History Stories


10 19th-Century Celebrities You Should Know

In the 1800s Industrial Revolution advances in transportation and communication laid the groundwork for the modern culture of fame. People were famous for their skill, power or money, but a true celebrity was also famous just for being famous.

1. Beau Brummell

Beau Brummell

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In the 19th century’s first decade, George Bryan “Beau” Brummell dominated the London social scene, changing the course of men’s fashion in the process. Born into a wealthy family, Brummell’s sense of fashion and wit were enough to gain the friendship and patronage of the Prince of Wales (the future George IV). From this position, Brummell critiqued the gaudily colored menswear of the previous century, favoring the clean lines and muted colors of a double-breasted riding coat and boot-tucked trousers. His style caught on, evolving into the muted 19th and 20th-century men’s business suit. Brummell famously got away with criticizing the Prince of Wales’ fashion, but when. in 1813, he made one too many fat jokes about his patron’s portly mistress, he was cut off and eventually forced to flee to Calais, pursued by gambling debts. In France he served a spell in debtor’s prison before a series of strokes left him fit only for the asylum, where he died in 1840.

2. Lola Montez

lola montez

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Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert of Limerick, Ireland crossed the English Channel to reinvent herself as Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer. She was briefly the mistress of the celebrated composer Franz Liszt, but it was her 1847 affair with King Ludwig I of Bavaria that made her famous (and scandalous) throughout Europe and beyond. Ludwig’s dotage earned her influence in governing—she was behind many of Ludwig’s liberalizing and anti-Jesuit reforms—and gained her the title “Countess of Landsfeld.” After the Revolution of 1848 forced Ludwig to abdicate, Montez made her way to America, performing in New York and arriving in San Francisco in 1853. There she drew crowds for her famous “Spider Dance,” in which she battled fake arachnids in a skirt-lifting performance. She headlined in gold mining camps and lived in Grass Valley, California, where she kept a grizzly bear cub as a pet and penned a book titled “The Art of Beauty, or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet with Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating.” She died in New York City in 1861, a month before her 40th birthday.

3. Clara Barton

clara barton, Red Cross

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Born in Massachusetts in 1821, Barton had already been a teacher and the first female U.S. patent clerk by the time the Civil War began. From her base in Washington, D.C., Barton became a passionate caregiver for wounded Union soldiers, organizing supply donations and working in field hospitals, where she earned the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.” Through her Missing Soldiers Office, Barton was able to determine the fates of more than 22,000 of the war’s missing in action. After the war, she became renowned on the lecture circuit, speaking about her battle experiences and the cause of woman suffrage alongside the likes of William Lloyd Garrison, Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass. After working with the International Red Cross in Europe following the Franco-Prussian War, Barton pushed for the formation of an American version, and in 1881 became the first president of the American Red Cross.

4. Honinbo Shusaku

Recreation of Shusaku’s “Ear-reddening move." (Credit: Dustpuppy72/Creative Commons)

Recreation of Shusaku’s “Ear-reddening move.” (Credit: Dustpuppy72/Creative Commons)

One of the most popular intellectual pastimes in East Asia is Go, an ancient Chinese board game played with black and white stones on a simple square grid. By the 19th century the game’s center was Japan, where four leading schools vied to produce the world’s greatest players. Arguably the greatest Go master of all time was a young man born Kuwahara Torajiro in 1829 in a village north of Hiroshima. After winning sponsorship from a local lord, he was sent to Edo (present-day Tokyo) to further his studies at Honinbo, the most prestigious school of Go. There, the boy became known as Honinbo Shusaku, in honor of his school and his chief teacher. In April of 1846, Shusaku played a series of games against Gennan Inseki, one of the era’s best players. There, with a single move, he sealed his fame. Playing from a weaker position, Shusaku placed a black stone at the center of an empty area of the board, an unorthodox move that subtly but brilliantly strengthened his position. A doctor observing the match noticed Gennan’s ears turn red after he realized the implications of Shusaku’s audacious play.Today the “Ear-Reddening Move” is viewed as one of the most important in the history of the game. Shusaku attained other victories, including 19 consecutive wins in the annual castle games hosted by the Shogun, but died in an 1862 cholera epidemic before he could assume full leadership of the Honinbo school.

5. Isabella Bird

One of the greatest travel writers of her era, the Yorkshire-born Isabella Bird started traveling in an attempt to improve her health. A sea journey to Canada led to further travels in the American West and her first book, “An Englishwoman in America,” in 1856. From that point on her life followed a general pattern: illness at home (coupled with lecturing and social work) and vigor abroad. Bird traveled to and published works about Japan, Australia, the Rocky Mountains, Malaya, Persia, Tibet, China, Korea and Morocco. Her book on her Hawaiian adventures included careful botanical notes and observations on volcanic activity that won her acclaim from scientists. Bird once wrote to a friend that for her travel was “like living in a new world, so free, so fresh, so vital, so careless, so unfettered, so full of interest that one grudges being asleep.” She devoted most of the profits of her works to missionary and medical aid for the regions she visited. Bird married at 50 but was widowed just six years later, at which point she resumed her journeying. In 1892 she became the first female fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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6. Mary E. Walker

