10 Famous Personalities Like You’ve Never Seen Before

10 Famous Personalities Like You’ve Never Seen Before

Larry Holzwarth - February 1, 2018

Too often historical figures are regarded solely for what they contributed to history, and their humanity is lost. Everyone regarded as an historical figure today was once a person going through their daily existence, thinking about their work, their dinner, their friends. Connecting with the human side of events of the past and the people who shaped them is ignored in most of the history taught in school. For example, all of the American presidents had pets, some of them a virtual menagerie, until the inauguration of 2017. But he still has time to change that.

Nearly every American knows about the problems George Washington had with his teeth, far fewer are aware that he loved dancing. While living in Paris, Jefferson fell in love with many foods unavailable in North America and brought several of them back with him, including macaroni and cheese. Napoleon loved licorice and carried it on his person at all times, a trait he shared with Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Winston Churchill liked to relax by laying brick, and became so adept at it that he was awarded a Bricklayer’s Apprentice Card by the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers.

10 Famous Personalities Like You’ve Never Seen Before
George Washington liked to dance the night away, often until dawn. Mount Vernon

Knowing the personal facts of historical figures can change the way they are regarded and bring them closer to being perceived as living beings, an important aspect of the knowledge of history. Here are some historical figures in a perspective you may not know.

10 Famous Personalities Like You’ve Never Seen Before
Churchill built much of the Chartwell buildings and landscaping with his own hands. Wikipedia

Winston Churchill

Churchill’s taste for alcohol is widely known and frequently cited by historians both in his defense and to make him appear poorly. His appetite for cigars is equally well known. But there are many other aspects of his personality that are not. His hobbies and appetites changed over the course of his long life, and some of those in which he had indulged in his youth were forced to yield to others less demanding on the body. Throughout his life he was a voracious reader, and this led to him becoming a prolific writer of history.

As noted above, Churchill enjoyed laying brick, and when he expanded the family residence at Chartwell in 1922 he expanded the house and added many new outbuildings, laying much of the brick himself. He also built an extensive garden wall from brick. The gardens themselves were landscaped to his own design, and much of the work to complete them was done by Churchill, aided by gardeners under his supervision. Several of the gardens which surround the home (which is today open to the public) were planted by Churchill, a practice he found relaxing and a distraction from political affairs.

Churchill also designed and enlarged the lake on the property, having an island built within, reachable by a walking bridge, and stocked the lake. He added waterfalls to enjoy the sound of the flowing water, and built several goldfish ponds around the property. He read about and was intrigued with the idea of a heated swimming pool, an almost unheard of idea in England, and as a longtime lover of swimming he had one installed at Chartwell.

Churchill had served in the cavalry as a young man, engendering in him a love of horses which he would retain for the rest of his life. Chartwell was provided with several for his riding pleasure and for polo, a sport in which he participated avidly until he was nearly sixty years old. Horses weren’t the only animals with which he shared his home. Both dogs and cats had free rein inside and outside of the estate. Churchill usually slept with at least one cat in attendance and visitors to Chartwell and later 10 Downing Street noted his fondness for cats, dogs, and birds.

When he was in his late thirties Churchill attempted to learn to fly, but after suffering some relatively minor injuries in an accident he was dissuaded from future attempts by his wife. Painting became a passion as he entered his forties, and in painting he even managed to find some escape from the pressures of 1940, when England stood alone against the Germans. There was a great deal more to Winston Churchill than fiery speeches, brandy and cigars, and the famous V for Victory salute.

10 Famous Personalities Like You’ve Never Seen Before
French King Louis XVI loved working with his hands as a blacksmith and locksmith. Palace of Versailles

Louis XVI of France

Louis XVI, husband of Marie Antoinette and friend of the American Revolution, is remembered as the last King of France, beheaded during the French Revolution, a victim of his despotism. This is unfair, and inaccurate. Louis deeply cared about the people of France and worked to establish reforms to help them, in opposition to the nobility and the church which fought against the French Revolution. Louis has long been portrayed as an inept bungler and a fool, neither of which correctly depicts the personality of the King who rescued America’s liberty at the expense of his own.

