6 Shockingly Badass People Who Lived In The 19th Century
When you think of the Victorian era you probably picture sexually repressed spinsters and sad little orphans. But the reality was much different. Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic were just as capable as anyone else at being complete badasses.
Mary Kingsley Hung Out With Cannibals
If you were a middle-class woman in Victorian England, your life was almost painfully boring. You could expect very few chances to travel, even less education, and staying at home to take care of your parents in their old age. Mary Kingsley was that typical Victorian woman ... right up until her parents finally died in 1892, when she was 29. Armed with a small inheritance, she decided she was going to travel. And not to the pretty capitals of Europe, no; she was going to Africa. At that time, she might as well have announced she was going to Mars.
To be fair, the hat would have made more sense there.
Once in Sierra Leone, she lived with local tribes to learn how to survive all the crazy things that would try to kill her in the jungle. After a few months she went back to England for a year, but when she returned to Africa she was prepared for a long trip straight into the history books.
She traveled alone into parts of the continent that few, if any, Europeans had ever gone before. She stayed with the Fan (sometimes called the Fang) tribe, who were well-known cannibals. Despite actually being stalked as food at one point, she still preferred them to having tea with the Christian missionaries she sometimes met.
A feeling shared by so many Sunday school children.
Another time, while canoeing down a river, a huge crocodile tried to get into her boat, and she only escaped after hitting it with her paddle. During a storm, she found herself a yard away from a leopard, but she stayed still until it went away, since she didn't "think it ladylike to go shooting things with a gun." When everything wasn't trying to kill her, she was making up feats for herself to accomplish, like discovering many new types of fish and climbing Mount Cameroon, an active volcano and the fourth-highest point in Africa, by a route no European had ever taken before.
You don't have three fish named after you because you don't want it hard enough, dammit.
Despite having almost no formal education, she wrote two best-selling books about her travels. And she managed to do all of it on her own, without ever marrying, which was the part that really blew people's minds.
Thomas Boulton And Frederick Park Embraced Their Sexuality
When you think of gay icons and Victorian England, the one name that probably comes to mind is Oscar Wilde. But he was far from the only man or woman pushing the boundaries of what the law and mainstream society considered acceptable when it came to sexuality.
Enter Thomas Boulton and Frederick Park. Or, rather, Fanny and Stella.
You'd never guess they weren't straight.
These guys were cross-dressers and almost certainly gay at a time when it was very much illegal. And unlike Wilde, they didn't try to hide either of these things. They were shockingly open with the fact that they liked to dress like women. The "girls" would attend theater performances and spend the whole time calling attention to themselves in their box. Or they would arrive somewhere dressed as men, excuse themselves to go to the bathroom, and come back decked out as ladies. They started their own double act and toured England, getting good reviews and a solid fan base that gave them flowers and bought postcards of them.
Who wouldn't want those beautiful faces on their fridge?
They would also engage in prostitution with male customers (some who knew their sex, some who didn't) when so attired. At that time, London had twice as many brothels as it did schools, churches, and charities. Fanny and Stella would wander around well-known pick-up sites and ply their trade.
Cops finally arrested them in 1870 for conspiring to get men to go all gay with them and for dressing like chicks. The trial (which was presided over by Judge Cockburn, because life is wonderful) was a media sensation and drew huge crowds. In the end, the jury found them innocent, which under English law meant that men could cross-dress in public all they wanted to after that, a freedom that they have taken full advantage of.
If not totally pulled off.
Sarah Wakeman Became Lyons Wakeman
Sarah Wakeman grew up poor on a farm in New York. In 1862 she decided "screw this" and left her huge family behind to find work. But since she wasn't married and any work she could get as a single woman would pay peanuts, she decided to dress herself up as a man. She called herself Lyons, since we would all give ourselves a bitchin' name like that if we had the chance.
Despite being just 5 feet tall, she got a job doing manual labor on a coal barge. But it wasn't long before military recruiters came calling. The Civil War was raging, and any able-bodied young men should have been fighting -- Sarah looked like one of those men. She took the $152 they offered and enlisted.
The uniform was pretty sweet, too.
Sarah was far from the only woman to decide getting shot at was preferable to being a housewife. At least 400 other women that we know of got away with it as well. And they held their own; in her letters, Sarah talks about being able to "drill just as well as any man." Some women even did it better: One of these female soldiers fought in three or four battles while pregnant. It wasn't until the baby actually came that anyone noticed she was a lady.
Possibly because the other soldiers were just as fat.
While at first Sarah's regiment was just on guard duty, they finally saw battle in 1864. She marched from Washington, D.C., to Louisiana, surviving a trek that killed many of her fellow soldiers. Once they engaged the Confederates at the unbelievably ironically named Battle of Pleasant Hill, she was under fire for four hours and had to spend the whole night on the battlefield. Sarah saw combat one more time before dying of chronic diarrhea. She literally died because she cared too hard about her country, when she could have easily just stayed at home.
