The Mysterious Deaths of 6 Historical Figures

A portrait of Napoleon by Antoine-Jean Gros
A portrait of Napoleon by Antoine-Jean Gros
Photos.com via Getty Images

You might think that dying while famous means a well-documented death proceeding from an obvious cause, but nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout history, notable figures have spent their final hours in situations clouded with uncertainty, rumor, and suspicion. Whether the deceased is an ancient emperor or a modern aviator, the potential culprit arsenic or a faulty radio, the circumstances surrounding these six strange historical deaths may never be fully understood.

1. Napoleon Bonaparte // May 5, 1821

On the surface, Napoleon's end seems clear-cut: His death certificate listed stomach cancer as the cause of his demise. During the last weeks of his life in exile on the remote island of St. Helena, the former emperor of France had been complaining of stomach ailments, including pain and nausea, but Napoleon himself hinted something much darker than cancer was at work. In a will written three weeks before he died, he said: "I die before my time, murdered by the English oligarchy and its assassin."

There has been some potential evidence to support his poisoning theory. In 1840, when Napoleon's corpse was exhumed in St. Helena for a more dignified reburial in Paris, the body was reported to be in remarkably good condition. Some scientists have theorized that this could have been a side effect of arsenic exposure, which they argue could have had a preservative effect. In 1961, tests on samples of Napoleon's hair did find elevated levels of arsenic, leading to a few decades of fevered speculation about a potential arsenic poisoning. However, a 2008 analysis of hairs taken at four periods of Napoleon's life showed arsenic levels consistent throughout that time, as well as levels consistent with hairs taken from his son and wife.

If that makes it sound like everyone in the 19th century was being slowly poisoned with arsenic, that's because they sort of were. Back then, the stuff didn't need to be administered with malevolent intent to get into your system. Not only was it a common component of weed killers and rat poison, but it was often added to beauty products and medicinal tonics. It was also part of a popular green pigment used in paintings, fabrics, and wallpaper—including the wallpaper in the house where Napoleon died. (A sample nicked by a visitor in the 1820s survived for decades in a scrapbook and tested positive for arsenic in the 1990s.)

In addition to arsenic, Napoleon had been exposed to a number of other toxic substances as part of questionable medical treatments. His doctors were giving him tartar emetic (antimony potassium tartrate, which is poisonous) for his gastrointestinal issues, and two days before he died, Napoleon received a large dose of calomel (mercurous chloride) as a purgative. The stew of dubious chemicals in his system led an international team of toxicologists and pathologists to conclude in 2004 that Napoleon's death was a case of “medical misadventure,” in which the drugs he'd been exposed to, combined with his already weak health, led to a disturbance of his heart's rhythm that ultimately produced his death.

That doesn't mean the stomach cancer idea has been put to rest, however. In 2007, a study based on the autopsy reports and memoirs from Napoleon's physician as well as other documentation compared descriptions of the lesions found in Napoleon's stomach during his autopsy with modern images of benign and cancerous gastric lesions. The paper concluded that the dead emperor's lesions were most likely cancer, which had spread to other organs. The cancer was likely a result of Helicobacter pylori, bacteria that damages stomach lining; the salt-preserved foods Napoleon consumed on his extended military campaigns may have also contributed. In truth, it's highly possible that a number of factors contributed to Napoleon's death, with or without the interference of the English.

2. Amelia Earhart // July 2, 1937 (Disappeared)

Amelia Earhart with her navigator, Fred Noonan, in the hangar at Parnamerim airfield, Natal, Brazil, on June 11, 1937, before departing for their round-the-world flight
Amelia Earhart with her navigator, Fred Noonan, in Brazil, on June 11, 1937, before departing for their round-the-world flight
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Amelia Earhart is probably best known for two things: becoming the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic in 1932, and disappearing five years later.

On July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were on one of the last and most difficult legs of their attempt at a round-the-world flight—a nonstop trip from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island in the South Pacific, where the pair planned to refuel before continuing to Hawaii. Around 6 a.m. that day, her plane radioed the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, which was anchored off Howland to provide them with guidance. But there were communication troubles: The ship was using bandwidths Earhart wasn't able to receive, and some key radio equipment on the Itasca had run out of batteries. For hours, the ship transmitted messages Earhart couldn't hear, and her messages back to them were worrying—she mentioned running low on fuel, and not being able to see land. By 8:45 a.m., ship and plane had lost contact.

Despite an extensive air and sea search by the Itasca and the U.S. government, neither Earhart nor Noonan were ever heard from again. The official explanation is that Earhart's plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific, but since no one is certain where the plane went down, finding the wreckage has proved difficult. However, some researchers think Earhart and Noonan may have briefly survived as castaways on a nearby island before eventually succumbing to the elements.

