5 Famous People Who Were Secretly Horrible Human Beings

A famous picture of Sigmund Freud
Wikimedia / Max Halberstadt

Every grade school kid learns how Benjamin Franklin is one of America’s early founders and left a legacy of wisdom and innovate invention that changed the country for the better but don’t know he was also a crusty old lecher riddled with sexual disease.

In 1492 Columbus may have sailed the ocean blue but he also systematically wiped out the natives in search for gold. Let’s take a look at some other well known figures who were less than stellar human beings:

5. Sigmund Freud

Founder of modern psychoanalysis, cocaine advocate, and unintentionally made his patients worse.

The Good:

Mental illness has always been a touchy subject. It wasn’t that long ago that standard procedure for dealing with it was to chain mentally ill relations to a wall or confine them to the attic a la Jane Eyre.

Sigmund Freud changed all that. During his lifetime he paved the foundation for modern mental health and became the founder of psychoanalysis.

Yup, he was the guy who figured sex was the root of our all problems and little boys want to diddle their mothers. So his theories aren’t perfect but it was a damn sight better than hooking patients up to a car battery and assuming the electric shock would do anything other than light up their addled heads like a Christmas tree.

The (inadvertent) Bad:

The problem with any new science is how very little we actually comprehend, at least at the beginning. With barely a century into really understanding how the mind works we still don’t know what the hell we’re doing so it stands to reason that Freud made a lot of mistakes in his earliest attempts to understand.

During the Victorian Era there was an epidemic by the name of Female Hysteria in which symptoms ranged from anywhere to faintness and nervous disposition all the way to water retention and muscle spasms.

In Freud’s famous case of Anna O his patient was described to have paralysis of the extremities in the right side of her body, disturbance of hearing and language, and lapse of consciousness and hallucinations.

Today we would recognize this as a neurological dysfunction or possibly epilepsy but to a scientifically minded Victorian treatment included ‘disposing’ the products of Anna’s ‘bad self’ through the talking cure. That or copious amounts of cod oil.

Now, the idea of talking through whatever is troubling your mind was actually a revolutionary psychological idea that Freud came up with. It’s just that in this case it was worthless as Anna O’s symptoms were not psychological but physiological. So it was kind of like trying to fix a broken computer by smacking it with a mackerel.

The other problem is applying a one-size-fits-all approach to his patients. There were a number of women who came to him with physical symptoms that, again, by today’s standards we can see were neurological; olfactory hallucinations, nervous ticks, repetitive noises.

When Freud frustratingly was unable to cure them by hypnosis, talking on the couch, or discovering hidden traumas he declared that they were deliberately hiding things from him and applied the ‘pressure technique’ which was kinda like Chinese water torture.

He would press his fingers into the patient’s forehead and ask them to report whatever image popped into their heads. One assumes the patients just made things up to get him to stop.

When all else failed he made shit up like with Elisabeth von R. in which, after failing to find a cure through all other methods, Freud claimed she was in love with her brother-in-law and declared her cured.

The Ugly: 

Like most scientists Freud liked to experiment with the latest wonder drugs and, like a lot of scientists, he didn’t really take into account long-term effects. Cocaine was widely used from everything from Coca Cola to minor surgery to, shall we say, recreational use.

With the genuine intent to help he told colleague and friend von Fleischl-Marxow that, honestly, cocaine would help beat his morphine addiction. Trying to combat morphine addiction by introducing cocaine into your system is a little bit like trying to put out a fire with gasoline laced thermite.

To Freud’s dismay his advice went over like a lead balloon and Marxow died a drug addled death.

4. Eadweard Muybridge

Father of cinematography, crazy hobo and murderer.

The Good

In the nineteenth century the invention of the camera was treated as nothing more than a doohickey; a funny little scientific device that would never go anywhere like, you know, modern plumbing or the internet.

So it came as a surprise to all when it caught on enough for some enterprising individuals to make a good living out of it. One of those being Eadweard Muybridge; The Man Who Won a Bet.

Everybody knows how this story goes; in 1872 Leland Stanford made a bet whether or not a horse’s hooves left the ground as it ran and hired Muybridge to take a step by step photographic series proving that in fact, yes all four hooves left the ground. Thus the humble beginnings of the motion picture industry began with a click and a wealthy man becoming wealthier.

The Bad:

Muybridge was born Edward James Muggeridge and he emigrated from England to San Francisco in 1851 just in time to catch the end of the gold rush. So while dreams of a solid gold chamber pot didn’t pan out the newfangled fad of photography did.

