You’re probably familiar with the old expression – “sex sells.” Well, that applies here, as well. People love hearing about the scandalous and licentious side of our past that, surprisingly, often gets left out of history class.
In the past, we have taken a look at some scandals and controversies that caused a lot of outrage in society, and now it is time to go back to that same salacious well and examine a few more of history’s vulgar affairs.
8. Ben Franklin Attempts Familiarities
If you have a young wife, don’t leave her alone with Benjamin Franklin. That is the lesson learned by James Ralph, once a close associate of the Founding Father.
Ralph arrived in London in 1724, with hopes of becoming a successful poet and political author. He achieved his goals, to a degree, in the years and decades that followed but, at the moment, he was just a young, poor, unknown writer. He needed an income and found it as a teacher in a small village in Berkshire County. But this required traveling to and from London and he also had a new wife that he could not leave alone.
That is where Franklin came in. He and Ralph knew each other from Philadelphia and he also lived in London at the time, working in a printer’s shop. He agreed to look after Ralph’s wife, who is only identified as Mrs T.
Franklin himself was very young at this time. He wasn’t rich or anything, but found himself lending whatever he could spare to Mrs. T, who was often in need of his generosity. According to his own autobiography, Franklin grew fond of her and, because he was not under any “religious restraint,” he “attempted familiarities” upon her. His advances were firmly rejected, however, and Mrs. T informed her husband of Franklin’s actions.
Outraged at this, James Ralph informed the future Founding Father that their relationship was over, and that he had no intention of paying back any money he or his wife had borrowed. Surprisingly, this was a relief for Franklin. You see, while Ralph was away, he had continuously sent Franklin drafts of his poems, asking for opinions and corrections. Ben Franklin was so annoyed at this that he considered the lost money a small price to pay in exchange for never receiving bad poetry again.
7. The General’s Wife
Daniel Sickles was an American general during the Civil War, best known for his controversial role in the Battle of Gettysburg. Sickles was a political appointee, and he had little military experience even though he had become Major General by 1863.
At Gettysburg, he ignored his orders to maintain a defensive position, and instead took the III Corps which he commanded about a mile forward. Sickles believed this was a better position, because it gave him the high ground but, in reality, it left him completely defenceless and his unit was decimated by attacks from multiple sides. Sickles himself had a leg destroyed by cannon fire and needed to retreat to have it amputated. Despite his insubordination and incompetence, Daniel Sickles received a Medal of Honor for his role, and some historians even posit that he might have had a positive, albeit completely unintentional, effect on the battle, by getting the enemy to concentrate on his military unit.
Now that we got his highlight reel out of the way, we should mention that this scandal had nothing to do with the war. In fact, it concerned the general’s wife, Teresa Bagioli Sickles. The two married in 1852, when Sickles was twice her age. Soon enough, she took a lover or, as Teresa herself put it, she did “what is usual for a wicked woman to do.” That lover was an attorney named Philip Barton Key II, son of Francis Scott Key aka the man who wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Eventually, Sickles found out about the affair from an anonymous letter and, confronting his wife, she admitted to the deed. A few days later, on February 27, 1859, Sickles walked up to Key in Lafayette Square, near the White House, and shot him dead in plain daylight.
Not only that, but he got away with it. During his trial, his lawyer pleaded temporary insanity, arguing that his client had been driven mad by his wife’s infidelity. Daniel Sickles was acquitted, marking the first ever successful use of that strategy in American legal history.
6. The Vere Street Coterie
Back in 1813, a London lawyer named Robert Holloway wrote a book called The Phoenix of Sodom, or the Vere Street Coterie. The British Library obtained two copies and hid them away in its Private Case, a collection of forbidden books, and stored them until a time when they were no longer considered too obscene for the general public.
The book was a non-fiction account which detailed one of the most egregious and infamous persecutions of gay men in 19th century England.
In 1810, two men named Yardley and Cook decided to open the White Swan on Vere Street. The White Swan was a molly house, an 18th century term for a meeting place for gay men. They could be considered male brothels, except that some historians point out that molly houses did not necessarily involve male prostitution, or even sex, as they could just be places where men spent time with each other.
Because homosexuality was heavily maligned back then, molly houses were the frequent targets of raids. That’s what happened to the White Swan on July 8, 1810. Almost 30 men were rounded up. Many of them were eventually released, presumably over lack of evidence, or more likely due to bribes. Seven were arrested and they became known as the Vere Street Coterie.
Out of the seven, the one who got off easiest still was sentenced to a year in prison. The other six got two years, and they had to endure one hour of pillorying. For the uninitiated, the pillory was the wooden framework through which the victim’s head and hands were placed, leaving them unable to protect themselves while angry crowds threw rotten eggs, fish, vegetables, mud balls, and even dead animals at them.
The most vile persecution was reserved for two men who weren’t even present the night of the raid. Based solely on testimony from an informant, two soldiers, one of them just a 16-year-old drummer boy, were convicted of sodomy and sentenced to death. They were hanged the following year.
5. The Lechery of Messalina
When it comes to sex scandals, there are few people who can outdo the Romans. The emperors often used their power and riches to indulge in their most depraved fantasies, but this time we are actually going to focus on an empress – Valeria Messalina, wife of Claudius.
There was a large age gap between the two when they married – Messalina was a young, beautiful teenager, while Claudius was already in his 50s. She quickly began using her status, as well as her influence over her husband to get rid of anyone she didn’t like or perceived as a threat. Several of Claudius’s family members, especially female ones, were executed after Messalina convinced her husband that they were guilty of various crimes. Multiple senators met the same fate, either because they possessed something that Messalina desired, or because they were getting too powerful or, in the case of one named Marcus Vinicius, because he refused to sleep with Messalina.