The castaway theory has gained acceptance in part because of efforts by a nonprofit called the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). Its executive director, Richard Gillespie, believes that Earhart and Noonan ended up on Nikumaroro, about 350 nautical miles southeast of Howland, in the Republic of Kiribati. The island's location fits the line of flight that Earhart identified in her last radio message, and researchers think they've uncovered photographs that show landing gear amid the coral reefs, as well as distress calls from the castaways. Several TIGHAR expeditions to the island have also uncovered plexiglass and aluminum fragments that could be part of Earhart's plane, plus pieces of what may be a jar of freckle cream and leather shoe parts that could have belonged to a woman [PDF].

To make matters even weirder, the castaway speculations also involve a skull and other bones found on Nikumaroro in 1940, which have since been lost. Initial analysis said the bones belonged to an elderly man, but more recently TIGHAR announced that a new analysis showed they likely belonged to a woman around their same height as Earhart and most likely European. However, in 2015 forensic researchers questioned TIGHAR's conclusions. Since the skeleton is both missing and incomplete, the matter seems unlikely to be resolved soon. Nevertheless, in July 2019 marine geologist Robert Ballard—the man who found the Titanic wreck in 1985—announced that he would make an expedition to Nikumaroro to search for clues both on the island and offshore, as part of a National Geographic special called Expedition Amelia airing in October.

If the castaway theory seems unlikely, it's far from the most bizarre in circulation. Some allege that Earhart was captured by the Japanese after her plane was crashed (or deliberately shot down), and then held captive—some even say because she was a spy hired by the Roosevelt administration to keep tabs on Japanese military installations in the Marshall Islands. In this version of events, her disappearance was part of a cover-up by the U.S. government, and Earhart was supposedly freed in 1945, after which she lived out the rest of her days under a different name as a banker in New Jersey.

3. Edgar Allan Poe // October 7, 1849

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Photos.com via Getty Images

In 1849, Edgar Allan Poe disappeared for six days. When he turned up on October 3, near a pub in Baltimore, he was slurring his speech and wearing someone else's suit. A good samaritan noticed Poe acting oddly and sought help, summoning a friend of the writer's to the tavern. But by the time the friend arrived, Poe was delirious and had to be taken to the hospital. He lingered there for a few more days, wracked by a fever and hallucinations, and occasionally calling out the name Reynolds. When the attending physician, Dr. John J. Moran, tried to ask Poe what had happened before he got to the tavern, Poe’s “answers were incoherent and unsatisfactory," Moran later wrote. Four days after having mysteriously arrived in Baltimore, Poe just as mysteriously died.

The official cause of Poe's death is sometimes listed as phrenitis, or inflammation of the brain, but there was never any autopsy, and the medical records have disappeared. Newspapers of the day tied Poe's death to his drinking habits, but postmortem hair analysis has shown no trace of the lead commonly added to wine in the 19th century, suggesting that Poe was probably steering clear of drink at the end of his life (indeed, he had sworn to a new fiancée to give it up). A 1996 article in the Maryland Medical Journal blamed rabies, arguing that Poe suffered classic symptoms of the disease: tremors and hallucinations, a coma, and delirium that made him combative. Yet other accounts have posited the flu, a brain tumor, syphilis, or some kind of poisoning—even murder at the hands of his fiancée's brothers, who allegedly opposed his impending marriage.

Yet one of the more accepted explanations concerns a vicious type of voter fraud known as cooping. In 19th-century America, it was not unusual for gangs to kidnap men and force them to vote multiple times for one candidate, wearing different clothes each time as a disguise. The location where Poe was found on October 3 lends weight to the theory: The pub, Gunner's Hall, was then serving as a polling station in the 1849 Congressional elections. Voters at the time were also given alcohol in reward for doing their civic duty, which would explain Poe's drunkenness; the stranger's cheap suit could have been a disguise provided by a gang. Poe reportedly reacted badly to alcohol, so if he was dragged to multiple polling places and fed liquor each time, not to mention beaten as cooping victims often were, the combination may have been too much for him. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, however, points out one flaw in this theory: Poe was "reasonably well-known in Baltimore and likely to be recognized"—even in someone else's soiled clothes. We may never know the full story behind Poe's death, which seems not inappropriate for the master of the macabre.

4. Alexander the Great // June 323 BCE

One of the most powerful conquerors the world has ever known, Alexander the Great claimed to be a son of the gods. Unfortunately, he was mortal, and died a few months short of his 33rd birthday. His final illness began during a feast at a commander's house in the summer of 323 BCE, when he is said to have developed a high fever and abdominal pain. For a few days he bathed, slept, and sacrificed, but then the fever grew worse. By the fourth day, he was losing strength, and by the seventh, couldn't get out of bed. His powers of speech failed, and when his troops asked to see him on the 10th day of his illness, he could do little but follow them with his eyes. On the 11th day, he died. It's said that when the embalmers began work on Alexander's corpse, after being delayed for six days, they found the body fresh and uncorrupted—a remarkable event given the summer heat.

