Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History

Khalid Elhassan - August 21, 2019

Most assume that they have the world’s best mother of all time, but of course, they can’t all be right. However, while many mothers might get nominated by their offspring for the title of Best Ever, some mothers clearly don’t belong anywhere near that list. Below are twenty things about some of history’s worst mothers.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Mary Ball Washington. Wikimedia

20. George Washington’s Mom Went Out of Her Way to Make Life Awkward For Her Son

The story about George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, then being unable to lie about it to his father, is the most famous one about the first president’s childhood. It never happened, but digging into the boy Washington’s relationship with his mother could yield some true, although less uplifting, tales. Compared to other mothers on this list, Mary Ball Washington was not monstrous. Indeed, she deserves credit for raising “The Father of His Country”. What made Mary Ball a bad mother was the lifelong diet passive-aggressiveness she fed her son. As George Washington put it, he grew up ten times more afraid” of Mary than anybody else he knew. She kept making things awkward for him his entire life.

During the war, Mary asked Virginia’s House of Delegates for money. That prompted her embarrassed son – a conscientious straight rod appalled at the idea of nepotism – to rush off a letter, urging the Assembly not to give his mom any money. That paled in comparison to the fact that, even as her son was leading the Patriots in their fight for independence, Mary was a vocal supporter of King George III. She stayed passive-aggressive to the end: when George became president in 1789 and dropped by to visit, his mom did not celebrate, instead told him she was dying.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Darius III fleeing from Alexander the Great at the Battle of Isus. Naples National Archaeological Museum

19. Darius III Had One Ice Cold Mother

Alexander the Great kicked off his conquest of the Persian Empire by defeating the Persian governor’s forces in Asia Minor at the Battle of the Granicus River in 334 BC. That got the attention of Persia’s king Darius III, so he set out at the head of a huge to settle Alexander’s hash in person. They met at the Battle of Isus in 333 BC, another Persian defeat, that ended with Darius fleeing the field. He left behind not only his defeated men, as well as his baggage and supplies, but also his family and harem.

Persian kings traditionally took their womenfolk with them on campaigns, so when Darius ran away at Isus, he left behind his wife, two daughters, and his mother, Sisygambus. Alexander treated them with respect, but Darius’ flight left Sisygambis seething with contempt for her son, who ran away and left her behind. The Persian king was beaten by Alexander once more at the Battle of Gaugamela, which also ended with Darius fleeing the field. When Darius was eventually killed, Alexander sent his body to Sisygambis, to mourn for and bury him. Instead, she coldly said: “I have but one son [meaning Alexander] and he is king of all Persia“. By contrast, when Alexander died a decade later, Sisygambis went into paroxysms of mourning, refusing to leave her room or eat, and died of grief a few days later.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Ma Barker. Ocala Post

18. Ma Barker Raised Her Sons to Be Violent Criminals, and Led Them to Their Deaths

During the 1930s, America was swept by a wave of violent and flashy criminals, who fascinated, horrified, and titillated the public. This was the era of iconic outlaws such as Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Machine Gun Kelly. Their numbers included Arizona Donnie Barker, AKA “Ma Barker”, who made the FBI’s Public Enemies list, and was described by J. Edgar Hoover as “the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade“.

It would have been bad enough if she had chosen a life of violent crime just for herself, but she raised her kids to be like her, and in so doing, doomed them. Sons Arthur, Fred, Herman, and Lloyd Barker were raised to become violent thugs since childhood, and they grew up to be car thieves, armed robbers, kidnappers, and murderers. It ended badly for son Herman, who killed himself in the 1920s to avoid capture after a bungled bank robbery. Ma Barker and another son, Fred, followed him to great beyond in 1935, when they got into a shootout with FBI agents in Florida.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Medieval Constantinople. Pintrest

17. Empress Irene Rose to Power During a Bonkers Era of Religious Turmoil

Nowadays, the finer points of Christian doctrine seldom raise a kerfuffle beyond the walls of seminaries, or betwixt professors of theology, clerics, or the such. But in centuries past, and to the extent that is difficult to grasp nowadays, theological debates used to rile up your average Christian man or woman on the street more than most anything can rile us up today. Enough to get mothers to mutilate their offspring to death, which is what the Byzantine Empress Irene (circa 752 – 803) did to her son.