Muybridge had been noted to have strange behavior but it may not have been entirely his fault; on one trip back to Europe he got into a nasty accident that left him in a coma for three days. Afterwards he said that he had lost his sense of smell and taste and it is thought that he received serious neurological damage that may have contributed to his crazy times.

He decided that his true name would be Edward Muygridge, no wait – Eduardo Santiago, or maybe it was just Helios. God knows, because he actually changed his name legally about five times before settling on Muybridge (unfortunately, he also gave his son the regrettable epithet Floredo Helios in which surely there were no repercussions growing up for that kid, at all.)

It’s actually kind of surprising that people came to him at all to photograph anything; by all accounts he dressed like a penurious, moth-eaten, grungy hobo. Kind of like something you’d dig up on the bottom of a hoarder’s ancient, feculent refrigerator.

So those patrons who didn’t mistake him for a transient who wandered in off the street had to put up with other unsanitary behaviors such as when he reviewed his photographs he had a habit of eating cheese-flies. You heard that correctly, cheese flies, tiny insects that congregated around week old cheese that this man shoved into his mouth on a regular basis.

The Ugly:

While dressing like a refuge out of Robinson Crusoe and eating, let us say, protein rich food things is odd but not exactly a hanging offense, murdering people is.

Bizarrely this strange dishabille man managed to marry a pretty young lady twenty years his junior in 1871 by the name of Flora. Soon after they had Floredo Helios and soon after that Muybridge got it into his head that the child was not his and that Flora had been having an affair. As to why any woman would cheat on a fly-eating, crazy haired hobo is a mystery for the ages.

However, there is substantial proof that Flora had been carrying on an affair with a Major Harry Larkyns, including letters and the rumor mill of San Francisco who saw her with him during the time the couple lived there. But there was no proof to say that his son was not his.

Instead of, say, hiring a private investigator or any other number of logical actions to prove her infidelity or hell, just filing for a divorce Muybridge tracked the adulterous man down and put a bullet through his heart.

Having done so in front of a bunch of people pretty much cemented the guilty verdict which would have landed him a lifetime imprisonment in jail had it not been for two things; one, he pleaded insanity (which there might have been a grain of truth to) and two, this was a court in the 19th century, meaning it was more or less a group of stodgy old men who were more interested in keeping the status quo than delivering justice.

The lawyer (who presumably got his degree at Stanford University of Bullshittery) pleaded that this “poor, wronged and maddened man” couldn’t be held responsible for the murder because the harridan, harpy wife who cheated on him surely drove him to madness.

And presumably the court harrumphed and waxed their mustaches, blamed the world’s ills on the perfidy of womankind, then went and smoked cigars allowing Muybridge to continue on with his photography career.

The worst part of this series of events is soon after Muybridge was acquitted Flora died and instead of taking responsibility for a child who, whether he was the father or not, needed someone to be a parent to him, Muybridge dumped him in an orphanage and never looked back.

Considering the concern the Victorians had for children in orphanages one can assume Floredo Helios may have grew up to become a serial killer or worse, a street mime.

3. Gustav Klimt

Brilliant symbolist painter who ushered in a new artistic age, and a nymphomaniac.

The Good:

If you want to recognize a Klimt painting all you need to do is check out your local college dorm rooms; square per inch he is the number one artist plastered on people’s walls (only out-plastered by Van Gogh).

What do people really know about him other than he makes pretty (if hyper sexualized) paintings?

In an age of stagnancy he shook up the art world with the founding of the Vienna Succession and proceeded to have a long art career drawing naked chicks.

The Bad:

To say Klimt liked women would be a hilarious understatement.  There is such a thing as liking something too much and it could be said that Klimt liked women like a hoarder likes ‘things’.  His studio was called a ‘bordello’ and with good reason.

Remember this was the height of the Victorian Era and while by today’s standards he would be a star in the pornography industry he lived at a time when denial was in high fashion and a lady’s ankle in plain view was scandalous.

Klimt’s work of frank sexuality offended ore than it awed, though the Victorian’s still managed to regard his work through open fingers for all their denunciation. More than one critic called it ‘pornographic’ and ‘obscene’ but there is no denying that what he did was art, if one considers art to be something that invokes an emotional reaction.

His relationship with women was like something out of the darkest recesses of a Playboy article. By all accounts there was almost always naked women models lounging in his studio at any given time and he encouraged them to feel free to… explore themselves while he observed for ‘artistic’ purposes.