Alexander the Great was just one of the famous historical figures considered during the annual Historical Clinicopathological Conference at the University of Maryland, in which medical experts convene to take a fresh look at the final days of famous dead folks. Philip A. Mackowiak, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is both the director of the conference (which considered Alexander's death in 1996) and the author of the book Post Mortem: Solving History's Great Medical Mysteries. In Post Mortem, he explains that attempts to understand Alexander's death are complicated by the fact that no contemporary accounts of the events survive, and the descriptions we have are secondary accounts written several centuries later. Furthermore, these descriptions conflict: Plutarch, writing in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, says that Alexander didn't have any pain, and that other accounts added that symptom to make Alexander's death seem as moving as possible. But other ancient sources maintain that Alexander did experience significant pain, which started right after he downed a massive goblet of wine, leading some—notably the Roman historian Justin—to suggest that Alexander was poisoned.

Alexander had made many enemies, not the least with his whole "I am the son of the gods" thing. Mackowiak writes that Alexander also offended his fellow Macedonians by dressing like the vanquished Persians, and the latest military campaign he was planning—through the Horn of Arabia and North Africa—"must have been greeted with alarm by his exhausted army." When it comes to who dared to poison the great Alexander, Mackowiak notes that some suspect Antipater, an ambitious Macedonian regent, or even at the philosopher Aristotle, who had once tutored Alexander the Great—and apparently feared for his life after a relative was embroiled in an assassination plot. Once again, arsenic has been mentioned as a possible culprit; Mackowiak writes that it's known to cause abdominal pain and progressive weakness, and in some forms is water-soluble as well as practically tasteless, making it easy to hide in wine or food. Fever, however, is not usually a sign of arsenic poisoning, and most historians doubt that arsenic was used as a poison in that time period.

A tropical illness seems more likely. According to Mackowiak, an especially malignant type of malaria caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite could have caused Alexander's fever, weakness, stomach pain, and death, but not his loss of speech, or the daisy-fresh look of his corpse. Others have suggested West Nile virus encephalitis, which can produce paralysis, but is not usually fatal. In Post Mortem, Mackowiak suggests typhoid fever with ascending paralysis as the most likely killer. Before the importance of clean water and sanitary sewage systems were well understood, typhoid was a scourge, as food and drink often became contaminated with feces carrying Salmonella typhi, the typhoid-causing bacteria. Typhoid usually involves a gradually increasing fever and weakness, abdominal pain, and other awful symptoms, but in rare cases, it's accompanied by an ascending paralysis that begins with the legs and moves up to the brain. Known as Guillain-Barré syndrome, it's almost always fatal when due to typhoid. Mackowiak suggests that if Alexander suffered from Guillain-Barré, the paralysis would have caused him to lose his power to speak once it reached his higher nerve centers. Disturbingly, Mackowiak also suggests that the paralysis could also have caused the fresh look of Alexander's corpse—because he might not have been dead all that long when they arrived, and merely paralyzed. In that case, it's a good thing the embalmers were delayed.

5. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart // December 5, 1791

Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart circa 1789
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart circa 1789
Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Was Mozart's death caused by a pork chop, a sexually transmitted disease, poisoning by a jealous rival—or none of the above?

The famed composer first began showing signs of his final illness in the fall of 1791. Overworked, underfunded, and depressed, he was working on the Requiem commissioned by a mysterious benefactor that July when he began having what some have described as stomach and joint pain. By November 20, he took to his bed. His body began to swell badly, and emit a foul odor; his wife and sister-in-law made him a special garment with an opening at the back just so he'd be easier to change. By the evening of December 4, he was starting to show signs of delirium. His doctor was summoned, and when he arrived bled Mozart (standard practice for just about any ailment back then) and applied a cold poultice to his forehead. The composer fell unconscious, and died five minutes before one in the morning on December 5. He was 35. The last sounds he ever made were an attempt to mimic one of the drum parts from his unfinished Requiem.

The official diagnosis was acute miliary fever (miliary refers to a rash with spots the size of millet seeds). But within a week, a Berlin newspaper reported that Mozart might have been poisoned. In fact, Mozart's wife said that her husband had lamented months before his death, "I know I must die, someone has given me acqua toffana [a compound of arsenic and other toxins] and has calculated the precise time of my death, for which they have ordered a requiem, it is [for] myself I am writing this."

The main culprit in the supposed poisoning scheme is often said to be the composer Antonio Salieri, one of Mozart's rivals. Though the theory faded after Mozart's death, it resurfaced with new energy in the 20th century thanks to Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus and the 1984 film adaptation. In some versions of the tale, Salieri is said to have commissioned the Requiem himself, with plans to pass it off as his own after murdering Mozart. But Salieri strongly denied any involvement, telling a pupil of Beethoven's who visited his deathbed, "I can assure you on my word of honor that there is no truth in that absurd rumor; you know that I was supposed to have poisoned Mozart." Others have accused the Freemasons, who supposedly poisoned Mozart—one of their own—because he revealed their secret symbolism in his opera The Magic Flute.

Mackowiak, however, considers a Masonic involvement unlikely, in part because others involved in The Magic Flute lived for decades, and because Mozart's lodge held a ceremony for him after his death and supported his widow. Furthermore, the most likely poisons in use at the time wouldn't have caused the kind of severe, general swelling Mozart experienced, which is known as anasarca.

