20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World

Khalid Elhassan - May 2, 2019

The drumbeat of scandals has been steady and unceasing over the past few years, and you can hardly turn on the news or crack open a newspaper without finding a reminder. However, if it is any relief, and also because misery loves company, it might come as some comfort to know that we are not alone. Other people around the world and over the ages have endured scandals that put many of ours to shame. Following are twenty fascinating historic scandals from around the world.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Edward inspecting SS troops during his 1937 visit to Germany. Bundesarchiv Bild

20. The British King Who Was a Hitler Fanboy

King Edward VIII is often remembered as a romantic monarch. For many, what first comes to mind when his name crops up is that he was the king who chose love over power, and abdicated the British throne in order to marry his American mistress, the divorcee Wallis Simpson. What attracted less attention over the years – in no small part because the British government went out of its way to downplay it and conceal the evidence – is that Edward was a Nazi sympathizer. Indeed, in 1937, a year after his abdication, Edward and his wife toured Nazi Germany, in defiance of the British government’s advice, where they were lionized by the Nazis and honored by Hitler.

It was not surprising, considering that Edward was an antisemite, who blamed the Jews for the outbreak of WWII. In June of 1940, he told a Spanish diplomat that peace could be had if England was bombed effectively. Two weeks later, the Germans began bombing Britain. British officials told Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Edward, who was living in Portugal at the time, was “well known to be pro-Nazi and may become a center of intrigue“. Churchill forced him to return to Britain with the threat of prosecution, then bundled him to effective exile, as governor of the Bahamas.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Contemporary coverage of the Profumo Affair. KQED

19. The Affair That Toppled a Government

In 1961, John Profumo, Secretary of State for War and a rising star in Britain’s Conservative Party, met and had a brief fling with an aspiring model, 19-year-old Christine Keeler. In of itself, that was no big deal – then as now, politicians having affairs were a dime a dozen. What turned it into a scandal with far-reaching consequences was the coverup: when Profumo was asked about it in the spring of 1963, he told the House of Commons that there had been “no impropriety whatever“.

It did not take long for the paparazzi and tabloid press to prove that Profumo had lied. Even then, he might have survived – politicians lying to hide affairs also being a dime a dozen – were it not for bad timing. There had been a string of recent spy scandals, and it emerged that Keeler had also had a fling with a naval attache at the Soviet embassy. 10 weeks after lying to Parliament, Profumo confessed and resigned. The scandal shook the Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, who resigned a few months later on health grounds. A few months later, the reeling Conservatives lost the 1964 elections to the Labor Party, and were ousted from power.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
King Farouk of Egypt. Al Arabiya

18. The Pickpocket King

The world has had no shortage of greedy, avaricious and outright kleptocratic rulers. However, most of them got underlings to do their looting for them without dirtying their own hands, and few were so driven by kleptomania as to personally engage in theft. One of the few who did just that was Egypt’s King Farouk (1920 – 1965), who reigned from 1936 until ousted by a military coup in 1952. His years in power were marked by endemic corruption, economic dislocation, and a flood of personal and political scandals.

Farouk was serious about theft: he actually took pick pocketing lessons. His victims included Winston Churchill, whom the Egyptian king invited to dinner during WWII. At the meal, Churchill discovered that his pocket watch – a prized family heirloom that had been a gift from Queen Anne to his ancestor John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough – had gone missing. After an outcry and search, Farouk, who had been seated next to Churchill, sheepishly turned it in, claiming to have “found” it.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Cacareco, the rhinoceros who won first place in the 1959 Sao Paulo elections. Whale Oil

17. The Corruption Scandal That Got a Rhinoceros Elected

In 1959, Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, was reeling under a series of scandals. Corruption was rampant, garbage went uncollected, sewers overflowed, inflation was rising, and supplies of basic foodstuffs were dwindling. As City Council elections neared that October, voters had to choose from amongst 540 candidates, ranging from the uninspiring to the outright criminal. Faced with such dismal options, some students decided: “Better elect a rhinoceros than an ass“. Their candidate of choice was a 5-year-old female black rhinoceros named Cacareco, residing in the local zoo.

