Lesser-Known Facts About Famous Historical Figures

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Central Press/Getty Images

Famous people from history may be portrayed as epic heroes and villains in movies, but the reality is that they’re still people. They have weird relatives, strange foibles and little-known feats just like the rest of us.

From Napoleon’s literary conquests to Macolm X’s study habits, these famous names from history had a lot going on in their lives that you likely didn't learn about in history class.

Ronald Reagan Really Loved a Scene From Back to The Future

Ronald Reagan evidently had such a fun time watching the movie Back to the Future in a theatre once that he instructed his staff to roll back the projector so he could see a particular scene again from the start.

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Photo Courtesy: Michael Evans /Wikimedia Commons

Reagan was quite amused at a joke made by the 1955 version of Doc Brown about how a former actor became president. Reagan himself, of course, is a former actor who became the governor of California and then the president of the United States.

Sarah Palin Is Related to Princess Diana

Princess Diana of Wales was known for her charitable work but died in a tragic car accident at only 36, while former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin was a vice-presidential candidate in 2008. So what do they have in common?

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Photo Courtesy: Bruce Tuten/Wikimedia Commons, John Mathew Smith/Wikimedia Commons

Both of them share a common ancestor: a man by the name of Reverend John Lathrop. He is said to have come to Massachusetts in the 1630s. That means Palin and Princess Diana are 10th cousins. The research came to light via experts from Ancestry.com in 2008, when she was John McCain's running mate.

Malcolm X Copied the Dictionary to Improve His Language Skills

The writings and speeches of Malcolm X are so compelling that it’s hard for many to believe he actually spent much of his life barely being able to read or write at all. He engaged in a rather unique way of improving his language skills, however.

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Photo Courtesy: Bob Parent/Getty Images

While in prison serving a sentence for theft, Malcolm X copied an entire dictionary by hand. He would also read out loud what he had just written every day. The act of rewriting and speaking aloud the words and their definitions helped to improve his vocabulary and speech delivery.

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Barack Obama Is Related to Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was twice appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and played a pivotal role during World War II by helping to bring together the Soviet Union and the United States in an effort to beat the Nazis. He also just so happens to be related to the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter J. Souza/Wikimedia Commons, BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives/Wikimedia Commons

According to genealogists, Barack Obama and Winston Churchill are ninth cousins. Obama is also a distant cousin of Brad Pitt, as the two share a common relative from back in the 1800s. Dick Cheney is another one.

Albert Einstein Would Lie and Say He Wasn't Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein didn't enjoy dealing with inquisitive fans while he was out in public. The famous physicist came up with a rather simple but effective method for dealing with such fans, however.

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Photo Courtesy: Al. Aumuller/Wikimedia Commons

If a fan came up to him while he was in public, Einstein would simply apologize and tell the person that he was not who they thought he was. He would continue to tell them that he was often mistaken for Albert Einstein but was not actually him.

Marie Antoinette Would Pretend to Be a Peasant

Queen Marie Antoinette of France is a misunderstood historical figure. She’s popularly thought to be the monarch behind the infamous phrase, "Let them eat cake," but there is little evidence to suggest she ever said that. Even so, she has become a symbol for leaders who are out of touch with the people they govern.

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Photo Courtesy: Vigée-Lebrunr/Wikimedia Commons

Antoinette did not aim to be out of touch with the common person, however. In fact, she had an entire pretend village built called the Queen's Hamlet where she could dress in common clothing and pretend to live as a peasant.

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Hugh Hefner Was Related to George W. Bush

Hugh Hefner was known as the man atop the Playboy empire. He was famous for parading around in silk pajamas in his mansion filled with party-goers and Playboy bunnies. He was also related to the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush.

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Photo Courtesy: Eric Draper/Wikimedia Commons, Alan Light/Wikimedia Commons

Bush and Hefner are 10th cousins twice removed on Bush's mother's side. Thomas Richards, a man who died around 1650, was their shared relative. The man was Bush's 10th great-grandfather and Hefner's eighth great-grandfather. Both are related to John Kerry.

Alan Turing Was a Marathon Runner

Alan Turing is considered the father of modern computing. During World War II, he helped crack German codes for the Allied Forces. One would think that someone with such a brilliant mind for technology wouldn't also be a gifted athlete, but one would be incorrect in that assumption.