Others have suggested syphilis, which was an epidemic in Mozart's day, and sometimes included a low-grade fever and rash. That disease also attacks the kidneys, and was frequently treated with mercury, which would have led to further kidney deterioration and could have caused anasarca. But Mozart was a workaholic who had no time to play around, and by all accounts loved his wife Constanze dearly. According to Mackowiak, there's no credible evidence either partner ever had an affair. A less-salacious theory argues that Mozart was killed by an undercooked pork cutlet, or more specifically, trichinosis. It's known that Mozart consumed a pork meal shortly before falling ill. But trichinosis—which comes from the parasite Trichinella—usually causes muscle pain, which Mackowiak thinks family members would have remembered and included in their descriptions of the composer's last days.

Whatever the illness, Mozart wasn't the only one in Vienna to suffer it—Mackowiak notes that there was a cluster of similar cases at the time. One plausible diagnosis, Mackowiak and other researchers argue, is post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, an inflammatory disorder of the glomeruli (a network of capillaries in the kidneys) that follows infection with the Streptocococcus bacteria. It can appear as part of an epidemic, and cause the kind of swelling Mozart suffered from. While not normally fatal with the more common Strep bacteria (the type that causes Strep throat), glomerulonephritis that follows infections with Streptococcus equi—which normally affects horses, and sometimes cows—can cause kidney failure and death. Humans often get it from consuming milk or milk products from infected cows, which explains the epidemic nature. Kidney failure would also explain Mozart's stench, likely caused by the waste products that build up in the blood, sweat, and saliva when kidneys stop working. Sadly, since both medical records and Mozart's skeleton (well, most of it, probably) have been lost, it's once again likely that a full understanding of Mozart's death will remain forever out of reach.

6. Christopher Marlowe // May 30, 1593

The maverick English poet, playwright, and spy Christopher "Kit" Marlowe is said to have been murdered at age 29 after a day of eating and drinking with some friends at a dining house. According to the coroner's report, when the time came to pay the tab, a fight broke out between Marlowe and one of the men present, Ingram Frizer, over who would foot the bill. "Divers malicious words" were spoken, and as things got heated, Marlowe grabbed Frizer's dagger, wounding him twice on the head. Frizer then grabbed it back, stabbing Marlowe over the eye and killing him instantly.

That's been the story around Marlowe's death for years, but the tale has long seemed suspicious. In fact, one of the most dangerous things about Marlowe might not have been his spying, his street brawls, or his reputed affairs with men. It might have been his religious beliefs—or the lack thereof. Shortly before his death, a warrant had been issued for Marlowe's arrest on charges of atheism, after a former roommate and fellow playwright claimed under torture that heretical papers found in his own room belonged to Marlowe. Some, such as Stanford University's David Riggs, say that Frizer wasn't motivated by rage over any bill, and the real force behind the dagger was Queen Elizabeth I, who was angry enough about his heretical religious beliefs that she ordered his murder. Those who believe this theory note that Elizabeth pardoned Frizer just one month after Marlowe's death.

That's just one of the many theories surrounding Marlowe's untimely end. Others say he ran afoul of powerful members of the Elizabethan spy world. M.J. Trow, author of Who Killed Kit Marlowe?: A Contract to Murder in Elizabethan England, thinks that Marlowe used his play Edward II to hint that four members of the Queen's Privy Council (her top advisors) were atheists too. Trow maintains that the council members decided to silence Marlowe by ordering a hit, and that they promised his friends at the dining house immunity. In fact, Trow told The Guardian, " all were cleared after a short trial and granted titles and positions of wealth and influence shortly afterwards."

Frizer and friends aren't the only ones who have been suspected in Kit's murder, though. Some think Sir Walter Raleigh, having heard of Marlowe's arrest, grew worried about what might come out at his trial and ordered him killed rather than be incriminated as a free-thinking associate. Another theory points the finger at Audrey Walsingham, whose husband employed Marlowe, and who was apparently jealous of their (possibly sexual) relationship. Others, of course, think Marlowe faked his own death to get out of trouble—then continued to write plays from a secure location and send them back to England, possibly with Walsingham's assistance. The person who got credit for those new creations? William Shakespeare, of course.

40 Strange Wedding Gifts Given to Royals

AdrianHancu/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus
AdrianHancu/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus

Although many royal couples, including the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, shy away from traditional wedding gifts and instead ask for charitable donations to be made in their names, that still doesn't stop the barrage of often fairly bizarre and random non-registry gifts sent by well-wishers (royals—they're just like us!).

Looking back through the history books, it seems that giving unusual wedding presents to royal newlyweds is nothing new. Below are 40 strange wedding gifts given to several happy royal couples, dating all the way back to ancient Egypt.