In the Bible, sinners are punished, so when Islam suddenly erupted out of nowhere to sweep the Byzantines out of the Middle East and Africa, and reduce their empire to a reeling rump, many assumed that they were being punished for their sins. However, which sins? Some pinned the blame on Christians violating the Second Commandment – the one about graven images. Churches were full of religious paintings, leading Christians, so the argument went, to worship idols. How was making offerings to saints or revering their images different from worshiping Ba’al? That line of reasoning led to a backlash against icons, known as iconoclasm, that kicked off decades of religious turmoil.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Byzantine gold solidus featuring Empress Irene. Wikimedia

16. Irene and Icons

Icons’ opponents, known as Iconoclasts, reasoned that Muslims had been successful because they strictly obeyed the Second Commandment’s prohibition of graven images. In 711, the year the Muslims invaded Spain, a new emperor, Leo the Isaurian, ascended the throne in Constantinople. A few years later, the Muslim Caliph ordered the destruction of every Christian image in the Islamic world: every statue, mosaic, and painting, of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Christians appealed to Leo for help, but his response astonished many: he decided to emulate the Caliph, and destroy every Christian icon in his own empire as well.

Leo’s agents spread throughout what was left of the Byzantine Empire, invading churches to root out and destroy images and icons. That kicked off half a century of Iconoclasm, as Leo’s son and successor, Constantine V, went about smashing icons as enthusiastically as his dad had. However, while Iconoclasm had plenty of support, it also had plenty of opposition: many loved their icons, and hated Iconoclasts. One such opponent was Emperor Constantine V’s daughter-in-law, Irene of Athens. She bided her time until the moment came for her to undo Iconoclasm. Unfortunately, that also entailed undoing her own son.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Gold solidus featuring Empress Irene and her son, Constantine VI. Wikimedia

15. Irene Undoes Iconoclasm, and Mutilates Her Son

Irene’s husband became emperor Leo IV, but died soon thereafter, leaving the empire to his son, the child emperor Constantine VI, with Irene as regent. After consolidating her power, Irene set about undoing the preceding decades of Iconoclasm, with all the tenacity and enthusiasm of a religious zealot. In her determination to let nothing stand in the way of her religious mission, Irene rode roughshod over the Iconoclasts – including her own son.

Irene began by calling a church council in 786, and packed it with opponents of Iconoclasm. Unsurprisingly, the council concluded that Iconoclasm had been a huge mistake. That kicked off a Byzantine counter-reformation against the Iconoclasts, who resisted the return of religious imagery just as vehemently as their opponents had resisted the destruction of icons. When Constantine VI finally came of age, he declared himself an Iconoclast. Irene demonstrated the strength of her faith by overthrowing him, and in 797, ordered her son’s mutilation by gouging out his eyes. He was maimed so severely, that he died of his wounds soon thereafter. Irene then proclaimed herself empress and continued her quest to undo Iconoclasm and reintroduce religious imagery.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Fredegunda. Lapham’s Quarterly

14. Fredegunda of Soissons Cast Out Her Infant Son to Avoid Catching an Illness From Him

Fredegunda (circa 545 – 597) might have been history’s most cartoonishly evil mother. She started off as a servant of Audovera, wife of Frankish king Chilperic I of Soissons, and eventually caught the king’s eye. She convinced him to divorce Audovera and dump her into a convent, then became Chilperic’s mistress. Chilperic eventually set Fredegunda aside to marry a noblewoman, Galswintha. That turned out to be bad news for the new queen: Fredegunda personally strangled Galswintha to death.

