagabalus Could Not Get Enough of Trolling the Romans

At times it seemed as if Emperor Elagabalus was simply acting out in the most outrageous fashion possible in order to shock people and get a reaction. Which is perhaps not that surprising, considering that he was a teenager, and he would not have been the first teenager to go out of his or her way to act outrageously in order to get attention. Unfortunately, there was one key difference that set Elagabalus apart from all other teenagers: he was the Roman emperor.

In an act that seems to have been deliberately intended to troll his Roman subjects, the teenage emperor ramped up the shocking conduct by marrying a Vestal Virgin – one of Rome’s most sacred priestesses. It was an exceptionally flagrant breach of customs and laws. For centuries, Romans had been so uptight when it came to the Vestals’ virginity that they were punished with getting buried alive if they ever engaged in sexual behavior. Elagabalus justified the scandal by claiming that the marriage would produce “godlike children”.

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
A golden aureus depicting Elagabalus. Wikimedia

8. The Teenage Emperor’s Trolling Finally Got Him Killed

In the eyes of contemporary Romans, the greatest scandal of Elagabalus’ reign was probably his flamboyant homosexuality. He openly went about in women’s clothing, and publicly fawned upon male lovers, whom he elevated to high positions. They included an athlete who was given a powerful position at court, and a charioteer whom he sought to declare as Caesar. He also reportedly prostituted himself in the imperial palace. Respected emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian had male sexual partners, and Hadrian had even created a religious cult for a youthful male lover who had accidentally drowned.

However, Elagabalus was the passive, or receptive partner in homosexual acts: a Roman emperor who was a top was acceptable, but a bottom was not. It all came to a head on March 11, 222, when soldiers in a military parade showed their contempt by cheering Elagabalus’ cousin, while ignoring the emperor. He ordered the arrest and execution of the insubordinate soldiers. Instead, his bodyguards turned around and attacked him and his mother, hacking them to pieces. Their heads were chopped off, and Elagabalus’ corpse was dragged around Rome, before it was unceremoniously tossed into the Tiber River.

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
Yisrael Bar, right, seated next to Moshe Dayan. Kadan Auction House

7. The Communist Spy Who Rose to the Heights of Israel’s Government

Yisrael Bar (1912 – 1966) was at the heart of a scandal that rocked Israel’s government in the 1960s. An Austrian-born Israeli officer, Bar rose to prominence as an expert on Israeli military history. That secured him a high-ranking position in the Israeli Ministry of Defense, which commissioned him to write a book on the Israeli War of Independence. It also won him a place within the inner circle of Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion, whose trusted confidant and advisor he became.

Bar arrived in Palestine in the late 1930s with an impressive martial resume, having graduated from the Austrian military academy, and served as a commissioned officer in the Austrian army. He then went on to fight in the Spanish Civil War with the International Brigades, where he was known by the nom de guerre “Colonel Jose Gregorio”. Between his martial exploits, Bar found the time to get a doctorate in literature from the University of Vienna. That CV was all bunk: the real Yisrael Bar had died years earlier.

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
Yisrael Bar, center and flanked by policemen, outside a courthouse in 1961. National Photo Collection of Israel

6. It Was Not Until Yisrael Bar Was Caught Red-Handed That His Deception Came to Light

Yisrael Bar’s rapid rise to prominence highlighted the difficulty Israeli intelligence had during a period of mass immigration in spotting infiltrators. In reality, Bar was a Soviet spy, and was not even a Jew. A man of the sword and letters, urbane and Hollywood handsome to boot, Bar cut a swath through Israeli society and Tel Aviv’s nightlife as a ladies’ man. It took a surprisingly long time before the fact that he was uncircumcised raised suspicions.

In the meantime, Bar took advantage of his access to Israeli secrets and Israel’s prime minister, whose diary he raided to not only photocopy, but to tear out entire pages from and pass on to his handlers. It was not until 1961, when he was caught delivering a briefcase stuffed with sensitive materials to the KGB, that the deception fell apart. Bar never revealed his true identity during interrogations following his arrest. Tried and convicted of espionage, he was sentenced to jail, where he died in 1966, taking the secret of his identity to his grave.

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
Lord Byron. UK Government Art Collection

5. The Scandal of the Great Poet Who Was Into His Sister – Literally

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (1788 – 1824), was a leading figure in the Romantic Movement. A poet, satirist, politician and peer, his poems and personality captured Europe’s imagination. Byron is one of Britain’s best poets, known and acclaimed for his brilliant use of the English language. However, he gained further fame, or infamy, by living his life as a walking scandal. He became even better-known during his lifetime for his flamboyance, amorous lifestyle, and the notoriety of his scandalous escapades with both men and women.

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
Byron’s sister, lover, and baby mama, Augusta Leigh. Penguin Books of Australia

His most infamous scandal was a years-long incestuous relationship with his sister Augusta Leigh. Byron had seen little of her during childhood, but made up for it in spades in adulthood. The scandal bore fruit in 1814, when he fathered a daughter upon his sister, making Byron the child’s uncle, as well as father. He also liked to keep mementos of his lovers. The norm was a lock of hair from one’s object of affection. For Britain’s most flamboyant poet, eccentric aristocrat, and all-around creep, a simple lock of hair would not do. Instead, Byron liked to snip clumps of hair from his lovers’ crotches, and kept them, cataloged and labeled, in envelopes.