1. A tandem bike

Prince William and Kate Middleton exchange vows in 2011.
Dominic Lipinski, WPA Pool/Getty Images

When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge—then Prince William and Kate Middleton—married in 2011, the then-Mayor of London (and current prime minister) Boris Johnson gifted the couple a tandem bike in the style of the city's then-relatively new bike-share program. "I look forward to seeing the newlyweds on tandem wheels as they start their new life in Anglesey," Johnson told a crowd in Trafalgar Square on the day. Not a bad gift for the sporty couple, but no one has seen them out riding it.

2. A cocker spaniel

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge pose for a photograph with their son, Prince George of Cambridge, and Lupo, the couple's cocker spaniel.
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge pose for a photograph with their son, Prince George of Cambridge, and Lupo, the couple's cocker spaniel.
Michael Middleton, WPA Pool/Getty Images

Like Harry and Meghan, William and Kate had requested that donations be made to a charitable fund bearing their names—among the organizations they sent contributions to were the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, an anti-bullying campaign, and the Zoological Society of London. Nevertheless, Kate's brother, James, couldn't resist giving the happy couple a black cocker spaniel puppy, Lupo, who is now a beloved member of the family.

3. A Land Rover

Prince William and Kate Middleton drive away from Buckingham Palace on their wedding day.
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

One physical gift that Wills and Kate received that went straight to charity was a Land Rover Defender 110 Utility Wagon. Prince William—who is the patron of the Mountain Rescue England and Wales organization—wrote the names of 50 different mountain rescue teams from across the country on slips of paper and asked Prince Harry to pick one out at random. The car was ultimately awarded to a team based in Patterdale in the English Lake District.

4. A kayak

Prince Carl Philip of Sweden and his wife Princess Sofia ride in a carriage on their wedding day.
Ian Gavan, Getty Images

Prince Carl Philip of Sweden and his wife Sofia Hellqvist (now Princess Sofia) are well known for their love of the outdoors, and were gifted a two-seater kayak by the Swedish government on behalf of the people of Sweden for their wedding in 2015. Naturally, they also received their very own nature reserve in Värmland, the region in which they are the Duke and Duchess, in which to try it out.

5. A tennis court

Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary of Denmark after their wedding in 2004.
ODD ANDERSEN, AFP/Getty Images

When Crown Prince Frederik and Mary of Denmark wed in 2004, the Danish municipality of Sønderborg gave the couple a tennis court and pavilion at Gråsten Castle, the summer residence of the Danish royals.

6. A poem

Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, formerly Camilla Parker Bowles stand during the Service of Prayer and Dedication at Windsor Castle in 2005.
CHRIS ISON, AFP/Getty Images

Tradition dictates that the British Poet Laureate pen a new poem to celebrate each royal wedding, which led Andrew Motion to write "Spring Wedding" in 2005 to celebrate the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles (now the Duchess of Cornwall). The poem was met with mixed reviews: Given the couple's history, some thought lines mentioning "winter-wreckage" and "the heart which slips" weren't quite appropriate.

7. A giant jigsaw puzzle of the bride and groom

Princess of Asturias Letizia Ortiz and Spanish Crown Prince Felipe of Bourbon at their wedding in 2004.
ODD ANDERSEN, AFP/Getty Images

When Felipe, Prince of Asturias (now King Felipe VI of Spain) married Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano in 2004, the people of the Asturian capital Oviedo sent them a gigantic jigsaw puzzle depicting their portrait. It was assembled by visitors to a local shopping mall.

8. A "stop smoking" course

Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon and Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby leave the Oslo Cathedral August 25, 2001 after their wedding.
Anthony Harvey, Getty Images

When Crown Prince Haakon, heir to throne of Norway, married Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby in Oslo in 2001, one of the gifts reportedly sent to the couple was a course on how to quit smoking, intended to curb the bride's smoking habit.

9. A private Whitney Houston concert

Brunei's royal weddings have a ceremony that takes place in the Throne Chamber of the Istana Nurul Iman palace.
Brunei's royal weddings have a ceremony that takes place in the Throne Chamber of the Istana Nurul Iman palace.
Bernard Spragg NZ, Flickr // Public Domain

When the eldest daughter of the Sultan of Brunei, Princess Rashidah, married Pengiran Anak Abdul Rahim Pengiran Kemaludin in 1996, her uncle Prince Jefri Bolkiah hired Whitney Houston to perform as a gift for the happy couple. According to some accounts, Houston was paid $1 million for the gig—but others claim the notoriously profligate Prince Jefri handed Houston a blank check and asked her to fill out whatever figure she felt she was worth: a cool $7 million.

10. A song by Elton John

Rumor has it that when the UK's Prince Andrew, Duke of York, married Sarah Ferguson in 1986, Elton John wrote a song especially for the occasion. As a longtime friend of the royal family, John had also performed at Andrew's 21st birthday in 1981 and at his bachelor party.

11. One ton of peat

Lady Diana, Princess of Wales with Prince Charles of Wales at their wedding at St Paul Cathedral in London in July 1981
STR/AFP/Getty Images

When Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, they received a number of traditional gifts, including paintings, jewelry, a four poster bed, and an art deco Cartier clock. Charles's interest in agriculture was picked up on by a local village council in Somerset, in southwest England, who opted to send the prince one ton of high-quality peat for use on his Gloucestershire estate.