Cacareco charged to first place and won in a landslide, garnering over 100,000 votes – 15% of the total cast. As The New York Times reported, she “earned one of the highest totals for a local candidate in Brazil’s recent history“. It was actually the highest-ever total won by any city council candidate up to that date. A sore loser party leader complained bitterly: “A ridiculous vote for a ridiculous rhinoceros. Nowhere, and never before, have 100,000 literate adult voters cast their ballots for a silent, absent, and nut-brained quadruped“. One of the failed candidates was so humiliated, that he committed suicide.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Duplessis orphans. Sputnik International

16. When the Church Misdiagnosed Children to Enrich its Coffers

Until the 1960s, Quebec’s Catholic Church held significant sway over that Canadian province. The 1940s and 1950s in particular were an era of widespread poverty, few social services, and Catholic Church predominance. It was then that Maurice Duplessis, a strict Catholic, became premier of Quebec. He immediately placed the province’s schools, orphanages, and hospitals, in the hands of various Catholic religious orders. Duplessis then hatched a scheme with Church authorities to game the Canadian federal government’s subsidy assistance program, to divert taxpayer dollars into the coffers of Quebec’s Catholic Church.

It included setting up a system to falsely diagnose orphans as mentally deficient, in order to siphon more federal subsidy dollars into the Church’s coffers. As a first step, Duplessis signed an order that instantly turned Quebec’s orphanages into hospitals. That entitled their religious order administrators – and ultimately the Catholic Church of Quebec – to receive the higher subsidy rates for hospitals. It took decades before the scandalous state of affairs was finally uncovered. By then, over 20,000 mentally sound Quebecoise orphans had been misdiagnosed with psychiatric ailments. Once they were misdiagnosed, the orphans were declared “mentally deficient”. It was not just a paperwork technicality: the orphans’ schooling stopped, and they became inmates in poorly supervised mental institutions, where they were subjected to physical, mental, and sexual abuse.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Bokassa coronation. Tumblr

15. The Despot Who Bankrupted His Impoverished Country With a Lavish Coronation

The now largely forgotten Jean-Bedel Bokassa (1921 – 1996) was a military officer in the Central African Republican, who had served as a captain in the French colonial army when Central Africa gained its independence from France. When the Central African Republic won its independence, the new country’s president, a distant cousin, appointed Bokassa to head its armed forces. Bokassa showed his gratitude by plotting a coup that aimed to oust his cousin from power, so he could replace him as president.

In 1966, Bokassa followed through, and seized power. He then ruled that small nation as a military dictator until 1979. Erratic and prone to delusions of grandeur, Bokassa declared his small landlocked country an empire, and anointed himself Bokassa I, Emperor of the Central African Empire. An admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, Bokassa emulated his idol by crowning himself Emperor. He then bankrupted his impoverished country with a lavish coronation event that cost about 80 million dollars, and featured a diamond-encrusted crown worth $20 million.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Cobras. Pinterest

14. Poorly Thought Out Government Plan Backfired Horrifically

India’s British rulers sought to combat the infestation of Delhi by venomous cobras, so the authorities offered a bounty for every dead cobra, payable upon delivery of its skin to designated officials. Before long, natives were thronging to the drop-off points, whose store rooms were soon bulging with cobra skins. However, the incentive scheme did not seem to have a noticeable effect on the city’s cobra population. No matter how many cobra skins were delivered to the authorities, Delhi seemed to be just as infested with the deadly snakes. Officials eventually figured out why: many locals had turned to farming cobras. Since the bounty on the snake skin was greater than the cost of raising a cobra, the British had unintentionally created a new cash crop.