As his fame grew, women of higher status sought him out for portraits and may have regretted the decision. He wasn’t shy about what he wanted as some described his overwhelming satyr-like temperament as ‘animal-like’ and probably felt like that had a target painted over their lady-gardens.

The Ugly:

You can imagine anybody that made a lifelong and successful career out of sex in the Victorian Age probably had an inhuman amount of intercourse with just about anything female.

While sexuality isn’t inherently bad, going to an extreme without proper precautions is. Given the amount of ‘relations’ he had with different prostitutes over many years he contracted syphilis and God knows how many other diseases.

He had flings, he had mistresses, prostitutes, one nighters, back alley relations, quickies, romps, slap and tickles, fornications, and suffice to say you name it he probably did it at some point or another. Multiple times.

It is estimated that he fathered up to 16 children and I say ‘estimated’ because those were just the ones who came forward after his death.

Assuming they spoke up after his death you can imagine that Klimt had no real interest in supporting, or even acknowledging the life he brought into the world nor the women he fathered them on.

Therefore it might be more accurate to say instead ‘Klimt loved women’ we could say ‘Klimt loved the pants-feelings that being around (and in) women produced in him’.

2. The Winchester Mansion ‘Boston Medium’

Unknown charlatan psychic who bamboozled a rich old lady into creating one of the craziest, most innovative architectural marvels on the western coast of the U.S. 

The Good:

It’s weird to think that something good can come from something inherently bad but that is exactly the case with the Winchester Mystery House, one of the greatest and strangest architectural marvels on the western coast of America. The story of the Winchester Mansion is proof that truth is stranger than fiction.

Sarah Winchester was the widowed heiress of the Winchester fortune. You know, the gun that won the west? Sarah grew up in a normal, if well off, family in New Haven, Connecticut and married William Wirt Winchester (say that ten times fast) in 1862. A normal life was not meant to be; her infant died soon after childbirth and soon after that she lost her husband to tuberculosis.

Normally, when tragedy of that magnitude strikes you go on with life the best you can and try to fill the rest of your days with charity or gardening or taxidermy collecting. However, add twenty million dollars to your tragic loss and your grief takes an interesting turn.

The Bad:

Very little is known about who the Boston Medium was; only that spiritualism was hot in the Victorian age, and Mrs. Winchester was a woman looking for comfort anywhere she could find it. Man, woman, charlatan, thief or genuine crackpot, in a single session the Boston Medium managed to pull the mindfuck of all mindfucks and convince the already unbalanced Mrs. Winchester that why, yes indeed her family was cursed.

Haunted by the spirits slain by the rifle that made her fortune she must build. She must build a building and never stop building for if the hammers ever cease the angry spirits that killed her family will come for her and drag her to her death.

The Ugly:

What was the result of such an outrageous claim on an already unbalanced and grieving individual? Add an almost unlimited amount of money and you get almost forty years of round the clock carpentry crazy times and what one would assume a grieved widow living in constant terror of  ‘spirits’ hunting her down.

Either no one tried to reason with Mrs. Winchester, she was too far gone to listen, or maybe you just don’t tell rich people they are batshit crazy because for the rest of her life she believed that spirits were out to get her.

The house she built reflected it; the Winchester Mansion was originally a large eight room farm house that by the time of Mrs. Winchester’s death swelled to an epic seven story, one hundred and sixty room mansion.

There are staircases to nowhere, corridors that end in walls, doors that open to empty spaces, and don’t forget Sarah’s favorite number, 13.

Every window has 13 panels, there are 13 bathrooms, the chandeliers have 13 candle holders, ect. Ect.

The mistress of Winchester Mansion reportedly spent her days overseeing the building of the house and trying to keep ahead of the spirits who wanted her dead. Every night she would sleep in a different room, which ironically almost killed her in the 1906 earthquake.

Since nobody knew where she was at any given point, it took servants hours to find her as she was trapped in one of the rooms damaged in the earthquake.

For a woman who was supposedly cursed she lived a very long and rich life, if you discount the whole living in constant terror that some unseen force is out to get you. Sarah Winchester died in September, 1922 in her sleep at the age of 83.

Her will generously gifted friends, family, and servants with money – partitioned into thirteen sections, signed thirteen times.