12. A "really lovely rug"

Anne, the Princess Royal and Mark Phillips pose on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London, UK, after their wedding in November 1973.
Fox Photos, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Princess Anne, Queen Elizabeth II's daughter, married Captain Mark Philips in 1973, the members of the British Cabinet all pitched in and bought the couple a rug. Like many office-pooled gifts, every member of the Cabinet contributed an equal share—which private papers later revealed to be just £10.53 each. The princess wrote each member a personal note thanking them "most warmly" for "a really lovely rug." When it was revealed that President Nixon and the U.S. government had sent the couple a solid crystal bowl and four gold candlesticks, Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister Sir Robert Armstrong wryly commented, "This makes an old Persian rug look pretty crumby."

13. A 147-foot yacht (that you can holiday on today)

U.S. actress Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco during their wedding ceremony in Monaco.
AFP, Getty Images

Shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis—future husband of Jackie Kennedy—gave Prince Rainier of Monaco and Princess Grace (a.k.a. Hollywood actress Grace Kelly) a 147-foot yacht, the Arion, as a wedding present in 1956. They honeymooned on it off the coast of Corsica and Sardinia; it's now a luxury floating hotel operating in the Galapagos Islands.

14. The ingredients for a wedding cake

The Princess Elizabeth of England and Philip The Duke of Edinburgh pose on their wedding day in November 1947 in Buckingham Palace.
AFP, Getty Images

Wartime rationing was still in place in Great Britain when Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II, married Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, now Prince Philip, in 1947. To get around the food shortages, the Australian Girl Guides Association chose to gift the couple the ingredients they would need for their wedding cake.

15. A box of apples

Queen Elizabeth II (in coach) and her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh are cheered by the crowd after their wedding ceremony, on November 20, 1947, on their road to Buckingham Palace, London.
AFP, Getty Images

Rationing didn't stop the British public from giving Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip presents either. In addition to a box of home-grown apples, the royal couple were also sent 500 tins of pineapple, two dozen handbags, 12 bottles of sloe gin, and 131 pairs of nylon stockings.

16. A hand-spun lace tray cover (that looked like a loin cloth)

Members of the British Royal family and guests pose around Princess Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II) and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
STR, AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth's wedding was just two months before 78-year-old Mahatma Gandhi's death, and the famed activist sent the couple an Indian lace tray cover that he wove himself. Reportedly, Elizabeth's grandmother, Queen Mary, thought it was a loin cloth.

17. A nationwide amnesty

In the late 19th century, the Imperial Chinese government celebrated the wedding of two members of its ruling Qing Dynasty by enacting a 20-day nationwide amnesty in their honor, during which no one would be punished for any crime. On the day of the wedding itself, the entire population of the Empire was mandated to wear red and green clothing.

18. A half-ton wheel of cheese

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their return from the marriage service at St James's Palace, London in 1840.
Engraved by S Reynolds after F Lock, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, one of the couple's wedding gifts was one of the largest wheels of cheese in British history. Measuring more than 9 feet across, weighing in at more than 1000 pounds, and made from the milk of 750 cows, the cheese was prepared for the occasion by villages in Somerset. And befitting the happy occasion, a cheesy song was written as well:

“The Pennard men then built a cheese
The like was never seen!
’Twas made, and press’d, and fit to please
Our gracious lady Queen!
And wedded to her royal love
May blessings on her fall,
And Pennard cheese at dinner prove
The best thing—after all!”

19. A mini chateau

The funerary monuments (not the graves) of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette at the Basilica of Saint Denis, France.
The funerary monuments (not the graves) of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette at the Basilica of Saint Denis, France.

When 15-year-old Dauphin Louis-Auguste (later Louis XVI) of France married 14-year-old Marie Antoinette in 1770, he gave her Le Petit Trianon, a three-story miniature chateau set in the grounds of the palace of Versailles, as a wedding present. "This pleasure house is yours," he reportedly told her. In the uneasy first years of their marriage, the future queen spent much of her time at Trianon, and though Louis would join her for dinner, he never spent the night there (which likely contributed to their not consummating the marriage for seven years).

20. An opera

William IV, Prince of Orange, his wife, Anne of Hanover, and their children Carolina and William V.
William IV, Prince of Orange, his wife, Anne of Hanover, and their children Carolina and William V.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Prince William of Orange (later William IV) married Anne of Hanover in 1734, the composer George Frederic Handel composed Parnasso in festa, a three-part Italian serenata, to mark the occasion. Handel also composed a wedding anthem for the bride; though he disliked serving as a music teacher, he had made an exception for her when she was a child, calling her a "flower of princesses."

21. A feast made entirely of sugar (and a sugar replica of the groom)

King Henry IV of France and Queen Marie de'Medici
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When King Henry IV of France married Marie de'Medici in 1600, he presented her with a grand Florentine banquet of fish and roast meats—at least at first glance. Turns out, the feast was made entirely from sugar. The groom perhaps took the European love of sugar a bit too far. Their ceremony was a wedding-by-proxy; in his stead, Henry sent a near life-size sugar replica of himself riding a horse.