Fredegunda then resumed her place as Chilperic’s side, as his official mistress and queen consort. In 580, a dysentery epidemic afflicted King Chilperic, as well as two of his sons with Ferdegunda. She took that as a sign of divine displeasure for her sins, and made some efforts to mend her ways, but she reverted to cartoonish evil. While besieged in a city, another of her sons, a babe in arms, became seriously ill. Worried that she might catch whatever her kid had, Fredegunda ordered him cast away, and let him die.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Fredegunda, trying to murder her daughter. Look and Learn

13. Fredegunda Tried to Crush Her Daughter’s Head

Abandoning her baby to die was at least driven by Fredegunda’s animal instinct for survival and the desire, ignoble as it might be, to save herself. Not so what she did to her own daughter, Rigunth. That worthy, a chip off the old block, was just as scheming as her other, but not as wily and ruthless. As she grew into a beautiful young woman, Rigunth took to bragging that she would soon take her mother’s place as the king’s mistress and queen consort. She should have recalled what her mother had done to other rivals, before running off the mouth like that. A jealous Fredegunda responded by trying to crush her daughter’s head. As described by a medieval chronicler:

Fredegunda was jealous of her own daughter, Rigunth, who continually declared that she should be mistress in her place. She waited for her opportunity and under the pretense of magnanimity took her to the treasure room and showed her the King’s jewels in a large chest. Feigning fatigue, she exclaimed, “I am weary; put thou in thy hand, and take out what thou mayest find.” The mother thereupon forced down the lid on her neck and would have killed her had not the servants finally rushed to her aid“.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Lu Pu Wei, in a still from ‘The Emperor and the Assassin’. Alchetron

12. Shi Huangdi’s Mother Plotted to Depose Her Son in Favor of Her Lover’s Children

China’s first emperor, Chin Shi Huangdi (259 – 210 BC), was reportedly not the biological son of his royal “father”, but that of an adventurer named Lu Pu Wei. The story goes that Lu Pu Wei’s mistress had caught the eye of a royal prince, who fell passionately in love with her. To keep on his good side, Lu Pu Wei agreed to pass his mistress on to the prince. The latter married her, and she became known thereafter as Lady Zhao. However, the prince got more than what he had bargained for: Lady Zhao was already pregnant by Lu Pu Wei, and eventually gave birth to the future emperor. Her husband eventually ascended the throne, but died soon thereafter, leaving the crown to his “son”, with Lu Pu Wei, the prime minister, and Lady Zhao, the dowager queen, acting as regents.

The duo resumed their affair, but by 241 BC, Lu Pu Wei figured he needed to end his affair with the dowager queen. It had been manageable while the future Chin Shi Huang was a child, but the king was now nearing adulthood. If he found out that his prime minister was sleeping with his mother, things would get ugly. However, Lady Zhao figured that Lu Pu Wei had simply fallen out of love with her. To get her mind off him, the enterprising adventurer decided to find the dowager queen another lover. He succeeded way more than he had ever imagined, as Lady Zhao fell so hard for her new lover, that she eventually plotted with him against her own son.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Lao Ai, in a still from ‘The Emperor and the Assassin’. Sony Pictures

11. Deposing Huangdi for a Hung Beau

To take his mistress’ mind off him, and focus her affections on another, Lu Pu Wei searched for just the right replacement lover who would appeal to Shi Huangdi’s mother, Lady Zhao. He found what he was looking for in a certain Lao Ai, an extremely well-hung young man, whom he presented to the king’s mother. One look at Lao Ai’s big bat, and Lady Zhao fell for him, hard. As in, head over heels besotted. So Lu Pu Wei had all of Lao Ai’s hair plucked out to disguise him as a eunuch, and moved him into the dowager queen’s palace. It was a passionate love affair. The queen was soon pregnant by Lao Ai, and moved to the countryside to have his babies. She also gifted him with a palace, complete with hundreds of attendants.