As a boy Louis received the education of the nobility, at which he excelled, and enjoyed healthy exercise and horseplay with his brothers. His quickness of mind and understanding of mechanics led him to develop an interest in locks, of all size and types, and he tinkered with them endlessly. In time he developed the skills of a locksmith, able to design, repair, and pick locks. His fascination with locks and keys became a lifelong hobby, and a subject of discussion with Benjamin Franklin, who held a similar interest in mechanical devices.

A locksmith requires deft handiwork; good vision and steady hands are imperative. Physical strength is not as important as it is for someone such as, say, a blacksmith. Louis had the physical strength of a blacksmith because he was a blacksmith. As King, in the Palace at Versailles outside of Paris, Louis had a private library to which he could resort for absolute privacy, a rare luxury for the King. The library led to a room above where Louis had two anvils installed, and with the instruction of the Palace blacksmith, a man named Gamin, Louis learned the art of working iron and other metals.

Although Marie Antoinette complained of her husband frequently retiring to their private rooms with the gritty, blackened hands of a blacksmith (she was concerned about his soiling the furniture and linens) she did not greatly object to His Majesty’s hobby. Many of the Court did, considering the activity to be beneath the dignity of the King, and an acknowledgment of the lower classes which was unseemly among the high-born of the court.

Louis was held under house arrest in the Palace of the Tuileries in Paris as the Assembly debated his fate. His family and children were held with him. Even as the date of his execution on the guillotine was being decided Louis took the time to explain the tools of the locksmith and their proper use to his son, while the locks on their rooms were being changed by the revolutionaries. In August 1792 the King was imprisoned in Paris, and he was beheaded in January 1793.

10 Famous Personalities Like You’ve Never Seen Before
Lyndon Johnson used his size and physical presence to persuade others to see he point. LBJ Library

Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Johnson was a big man, standing 6’3″ and was well known for using his size as a part of what became known as the Johnson treatment. Johnson would stand or sit as closely as possible to the person he was trying to persuade, often leaning over the top of the other’s head, forcing them to lean backwards. Retreat was not an option due to Johnson’s grasp of the shoulder or lapel. His voice could be low or harsh, depending less on his mood than on his understanding of the position of his target.

Johnson considered an individual’s space to be his, and he acted accordingly. After his first heart attack in 1955, his wife took a greater interest in her husband’s diet, and his dinner was served omitting many foods which he enjoyed. Johnson was not above reaching across the table to surreptitiously grab a bite from the plate of whomever was within reach, after quickly ascertaining that Lady Bird was looking the other way. When entering the office of an aide or secretary who was having lunch at their desk, Johnson would simply help himself to whatever looked appetizing to him.

Johnson was not a man known to apologize to aides and fellow workers, despite his coarse nature often leading him into indiscretions which were publicly humiliating. Instead LBJ would dispense unexpected gifts, and one of his favorite gifts was an automobile. Johnson gave away numerous cars to aides, employees and political allies over the course of his long career, usually Lincoln’s, which he preferred himself. He also gave out invitations and the two he most valued were to dinner at the White House or a visit to his Texas ranch.

While at his ranch Johnson enjoyed driving his own Lincoln convertible, proudly showing his property to whatever guest was with him as he drove. Even on his ranch LBJ couldn’t stray far from the Secret Service, and Johnson took advantage of their presence by having them follow him in a separate car, to replenish his large plastic cup of Scotch and soda on the rocks from a cooler when he signaled them by holding his inverted empty cup out the driver’s window. Johnson would rocket around the ranch without concern, often terrifying his passengers with his insouciance behind the wheel.

He also terrified ranch visitors with his Amphicar, which could travel on land and water, a fact Johnson didn’t share with his guests before they got in the car. After a time, Johnson would drive towards the lake, feigning panic and shouting that the brakes weren’t working and they were going in the lake, relishing his passenger’s fears. Then he would sedately motor on the water, enjoying whatever hilarity had ensued. Johnson was most comfortable while making others uncomfortable. But he commanded loyalty and hard, long hours from all who worked for him, throughout his career in Congress and the White House.