22. A gold cup designed by Hans Holbein

King Henry VIII and Jane Seymour
National Portrait Gallery of London, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Henry VIII married his third wife, Jane Seymour, in 1536 (just 11 days after Anne Boleyn was beheaded), he gave her a solid gold drinking cup designed by German Renaissance master Hans Holbein as a wedding present (Holbein was the court artist; many of the most famous portraits done of the Tudors were by Holbein). Alas, all that remains of Queen Jane's gift is a sketch of it: Charles I pawned the cup in 1625 and had it melted down four years later.

23. A book of French romances and an essay on warfare

Detail of the illuminated miniature on the presentation page of the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, showing the donor, John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, presenting the book as a gift to Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI.
Detail of the illuminated miniature on the presentation page of the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, showing the donor, John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, presenting the book as a gift to Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Margaret of Anjou married Henry VI of England in 1445, John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who had accompanied her on her journey from Normandy to London, presented her with a book of illuminated French poems, folktales, romances, and political treatises. The Talbot Shrewsbury Book, as it's now known, also contains a complete list of statutes governing the Order of the Garter, and several lengthy treatises on warfare, husbandry, and hunting. It was likely perfect bedtime reading for the ambitious new queen of England, especially considering that she often had to rule in Henry's place.

24. Three leopards

Eleanor of Provence and King Henry III of England.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

King Henry III is credited with establishing much of the royal menagerie that used to be housed at the Tower of London. In 1235, to mark his betrothal to Eleanor of Provence, he was given three leopards (or possibly lions) to add to his collection by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II.

25. An entire town

"King Solomon with his wives at table," by Anton Koburger, 1491.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

According to the biblical 1st Book of Kings, when King Solomon married the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh sometime in the mid-10th century BCE, the pharaoh conquered the Canaanite town of Gezer in the Judean Mountains, massacred its people, and gifted it to his daughter as a dowry.

26. A pair of koalas

When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle married in May 2018, they requested that in lieu of gifts, friends and family donate to one of seven handpicked charities, including an HIV charity, a coastal ecology charity, and a fund for children who have lost parents in military service. That, however, didn’t stop a handful of well-wishers from doing both—among them, the regional assembly of New South Wales. In addition to making a donation to a local conservation charity in their honor, premier of New South Wales Gladys Berejiklian had two baby koalas at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney named after the couple “as a gift from the people of New South Wales.”

27. A bespoke James Bond-style cigarette lighter

French president Emmanuel Macron also broke the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s embargo on personal gifts, and presented the couple with a bespoke gift set from ST Dupont’s 007 collection, including two engraved James Bond-style pens and a matching cigarette lighter. The gift had precedent, though: When the future Queen Elizabeth II married Prince Philip in 1947, the royal couple were gifted a Dupont travel case by then French president Vincent Auriol, and the tradition has been maintained ever since.

28. A one-ton Indian bull

Of all the gifts the Duke and Duchess of Sussex received in 2018, however, perhaps the most unique was news that PETA had adopted a one-ton malnourished Indian bullock on their behalf. Named Merry (an amalgam of Harry and Meghan, of course), the bull now sees out its days in an animal sanctuary in Maharashtra.

29. A pair of solid silver kiwis

When Princess Margaret, Elizabeth II’s younger sister, married society photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, many Commonwealth countries sent wedding presents as a sign of their best wishes. Among them were two solid silver kiwis—one nestling an egg between its legs—that were presented to the couple on behalf of the people of New Zealand. In 2006, four years after Margaret’s death, the models were auctioned off for charity in London; despite an early estimate of less than $1000, they eventually sold for £36,000—which would be the equivalent of more than £51,000, or about $66,000 today.

30. An empty plot of land (on a private Caribbean island)

After their wedding, Princess Margaret and her new husband—now officially the Earl of Snowden—spent their honeymoon on a six-week Caribbean cruise aboard the Royal yacht Britannia. During that time, the British socialite and aristocrat Colin Tennant (whose wife, Anne Coke, was Margaret’s lady-in-waiting) gifted the couple a plot of land on Mustique, the 2-square-mile private island in the Grenadines that he had purchased just two years earlier. Margaret later developed the plot into a private villa called Les Jolies Eaux—“The Beautiful Waters”—where you can now spend the week (if you have a spare $21,000).

31. Two soufflé dishes

When Princess Mary, the Princess Royal—only daughter of George V, and Elizabeth II’s aunt—married Viscount Lascelles in 1922, she gifted her husband a pair of antique soufflé dishes. Princess Mary, incidentally, put most of her collection of wedding gifts on display at Buckingham Palace, and used the proceeds the exhibition raised to purchase Foxlease Hall, the headquarters of the Girl Guide Association.