When the authorities finally realized what was going on, and how their incentive scheme was being gamed, they canceled the plan, and stopped paying out bounties for cobra skins. That was their second mistake. Without the bounties, cobra skins and captive cobras were now worthless. So Delhi’s cobra farmers did the economically sensible thing, and released the snakes back into the wild – the “wild” in this case being the city of Delhi. The snake infestation was increased by orders of magnitude, and Delhi wound up with many times more cobras than it had possessed before the authorities’ poorly thought-out plan.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
American servicemen getting tested for drugs before returning from Vietnam. NPR

13. The Early 1970s US Military Was Debilitated by Heroin Addiction

In May of 1971, Congressmen Morgan Murphy of Illinois and Robert Steele of Connecticut went to Vietnam on a fact-finding mission, which revealed that 15% of American servicemen in Vietnam were heroin addicts. Even more military were recreational users of heroin, marijuana, and other drugs. Worse, the addiction epidemic was spreading from Vietnam to other US military installations around the world, with the American garrison in West Germany being particularly hard hit. The idea that so many servicemen were hooked on heroin horrified the American public, as the drug was widely perceived as the most addictive narcotic ever produced, and one whose addiction was nearly impossible to escape.

In response, President Nixon created the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention. He also ordered further research on military personnel addiction, which revealed that Congressmen Murphy and Steele had been mistaken in their figures. Instead of 15%, the true figure for self-identifying addicts in Vietnam was actually 20%. In light of the rapid military draw dawn from Vietnam, it meant that the US military was releasing hundreds of active heroin addicts into the US each week.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
A Praetorian. Pinterest

12. The Bodyguards Who Auctioned Off an Empire

In the first century AD, Augustus did away with the increasingly dysfunctional and unworkable Roman Republic, and replaced it with the Roman Empire. To safeguard himself and his new state, Augustus created a special military unit to protect him, that came to be known as the Praetorian Guard. Over the next three centuries, its members would act as the emperor’s bodyguards, a secret police, and imperial enforcers and executioners. They would also increasingly come to act as kingmakers, making and unmaking emperors at whim.

Their most brazen act of kingmaking occurred in 192, after they assassinated the emperor Commodus. His successor, Pertinax, gave the Praetorians a bonus of 3000 denarii, each, but it did not stop them from murdering him three months later. The Praetorians then auctioned off the imperial throne to the highest bidder. That was just too much: the army of the Danube proclaimed Septimius Severus emperor. He marched on Rome, seized the city, and fired all the Praetorians, replacing them with men from his own legions.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
West German journalist Gerd Heidemann, credited with tracing the so-called ‘Hitler Diaries” – holds one of his exhibits aloft at a news conference on April 25, 1983 in Hamburg. (AP-Photo/Thomas Grimm)

11. Respected Magazine and Historian Hoaxed by Forger

In 1983, West Germany’s Stern magazine announced that its star reporter, Gerd Heidemann, had discovered Hitler’s diaries. Jubilant editors declared that their scoop, which shed light on the Fuhrer’s innermost thoughts, would lead to a major rewrite of WWII’s history and Hitler’s biography. Hugh-Trevor Roper, a prominent British historian who reviewed the diary on behalf of the Sunday Times, Stern’s publication partner, declared the diary authentic. However, Stern’s editors, fearing a leak, had refused to allow any German WWII experts to examine the diary. It was a huge mistake.

Once the diary was published, it did not take long for experts to spot signs of obvious forgery. The paper used was modern, and so was the ink. Moreover, the diaries were riddled with glaring historical inaccuracies, concerning events and dates that Hitler could not have possibly gotten wrong. Particularly dated entries in which the Fuhrer described events before they had actually happened in real life. An investigation revealed that the diary had been created by a notorious German forger named Konrad Kujau, who teamed up with Stern’s reporter, Gerd Heidemann, to rip off the magazine.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Mary Stuart and Lord Darnley. British Library

10. Unhappy Royal Marriage Leads to Blown-Up Royal Hubbie

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542 – 1587), inherited the throne as an infant, and was raised in France while Scotland was ruled by regents. In 1565, she returned home and met her first cousin, Lord Darnley, a handsome young man who captivated her. In addition to the attraction, a marriage made dynastic sense, as it would unite two branches of the Stuart line, and thus strengthen the Scottish royal family. A wedding was swiftly arranged, and Darnley ascended the throne as king consort. Unfortunately, Darnley had an excessive sense of entitlement. He grew enraged when Mary refused to grant him the Crown Matrimonial, which would have allowed him to continue ruling after her death.

