An ancient Chinese Emperor who liked to party naked in his lake of wine. A French soldier from the 18th-century who feasted on stray cats. An English occultist known as “The Wickedest Man in the World.” Why were we never taught about these intriguing characters in history class, you ask? Perhaps they were too scary or just too plain weird — or maybe people would rather pretend they never existed. Whatever the reasons, we’re here to deliver the strange, strange truth.
1. Zhu Houzhao
This, let’s call him eccentric, man was the Emperor of the Ming Dynasty between 1505 and 1521. To say he indulged in some strange hobbies would putting in lightly. For one thing, he liked to keep exotic animals like leopards and tigers at his palace. More worryingly, though, he liked to keep women there; at one point he kept such an enormous harem of women at his palace that some of them starved and died due to sheer lack of available food and water.
Also, this guy liked to go out alone and hunt tigers; he once couldn’t turn up to court for an entire month because he’d been mauled so brutally. Oh, and he once burned down the palace because he didn’t see any problem storing gunpowder there during the traditional Chinese lantern festival. Zhu Houzhao eventually died after drunkenly toppling off a boat into a river. Perhaps thankfully, he left behind no sons to be his heir.
2. Elizabeth Bathory
Hungarian royal Elizabeth Bathory has gone down in history as the “Blood Countess.” This nickname stuck because she was believed to have bathed in the blood of the many young women she killed, thinking it would keep her looking youthful. Some have accused the 17th-century noblewoman of being a vampire, a serial killer, and even an occultist in league with the Devil!
It’s a macabre, fascinating story for sure, but these days some historians believe she may have simply had her reputation ruined by King Mathias II, who owed her a debt and couldn’t or didn’t want to repay it.
3. Adam Rainer
Adam Rainer’s story is fascinating: he was officially designated both a dwarf and a giant in his lifetime. You see, in 1917 the young Austrian was conscripted into the army, but at only 4 feet 6 inches tall, he was deemed too small to be a soldier. However, in 1920 something strange began happening to the 21-year-old.
Rainer started to grow. A lot. Over the course of the next decade, he grew to a height of over 7 feet tall. This is when doctors figured out that he had a tumor on his pituitary gland, which caused excessive amounts of growth hormone to be produced, a condition known as acromegaly.
4. Lord Byron
Condensing all of Lord Byron’s weirdness into a few lines would be practically impossible, so we’ll just concentrate on one aspect of the famed poet’s eccentricities. While enrolled at Cambridge University, he was told his beloved bulldog Smut couldn’t live with him, as dogs were banned on campus.
Infuriated, Byron bought a tame bear — as there were no actual rules against this — and would take it on walks around the grounds. Naturally, fellow students were terrified at the sight of him walking a bear on a chain, and this absolutely delighted him. Hell, he even attempted to enroll the bear as a student!
5. Aleister Crowley
Aleister Crowley was such a controversial figure in his time that the press dubbed him “The Wickedest Man in the World.” Born in 1875 to an evangelist father, Crowley would become infamous for rejecting Christianity and devoting his life to exploring the occult. In 1904 he formed his own religion — known as Thelema — supposedly after hearing the voice of Aiwass, the messenger of ancient Egyptian God Horus, while meditating.
The press — spurred on by Crowley himself, who loved the attention — published stories about him sacrificing human beings to Satan, although this wasn’t true at all. He was simply a man too weird for Victorian society to handle!
6. Sawney Bean
It’s perhaps understandable that Scottish kids aren’t taught about Sawney Bean in school. After all, it’s unclear if he was a real man or simply a scary myth! The legend goes that, in the 15th century, Bean and his family — a wife and 48 children, no less — lived in a cave and would only leave it at night to capture and eat unsuspecting locals.
Unfortunately for the cannibalistic family, they tried to eat the wrong guy one night, and he fought back, eventually driving them back to their cave with the help of several angry villagers. The family were then supposedly arrested and executed for their crimes in Edinburgh.
7. Howard Hughes
These days, it’s known that aviator and film producer Howard Hughes suffered from a severe case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in his later years, but at the time he was simply seen as a rich kook. In 1958 he disappeared into his film studio to watcb some movies, and he stayed in the screening room for four months.
