Plus, where to soberly or not so soberly recount them for your travel companions
Drunk History may not be returning for more seasons of half-remembered tales of leaders, rebels, and oddities, but there are plenty more stories that are just begging to be transformed through the power of too much tequila. Stories that you don’t need to remember that well (because the broad strokes are so incredible) in order to impress your traveling companions as you stroll around Versailles’ gardens or turn-of-the-century parks. Here are 10 stories that would have been great episodes of Drunk History.
The Affair of the Diamond Necklace
The rat’s nest of court gossip, politics, lineages, and mistresses makes the intrigue of Game of Thrones look about as narratively complicated as a nursery rhyme. But it all starts, simply enough, with a necklace. Though there’s nothing simple about the necklace itself. King Louis XV of France commissioned the creation of an extravagant diamond necklace for his mistress, Madame du Barry. Jewelers Charles Auguste Boehmer and Paul Bassange crafted the necklace out of numerous diamonds for a piece that is estimated (in 2020 dollars) to have cost $15 million. However, Louis XV died before it could be gifted to du Barry. His successor and grandson Louis XVI is said to have offered to buy it for his wife, Marie Antoinette, but she declined.
Meanwhile, Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, a descendant of an illegitimate son of King Henry II, was developing a scheme to buy her way into French noble society. She was the mistress of the Cardinal de Rohan who was not well-liked by the Queen. Jeanne told Rohan how she had become favored by the queen (which wasn’t true) and that she would use her (fictitious) status to win him favor, as well. Jeanne then began to write letters to Rohan as Marie Antoinette. Over the course of the correspondence with his supposed pen pal, Rohan became convinced that the queen was in love with him and Jeanne even arranged an in-person meeting between the Cardinal and a woman posing as Marie Antoinette. Jeanne eventually convinced Rohan that Marie Antoinette wanted the necklace commissioned by Louis XVI but didn’t want to draw any more ire from the French public, as she already had a reputation as an extravagant spender. Rohan struck an arrangement with the jewelers to pay for the necklace in installments and gave the necklace to who he believed to be a valet of the queen but instead, the necklace was disassembled and the diamonds were sold off.
When Rohan couldn’t pay, the jeweler went to (the actual) Marie Antoinette who had no idea what was going on. The scheme quickly unraveled from there, as the Cardinal was arrested and Jeanne was sentenced to being whipped, branded with the letter “v” (for “voleuse,” or “thief”), and sentenced to life in prison (which she would later escape). Though Marie Antoinette had no actual role in the plot, she was still so intrinsically linked to the scandal that the public viewed the incident as part of her scheming to get her hands on the necklace and sealed her status as the symbol of everything wrong with the French monarchy.
Where to Recount This Story: Versailles, where Rohan and “Marie Antoinette” had their rendezvous.
Lope de Aguirre
For almost anyone else in history, Aguirre de Lope’s depiction in Aguirre, the Wrath of God would seem a little over-dramatic. But Werner Herzog’s 1972 film portrayal of Lope de Aguirre as a raving, murderous, incestuous egomaniac actually undersells what a terror the real Aguirre was. In the mid-1530s, Aguirre left Spain to seek his fortune in Peru as a conquistador. At one point, a judge arrested him for his brutality against the indigenous people and sentenced Aguirre to a public flogging. The judge, (correctly) fearing retaliation, fled from city to city in an attempt to escape Aguirre’s vengeance. He wouldn’t be successful as Aguirre caught up with the judge in Cuzco and stabbed him in the head.
This is all before the mission to find El Dorado which goes just about as disastrously as it’s depicted in the film with Aguirre taking over the party in a murderous fit of megalomania. But instead of being swallowed up by the impenetrable depths of the Amazon, he and his party did make it to the Atlantic Ocean where he killed the Spanish governor of a Venezuelan island. Before he could continue his rampage he was finally confronted by Spanish forces (but still had time to murder his own daughter and a few followers before he was taken in). He was executed, beheaded, and dismembered with his various limbs being sent to other towns as a deterrent to other would-be seditious conquistadors.
Where to Recount This Story: On an Amazonian boat tour.
WHERE: The United States
If you’ve walked around New York City or visited the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered the likeness of Audrey Munson at least a few times. An impressive achievement for a woman whose heyday was over a century ago. In 1909, Audrey Munson moved to New York City with her mother so that she could pursue a career as an actress. But, one day while she was window shopping, she was discovered by a photographer who asked her to model for him. From there, she was introduced to New York City’s art scene where she quickly became an in-demand nude model, particularly for sculptors. Her likeness was the basis for most of the sculptures at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and she appeared in the work of so many sculptures in New York that she became succinctly known as “Miss Manhattan.” She would even go on to have a short film career, appearing in four silent films.