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Turing once completed a marathon in only two hours and 46 minutes. His time was only 11 minutes short of the gold medal-winning time in the Olympics that were held the following year. That is a man with a diverse set of talents.

Elizabeth Taylor Was Related Through Marriage Paul Simon

Elizabeth Taylor was one of Hollywood's most sought-after stars during her remarkable film career, reaching the peak of her fame in the 1950s. Surprisingly, she was also related through marriage to musician Art Garfunkel.

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Photo Courtesy: Doctor Macro/Wikimedia Commons

Taylor was formerly married to Eddie Fisher, the father of Carrie Fisher, and Carrie was once married to Paul Simon, the other half of Garfunkel's musical duo, Simon and Garfunkel. Apparently, there are more connections between celebrities than you might think.

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Walt Disney Gave Out Company Stock as Gifts

Throughout his lifetime, the creator of Disney amassed a net worth of approximately $1 billion. Walt Disney was also said to be a man who liked to reward those who worked for him. One of those people that Disney chose to reward was his housekeeper.

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Photo Courtesy: Bettmann/Getty Images

Each year on Christmas and on her birthday, Disney gave her stock in his company as a gift. By the time the housekeeper was in her 70s, she had amassed quite a bit of wealth. Walt Disney's housekeeper is said to have been a multi-millionaire in her later life.

Charlie Chaplin Placed 20th in a Charlie Chaplin Lookalike Contest

Imagine taking part in a lookalike contest where every contestant was trying their best to look exactly like you. Then imagine 19 contestants finishing higher in the competition then you did. That's exactly what happened to Charlie Chaplin when he entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest.

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Photo Courtesy: Keystone Studios/Wikimedia Commons

Chaplin had quite a unique and noticeable look. The English actor and silent film star's look was accentuated by his small mustache, cane and hat. There are evidently quite a lot of people who look more like Chaplin than Chaplin does himself.

Benito Mussolini and Sophia Loren Are Related

Italian fascist Benito Mussolini rose to power after World War I and led his country to commit numerous atrocities during World War II. However, he was also the father-in-law of Sophia Loren’s sister. And you thought you had it bad when you met your significant other’s family.

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons, Mondadori Portfolio/ Wikimedia Commons

Loren is a famous Italian actress from the 1960s and the Golden Age of Hollywood. Sophia's niece, Alessandra Mussolini, is Mussolini's granddaughter and was a member of the European Parliament. She lost her reelection bid in 2019.

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Fidel Castro Survived 600 Assassination Attempts

Fidel Castro died in 2016 at the age of 90. If it had been up to the CIA, however, he would not have made it anywhere near that long. Throughout the Cold War, the CIA is believed to have made several attempts to assassinate the Cuban leader. In fact, some believe the CIA made over 600 separate plans or attempts to assassinate or discredit him.

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Photo Courtesy: Marcelo Montecino/Wikimedia Commons

Some of the more outlandish attempts to assassinate Castro included an exploding cigar, a holographic image of the Virgin Mary and a poisoned wetsuit. That Castro made it to 90 is nothing short of amazing.

Mark Twain and Hellen Keller Were Friends

Mark Twain is one of the most famous names in literature, with some of his more well-known books including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Twain eventually struck up quite a friendship with another famous person from history: Hellen Keller.

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Keller lost the ability to see, hear, and speak at an early age, but her story would go on to inspire many. Twain even helped Keller with her studies and finances later in his life. Keller once wrote of Twain, "I can feel the twinkle of his eye in his handshake."

Abraham Lincoln Is Related to Tom Hanks

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most important figures in American history. He played an important role in ending slavery in the United States and winning the Civil War. He is also a distant relative of one of the most beloved actors of our time: Tom Hanks.

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Photo Courtesy: Conan/IMDB, Alexander Gardner/Wikimedia Commons

Hanks is has starred in movies such as Forrest Gump, Cast Away and Saving Private Ryan. Lincoln and Hanks are believed to be third cousins on Lincoln's mother's side, four times removed. Lincoln's mother was a woman named Nancy Hanks.

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Winston Churchill Had Nothing to Hide From Franklin Roosevelt

In late 1941, Winston Churchill visited President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House. Evidently, the two had a rather interesting encounter with one another during Churchill's stay. At the time, Pearl Harbor had just been attacked, and the USA was fully entering World War II.