10 Famous Personalities Like You’ve Never Seen Before
Nikola Tesla, seen here at the age of 40, never married and preferred his own company. Wikimedia

Nikola Tesla

Tesla was an engineer, inventor, visionary, and showman who when Thomas Edison died was one of the few persons not to find something good to say about his one-time employer. Tesla is regarded both as a genius and as a mad scientist, and many of his ideas regarding energy have been adopted by New Thought philosophers as being in agreement with their postulations regarding thought as energy. Towards the end of his life he made numerous claims of being on the verge of new discoveries, including new forms of energy and new superweapons.

Nikola Tesla valued privacy, never marrying and preferring to work alone. Despite his withdrawn nature, he enjoyed fine food and wine, to the point of being considered an expert on both. He also enjoyed music and language, read philosophy, and on those occasions when he did socialize was reported to be a gentleman of great refinement, an excellent conversationalist, and an enjoyable companion. Despite his evident lack of interest in women, or perhaps because of it, there were several women who sought his company, but there is no evidence of any relationships beyond casual acquaintances in Tesla’s life.

He may have suffered from the mental disorder known today as obsessive-compulsive disorder. He tried to avoid shaking hands by clasping his hands behind his back when introduced, and shunned touching hair and fur. He developed a compulsion over the number 3, which drove him to walk completely around a building, or the city block on which it was situated, three times before he would enter. He also obsessively polished the flatware, glasses, and other pieces of the table setting before dining. Tesla performed this ritual whether dining in a restaurant or as a guest at a private home.

He was impeccable in his dress, often changing several times a day, and was known to send employees and fellow workers home to change when he disapproved of what they were wearing. He loathed those who were overweight and maintained himself rail thin. He exercised through walking up to ten miles each day, and he exercised his feet by flexing his toes one hundred times per foot each night. Typically he slept as little as two hours each night, refreshing himself with brief naps over the course of the day.

The diverse nature of his friends reflects the unusual personality of Nikola Tesla. He was a close friend of Stanford White, a noted architect, as well as of Samuel Clemens, who was a frequent visitor to Tesla’s working spaces and occasionally dined with him in New York. Much of Tesla’s work and theories – he believed that the atom could not be split, for instance – has been proven erroneous, but he continues to undergo a resurgence in supporters today.

10 Famous Personalities Like You’ve Never Seen Before
Benjamin Franklin was a believer in the value of air bathing, essentially sitting around naked. The White House

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was a polymath known for many things, including the invention of his famous stove, which improved the warming of rooms in greater safety than open fireplaces, his insights into electricity, his work as a writer and printer, his invention of bifocals, and on and on. His reputation as a ladies man is also well known, as is his fondness for bawdy verse and stories. What is a bit less known is that Franklin was something of an exhibitionist, which he managed in his lifetime to hide behind the cover of healthful exercise and treatments.

For most of his life Franklin argued the benefits of fresh air in an era in which the air, particularly night air, was believed to carry with it the ills of mankind. In cities, such as Franklin’s Philadelphia, the air was considered to be noxious. Franklin disavowed himself of this position, enjoying a daily routine which he called an air bath. Franklin would sit nude, during the colder months for a period of half an hour or so, before an open window, enjoying the cool air on his bare skin, in full view of the passersby on the street.

In the warmer months the air bath could be comfortably extended, and to occupy his mind while “bathing” Franklin would often work on his correspondence, or other writings as he took the air. The sight of Dr. Franklin posing in his window did not trouble the citizens of Philadelphia who took it as just another of the beloved Franklin’s eccentricities. When he journeyed to London to represent the colonies he drew a bit more attention, and discontinued his air baths there for a time due to the smoky, foggy air of the British capital.

Air baths weren’t the only form of public display of which Franklin was prone to indulge. In both Philadelphia and London, and later when he was in Paris, Franklin enjoyed his favorite form of physical exercise, swimming. Many Londoners and later Parisians who enjoyed strolling along the Thames or the Seine were treated to the sight of Franklin swimming in the river, completely naked, his clothes watched over by a servant ashore. The English sniffed at the activity, the French merely shrugged. Franklin was indifferent to commentary or criticism in any case, even when it came from his colleague in France, John Adams.

