6 Poor Servants Who Wound Up Making History
You know what they say: "Behind every successful person is a lower-level worker not getting the credit they deserve." But that doesn't always hold true. Sometimes that humble nobody steps out from the shadows and conquers the entire damn world. Just look at how ...
A Harvard Professor's Maid Ends Up Taking Over Astronomy
In 1879, the director of the Harvard College Observatory was Edward Charles Pickering, so even if this story goes south for him, at least he has a delightful name. Back then, most astronomy work consisted of something called "stellar classification," where you'd look at the patterns that starlight forms after it passes through a prism, and then analyze it to figure out the star's composition, temperature, favorite kinks, etc. Sadly, a lot of the people Pickering employed were total scrubs. Fed up with their general scrubbery, Pickering turned to one and said, "My Scottish maid could do better!"
OK, biographers disagree on whether he definitely said that exact line, but that's certainly how he felt, because he really did suddenly offer the job to his Scottish maid. This maid was Williamina Fleming, who'd come to Massachusetts from Dundee with a husband (who immediately abandoned her) and a small child. Pickering brought her to the observatory for clerical work, then for spectral analysis, and in time she became head of all the analysts there.
By this point, Pickering had fired all his men and replaced them with women, which sounds woke today, but was really done because they cost less to employ. But the professor also had the theory that women were just generally better-suited for this sort of "drudgery." The analysts were known as the Harvard Computers, and were also affectionately referred to as "Pickering's Harem," a title they surely appreciated.
But Fleming's legacy is pretty great. She developed the star classification system still used today, was the first to discover a white dwarf, and also discovered the Horsehead Nebula (plus many other nebulae, stars, and novae). Today there's a section of the goddamn moon named after her. Though to be accurate, we have to say that it was named jointly for her and Alexander Fleming. Really, International Astronomical Union? C'mon. Dude wasn't even an astronomer.
A Janitor Becomes An Exec Though Flamin' Hot Cheetos
When Richard Montanez was a boy, he was embarrassed to bring burritos to school because the other kids had never seen them before. His mom's solution was to pack him an extra burrito each day, so he could give one away and make friends. Richard ended up selling burritos to classmates for a quarter each. So is this the prologue to the story of him becoming an entrepreneur and starting his own tortilla empire? Nope! Richard dropped out of school and got hired as a gardener.
And a car washer, and a chicken slaughterer. Then he got a job as janitor in a Frito-Lay plant, until one day the machinery broke down and he got to live the dream: taking home a bunch of undusted Cheetos. Having sadly neglected to stock his kitchen with jars of spare cheese crumbs, Richard rolled the Cheetos in chili powder in the style of elote, a Mexican chili corn snack. And he liked the result so much that he figured Frito-Lay should mass-produce it. He decided to pitch the idea directly to the CEO of PepsiCo, Roger Enrico.
We're not totally sure what Pepsi's corporate ladder looked like at the time, because it sounds like Richard skipped a few rungs, but he managed to land a meeting, which he prepared for by borrowing several books on marketing from the library and buying himself a $3 tie. Enrico ended up loving the prototype Flamin' Hot Cheetos that Richard cooked up. "This snack will make everyone's poop look full of blood, but that doesn't matter, it'll taste great!" is what Enrico said in the version of the meeting I'm picturing.
And instead of claiming full credit for the invention and having Richard murdered, or paying Richard a simple flat fee for the idea (equal chance of both, really), Enrico gave the janitor a promotion. And Richard rose from there to the rank of executive vice president. Suddenly we're inspired to get the CEO of Disney on the line so we can directly pitch him an idea of our own: Flamin' Hot: The Richard Montanez Story. Oh wait, now that Disney owns Fox, they're already doing that. Never mind. Dang it.
A Former Slave Becomes A "Voodoo Queen" And Makes Millions
Mary Ellen Pleasant once wrote "I'd rather be a corpse than a coward." We could finish this entry right there, because that is badass. But she wasn't just a cool lady spewing awesome catchphrases like she was about to team up with Sylvester Stallone in a 19th-century action film. She was also absurdly wealthy, and to make it even more impressive, she amassed her fortune as a black woman living in the mid 1800s.
Pleasant was born a slave, but found herself in bonded servitude by the time she was 13. That meant she was able to work and buy her freedom. Then she made her way to California and struck it rich. Like, fabulously rich. She and her husband / business partner made $30 million, or $650 million in today's dollars. The source of their fabulous wealth? Well, people said it was because "Mammy" Pleasant was the voodoo queen of San Francisco. They said she stole white babies and sold them. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that she was caught sprinkling a love potion on a senator's underpants. She was in fact trained as a vodou priestess, and she sometimes claimed that her Haitian mother had been one too. But the real source of Mary's wealth was less magical in nature: the California gold rush.
Mary started out as a cook in a San Francisco boarding house, and eventually moved on to hosting parties. By listening to what the elite were saying, she got enough information to back the best gold claims and make some killer investments. Later, she used her fortune for abolition and other civil rights battles. Like the time she successfully sued San Francisco streetcars for discriminating against black passengers ... in 1866. But she was totally cool with people thinking it was all voodoo. She even took to carrying a crystal ball around. When she was summoned to court over that senator's aforementioned underpants, she brought a voodoo doll with her and said she'd use it to end the man's life. And then, before the trial was done, the senator did die. So, uh, maybe we can't rule out voodoo magic after all.