Tom Sayers Kicked Everyone's Ass
Tom Sayers was born poor and received no formal education, which meant his job prospects were limited, even back in the 1800s. After working as a bricklayer for a little while, he decided to see if punching people in the face wouldn't pay more money. He became part of the (then-illegal) sport of boxing.
It turned out that Tom was really great at hitting people repeatedly. Despite being just 5-foot-8 and less than 150 pounds, he was England's boxing champion for 11 years, losing only one fight out of 16. There were no official weight classes at that point, so he almost always fought men a lot bigger than he was. And this was back before gloves were introduced, so these fights were always bare-knuckle bouts.
No gloves allowed, but top hat and tails were required.
After beating the toughest British opponents, in 1859 he accepted a challenge from the American champion, John Heenan. In spite of the fact that boxing was illegal, it was also hugely popular, especially with the upper-class, and thousands of people turned out for the fight, including the Prince of Wales, Charles Dickens, and the prime minister, Lord Palmerston.
Sayers held his own for two and a half hours, or 42 rounds, even though the sun was in his eyes, Heenan was 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, and at some point during the fight he actually broke his arm. The referee had to call it a draw when the spectators stormed the ring. Both the fighters had sustained serious injuries, and it was that fight that led to the Marquess of Queensberry rules, meaning boxing was finally an organized sport.
This is what happened to Heenan's face. Thank God Amir Khan's is protected.
Tom never fought again, but he wasn't forgotten. When he died, 30,000 people attended his funeral.
Daniel Sickles Was Completely Bonkers
Every age has an eccentric, and the craziest person of the Victorian era may have been Daniel Sickles.
His first mistake was probably marrying a girl less than half his age. Teresa Bagioli was 15 and Daniel was 33 when they got hitched in 1852. Neither of their families were happy about it, and they may have been on to something, because the two didn't seem to like each other much. They certainly didn't stay faithful to each other. Daniel left his pregnant wife at home while he went to London with a prostitute, whom he presented to Queen Victoria herself. He didn't like the door swinging both ways, though. When he found out Teresa was having an affair he shot her lover dead right across from the White House.
While the chillest man in the capital watched.
The trial was a media sensation because the victim was the son of Francis Scott Key, Daniel was a congressman, and he was the first person in America to plead temporary insanity. The defense painted the deceased to be such a horndog that one newspaper actually thanked Daniel for "saving all the ladies of Washington from this rogue." The jury must have felt the same way, because he was acquitted.
During the Civil War, Daniel fought bravely and managed to work his way up to general. Then came the Battle of Gettysburg, when Daniel violated orders and as a result got hundreds of people killed and almost lost the battle for the Union. Karma got him back, though, when a cannonball shattered his leg. It needed to be removed, and instead of tossing it in the trash like a normal person, Daniel boxed it up and sent it to a medical museum. After that he would visit his limb every year on the anniversary of the amputation.
Meanwhile, the leg didn't even get him a card.
After the war, he kept being his weird self, possibly having an affair with the queen of Spain and embezzling money from various projects he worked on. And despite the fact that he could have completely changed the outcome of the Civil War by his insubordination, Daniel spent the rest of his life talking about how he basically single-handedly won the Battle of Gettysburg.
Andrew Carnegie Was A Rags-To-Riches Superman
Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron you probably vaguely remember from your high school history class, was born in a one-room cottage in Scotland. When he was 13, he and his impoverished parents moved to America. It was there, through endless work and insider-trading and generally screwing people over, that he started to earn basically all the money.
There was so much that he had to find some creative uses for it.
Because the Victorians hated childhood, Andrew worked throughout his teenage years, starting as a bobbin boy at a cotton mill at 13, then moving to a telegraph office, and finally joining a railway company. It was there that he started earning serious money and also first showed his aptitude for badassery. It was 1861, and the Civil War had just broken out. The young Andrew managed to keep the Union's railroads and telegraph lines running basically single-handedly. He also managed to avoid any actual fighting by buying his way out of it, which might seem cowardly but is decidedly American.
Once the war was over, he bought the first of the steel plants that would make him the richest man in the world. Since his whole life had been devoted to work and saving the Union and money, he didn't manage to get married until he was 51. As rich old men in Victorian times were no different than rich old men today, he married a 30-year-old trophy wife.
To his credit, he didn't trade her in for a new model when she got older.
But it was his philanthropy that really makes Andrew the supreme badass. In 1889 he wrote a book telling other rich people that they had a responsibility to use their wealth to help society. And he didn't just throw that out there and see what happened; he led by example. He started giving away millions, mostly to help build libraries, but also to various universities, scientific endeavors, and the arts. By the end of his life, he had given away 90 percent of his fortune, or $13.7 billion in today's money. And what did he get for it? A dinosaur, a cactus, and two towns named after him. He served as the inspiration for Scrooge McDuck. And, most importantly, he got to be #1 in a Cracked article.
Read about the crazy Victorian obsession with photographing dead people in Kathy's very funny book FUNERALS TO DIE FOR. And follow her on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.