He didn’t bathe or cut his hair the entire time, and when he later moved to the Beverly Hills Hotel, he would sit naked in his pink room. He then became a germophobe who kept his urine in glass bottles.
8. Mansa Musa of Mali
Mansa Musa became the ruler of the Mali Empire in 1312 and is widely recognized as the wealthiest man who ever lived. When he journeyed to Mecca, he took with him a procession of 1,000 attendants, 100 camels, and 500 slaves, and when he stopped off in Cairo, he decided to share the wealth a bit.
Though he was trying to help the poor, the masses of gold he injected into Cairo’s economy actually lowered the value of gold in Egypt and caused inflation. It took the economy 12 years to right itself! Whoops.
In Ancient Greece, Diogenes became so famous that Alexander the Great — the most powerful ruler in the world at the time — visited and asked if he could help him in any way. The philosopher, naked as the day is long, looked up from his position atop the circular wooden barrel in which he lived. He was sunbathing, so he simply told Alexander, “You could move out of my light.”
This was typical oddball behavior from Diogenes, who would often interrupt fellow philosopher Plato’s classes by eating loudly and, um, doing unspeakable things to the man’s stool. We’ll say no more!
Roman Emperor Domitian had a complex about being bald; he even insisted that artists and sculptors always depicted him with locks of curly hair. Maybe it was angst over being follicly challenged that made him cruel, too, because the man had a sadistic streak a mile wide!
For example, one story goes that he invited a bunch of senators for a dinner party in 89 A.D. They quickly found out that the entire room was black and their names had been carved into tombstones displayed for them to see. Domitian then proceeded to talk about death all night before sending the terrified political leaders home, un-murdered and with the tombstones as keepsakes. How charming!
11. Anneliese Michel
Was Anneliese Michel truly possessed by the Devil? Or was she simply a mentally ill woman who didn’t get the help she needed? That’s the troubling question that still hangs over the case of a German woman who died in 1976 after being subjected to ten months of repeated exorcisms: 67 in total.
Local priest Ernst Alt and the girl’s family were convinced that she had a demon inside her, and at various points Michel claimed to be possessed by Judas Iscariot, Nero, Adolf Hitler, and even Lucifer himself. Her parents and the priest were found guilty of negligent homicide, but no one went to jail.
12. Vlad Tepes
Over the years, it’s become accepted that author Bram Stoker was inspired by the vicious Vlad Tepes when creating Dracula. Vlad the Impaler — as he was charmingly known — ruled over Wallachia in the 1400s and his violence went down in legend. It’s believed he impaled 20,000 and killed 60,000 during his time on the throne and even dipped bread in his victims’ blood.
Oh, and get this: his father was named Vlad Dracul, which translates as “dragon” in Romanian. In truth, though, Vlad’s name never shows up in Stoker’s research, and he reportedly chose the name “Dracula” because he believed it was Romanian for “Devil!”
13. Muhammad Mahabat Khan III
From 1911 to 1948 Muhammad Mahabat Khan III was the last royal ruler of India; he played a vital role in saving the Asiatic lion from extinction. In fact, Khan loved animals in general: so much so that it’s believed he had 2,000 pet pedigree pooches, all of whom were rumored to live in their own room, each with their own servant.
Now, while we think this is a bit much, we can understand it at least. But what we can’t comprehend is that each room had its own telephone too! We’ve never known doggos to be much good on the phone…
14. Zhou Xin
Have you ever imbibed a glass of wine so impossibly rich and delicious that you semi-jokingly said you could practically bathe in it? Well, Shang Dynasty King Zhou Xin had that exact thought, except he had the resources to make it a reality! In fact, he didn’t just fill a bath with wine: he filled an entire lake with the stuff and invited 3,000 people to frolic naked in it.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the lake was an island populated by meat trees. Yes, you read that correctly: meat skewers shaped to resemble trees, with pork, chicken, and beef hanging off the branches.
15. Tsar Peter III
Peter III reigned as Tsar of Russia for just six months in 1762. In her memoirs, his wife Catherine the Great claimed he loved toys more than her. In fact, when a rat chewed the head off one of his toy soldiers, it went to “court” in a tiny homemade gallows, and then its body was pinned to the wall.