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
Lady Caroline Lamb. Art UK

4. “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know

Byron’s most famous affair was with the married Lady Caroline Lamb. She rejected him at first, describing him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know“. She changed her mind, however, and had a torrid affair with the poet that became the scandal of Britain. When Byron dumped her, Lamb turned stalker, and pursued him relentlessly. She stopped at his house one time too many, and scribbled in a book on his desk “Remember me”. The exasperated Byron responded with a poem entitled Remember Thee! Remember Thee!: “Remember thee! remember thee! – Till Lethe quench life’s burning stream – Remorse and shame shall cling to thee, – And haunt thee like a feverish dream! – Remember thee! Aye, doubt it not. – Thy husband too shall think of thee: – By neither shalt thou be forgot, – Thou false to him, thou fiend to me!’

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
The death of Lord Byron. Wikimedia

Scandal eventually forced Byron to flee Britain, so he roamed Europe for years at a stretch, including a seven-year stint in Italy. Restlessness eventually led him to join the Greeks in their war of independence from the Ottoman Turks. However, he was disappointed with the Greeks of his day, because they differed greatly from the heroic Hellenes described by Homer. While moping about that discrepancy, he caught a fever and died in a Greek backwater at the age of 36.

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
A Mark 14 Torpedo. Wikimedia

3. The Scandal of the US Navy’s Poorly Tested WWII Torpedoes

Designed in 1931, the Mark 14 Torpedo was the standard weapon of the United States Navy’s Navy submarines when America joined World War II in 1941. When first introduced, it was heralded as a vast improvement and a technological leap forward. The Mark 14 differed from earlier torpedoes that detonated on impact with a target ship’s hull. Instead, the Mark 14 had an advanced magnetic detonator that was supposed to set off the explosive charge directly beneath the enemy’s keel and break its back – fatal damage to any ship.

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
Magnetic exploder used in the Mark 14 Torpedo failing to detonate beneath a target ship in a 1926 test, with the torpedo continuing on its way. Naval History and Heritage Command

Theoretically, a single Mark 14 was enough to sink an enemy ship, regardless of size, unlike its predecessors which usually required multiple torpedoes holing the enemy in various spots on the hull. However, secrecy and frugality led to the live testing of only two torpedoes – and one of the two failed. In a scandal that only got worse with the passage of time, a 50% failure rate did not give the US Navy pause and prompt it to conduct further testing. In 1938, the Mark 14 was approved and issued to the US submarine fleet as its standard torpedo.

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
Mark 14 Torpedo. Pacific War Online Encyclopedia

2. The US Navy Sent American Submariners Into Harm’s Way With Defective Torpedoes

It was not until after the United States joined WWII and the US Navy’s submariners found themselves in life and death encounters with the Japanese that the Mark 14 Torpedo’s flaws became apparent. Within the first month of hostilities submarine commanders correctly reported that the Mark 14 had multiple serious problems. It had trouble maintaining accurate depth so as to pass within the correct distance beneath an enemy ship’s keel. Its magnetic detonator often detonated prematurely or failed to detonate at all.

The Mark 14’s backup contact detonator failed to set off the torpedo even when it struck an enemy’s hull at a perfect angle with a loud clang that was clearly audible in the firing submarine. Worst of all, the Mark 14 tended to boomerang, missing its target and running in a wide circle to come back and hit the firing submarine. At least two American submarines were destroyed by their own torpedoes, which circled around to come back and strike them.

History’s Juiciest and Intriguing Scandals
US Navy Bureau of Ordnance personnel inspecting a Mark 14 Torpedo in 1943. Imgur

1. The Mark 14 Torpedo Scandal Was Made Worse by the US Navy Ignoring Reports of Its Flaws

The Mark 14 Torpedo scandal was made worse when the US Navy ignored multiple reports about its serious shortcomings, including reports from submariners. In one incident, a submarine commander fired two spreads totaling a dozen Mark 14s at a large Japanese whaler, but only managed to cripple it. Then, with the enemy ship dead in the water, he maneuvered his submarine and carefully positioned it so that his torpedoes would have a perfect angle of impact, then fired off nine more Mark 14s. Not a single one detonated.

It took the US Navy two years from the start of hostilities to even acknowledge the possibility that a problem might exist with the Mark 14 Torpedo. Only then did higher-ups design to allow live-fire tests to be conducted in order to find out what, if anything, was wrong. The tests verified what American submariners had been complaining about all along. Remedial steps to address the problems were finally begun – two years later than should have been the case.

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

Daily Beast – When Lana Turner’s Abusive, Gangster Boyfriend Was Killed by Her Daughter

Defense Media Network – The Mark 14 Torpedo Scandal

Eisler, Benita – Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (1999)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Elagabalus, Roman Emperor

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)

MacCarthy, Fiona – Byron: Life and Legend (2002)

Massie, Robert K – Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (2000)

Plutarch – Lives: Alcibiades

Radzinsky, Edvard – The Rasputin File (2001)

History Collection – 12 Details About Rasputin’s Controversial Life

Shabak – Yisrael Bar (1961)

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

Suetonius – The Twelve Caesars (2013)

Tereba, Tere – Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of LA’s Notorious Mobster (2012)

Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War, V-VIII

Wikipedia – Albert Tirrell

Wilson, Colin – Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs (1964)

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