When his wife got pregnant, instead of being pleased, Darnley fretted that any heir would push him that much further from the throne. He eventually focused his rage on Mary’s secretary, David Rizzio, whom he accused of turning the queen against him, and of being her lover. In March of 1566, Darnley and some sidekicks burst into the queen’s dining room, and stabbed Rizzio to death in the presence of his horrified, pregnant wife. Mary responded by conspiring to blow up Darnley’s bedroom while he slept. He survived the blast, only to get strangled to death as he staggered out. Mary married his murderer a few months later, which so scandalized an already reeling Scotland, that Mary was deposed and exiled.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Camila O`Gorman. Hyaena Gallery

9. The Society Girl Who Married a Priest

Camila O’Gorman (1828 – 1848) was a wealthy Argentinean socialite, who carried on a romantic relationship with a Roman Catholic priest, that scandalized Argentina. A pillar of polite society, Camila was close friends with the daughter of Juan Manuel Rosas, the country’s dictator. When Camila was introduced to a Jesuit priest, Ladislao Guiterrez, something clicked, and in 1847, the duo began an affair. They eventually fled to a small provincial town, where they posed as a married couple, living as husband and wife, and launching the town’s first school.

The scandal soon took on political tones, when the dictator’s opponents used it as an example of the moral decay under Rosas – a notorious womanizer. Camila and Ladislao were eventually tracked down, kidnapped, and returned to Buenos Aires. The dictator himself signed a decree to execute the lovers. Accordingly, on August 18th, 1848, Camila O’Gorman and Father Ladislao Gutierrez were shot by a firing squad. She was twenty years old, and 8 months pregnant. As a last gesture of Christian charity, she was given holy water to drink, so her baby would go to heaven.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Pope Julius III. Papal Artifacts

8. The Openly Pedophile Pope

Julius III (1487 – 1555), was a career diplomat who became pope and head of the Papal States from 1550 until his death five years later. As pope, he took some half-hearted stabs at reforming what had become a notoriously corrupt Catholic Church, but he much preferred to spend his time in the pursuit of pleasure. In his case, pleasure meant devoting himself to pedophilia with adolescent boys, and his notorious pedophilic pursuits tarnished his reputation and that of the Church.

The greatest of Julius’ controversies was the “Innocenzo Scandal”, named after a handsome 13-year-old beggar with whom Julius fell passionately in love. He had the urchin adopted into his family, then made the uncouth and barely literate Innocenzo a cardinal and showered him with church offices and benefices. The boy shared the pope’s bed, and on the rare occasions when he was absent from Rome, Julius fretted with the impatience of a lover pining for a mistress. The besotted pope also openly boasted of Innocenzo’s prowess in bed, and ignored all advice that his unseemly passion for the teenager opened him to ridicule as an old pervert.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Alfred Redl. Wikimedia

7. Austria-Hungary’s Head Spy Catcher Was a Spy

Austria-Hungary’s chief of counterintelligence from 1900 to 1912 was Alfred Redl (1864 – 1913), an army officer in charge of tracking down and rooting out traitors and spies. Unbeknownst to his bosses, however, Redl was himself a traitor. He betrayed his country and sold its secrets to its main rival and likeliest future enemy, Russia, whose chief spy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire he became. He also spied for both the Italians and French in exchange for money.