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Photo Courtesy: BiblioArchives/Wikimedia Commons

At one point during the visit, Roosevelt walked into the guest room where Churchill was staying and found him to be completely naked. Churchill's only response was to say, "The prime minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the president of the United States."

Tsar Nicholas II Was Related to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and King George V of England

Nicholas II reigned as the last emperor of Russia from 1894 to 1917. While several factors led to his empire’s collapse, one factor was the successful invasion of the German Empire during World War I.

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Photo Courtesy: Р. Голике и А. Вильборг/Wikimedia Commons] [ Thomas Heinrich Voigt / Wikimedia Commons] [Bain News Service/ Wikimedia Commons

And who ruled the German Empire? Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was also the last emperor of his country. Both men were in turn related to King George V of England. All three men shared Queen VIctoria as one of their grandmothers.

Jeannette Rankin Was Elected Before Women Could Vote

Jeannette Rankin is the first-ever female politician to hold office in the United States. She was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1916 as a Republican from Montana. What makes her election in 1916 so notable is that women were not given the right to vote in the United States until 1919.

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Photo Courtesy: Adam Cuerden/Wikimedia Commons

During her life, Rankin was an activist and champion of women's rights. She became involved in the women's suffrage movement during her 20s and eventually became the president of the Montana Women's Suffrage Association. Her efforts with grassroots organizations led to her 1916 congressional campaign.

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Elvis Presley May Have Died of Constipation

When Elvis Presley died at the age of 42 in 1977, it was widely believed that he had died from a heart attack. Presley's weight had increased in the last years of his life and his health was poor. Drug abuse was also a possible contributing factor.

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Photo Courtesy: Ollie Atkins/Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, however, other theories regarding the singer's death have been put forward. One possible theory suggests that Presley actually died of incredibly severe constipation. Presley had a very large colon at the time, which has led some to believe this played a role in his death.

Abraham Lincoln Delivered a Speech So Moving Nobody Was Able to Take Notes

Abraham Lincoln once delivered a speech so captivating and engaging that no one present was able to take notes of it. In what is referred to as "Lincoln's Lost Speech" the future president condemned slavery. There are only eyewitness accounts of the speech on record, however, as no transcript was taken.

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Photo Courtesy: George Peter Alexander Healy/Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln delivered the speech at the Bloomington Convention on May 29th, 1856. Those in attendance stated that Lincoln's impassioned speech was simply so moving that no reporter present was able to resist putting down their notes and listening. Lincoln would be elected president five years later, in 1861.

Jesse James and Ozzy Osbourne Are Related

Jesse James was a symbol of life in the Wild West known for robbing stagecoaches, trains and banks and became a symbol for outlaws everywhere. He was also related to another man known for existing on the fringes of society, albeit to a far lesser extent: heavy metal's Ozzy Osbourne.

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Photo Courtesy: Egghead06/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons

Osbourne is the former frontman for Black Sabbath and a longtime solo artist. Osbourne had some DNA testing done in 2010 and found out that he shared a distant relative with Jesse James. Additionally, Osbourne shares a distant relative with King George I.

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William Shakespeare Promised to Curse Would-Be Grave Robbers

William Shakespeare wrote an epitaph for his own grave in an effort to scare off any potential grave-robbers. The curse reads: "Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare / To dig the dust enclosed here. / Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones."

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Photo Courtesy: unbekannt nach einem Gemälde/Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, as foreboding as the curse was, recent reports suggest it was entirely ineffective. In 2016, archaeologists scanned the grave of Shakespeare with radar and noted that the famous playwright's skull appears to be missing. The skull may have been taken by grave robbers in the 18th century.

Napoleon Wrote a Romance Novel

Napoleon Bonaparte was a strong military leader who was eager to crush enemy armies and conquer new lands. Evidently, the military genius had a softer side as well. When Napoleon wasn't leading military units into warfare, he was writing a romance story. He published a short novella titled Clisson et Eugénie.

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Photo Courtesy: Horace Vernet/Wikimedia Commons

The plot of this book details the trials and tribulations of a soldier off at war with his love interest back home, something Napoleon had some experience with himself. Historians believe that he was influenced by events in his own life when he wrote the book.