Related: Oops, Hamilton Did Own Slaves
A Chambermaid Inherits A Multi-Billion-Dollar Fortune
Barbara "Basia" Piasecka came to the U.S. from Poland and got herself a job working for the family behind Johnson & Johnson, the Band-Aids and baby powder company. She was chambermaid to John Johnson (John Johnson of the Johnson & Johnson Johnsons), and while sociologists have discussed the inherent seductiveness of chambermaids, Johnson claimed to be most intrigued by her art history degree. He took her to his office and asked her opinion of the various works displayed there. Basia complimented some and criticized others, and her analysis showed she knew her shit.
Johnson was impressed enough to hire Piasecka as his art curator. In a couple years, they got married. And when he died, he left everything to Basia. That came as a surprise to all the children Johnson had from previous marriages, such as Jenny Johnson, James Johnson, and John Johnson Jr., none of whom had been invited to the secret wedding. They took the matter to court, resulting in the biggest probate battle in U.S. history. It was a $24 million case -- mind you, $24 million wasn't the size of the estate, but just the cost of the legal fees.
It lasted 17 weeks. The judge started receiving death threats. At one point, a riot broke out in the court, and this was considered a ploy aimed at forcing a mistrial. The children's big claim was that Basia had tricked John into writing his will and had secretly been abusing him, but as the trial went on, their lawyers were charged with bribing and intimidating witnesses. Toward the end, a car slammed into the front of the courthouse, and many thought it was an attempt on Basia's life.
Ha. I made that last part up. But you believed it, because this whole thing was nuts.
In the end, Basia agreed to give the kids something, but still walked away with $350 million. And while that's enough to pleasantly retire a few times over, she then returned to the field that had grabbed Johnson's attention in the first place and spent the rest of her life dealing art. By the time she died 20 years later, she had grown her wealth to $3.6 billion. Not bad for a chambermaid associated with a company that specializes in baby ass dust.
A Dozen Different Slaves Became Members Of Congress
Blanche Kelso Bruce had a rough life. His father and owner was white, and before too long, he graduated from infant slave to the rank of servant to his own half-brother. He went on to be a teacher, and opened a school for black students. Later he left Virginia for Mississippi, where he was elected to ... everything. First the local military commander made him the registrar of voters. Then, he was elected sergeant at arms. Then he was elected sheriff and tax collector, positions they always gave to the same guy for some reason. Then he became superintendent of education. He got so rich that he bought his own plantation, and he capped all this off by becoming one of Mississippi's senators.
Bruce was actually one of no fewer than 12 former slaves who made it to Congress in the 19th century, all Republicans representing Southern states. This seems completely impossible, until you remember that the 15th Amendment gave black men the right to vote in the 1870s, and in some districts, ex-slaves made up a large proportion of the electorate. For example, the first district to elect a black rep was South Carolina's 1st, and three-quarters of Charleston County was black at the time. Becoming a senator was an extra level of remarkable, though, and Bruce was the only former slave to manage that. For a while, he even presided over the Senate (a role normally held by the traditional majority leader, Whitey Whiteman).
After completing his term, Bruce became Register of the Treasury, so his signature appeared on all U.S. currency. We assume this means that, legally, all money in the country was technically his. You can go fact-check that at the official website of the Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which is, and we're not making this up, www.moneyfactory.gov.
A Scullery Maid Became Empress Of Russia
Catherine I of Russia was originally just plain old Martha from Lithuania. Her parents were peasants who died of plague when she was five, so she made her living scrubbing floors for a Latvian priest. Then the Russians invaded. Martha was taken prisoner and sold to a soldier. That soldier gifted her to a superior, who re-gifted her to a general. That general was visited by a high-ranking duke, who took her for his own. Then when he couldn't use her anymore, as he was about to be married, he introduced her to the Tsar. This all sounds terribly miserable, but stay with me.
In the Tsar's hands, Martha worked toward becoming more than a mistress. Horny historians pore over the couples' letters to track just how she gained standing with him, and the turning point might have been when she accompanied the Tsar during a war conference and then, when he was sleeping, reconvened the conference herself, getting enough info to convince him what to do. She reportedly sent a bunch of her own jewelry along with his letter calling for peace, guaranteeing its success. Six months later, this peasant wed Peter the Great.
Being married to the ruler of Russia would be a fine enough end to this fairy tale. But Catherine had some history DLC. She convinced Peter to make her co-ruler. And then she convinced him to make her his heir, rather than their daughter or his own son from his first marriage. And convincing Peter couldn't have been easy. But she succeeded. So when Peter the Great died, Catherine was empress. Despite lacking royal blood, or even noble blood, she was now the sole monarch over 15 million Russians. And if that isn't the American dream, we don't know what is.
For more, check out How One Escaped Slave Changed The American Civil War Forever:
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