7 Historically Bad Breakups

Wikimedia Commons (Lamb) / Wikimedia Commons (Byron) / iStock (Hearts and Paper Rip)
Wikimedia Commons (Lamb) / Wikimedia Commons (Byron) / iStock (Hearts and Paper Rip) / Wikimedia Commons (Lamb) / Wikimedia Commons (Byron) / iStock (Hearts and Paper Rip)

Some relationships end amicably, some end mutually—and some, of course, flame out spectacularly. Jennifer Wright, author of It Ended Badlywalks mental_floss through some of the worst breakups in history.


These two literary figures of the romantic era “were two people who seemingly got more pleasure from breaking up than they got from their relationship,” Wright says. In August 1812, near the end of their relationship, “Caroline chopped off a hunk of her pubic hair, and sent it to him," Wright says. In response, Byron sent her a gold locket. In September, Lamb's husband, William, took her to Ireland, and their relationship was effectively over—but it wasn't long before things got weird.

Lamb wanted a miniature painting of Byron that was in the possession of his publisher, John Murray. So she forged a letter from Byron that said Lamb could take whatever painting she liked. The forgery was so convincing that when she gave the letter to Murray, he gave her the painting, no questions asked. Byron was not pleased. After months of negotiations, Lamb agreed to give back the painting for a lock of Byron's hair. Byron agreed to this—but instead of sending his own hair, "he sent a lock of his new girlfriend’s hair," Wright says. Lamb bought the ruse, and sent the painting back.

But that wasn't the end of it. "She burned an effigy; he wrote mean things about the tell-all book she wrote about him later, saying it wasn’t so much a ‘kiss-and-tell’ as it was a ‘— and publish.’” Both Lamb and Byron used their split as an “opportunity to exercise all of their angry feelings for a long, long time after the breakup," Wright says. "They both got pretty into it.”


Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA-3.0

“Nero definitely handled his breakup the most violently, because he had the unrestrained power of a Roman emperor,” Wright says. Nero divorced and then killed his first wife in order to marry Poppaea Sabina, who was thought by her contemporaries to be the most beautiful woman in Rome. But their relationship was tumultuous. After one bad quarrel, he kicked her in her pregnant stomach, which some Roman historians say killed her. According to some reports, it was an accident; according to others, not so much. (The ultimate circumstances of Poppaea's death are unclear.) Regardless, “[Nero] felt kind of bad about it," Wright says. "Then, [he] castrated a 14-year-old slave boy and made him pretend to be the new empress of Rome. [Nero] dressed him up and referred to him as Sabina.”


Eleanor of Aquitaine already had one wedding under her belt (to French king Louis VII; the marriage was annulled) when she married Henry of Anjou in 1152; two years later, he became Henry II, King of England. Although their marriage produced five sons and three daughters, the relationship suffered from arguments, ambivalence, and Henry’s rampant philandering. They separated in 1167, and, in 1173, Eleanor supported three of her sons in their revolt against Henry. “That was a bold, bold way to handle that,” Wright says. After the revolt, which lasted just a year, Henry threw Eleanor into semi-imprisonment, where she remained until his death in 1189.


Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Henry VIII famously wed his way through six wives. Two of the unlucky brides lost their heads: Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

Henry had broken from the Catholic Church to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and wed Anne, who he had been seeing for six years and was already pregnant with their daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I. When Anne didn't conceive the son and heir Henry wanted, Anne was charged with incest, witchcraft, adultery and conspiracy and sentenced to lose her head. 

The way Anne handled it, Wright says, was “kind of spectacular.” On the scaffolding, moments before her execution, Anne spoke with poise and mercy, maintaining that Henry was the “godliest, noblest, and gentlest prince that is” and asking Jesus to save him. “I feel like most of us can’t talk well about our ex if he stood us up at a party once," Wright says. "Anne Boleyn kept her composure in a way that I have rarely finagled to do, and have always been impressed by."


Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Call it the early-20th-century version of a ghosting: Edith Wharton, trapped in a loveless marriage, had a passionate affair with journalist Morton Fullerton beginning in 1907, up until he disappeared on her in 1908. Wharton “wrote hundreds of letters to Fullerton, which he mostly declined to respond to,” Wright says. "Dear, won’t you tell me the meaning of this silence?…" Wharton wrote in August 1908, continuing,

I re-read your letters the other day, & I will not believe that the man who wrote them did not feel them, & did not know enough of the woman to whom they were written to trust to her love & courage, rather than leave her to this aching uncertainty. What has brought about such a change? Oh, no matter what it is—only tell me!

Despite her heartbreak, Wharton's story had an overall happy ending: “She went on to write fantastic novels, and have a beautiful home in the French Riviera,” Wright says.


“No matter what you did during your breakup,” Wright says, “you probably didn’t build a giant sex doll shaped exactly like your ex, so that’s something you can feel comforted by.” That was something that Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka did. After he broke up with Alma Mahler, Kokoschka paraded around town with an unflattering sex doll he commissioned in her likeness.

Despite that, both Kokoschka and Mahler had future success in love. Kokoschka “went on to have a 40-year marriage with a woman who apparently wasn’t too put off by his less than healthy breakup history,” Wright says. Mahler, meanwhile, slept with “every cool person in Vienna,” and had “three successful husbands and many, many love affairs in between.”


Wright describes Norman Mailer as “the worst." One of his most appalling offenses was stabbing his wife, Adele Morales Mailer, in the chest at a party, only just missing her heart. Despite almost killing her, the societal reaction was mild at best. As Wright tells it, the general impression people came away with was “well, maybe he’s the real victim in all of this.”

Adele did not press charges against her husband, and Mailer was given a suspended sentence. The two divorced two years later, and Mailer continued to have a career that overshadowed his history of violence.