Catherine wrote, “He had been tried by martial law and immediately hanged; and as I saw was to remain three days exposed as a public example. In justification of the rat, it may at least be said that he was hanged without having been questioned or heard in his own defense.”
16. Caroline Giacometti Prodgers
In 1875 a London cabbie burned an effigy of infamous customer Caroline Giacometti Prodgers: the public loved it. You see, Prodgers had been waging war on cab drivers for years, suing so many that no fewer than 50 had wound up facing her in court.
She memorized the cost charts for cabbies, and therefore knew how much it would be to go exact distances. If a driver tried to charge her more, she would threaten to sue them — often purposely baiting them into getting angry and swearing at her, which gave her more ammunition. No one had any idea why she did this, of course.
17. Pharaoh Pepi II
Pepi II became Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt when he was just six years old and — perhaps unsurprisingly — he wasn’t quite mature enough for the gig! This manifested itself in, how shall we put it — unnecessarily cruel treatment of his staff. Just get a load of his method for dealing with the flies that buzzed around his palace.
Pepi hated the flying nuisances, so he ordered his slaves to be stripped naked and covered head to toe in honey — that way, the nasty buzzy little beasts would be attracted to the slaves instead of him. Becoming a living sticky flycatcher doesn’t exactly sound like our idea of fun!
Tarrare was a French soldier in the late 1700s with a disorder that made him so hungry he would eat anything: livestock feed, stray cats, dogs, stones, and even dead bodies. It never seemed to fill him, and he never put on weight, but he always emitted a horrible stench and would sweat profusely.
Terrifyingly, he was once accused of eating a 14-month-old child, and didn’t deny it. When he died at 27, the autopsy revealed his digestive system was mutated: his gullet was unusually wide, his body was filled with pus, and his ulcerated stomach took up most of his abdomen.
When Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus ascended to the throne of ancient Rome, he took a new name: Elagabalus. He then proceeded to be, in the words of historian Adrian Goldsworthy, “the least able emperor Rome had ever had.” Ouch.
He once married and divorced five women in five years, and even wed a virgin, thinking this meant their union would give birth to “godlike children.” It’s also believed he wore women’s wigs, liked to be called a “lady,” and may have paid doctors to research a sex-change operation. In this sense, it’s likely he was the first trans woman in history.
20. Duško Popov
You’d have to go pretty far to find someone who has never heard of iconic superspy James Bond, but we’d wager few know of his real-life inspiration, Duško Popov! He was a Serbian spy who had worked as a double agent during World War II, feeding key German information back to his masters in British intelligence.
He lived the life of a playboy, which included being given $50,000 by the Brits for an operation in a Portuguese casino. Amazingly, the naval officer tasked with ensuring Popov didn’t gamble all the money away at the baccarat tables was none other than Bond creator Sir Ian Fleming! Some 12 years later he published Casino Royale, which featured Bond playing a high-stakes game of baccarat.
21. Henry Cyril Paget
To say Henry Cyril Paget, the fifth Marquess of Anglesey, was flamboyant would be a huge understatement. According to The Guardian’s Viv Gardner, this was a man who bankrupted his royal estate in 1904 by “spending thousands of pounds on jewels, furs, cars, boats, perfumes and potions, toys, medicines, dogs, horses, and theatricals on a scale unimagined even among the profligate Edwardian aristocracy.”
Paget would also wear long extravagant robes encrusted with jewels and he carried a poodle adorned with pink ribbons under his arm. Clough Williams-Ellis, a contemporary, said Paget was “a sort of apparition — a tall, elegant and bejewelled creature, with wavering elegant gestures.”
22. Helena, Comtesse de Noaille
In 1863 Helena, Comtesse de Noaille took a shine to an Ernest Hébert portrait of a little girl in Paris. Unfortunately, the painting was already promised to another buyer. Undeterred, Helena did the next best thing: she bought the child model Maria Pasqua instead! Helena had no experience as a parent, by the way, and her methods were odd, to say the least.
Maria was only permitted to drink milk from one cow, handpicked by Helena, as she was convinced this made the little girl less likely to turn to alcohol as an adult. She also felt methane had huge health benefits, so made sure her cows grazed right outside her window!