Franklin was comfortable in his own nudity and evidently in the nudity of others. While in France, Franklin was friends with Madame Brillon, and often played chess with her and with other mutual friends. When Franklin played with another friend Madame Brillon enjoyed watching the game, and on at least one occasion Franklin and another friend played chess while Madame Brillon watched from the warmth and comfort of her bathtub, placed alongside the gaming table.

10 Famous Personalities Like You’ve Never Seen Before
This photograph of Stonewall Jackson was taken one week before he was fatally wounded at Chancellorsville. Library of Congress

Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson

Stonewall Jackson had a personality that crawled with quirks. After being educated at the United States Military Academy and serving in the Mexican War the deeply religious Jackson accepted a position as a teacher at the Virginia Military Institute, where he wrote curricula some parts of which remain in use. During the Civil War he developed and executed military tactics which led to stunning victories for the Southern Armies, and his untimely death following the Battle of Chancellorsville was a blow to the South from which its military never recovered.

His students at VMI disliked him, calling him Tom Fool. Jackson had the habit of repeating a portion of his lectures verbatim if an uncomprehending student asked a question, and a second failure to understand brought the student disciplinary action. Jackson believed that his internal organs were subject to misalignment, causing discomfort and illness, and thus remained standing whenever possible, to help them fall back into the proper place. A less than enthusiastic eater of meats, Jackson was fond of all kinds of fruits, especially melons and peaches, which he believed more healthful than heavy meals.

Jackson also believed that his left arm was longer than his right, a condition which contributed to the misalignment of his internal organs. This led him to frequently hold his left arm high over his head for as long as he could, to allow his organs to realign themselves. He also suffered from sinus conditions, which may have been psychosomatic, and he believed that these too were alleviated by remaining erect, with his left hand held high. This caused him to be wounded during the First Battle of Bull Run.

As Jackson’s troops stood their ground on Henry House Hill during that battle, Jackson elevated his left arm with his palm open, facing forward towards the attacking Union troops. Either a bullet or shrapnel struck him in the middle finger of the open hand. Jackson ignored the advice of the physicians who treated his wound and declined to allow them to amputate the injured finger. His nickname Stonewall was acquired following the battle, from Barnard Bee’s description of his troops standing “like a stone wall.”

Over a century after his death, some researchers have suggested that Jackson may have suffered from Asperger Syndrome. A legend around the general has him eating lemons by the dozens, often sucking on a lemon while in battle. This is probably false, lemons were relatively rare and Jackson enjoyed many types of fruits. Jackson’s piety, eccentricities, and disciplinary firmness helped him lead his men, but did not endear him to them.

10 Famous Personalities Like You’ve Never Seen Before
Napoleon couldn’t live without licorice and snuff, consuming one or the other constantly. Wikimedia

Napoleon Bonaparte

As has been noted, Napoleon was never far from a supply of licorice, which he enjoyed through the day, almost continuously. In fact, there were three things with which the Emperor was constantly equipped, his licorice, his snuff box, and his opium. The first two were there for his consumption throughout the trials and tribulations of his day. The third was there for emergencies. Napoleon wore a vial containing what could have been a fatal dose of opium around his neck for most of his career, believing suicide to be preferable to a capture by vengeful enemies, especially the Russians.

Interestingly, the first two may have contributed to his death on St. Helena from stomach cancer while the opium was once resorted to, but failed to kill him. Napoleon often emptied his snuff box several times per day, always to be instantly refilled, the same as his licorice supply. In addition to eating the licorice from his candy box, Napoleon enjoyed a beverage made from it with water, taken as a sort of tea.

Napoleon was described as having fine, healthy teeth for most of his life, not developing dental problems until the days of his second exile in British custody on St. Helena. He carried a toothbrush with him at all times, and brushed his teeth several times a day, even while campaigning across Europe. Despite the many paintings which give the idea that Napoleon campaigned on horseback, in fact he usually rode in his carriage while travelling with his armies, well equipped with the items he wanted at hand. Especially later in his career, Napoleon had problems with hemorrhoids which prevented him spending long periods of time in the saddle.