Perhaps it could be argued that if it wasn’t for the Boston Medium that set her on this strange architectural journey it would have been something else; maybe she would have been one of those little old ladies who had two hundred cats and willed her fortune to them. Who knows. However you can’t deny that whoever the Boston Medium was it takes a special kind of malicious bastardry to willfully and knowingly torment the mentally unbalanced.

1. Frank Lloyd Wright

King of architects, visionary, and number one deplorable bastard.

The Good:

Frank Lloyd Wright has been hailed as one of the greatest architects in history and rightfully so; his working life of over 70 years has given us cutting edge architectural innovation, beauty and enduring style. And merchandising. Plenty of merchandising.

He was a prolific worker who constantly churned out designs, structures, and ideas. His early life was something like out of a dime novel; doting mother, cold father who abandoned them and once he left childhood behind and sought his way in the world he hopped on a railcar with his worldly possessions in a kerchief and-wait, no that’s a different story.

He took off to Chicago without telling anyone, with only a few dollars in his pocket, found the largest architectural firm he could find and landed himself a job with them.

The Bad:

Wright must have been born under one hell of a lucky star because he arrived in Chicago right after the great fire that wiped out part of the city, so the need for buildings, and hence architects, was great.

He worked his way up the ladder, eventually finding himself in a partnership with Louis Henri Sullivan – a prominent architect of the time.

Then, in what we call in layman terms a ‘dick move’ stabbed him in the back when the next large opportunity presented itself; the commission for the Larkin Administrative Building in Buffalo, New York. Wright claimed Sullivan’s designs as his own and lied his way into the commission. Not only did he lie he went way over budget.

This would be a lifelong calling card of Wright; nearly every building, every home he designed would go over budget and the contractor would end up shelling out more than what they had bargained for.

‘Better be very careful,’ one client said of Wright ‘in your dealing with him.  If he is sane he is dangerous.’

Wright was compulsive with his design and approach; the homes he created were meticulously detailed from the furniture to the flooring straight down to the napkin holders and what stationary the owner could use. If the hostess of the home was wearing a dress that clashed with Wright’s sensitive design palette, he would tell her to change it immediately. Woe betide you if you even thought about moving some of the furniture.

Two teachers who owned one of his prairie homes one day received a package in the mail that contained a vase and a hand written note from Wright saying, ‘I thought this would look perfect over the mantel piece’. It did, and they enjoyed it right up until two weeks later the bill arrived.

His overwhelming concern for his fellow man could best be summed up in the aftermath of the Tokyo Earthquake in 1923. The Imperial Hotel was one of the largest commissions of Wright’s career and stands as a testimony to his innovation; he was one of the early architects to take in account earthquake proofing buildings and designed it accordingly. The city was leveled, thousands had been killed, and in the frantic aftermath Wright’s burning concern was whether or not the building had been damaged.

The Ugly:

Apparently talent and God-complexes run hand in hand but the ones who suffer the most are often the ones closest to you. If his numerous clients and associates got shafted then his family got torched and burned.

He married young to Catherine Tobin and set out immediately to have the biggest and grandest family in the Oak Park suburbs. He and Catherine popped out children like a horny conveyer belt of gestation and in no time had six of them.

From the start Wright treated his wife and children more like supporting actors in the theatre of his life rather than actual human beings he supposedly cared for. He would give tours of his home to prospective clients and prop his children around him like a Happy Families advertisement; however, when there wasn’t an audience he was cold and uninterested. He confessed he felt more paternal love for his buildings than he did his own flesh and blood.

He was more of a spoiled child himself than his children were; he wanted recognition and attention in every aspect of his life, even competing against his children for the affection of Catherine which turned to resentment when she couldn’t both raise six children and give him her undivided devotion.

So he started an affair with the neighbor.

And he didn’t even bother to hide it; he didn’t care if his wife and neighbors knew and would escort his mistress in a yellow roadster down the street like an adulterous one man parade.

The affair accumulated in an elopement that took him and his new lover to Europe for a year while he left Catherine and his six children in debt and with a grocery bill that reached over $900. This was in 1909 so in today’s terms it would be more or less $23,400.000.

Only towards the end of his life did he show any inkling of remorse; three days after Catherine died his son broke the news to Wright who asked tearfully why he wasn’t told sooner.

His son replied, ‘Well, it wasn’t like you gave a damn about her when she was living.’ Thought Catalog Logo Mark

M.J. Jewett is a fiction writer who can sometimes be persuaded to share thoughts on historical events, personal experiences or areas of expertise.

Keep up with M.J. on prodigalpen.wordpress.com

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