23. Grigori Rasputin
“The Mad Monk” is one of the most mythologized people in history. The Russian holy man supposedly held an almost hypnotic sway over Tsar Nicholas II, and it’s claimed he used his mystical powers to heal the ruler’s son of haemophilia.
Perhaps the weirdest myth about Rasputin, though, surrounds his death. He was supposedly poisoned and shot a number of times, but it took hurling him into an icy river to drown to finally stop his heart. In reality, an autopsy revealed one gunshot wound to the head and no poison in his system, but the spooky myth has persisted for more than 100 years.
24. William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentick
This Duke of Portland was known for being a recluse who built an elaborate maze of tunnels underneath his Welbeck Abbey estate in Nottinghamshire. He would go down into these tunnels through trapdoors, specifically so his servants wouldn’t know if he was home or not. One tunnel went straight to the train station, meaning he could secretly travel to London.
Cavendish-Scott-Bentick also installed an observatory, library, ballroom, a billiards room and even a roller rink for his employees — all underground. Workers were warned to ignore him if they saw him, and he had his meals posted through a letterbox in his bedroom door!
25. Charles VI of France
Charles VI — King of France from 1380 to 1422 — suffered from a mental affliction that swept Europe for more than 200 years. In its simplest form, he thought his body was made of glass. According to Pope Pius II, “‘His malady grew worse every day until his mind was completely gone.”
The Pope added, “Sometimes he thought he was made of glass and would not let himself be touched. He had iron rods put into his clothing and protected himself in all sorts of ways so that he might not fall and break.” These days, historians have argued Charles was bipolar and would have manic-depressive episodes, with periods of mental clarity in between.
26. Emperor Wǔ
Being an ancient Chinese ruler was a tiring business: just ask Emperor Wǔ of Jin. He inherited 5,000 of the previous Emperor’s concubines, whom all lived in his vast palace! Unsure about which beautiful woman to sleep with first, he did the only sensible thing: he left the decision up to his goats.
Yes, he would let the goats pull him around on a cart, and whichever bedroom they stopped at, that was the concubine he would entertain for the evening. The women even tried to game the system by putting salt and bamboo leaves outside their doors to attract the animals!
27. John Mytton
In the 19th century, the difference between being labelled an “eccentric” and being locked away was simple: wealth. This is why people pandered to the aristocratic John “Mad Jack” Mytton, despite his odd behavior. For example, he would go hunting in the nude, even in the rain and snow.
Mytton also bred dogs to fight and would even bite them himself to prepare them for battle. He once paid voters of Shrewsbury £10 each — equivalent to more than $1,300 today — to vote for him to become a Member of Parliament. They obliged, but he got bored of politics only 30 minutes into his first Parliamentary session and quit!
28. Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher
At 72 years old, Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher came out of retirement to lead the Prussian Army into battle against Napoleon at Waterloo. Known as “Marshal Forwards,” he was one of the kingdom’s greatest soldiers ever, but by the end of his military career, he’d lost a few of his marbles.
After all, how else do you explain a man in his 70s insisting that a Frenchman had impregnated him, and that he would soon give birth to a baby elephant? Nowadays, historians generally feel years of war had wreaked havoc on the man’s mental health and that he may have even been suffering from dementia in his final years.
29. Hetty Green
Hetty Green would eat oatmeal warmed over a radiator because coal stoves were too expensive. She once returned a 10-cent broom after its bristles dulled following years of use. Heck, she even took her son to a free clinic when he broke his leg, rather than pay for private medical care.
This would all seem perfectly reasonable if Green was poor — but the “Witch of Wall Street” was worth an estimated $1 billion during America’s Gilded Age! To give context, that’s roughly $27 billion these days. Amazingly, her cheapness even cost her son his leg: it was amputated after she tried to set the break herself.
30. Sir George Sitwell
Was Sir George Sitwell weird? Well, if inventing a tiny gun specifically designed to shoot wasps is weird, then the answer is yes. If inventing the “Sitwell egg” — a food made up of a “yolk” of smoked meat, “white” of rice, and a “shell” of synthetic lime — is weird… then also yes.
Finally, if commissioning a plaque which tells prospective guests, “I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night,” is weird then, one last time, yes! He was definitely weird!