Napoleon grew more and more unstable following the defeat in Russia, although his military skills enjoyed a resurgence as he fought the campaigns of 1813 and 1814. Eventually brought to heel following the Battle of Nations near Leipzig, Napoleon attempted suicide via his opium vial, but either the dosage was too small or it had lost potency over time, and though he became ill, he survived to enter exile at Elba, escape, lose the Battle of Waterloo, and return to exile at St. Helena. It was there that his teeth and gums began to give him trouble, while a prisoner of the British.

Although the world was told that Napoleon died of a stomach cancer, he had been undergoing treatment for scurvy and for dental problems. The doctors treating him had prescribed both mercury and calomel, and years later examinations of his medical records and hair samples indicated the possibility of arsenic poisoning. Arsenic was present in the licorice of Napoleon’s day, so maybe the glass of licorice tea which was all the Emperor would drink in his last days did more to kill him than the opium he ingested years before.

10 Famous Personalities Like You’ve Never Seen Before
George Washington’s love of dancing continued well into his sixties. Wikimedia

George Washington

Since he is typically considered by us by gazing at us out of somber portraits, unsmiling, almost clenching his famously inadequate teeth, few today realize that George Washington loved to dance. He not only loved it, he was by contemporaneous accounts very good at it, and was in continual demand on the dance floor by the ladies attending whatever event he went to where dancing was featured. During Washington’s day a typical dance or cotillion would begin at seven with a light repast, followed by dancing until ten when a sit down supper would be served. Then there would be more dancing well into the wee hours, ending with the departure of the guests with the arrival of the dawn. Washington would often remain until the end.

Washington attended balls and dances during his youth along the Potomac in Virginia. During the Revolutionary War dances for officers and their wives, and guests from the towns where the Continental Army was encamped were frequent. Washington attended as many as he could. Undoubtedly he needed distraction from the burden of his duties, and from the written accounts of other guests who attended these affairs he arrived early, stayed late, and danced with as many of the ladies present that he could.

Nathaniel Greene wrote of one such ball in 1779 that Washington attended and danced “…upwards of three hours without once sitting down,” in a letter to Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth. Of another, a Christmas Ball at the end of the year 1783, James Tilton wrote, “The General danced every set, that all the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him, or as it has since been handsomely expressed, get a touch of him.” Washington was described when attending other balls or similar affairs as being, “…unusually cheerful,” and “…dignified and graceful.”

George Washington left what would become the United States but once in his life, a trip to Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence in an attempt to improve the tubercular Lawrence’s health, in 1751. Although the trip did little to improve the health of George’s beloved older half-brother, it is apparent that the two at least had the opportunity to enjoy female company. In a letter to his father-in-law, William Fairfax, Lawrence wrote of Barbados, “we have no kind of bodily diversions here but dancing.”

As President of the United States, Washington toured the Southern states, and found himself honored with dances in Charleston and Savannah. Washington later commented on the “elegantly dressed ladies” which he found on both occasions. As President in New York, Washington was the guest of honor at balls, dances, and cotillions, attending as many as he could, and the developing partisanship in the government was soon finding fault with his appearance at many of them. Such was likely inevitable. George Washington was still attending dances in Alexandria, Virginia up to the year of his death, at the age of 67.

10 Famous Personalities Like You’ve Never Seen Before
It was in Poe’s nature to bend the rules, in all walks of life. Wikimedia

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe possessed a personality which contained many examples of a contrary nature. He was dismissive of authority and in his youth considered rules to be an inconvenience best ignored. As a first year student at the University of Virginia, then only in its second year of existence, he was confronted with the code of the University, established with the guidance and approval of Thomas Jefferson. Students were not supposed to indulge in gambling, alcohol, and other perceived vices. Poe left within a year, unable financially to complete his studies due to excessive gambling debts.