But by 1919, her film and modeling career had stalled out, though she would have a few more brushes with fame and scandal. She fell in love with a doctor who, rather than divorcing his current wife, murdered her. Though Munson had no involvement with the murder it was an instantaneous scandal. And, not only was she the “America’s First Supermodel,” she was also the first Bachelorette (as in the TV show, not the general concept of being a woman eligible for marriage). She held a nationwide search in the press looking for the ideal husband—only to conclude the search by declaring that (twist!) she didn’t want to get married. Though she would live out the rest of her life far from the limelight, her legacy is enshrined in the many elegant sculptures that bear her visage.
Where to Recount This Story: Walking the streets of New York or visiting the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.
The Not-So-Lost Shakespeare Play
If William Henry Ireland were alive and scamming today there’d probably be an HBO docuseries about his antics (or at least a podcast). Ireland was a frequent forger of Shakespearean documents. With very few documents written by the bard’s own hand to compare against, forgers such as Ireland could more easily get away with passing off their fakeries as authentic. But without a doubt, his most elaborate hoax was his “discovery” of Vortigern and Rowena. In 1794, Ireland announced that he’d discovered a lost play dramatizing the tale of the apocryphal British king as well a convenient deed willing the manuscript to Ireland’s ancestor. Though the play had a few similarities to Shakespeare’s plays (a Macbeth-style regicide, crossdressing), if you’re going to try and replicate the most revered writer in the English language, you’d better have more than a few similarities to tie the ruse together. The lead actor of the play’s first (and for a long time only) production even pointedly repeated the line “And when this solemn mockery is o’er” in order to convey his doubts about the play’s authenticity. Eventually, after much scrutiny from critics, Ireland would confess to his forgeries.
Where to Recount This Story: Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the company in London responsible for hosting the first production.
After her husband was assassinated, Zenobia quickly positioned herself as the regent for their son Vaballathus. And, like all great monarchs (and marketing professionals), Empress Zenobia of the Palmyrene Empire knew the power of a good story. She claimed to be a descendant of Cleopatra and had her likeness put on money. Zenobia was ambitious and the Roman empire had overextended itself, allowing for Zenobia and her forces to seize control of much of the eastern Roman empire and set her sights on controlling Egypt as well. While, over much of this time, the Palmyrene Empire operated more or less under the guise that they were part of the Roman Empire, a very definitive breaking point can be noted thanks to the point where coins instead of being minted with the Roman Emperor Aurelian on one side and Vaballathus on the replaced Aurelian’s likeness with Zenobia’s. Palmyra was now in open conflict with Rome, with Aurelian launching simultaneous campaigns in Egypt and Asia Minor. In a last-ditch effort to mitigate Palmyra’s rapidly mounting defeat, Zenobia had her general find a man that looked like Aurelian and declared that the Roman Emperor had been captured. After retreating to Palmyra, Zenobia attempted to flee to Persia but was captured by Aurelian.
Where to Recount This Story: The Huntington in San Marino, California where the statue Zenobia in Chains is currently on display.
The Münster Rebellion
After the German Peasants’ War, the city of Münster had become something of a safe haven for Anabaptists, who had been frequently persecuted by the Catholic church as well as other Protestants. Anabaptists from all over Europe were drawn to the city, including Jan Matthys and his followers. The Anabaptist leaders steadily developed more and more control over the city until it was completely under their control and the city’s Lutheran and Catholic population was faced with the ultimatum of accepting adult baptism or leave.
Franz von Waldeck, the Prince-Bishop of Münster, laid siege to the city. But Matthys declared that he had a plan, declaring that he’d received a vision that prophecized that, like the Biblical Gideon, he was meant to confront the Prince-Bishop’s forces. So, on Easter Sunday, Matthys donned his armor and proceeded on horseback and accompanied by a small retinue to face the army…and was immediately and brutally defeated. And just to add insult to injury, the Prince-Bishop had Matthys’ severed genitals nailed to the city gate.