Redl was gay, in an era when homosexuality was a taboo that could ruin a person. Russian intelligence set out to entrap Redl, and captured him on camera committing homosexual acts, then used the photos to blackmail him into turning a traitor. Over the next 11 years, Redl sold the Russians Austro-Hungarian mobilization plans, army orders, ciphers, codes, maps, reports on road and rail conditions, and other secrets. He was finally caught in a sting operation, and committed suicide after confessing to his treason.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
‘Backyard Furnaces’ from the Great Leap Forward. Stuff You Missed in History

6. The Great Leap Forward Took China Back

In the 1950s, Mao Zedong came up with a brainstorm to rush China from a backwards peasant society and into a modern industrial one in just a few short years: The Great Leap Forward. A hallmark of the idea was that increased steel production – a benchmark of industrialization – need not wait for the development of infrastructure such as steel plants, or the training of a skilled workforce. Instead, intrepid Chinese could produce steel by using blast furnaces in the back of their communes – literal backyard furnaces. People used whatever fuel they could get their hands on to power the furnaces, from coal to wooden furniture to the wood of coffins.

When they lacked iron ore, the Chinese melted whatever steel objects they could find to produce steel girders. However, making steel is complicated, and the girders produced were of low quality and cracked easily. What came out of the backyard furnaces was actually not even steel, but pig iron, which had to get its carbon removed to become steel. And in some regions, where there was little metalworking tradition or understanding of metallurgy, even the pig iron produced was too useless to even get turned into steel.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Joanna the Mad. How Stuff Works

5. Joana the Mad Slept With Her Hubby’s Corpse

Joanna of Castile, also known as Joanna the Mad (1479 – 1555) was the daughter of Spain’s “Catholic Monarchs”, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille. As her nickname indicates, Joanna was not all there. Her family had a history of mental illnesses, and Joanna’s marriage to Philip the Handsome, a notorious lecher who cheated on her nonstop, and after whom she lusted nonstop, drove her crazy. Ghoulishly crazy, to the point where she slept with his corpse for years after his death.

When Philip suddenly died in 1506 from typhoid fever, Joana became inconsolably grief-stricken. Finally, unable to bear the separation any longer, she had Philip’s corpse disinterred three months after it was buried. Joanna then had the rotting body embalmed with lime and various unguents, and generously doused with perfumes. As a contemporary described it, the corpse was: “stitched back together, and all its members bound with waxed linen bandages“. During the next three years, Joanna got into the habit of crawling into the casket with Philip’s cadaver, or sleeping with it in her bed. She also took it around with her wherever she went, exhibiting it to all and sundry, to demonstrate just how “handsome” her husband had been.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
An AP photo from Nazi Germany. Times of Israel

4. The Associated Press Leaned Over Backwards to Placate the Nazis

After the Nazis took over Germany, the Associated Press sought to placate the new rulers by firing all of the local Jewish staff. AP also engaged in self-censorship, and started adjusting its news reporting in order to keep the Nazis sweet. Among those adjustments was the downplaying of the daily discrimination endured by Jews, and by the end of 1933, the AP was refusing to publish images depicting such discrimination. It worked. By 1935, most international news organizations of the day, such as Wide World Photos and Keystone, had been kicked out of Germany by the Nazis, but the AP was one of the few still allowed to operate in the country.

After America joined the war in December of 1941, AP’s Berlin office was closed, and its American staffers were arrested and interned, before getting swapped in a prisoner exchange. However, in order to continue to obtain photographs from Nazi-occupied Europe, the AP made arrangements with news agencies in neutral countries to receive photos for the Third Reich, in exchange for furnishing the Germans with AP photos. The AP images provided to Germany appeared in Nazi propaganda, some were altered, and nearly all their captions were changed to conform to the official Nazi viewpoint.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Prince Albert Edward as a child. Wikimedia

3. Queen Victoria Blamed Her Dissolute Son For the Death of His Father

Albert Edward (1841 – 1910), who went on to reign as King Edward VII of the United Kingdom from 1901 until his death, was mediocre as both a man and as a monarch. However, as a libertine and all-around royal party animal, Edward VII shone, standing in stark contrast to his notoriously straitlaced mother, Queen Victoria, whose name became synonymous with prudery and uptightness. Indeed, from early on, Prince Albert, or “Bertie”, was a disappointment to his prim and proper parents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg.