After a stint in the army as an enlisted man under a false name, Poe traveled to West Point to enter the Military Academy to obtain an education and a commission as an officer in the US Army. He became a cadet in July 1830. By the fall of 1830, because of personal problems with his foster father John Allan and other issues, he decided to get himself thrown out of the academy, a plan at which he was successful by February 1831. Poe had by then already published two books of poetry and a third, written while at West Point and financed with the help of his classmates there was published shortly thereafter, dedicated to the cadets.

Poe was the first American writer to try to support himself entirely through writing, and he did all that he could do make it more difficult for himself. Any writer surely realizes the need to maintain a positive and constructive relationship with his editors, and the inadvisability of deliberately angering them. Poe developed the habit of working with scrolls, connecting pages of handwritten material at their ends with sealing wax, and submitting the material in a roll, rather than in a leafed manuscript. Some were dozens of feet long, irritating his editors, which was one of the reasons Poe chose to do it in the first place.

Poe also wrote stories which were deliberate hoaxes, others which were deliberately provocative, and as a literary critic, he developed the reputation among some of being what would today be called a “hatchet man.” His personal reputation in the United States led to him being shunned in American literary circles and as a result his work achieved a higher level of success in Europe than in the United States.

Poe spent his life attracting admirers and enemies, achieving critical success and heavy debts, creating a new literary genre – the detective story, and contributing to the end of another – poetry in the style of Longfellow. Even his death remains a matter of speculation, like his life parts of it remain unexplained though of a seedy nature.

10 Famous Personalities Like You’ve Never Seen Before
A newspaper reports Agatha Christie being found after a dramatic search for the missing writer. Wikimedia

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie gave the world the characters Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, wrote 66 mystery novels and more than a dozen collections of short stories, and the record setting play The Mousetrap. The Mousetrap has been in continuous production in London’s West End Theatre District since 1952. Christie has sold an estimated 2 billion books worldwide, beginning in the aftermath of the First World War, when she found success with the Belgian detective she created, Hercule Poirot. Agatha married Archibald Christie in the days leading up to the First World War, in which he served in the Royal Flying Corps.

By 1926 Agatha was widely known in the United Kingdom as a mystery writer and her financial success was growing. Archibald, whom she called Archie, had returned from the war and worked in the financial district in London. They had a child, a daughter named Rosalind, and they toured the world promoting the Poirot stories. When Agatha became aware of her husband’s philandering while on the tour she confronted him and he asked her for a divorce. After returning to their London home Archie left to spend a weekend with his mistress. Around 9.30 that same evening – December 3 – Agatha left a note to her secretary which informed her that she was going to Yorkshire. Agatha’s car was later found parked above a quarry.

Agatha’s disappearance on December 3, 1926 was front page news in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The Home Secretary pressured London newspapers to offer rewards for information leading to her recovery. A national search for the writer involved more than 15,000 volunteers, who worked with over 1,000 police officers to locate her. She was found on December 14 at a hotel in Yorkshire, registered under the surname of her husband’s mistress. She was examined by doctors who found her to be in a fugue state, a form of amnesia.

Agatha never discussed her vanishing for ten days, other than with her doctors, and her autobiography does not mention the subject at all. The reasons for her disappearance remain the subject of disagreement among researchers, biographers, and mental health professionals. Several books written over two and a half decades beginning in 1930 by Agatha were published under a pen name. The differences in style between these books and Agatha’s writings under her own name have been purported to tell the story of Agatha’s lost ten days, but they have not been clearly deciphered as yet.

Agatha divorced Archie, later remarried, and went on to her storied success. She lived to the age of 85, dying in 1976. If she knew the answer to the mystery of her disappearance fifty years earlier she took it with her. After the initial furor over her disappearance and dramatic reappearance died down, a backlash claiming that the whole thing had been simply a publicity stunt was inevitable. It remains one mystery Agatha created with no clear solution.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Winston Churchill Society winstonchurchill.org

Louis XVI: The Silent King and the Estates by John Hardman

LBJ Presidential Library

Tesla Memorial Society of New York

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

Stonewall Jackson: Popular Questions. The Virginia Military Institute

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd

BBC News