It went to Lao Ai’s head, however, and he eventually began conspiring with the besotted queen dowager to have their son ascend the Chin throne, by deposing her elder son and current king. Word got back to Shi Huangdi, who so far had turned a blind eye to his mother’s affair. However, the threat to his throne spurred him into action, and he ordered Lao Ai’s arrest. The latter responded by launching a rebellion, but it was easily crushed and ended with Lao Ai’s head, and that of his children, hung in public. As to the king’s mother, Lady Zhao was placed under house arrest for the rest of her life.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Hitler between Magda and Joseph Goebbels, with three of the Goebbels children. Daily Mail

10. Magda Goebbels Doomed Her Children to Demonstrate Her Devotion to Hitler

In 1930, Magda Ritschel joined the Nazi party as a volunteer. After a stint at her local branch, she was moved to party headquarters in Berlin, where she was tasked with overseeing Joseph Goebbels’ private papers. It did not take long before the smooth-talking Goebbels made his move, and by early 1931, he and Magda were dating. They were married later that year, with Hitler acting as best man. When the Nazis secured power, Magda’s husband became one of Germany’s most powerful man, and one of Hitler’s most trusted and devoted advisers.

Magda and Joseph Goebbels had six children, who became Hitler’s favorites. However, when the Third Reich finally came crashing down in 1945, with Red Army soldiers storming into the German capital, Hitler chose to end his life rather than surrender. Magda and Joseph Goebbels decided to demonstrate their devotion to the Fuhrer by following him into death. However, Magda was not content with just her own death and that of her husband: she decided to also kill her six children, ranging in age from four to twelve.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Magda Goebbels and the children she murdered. The Australian

9. Magda Murders Her Children

Having convinced herself of the need, and even the desirability, of killing her kids, Magda Goebbels turned a deaf ear to all offers to smuggle her children to safety. As to how she would go about killing her children, Magda decided upon knocking them out with morphine, then finishing them off by crushing cyanide capsules between their teeth. On May 1st, 1945, one day after Hitler’s suicide, Magda, with the help of an SS doctor, administered morphine to her kids, then killed them with cyanide. A few hours later, she and Joseph Goebbels committed suicide.

The most horrific of the Goebbels children’s deaths was that of Hitler’s favorite girl, Helga. It seems that the morphine did not keep her under for long. She became aware at some point that her siblings were being murdered by having poisonous capsules crushed between their teeth, and resisted having the same done to her. Helga’s last moments were spent in a ferocious fight, as her mother and an SS member forced poison into her mouth. An autopsy, and photographs taken of her face, showed heavy bruising. Her jaw also seems to have been broken during the struggle to force cyanide into her mouth.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Cheng I Sao. JSTOR Daily

8. Cheng I Sao Married Her Son

Cheng I Sao (1775 – 1844) worked the South China in the early 19th century and was probably history’s most successful pirate. A former prostitute, she married a powerful pirate, and inherited his outlaw realm upon his death. However, she was no mere widow who lucked into an inheritance: her own piratical legacy far exceeded that of her departed husband. Cheng commanded tens of thousands of outlaws, and despite challenging the British Empire, the Portuguese Empire, as well as the Chinese Qing Dynasty, she survived to end her days in peaceful retirement.

She was good at choosing capable subordinates, the most formidable of whom was Cheung Po Tsai (1783 – 1822), who was kidnapped in childhood by Cheng and her husband. Pressed into their crews, the teenager excelled in the new career suddenly thrust upon him, and rose swiftly through the ranks. Before long, Cheung had become the Chengs’ favorite, and was adopted by them as their son. When Cheng’s husband drowned, the widow took over his pirate fleet, married her adopted son, and made him her right-hand man.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Cheng I Sao. All That is Interesting

7. Cheng I Sao and Her Son-Husband Terrorized the Waves

The scale of piratical activities carried out by Cheng I Sao and her son/ husband, Cheung, exceeded anything seen in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy. At the height of her power, Cheng controlled over 300 sailing ships and commanded up to 80,000 pirates. To put that into perspective, the Caribbean Age of Piracy’s most notorious villain, Blackbeard, never commanded more than 4 ships and 300 men.