At age 16, Bertie had his first sex scandal with a prostitute, while observing army exercises. It was hushed up, but the queen was not amused, and Bertie’s father, although ill, went to see and reprimand his reprobate son. On the way back home, his father caught pneumonia, which did him in. For the next four decades, Queen Victoria blamed Bertie for killing her beloved husband. She decided that he was unfit to reign, and tried to keep him from following her on the throne. The queen even tried to get an Act of Parliament passed to remove Bertie from the line of succession, but was thwarted.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Edward`s love chair. Pinterest

2. King Edward VII Couldn’t Get Enough of Hookers

Queen Victoria was unable to remove Bertie from the line of succession, she did her best to make him wait: she often remarked that her longevity was due to her determination to outlive Bertie and prevent him from ever becoming king. Despite her best, Victoria finally died in 1901, after a 64-year reign, and Bertie became king at age 60. During his long wait, Bertie became notorious for his relentless quest to gratify his sexual appetites. He had a particular fondness for prostitutes, but he was willing to sample anything and anybody, whether cheap hookers or top-notch aristocratic ladies and courtesans. From discrete liaisons, to well-publicized affairs with famous actresses, to wife-swapping orgies, Bertie was down for anything.

He was a huge fan of Paris’ elite brothels, especially its most exclusive whorehouse, La Chabanais. Indeed, he built himself a private royal room in La Chabanais, decorated with his coat of arms and furnished to his specific tastes. Said tastes included a specially designed chair, named siege d’amour, which he had installed in his whorehouse room. By the 1890s, Bertie was fat, middle-aged, and out of shape, so he had the heavy-duty love chair custom-made to enable him to have sex without crushing his partners. The specialty chair also enabled him to position the prostitutes just right for royal access, with minimal exertion and contortions on his part.

20 Fascinating Historic Scandals From Around the World
Elagabalus. ThoughtCo

1. Rome’s Most Scandalous Emperor

Rome had more than its fair share of bizarre and scandalous emperors, including the likes of Nero, Caligula, and Commodus. None, however, scandalized the Romans as much as did Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, better known to history as Elagabalus (203 – 222), emperor from 218 until his death. 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.

In his youth, he had served as a priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus. He ascended the throne as a teenager after his grandmother was intrigued to have him succeed his cousin, the assassinated emperor Caracalla. He took the deity’s name as his own and brought its worship to Rome, where he built a lavish temple. There, before the eyes of astonished senators, high-ranking dignitaries, and the public, Elagabalus danced around the deity’s altar to the sound of cymbals and drums. That was simply not done, and when added to his perceived effeminacy, he became an object of contempt, which led to his murder in 222.


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

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Praetorian Guard

Associated Press – Covering Tyranny, the Associated Press and Nazi Germany: 1933 – 1945

Catholic Historical Review, Volume 86, Number 2, April 2000 – Cardinal Innocenzo: A Scandal in Scarlet

Daily Beast, October 23rd, 2016 – The Rhino Who Won an Election by a Landslide

Edwardian Promenade – The Amorous Life of Edward VII

Encyclopedia Britannica – The Great Leap Forward

Encyclopedia Britannica – Profumo Affair

English History Net – Mary Queen of Scots

History Ireland – Camila Gorman: A Rose Among Thorns

Independent, The, September 18th, 2015 – King Edward VIII: Uncle Who Encouraged Young Queen’s Nazi Salute Plotted With Adolf Hitler to Regain Throne

Open Learn – What is the Evidence That King Edward VIII Was a Nazi Sympathizer?

Sadler, John, and Silvie, Fisch – Spy of the Century: Alfred Redl and the Betrayal of Austria-Hungary (2017)

ThoughtCo – Elagabalus, Emperor of Rome

Wikipedia – Dona Joanna the Mad