That would seem like a pretty dramatic note to end on, but the Anabaptists continued to hold the city and a follower of Matthys’, Jan van Leiden, would soon announce that he too had received visions from God that he was meant to become their spiritual leader. Also polygamy was now mandatory. Eventually, in June of 1535, the Prince-Bishop successfully attacked and took back the city. Afterward, three of the Anabaptist leaders (including van Leiden) would be publicly tortured, executed, and have their remains placed in cages and hung from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church.
Where to Recount This Story: In front of St. Lambert’s Church, which is still adorned with the (now empty) cages.
The Death of Tycho Brahe
Tycho Brahe exists at an interesting intersection of medieval and modern celestial understanding. On the one hand, he contributed important observations about the scientific nature of astronomy. On the other, he did deal in astrological (that is, unscientific) interpretations of the stars. So it is perhaps fitting that his death was the result of something archaic and only conclusively determined by the help of science. In 1601, after refusing to leave a banquet table to—ahem—relieve his bladder, Brahe appeared to die of a condition related either to his kidneys or his bladder. Or did he? It was speculated that perhaps Brahe had been poisoned by his assistant, Johannes Kepler, or his cousin acting on orders of the King of Denmark and Norway. But in 2012, Brahe’s body was exhumed and it was determined that he did in fact die due to a burst bladder (so when your mom tells you it’s dangerous to “hold it,” you better believe her!).
Where to Recount This Story: Uraniborg, the observatory established by Brahe.
As you might expect, the period preceding an event wherein a current pope dug up the remains of a previous pope and then dressed up and put said remans on trial wasn’t a super stable stretch of time. Throughout the ninth and 10th centuries, the papacy had an alarmingly high turnover rate. So by the time Stephen VI became pope things had been chaotic for a while. Still, no matter how topsy-turvy the times may have been, it doesn’t really justify dressing up a decomposing body and yelling at it for political gain, does it? The still recently anointed Stephen ordered that the remains of one of his recent predecessors, Formosus, be exhumed so that he could be put on trial for allegedly serving as a bishop of two different places. Although it was likely that Stephen was projecting his own guilt of violating said rules onto the decomposing Formosus. Over the course of the “trial,” the remains of Formosus was dressed in papal vestments (while a Cardinal was appointed to “speak” for him) while Stephen essentially exacted revenge and sought to solidify his claim as pope. In perhaps the most obvious sign from God ever, the proceedings were interrupted by an earthquake. But even that wasn’t enough to slow Stephen’s roll. Formosus was found guilty and his body, while initially was reinterred, was later thrown into the Tiber River. In a turn of events that, honestly, was predictable to everyone except Stephen, the public wasn’t super jazzed about all the papal grave desecration. Consequentially, Stephen was imprisoned during an uprising and then murdered while in prison.
Where to Recount This Story: The Vatican. What? Who says you can’t have fun at the Vatican?
Alice Roosevelt Longworth
WHERE: Washington, D.C.
To put things succinctly, Alice Roosevelt circa 1902 walked so that Paris Hilton circa 2006 could run. When her father Teddy became president, Alice became an instantaneous fashion plate. She partied, she smoked, she rode in cars in the company of men, she had a pet snake named Emily Spinach and a longhaired chihuahua. President Roosevelt famously said (in exasperated response to Alice’s numerous interruptions to official presidential business), “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.” Alice also sported substance along with all her style, as she even accompanied William Howard Taft (the then Secretary of War) and a number of other politicians and luminaries on a diplomatic tour of Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, China, and Korea. In 1906, she married Nicholas Longworth III but their marriage would suffer when, in 1912, he supported the presidential run of Taft over her father’s campaign. As a result, Alice would go on to carry on several affairs.
Over the course of the next several decades, she would remain a fixture of the Washington, D.C. political scene, snarking Joseph McCarthy, engaging in repartee with Bobby Kennedy, raging at Nixon quoting her father in his resignation speech, and icing out Jimmy Carter.
Where to Recount This Story: Outside the Washington Legal Foundation which was previously Alice’s residence.
WHERE: China and the Indian Ocean
China’s greatest explorer would come from humble beginnings. Born into a peasant family in the Yunnan province, Zheng He likely became interested in traveling as his father was Muslim and had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. When Ming forces took the Yunnan province from Mongol control, Zheng He was captured, castrated, and conscripted into the army. Over the years, Zheng He rose through the ranks and became a favorite of Emperor Yongle. As a fleet of ships was constructed, Zheng He was chosen to command said fleet. Zheng He’s voyages established China as a political force acter a period of foreign relations that verged on isolationism.
Where to Recount This Story: Nanjing where Zheng He’s tomb is located.