With her massive armada, Cheng dominated the shipping lanes around southern China, and held them for ransom. Her depredations finally compelled the Chinese authorities to launch a massive campaign to eradicate piracy and restore order. In 1810, seeing the writing on the wall, Cheng accepted a pardon. She abandoned piracy, turned her back on her son/ husband, and returned to her hometown. There, she opened a gambling den and whorehouse, and died peacefully in bed in 1844.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Elizabeth Bathory. History Today

6. Elizabeth Bathory Neglected Her Kids to Focus on Torture and Murder

The one good thing that could be said about Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsend (1560 – 1614) as a mother, is that she did not murder her six kids. However, she set them aside to murder hundreds of others. Indeed, she owns the Guinness Book of World Records record for the most prolific female murderess, having tortured and killed hundreds of young women between 1585 and 1609. She was probably history’s most vicious female serial killer.

She was born into a distinguished aristocratic family that ruled Transylvania and was raised amidst wealth and privilege. Bathory received an excellent education from top-notch tutors, and at age 12, was betrothed to a prominent Hungarian aristocrat. A year later, however, she got pregnant by a commoner, so her fiancee had her lover castrated, then torn to pieces and fed to the dogs. Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, and promptly cast her aside. She wed her betrothed in 1575, but continued to cuckold him.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Elizabeth Bathory. Medium

5. Elizabeth Bathory Tortured and Murdered Hundreds of Young Women

Elizabeth Bathory developed a taste for sadism, and sometime around 1585, began torturing and killing young girls. She started off with servants at her castle, then serf girls from surrounding peasant villages, and eventually, the daughters of the local gentry, sent to her castle to receive an aristocratic education and learn courtly manners. Witnesses reported seeing Bathory stabbing her victims; piercing their lips with needles; burning them with red hot irons; biting their breasts and faces; and cutting them with scissors. Some of her victims were beaten to death, while others were starved.

In winter, she got a kick out of sending serving girls out in the snow, where she had water poured over them and watched them getting turned into human icicles. In summer, she would often coat her victims in honey, and watch them get tormented by ants, bees, and other insects. She bathed in her victims’ blood, and drank it, in the belief that it would preserve her youth. The exact number of Bathory’s victims is unknown, but estimates range as high as 650. Rumors eventually got out, and the authorities conducted an investigation. In 1610, Bathory and four of her accomplices were arrested. Her accomplices were tried and convicted, and three were executed. Bathory, however, never faced trial. Instead, she was quietly sent to a castle, and confined to a windowless room until her death, five years later.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Ptolemaic Alexandria. Medium

4. Cleopatra III Had No Hesitation About Acknowledging She Had a Favorite Child

Even if a mother has a favorite kid, she’s expected to at least go through the motions of saying that she loves all her kids just the same. Not so, with the Ptolemaic Dynasty‘s Cleopatra III. The Ptolemies were probably history’s most dysfunctional ruling family, and Ptolemaic family intrigues complicated the reign of Ptolemy IX Soter. Among other things, the Ptolemies had an established family tradition of incest, so Ptolemy married his sister Cleopatra IV. When his father, Ptolemy VIII Potbelly died in 116 BC, Ptolemy IX’s mother and the reigning queen, Cleopatra III, made him co-regent. However, Ptolemy IX was not her favorite son, and she only chose him because of public pressure from the citizens of Alexandria.

So Cleopatra III worked out the resulting resentment by forcing Ptolemy IX to divorce his sister-wife Cleopatra IV, and replace her with her own sister, and Ptolemy IX’s aunt, Cleopatra Selene I. Ptolemy IX’s sister and ex-wife fled Egypt to the neighboring Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom, where she married Antiochus IX and became queen consort in 114 BC. Her reign proved brief, however, and she was murdered during a spat of dynastic turmoil. As to Ptolemy IX, Cleopatra III accused him of having tried to murder her and deposed him in 107 BC. His place was taken by his brother and Cleopatra III’s favorite son, Alexander, who ascended the throne as Ptolemy X.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Cleopatra III. Wikimedia

3. Cleopatra III Got No Gratitude From Her Favorite Son

After engineering the deposition of her son Ptolemy IX, and replacing him on the throne with a more favored son, Ptolemy X, Cleopatra III settled in to enjoy her twilight years as queen and co-regent. Unfortunately for her, that enjoyment did not last as long as she might have hoped, because the favorite son whom Cleopatra III had made king demonstrated his ingratitude in the most visceral way possible. Six years into their joint rule, Ptolemy X tired of his mother, and had her murdered in 101 BC.