Speaking of which, the empress seemingly slept with half of Rome, if historians of that time are to be believed. We don’t know how reliable their accounts are, but several of them mention that Messalina had an insatiable lust and committed adultery numerous times, which was common knowledge to senators, consuls, and even the Roman public who mocked Claudius behind his back.
The most shocking episode comes to us courtesy of Pliny the Elder, who said that Messalina once had a competition with one of Rome’s most notorious prostitutes, to see which one could bed more men in a row. After a day and night of continuous sex, the empress won with a “high score” of 25.
4. The Profumo Affair
In 1961, John Profumo was the British Secretary of State for War under Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Also that year, he had begun having an affair with a young, 19-year-old model named Christine Keeler. By itself, this would not have been that bad. As Macmillan himself wrote in his diary when word first got out – “I was forced to spend a great deal of today over a silly scrape (women this time, thank God, not boys).”
Unfortunately for Profumo, when Christine Keeler was dating him, she was also seeing another man named Yevgeny Ivanov, who was a naval attaché to the Soviet Embassy in London and a suspected spy. Given that all of this was happening during the Cold War, this was something the British government could not ignore.
John Profumo was brought before the House of Commons because his potential relationship with Christine Keeler was considered a matter of national security. The War Secretary vehemently denied having an affair with the young model. Unfortunately for him, Keeler had no strong interest in protecting his secret, as the two of them had already broken up by this point, so after being hounded by the press, she admitted to sleeping with both Profumo and Ivanov.
An inquiry concluded that there had been no security breaches resulting from the affair, but Profumo did lie in the House of Commons. He was forced to resign, of course, but the scandal shook public confidence in the Conservative Party as a whole. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan retired a few months later, and the party was defeated in the following general election.
3. Buggery in Plymouth
In 1642, a young man named Thomas Granger earned himself the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first juvenile to be condemned to death and executed in the American colonies. This was his punishment for a crime which the Puritans considered far more heinous than rape or murder – having sex with animals.
The case was described in the diary of William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth Colony, titled Of Plymouth Plantation. He wrote that Granger was 16 or 17 years old at the time, when someone walked in on him in the barn and caught him engaged in bestiality with a mare. Upon interrogation, Granger confessed that he had engaged in a “lewd practice,” as they called it, multiple times with the mare, and with other animals, as well. In the end, Bradford said that Thomas Granger was convicted of “buggery with a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves, and a turkey.”
On the day of his execution, the animals were first all slaughtered in front of him and thrown into a pit, making sure that no parts of them were used for any purpose. Thomas Granger was then hanged on September 8, 1642.
2. The Madams of Hollywood
Hollywood and sex scandals go hand in hand, but for this one we are traveling back to the so-called Golden Age. It won’t surprise you to find out that even back then there were still enterprising madams willing to cater to the sexual desires of the rich & famous.
First up was Lee Francis, who was the Hollywood madam of the 1920s and early 1930s, who entertained her distinguished guests with champagne and caviar at the Hacienda Arms Apartments on the Sunset Strip.
Francis once had to spend 30 days in prison, and one month was all it took for someone else to move in and take over the operation. That someone was Ann Forrester, who soon became known as the “Black Widow.” She was the top madam during the 1930s, but her time was also up in 1940 when she was sent to jail.
She was followed by Brenda Allen, who became the most powerful madam of all, and had over 110 girls in her employ at the height of her popularity. She was very careful about choosing her clientele and only served the most influential people in Hollywood: actors, studio executives, politicians, and businessmen. The women who came before her also paid the police to look the other way, but Allen went one step further and started an affair with a sergeant from the vice squad named Elmer Jackson.
It was actually this relationship that eventually led to her downfall and the scandal that followed. One night in 1947, the two of them were robbed at gunpoint. Instead of surrendering his wallet, Jackson went for his gun and killed their attacker. They were both ok, but the incident exposed their relationship to the LAPD and to the public.
Brenda Allen was soon arrested and she had no trouble naming names. She had bank records of the cops she paid off. She had hundreds of index cards for her clients, with their names, numbers, addresses, and even their specific sexual kinks. The Chief of Police resigned under threat of a grand jury investigation. He was followed by the assistant chief and the captain of the vice squad. A huge reform of the entire LAPD was promised. As for her clients, the judge at her trial ordered the box of cards to be sealed and secured because it contained the “names of dignitaries of the screen and radio and executives of responsible positions in many great industries. Publication of their names would be ruinous to their careers and cause them great public disgrace.”
1. The Fall of Candaules
We end this list with a look at one of the first known sex scandals in history, one that led to the downfall of an entire dynasty. It was reported by Herodotus, and even he was uncertain of its veracity, so this should be taken with a grain of salt.
In the early 7th century BC, the Kingdom of Lydia was ruled by King Candaules. He was truly, madly, deeply in love with his wife and always went on and on about how she was the most beautiful woman in the world. One day, as he was describing his wife’s beauty, he saw his bodyguard and trusted advisor Gyges giving him a little look of incredulity. Candaules then said:
“I think, Gyges, that you do not believe what I tell you of the beauty of my wife; men trust their ears less than their eyes; do you, then, so contrive that you may see her naked.”
Gyges protested but, ultimately, he had to obey his king. That night, Candaules brought the bodyguard into his royal chamber and hid him in a corner. His wife then came in and undressed, but saw Gyges as he tried to sneak out.
According to Herodotus, the Lydians considered it a great shame to be seen naked, but the wife did not say anything on the spot. Instead, she had Gyges brought to her the following day. Since she knew that Candaules was the one who orchestrated the event, she gave Gyges two choices: either commit suicide, or kill Candaules and marry her as the new King of Lydia. Unsurprisingly, he chose the second option, and became the first Lydian king of the Mermnad dynasty.