32. A seat in the royal box

When the Russian princess Irina Romanov married her sweetheart Felix Yusupov in February 1914, Tsar Nicholas II reportedly asked his new son-in-law what he would like as a wedding gift. Yusupov requested a seat in the Imperial box in the Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.

33. A bag of 29 uncut diamonds

While Felix took his seat in the Tsar’s box at the theater, Princess Irina was given a pouch of 29 uncut diamonds, each weighing between three and seven carats. These—plus the countless other precious stones the couple were gifted as wedding presents—helped maintain them financially during their life in exile after the Russian Revolution in 1917.

34. A diamond-encrusted fan

Besides her own mini-chateau, another lavish (but slightly more practical) wedding present Marie Antoinette received from Louis XVI was a diamond-encrusted fan, presented to Marie on her wedding day along with an ornate cabinet full of jewels and gemstones.

35. A quaich

When King James VI of Scotland married Anne of Denmark in 1589, he presented her with a traditional Scottish quaich—a type of shallow, dual-handled drinking bowl. Quaichs have been a traditional wedding gifts in Scotland ever since.

36. Five notebooks (including one that belonged to the husband's ex-wife)

Henry VIII went on to marry his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, just three weeks after his fourth marriage (to Anne of Cleves) was annulled in July 1540. As a wedding gift, he presented Catherine with a set of five miniature jewel-encrusted notebooks, or “girdle-books." Unfortunately, arranging a wedding in less than a month apparently doesn’t leave much for checking little things, like whether or not you and your ex-wife’s initials are still embossed on the wedding present you’ve just given to your new spouse. Yes, one of the books in Catherine’s collection had the letters “H.” and “I.” in black enamel on the front cover, suggesting the book had probably originally been a gift from Henry for Jane Seymour (I standing in for J in the Tudor-period alphabet). Alas, re-gifting her his dead wife’s possessions wasn’t even the worst thing Henry did to poor Catherine: Their marriage lasted just a little over a year, and in February 1542—on a trumped up charge of adultery with her distant cousin, Thomas Culpepper—Catherine was executed at the age of 19.

37. A small wooden chest engraved with knotted thistles

In 2014, a fairly unassuming oak chest owned by an amateur furniture collector from Aberdeen, Scotland, was actually found to be a priceless 500-year-old royal heirloom. The chest’s unusual engravings—featuring a lover’s-knot made of entwined thistles—matched those in the Book of Hours of James IV of Scotland, a devotional prayer book published to mark James’s marriage to Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of the Henry VII of England (and the older sister of Henry VIII). Their so-called “Thistle and the Rose” marriage in August 1503 united the Tudor and Stuart dynasties after decades of conflict, and the chest was apparently commissioned as a wedding gift to mark the occasion.

38. An orange tree

According to legend, to celebrate the marriage of Louis XII of France to his second wife, Anne, the Duchess of Brittany, the Spanish queen Leonora of Castile gifted the couple an orange tree in 1499, which the king had planted in the gardens of his palace in Paris. The tree’s fruit—thought to be an early cultivar of either blood or navel oranges—proved immensely popular, and were soon being grown and sold all across Paris and beyond.

39. A personalized book of psalms.

It’s fair to say that Edward II and Queen Isabella of France didn’t have the easiest of marriages. After all, few healthy marriages tend to involve the husband being embroiled in romantic relationships with his male courtiers, and the wife being questionably implicated in her husband's gruesome murder. But despite those ups and downs, Edward and Isabella did at least keep up appearances by lavishing a great many expensive gifts on one another. Royal records show that Edward showered his young wife in gemstones and jewelry throughout their marriage; had her carriage fitted with extra cushions during her pregnancies; and, in return, Isabella continued to send the king gifts and letters, even after his deposition and eventual imprisonment in the 1320s.

Of all the presents the couple gave each other, however, perhaps the most remarkable is an illuminated books of psalms that Edward apparently gifted Isabella on their wedding in 1308. The book, known as the Isabella Psalter, depicts the queen in various biblical and religious scenes throughout its 280 highly decorated pages.

40. The deposed Emperor of Cyprus

Richard the Lionheart—a.k.a. the 12th century English king Richard I—spent so much time reconquering the Holy Land, that barely six months of his 42-year reign was actually spent in England. (It’s even unclear, for that matter, whether he ever found time to learn to speak English.) Richard’s preoccupation with the Crusades also meant that, for their wedding day to go ahead, his young wife-to-be, Berengaria of Navarre, was compelled to meet him halfway: In 1191, she sailed from her home in northeast Spain and caught up with Richard on the island of Cyprus. There, the couple—who had never met before—were finally wed in a tiny chapel in Limassol.

Before Richard continued on his Crusade, however, he had just enough time to depose the tyrannical self-styled “Emperor” of Cyprus, Isaac Comnenos, and claim the island for England. According to tradition, having promised Isaac that he would not imprison him in irons, Richard had the emperor wrapped in gold and silver chains instead—and then presented him to his new queen as a rather unorthodox wedding gift.

10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

qingwa/iStock via Getty Images
qingwa/iStock via Getty Images

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard." Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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