After murdering his mother, Ptolemy X made his wife, Cleopatra Bernice III, queen and co-regent. An incestuous tie being a Ptolemaic norm by this point, Ptolemy X’s wife Bernice III was also his niece – the daughter of his brother, the Ptolemy IX who had been deposed by their mother Cleopatra III. A popular uprising in 88 BC overthrew Ptolemy X, who fled to Syria. He returned with a mercenary army, whom he paid by looting and melting down the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. That infuriated the Alexandrians, who deposed and chased him out of Egypt again. He was killed while trying to flee and was succeeded by his brother and father-in-law, the previous king Ptolemy IX, who had been deposed by his mother Cleopatra III.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Wu Zetian. Pintrest

2. Wu Zetian Was Hell on Her Kids

Ancient China’s Confucian worldview held that women were unfit to rule. Wu Zetian (624 – 705) paid no attention to that bit of Confucianism: she ran China unofficially as an empress consort, then empress dowager, and finally, as an official empress. A strong, wily, and ruthless woman, the tale of her rise to power, and how she held on to it, could have taught Machiavelli some new tricks. Considering that she killed one of her own children, deposed another, and usurped the power of a third, even Machiavelli might have thought Wu Zetian had crossed a line or two.

She was born into a wealthy family and had an open-minded father who saw to it that she received a good education, encouraging her to read and develop her mind. That was unusual for her day and age, but fortunately for Wu, her father was not too hung up on convention. As a result, she grew up well-versed in literature, music, history, politics, and governmental affairs. She was also drop-dead gorgeous, and at age 14, she was taken into Emperor Taizong’s harem as a concubine.

Unfavorable Maternal Parents From History
Wu Zetian. Wikimedia

1. Wu Zetian Killed Her Own Daughter in a Political Ploy

Wu Zetian’s beauty and brains served her well. The emperor was not into intelligent women, so he did not favor Wu. However, being an intelligent woman, she was able to look ahead. So she had an affair with the aging emperor’s son and eventual successor. The son was not intimidated by smart women, and when he became Emperor Gaozong after his father’s death, he made Wu his favorite concubine. He eventually elevated her to his second wife – a huge jump in the imperial harem’s rankings. Not content to remain second fiddle, however, Wu reportedly strangled her own infant daughter, and framed the emperor’s first wife for the death. The intrigue worked, and Wu became the emperor’s official consort.

Wu’s power grew, as she steadily eliminated opponents. When Emperor Gaozong died in 683, Wu became empress dowager and regent, running the empire in her son’s name, Emperor Zhongzong. When Zhongzong ascended the throne in his own right in 684, he tried to buck his mother and escape from under her thumb. He lasted only six weeks on the throne, before Wu had him deposed, exiled, and replaced with her youngest son, whom she made Emperor Ruizong. She maintained all power in her own hands, and six years later, she tired of bothering with any pretense about who actually ran China, and made Ruizong relinquish the throne. Wu officially proclaimed herself empress regnant, and ruled in that capacity until she was overthrown in 705.


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

Ancient Origins – Ching Shih: From Prostitute to Pirate Lord

Baby Gaga – 7 of the Best and 8 of the Worst Moms in History

Clements, Jonathan – The First Emperor of China (2006)

Daily Beast, May 12th, 2019 – Happy Mother‘s Day! Meet the Worst Mothers in History

Gonick, Larry – Cartoon History of the Universe, Volume III (2002)

J Mark Powell – Meet the 5 Worst Moms in History

Mom Me – 10 Moms in History Who Will Make You Feel Like an Awesome Parent

Rejected Princesses – Fredegund: Assassination-Obsessed Queen

Rejected Princesses – Wu Zetian: China’s Only Female Emperor

Wikipedia – Cleopatra III of Egypt

Wikipedia – Fredegund