Santa Anna Had a Military Funeral for His Own Severed Leg

Mexican General Santa Anna was shot in the leg during a battle against French forces in 1938. Unfortunately for the general, doctors told him they would have to amputate the leg. Evidently, Santa Anna felt that his leg was worthy of all the accolades that any former soldier would receive.

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

After his leg was amputated, the general had it buried. When he became President of Mexico a few years later, he had the leg exhumed. He then held a state funeral for it complete with all the usual honors normally reserved for whole entire persons who die.

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Nikola Tesla Fell in Love With a Pigeon

Nikola Tesla spent his entire life as a bachelor. In addition to never marrying, he was thought to believe that romantic relationships were limiting to one's success. Few can argue that the Austrian inventor was quite successful.

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Photo Courtesy: Napoleon Sarony/Wikimedia Commons

Tesla did, however, develop a very unusual relationship with a pigeon. He would go to a New York City park to feed pigeons, and one particular white pigeon visited him every day. Tesla was said to have told people that he loved that white pigeon as a man loves a woman and that the pigeon loved him back, too.

Amelia Earhart Was in an Open Marriage

Amelia Earhart was a famous pilot and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, among numerous other accolades. She also insisted that her fiance, George Putnam, sign a prenuptial agreement before they got married.

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

In the agreement, Earhart insisted that the couple have an open marriage. The agreement read: "I shall not hold you to a medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly." The couple was married in 1931, and Earheart went missing in 1937. She was declared dead in 1939.

Jesse James and Ozzy Osbourne Are Related

Jesse James was a symbol of life in the Wild West. He is known for robbing stagecoaches, trains and banks and became a symbol for outlaws everywhere. He was also related to another man known for existing on the fringes of society, albeit to a far lesser extent: heavy metal's Ozzy Osbourne.

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Photo Courtesy: Egghead06/Wikimedia Commons] [Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons

Osbourne is the former frontman for Black Sabbath and a longtime solo artist. Osbourne had some DNA testing done in 2010 and found out that he shared a distant relative with Jesse James. Additionally, Osbourne shares a distant relative with King George I.

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King Henry VIII's "Grooms of the Stool"

Monarchs have always enjoyed a higher standard of living than others in society. While this often involves servants who cater to every whim of these fortunate people, King George VIII took things to a whole other level, however.

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Photo Courtesy: Hans Holbein the Younger/Wikimedia Commons

The rather self-indulgent king employed four people known as "grooms of the stool." Their only responsibilities were to tend to Henry's needs on the toilet and in the bathroom. This included wiping and cleaning the king after he used the facilities.

Caligula Appointed a Horse to the Roman Senate

Caligula wasn't even Roman Emperor for four years before being assassinated, but he got in some pretty ridiculous behavior during that time. One such incident involved Caligula having his horse appointed to the Roman Senate.

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Photo Courtesy: Scailyna/Wikimedia Commons

It’s not as though Caligula felt his horse had much to offer the senate, however. It was more that he and the senate weren't getting along too well at the time — he had his horse appointed to insult the other senators. Unsurprisingly, many senators were thought to have played a role in his eventual assassination.

Thomas Edison's Final Breath Is on Display in the Henry Ford Museum

Thomas Edison made numerous contributions to society with his many inventions and innovations, and nobody felt stronger about this than Henry Ford. The two men struck up a friendship in Edison's later years.

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Photo Courtesy: Levin C. Handy/Wikimedia Commons

By 1931, Edison was on his deathbed. Ford's son was by Edison's side at the time of his passing, and Ford told him to collect Edison's final breath in a tube. His son did as instructed. Thomas Edison's final breath is still contained inside that same container and is on display at The Henry Ford (that’s the full name, not a typo), a museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

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Jesse James and Ozzy Osbourne Are Related

Jesse James was a symbol of life in the Wild West. He is known for robbing stagecoaches, trains and banks and became a symbol for outlaws everywhere. He was also related to another man known for existing on the fringes of society, albeit to a far lesser extent: heavy metal's Ozzy Osbourne.

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Photo Courtesy: Egghead06/Wikimedia Commons] [Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons

Osbourne is the former frontman for Black Sabbath and a longtime solo artist. Osbourne had some DNA testing done in 2010 and found out that he shared a distant relative with Jesse James. Additionally, Osbourne shares a distant relative with King George I.