Mary Edwards Walker (

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On January 25, 1866, Dr. Mary Edward Walker became the first—and so far the only—woman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, in recognition of her service as a battlefield surgeon during the Civil War. Born in 1832 in Oswego, New York, Walker worked as a schoolteacher to pay her way through medical school, graduating from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. She married one of her classmates, Albert Miller, and opened a joint practice in Rome, New York. When the Civil War broke out, Walker traveled to Washington, D.C. and attempted to enlist in the Union Army. Refused a place because of her gender, Walker persisted until she was given a series of temporary appointments as an assistant surgeon.Attached to the 52nd Ohio Infantry, Walker was working among civilians (and possibly spying for her commander) when Confederate soldiers captured her in northern Georgia in 1864. Held captive for four months in Richmond, Virginia, Walker was released to rejoin her unit following a prisoner exchange. Lingering injuries from her imprisonment made Walker unable to practice medicine after the war. For the rest of her life she subsisted on fees as a public speaker on issues ranging from temperance to woman’s dress reform (she favored trousers). Her Medal of Honor was revoked in 1917 along with 910 others not received in uniformed combat but restored again in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter.

7. Peter Jackson

peter jackson, boxing

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The first black heavyweight boxing champion was Jack Johnson, “the Galveston Giant,” who held the title from 1908 to 1915. But the first real black contender for the title came even earlier in boxing’s modern era, when the Virgin Islands-born Australian Peter “the Black Prince” Jackson came tantalizingly close to securing a title match with each of the first three heavyweight champs, only to be refused because of his race. Jackson, whose family had immigrated to Australia when he was 12, won his adopted country’s national championship in a 30-round match in 1886. After more or less running out of boxers to fight in Australia, Jackson came to the United States in 1888 at the urging of San Francisco sportswriter W.W. Naughton, hoping to schedule a bout with boxing’s first world heavyweight champ, John L. Sullivan. After Sullivan refused to cross racial lines to fight the Australian, Jackson was forced into a sort of limbo where the only fights he could secure were with men hoping that a match with Jackson would prove their qualifications for a championship bout. In 1891, Jackson fought the future champ James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett to a 61-round draw in Benicia, California. After Corbett dethroned Sullivan the next year, he refused a rematch with Jackson.Despite his frustrations, Jackson found significant fame (even trying his hand at the theater when a promoter cast him in the title role of a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), and was feted with banquets by the black communities in several major U.S. cities. His boxing prowess faltered, and after losing an 1898 bout with another future champ, James J. Jeffries, Jackson returned to Australia, where he died in 1901, aged 40.

8. H.H. Holmes

Over the course of five months in 1893, some 27 million visitors journeyed to the South Side of Chicago to see the World’s Columbian Exposition, a lavish fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. Several dozen Exposition visitors never made it home, however, having checked into a budget hotel that turned out to be a house of horrors. Advertised to guests as the World’s Fair Hotel, the lodging would later be known to the press as the “Murder Castle.” Its architect and mastermind was Herman Mudgett, a New Hampshire native and medical school graduate who had reinvented himself a H.H. Holmes, a Chicago pharmacist who rented out bedrooms upstairs from his store.

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It would later emerge that Holmes’ custom-designed building had as many as 71 such bedrooms, all with doors that locked from the outside. Some were fitted with gas pipes that allowed Holmes to asphyxiate guests from a central control panel. His basement contained a dissecting table, acid vats and a crematorium. Holmes murdered in part for profit—he had a knack for using corpses to claim life insurance policies taken out on fictitious people, and sold many prepared skeletons to medical schools. Profit seeking was also his undoing. When the Exposition (and its steady supply of paying victims) shut down, Holmes moved on to St. Louis and Philadelphia, where an insurance scam—in which he murdered an associate and his three children—put Pinkerton detectives on his trail, and eventually saw him tried and sentenced to death for one of the killings. While awaiting his hanging, Holmes accepted $7,500 from Hearst Newspapers for his confession to 27 additional murders. Later estimates of Holmes’ death toll have been as high as 200.

9. Sissieretta Jones

Sissieretta Jones

Credit: National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons

With a magnificent voice likened by the press to that of her contemporary Adelina Patti (a world-famous Italian prima donna), Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones might easily have headlined operatic productions around the world. Instead, she was barred from the highest achievements by the color of her skin, and had to settle for lesser fame as “The Black Patti.” Born in Virginia and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Jones studied opera with a professor from the New England Conservatory and by 1888 had given well-regarded debut concerts in Boston and New York. In 1893 she became the first African-American to sing in the Music Hall of New York (later renamed Carnegie Hall). Despite rave reviews and audiences with multiple U.S. presidents and European monarchs, she was never offered roles in any of the day’s opera companies. Although she was the highest-paid black performer of her time, Jones was unable to support herself through opera alone. In 1896 she formed the Black Patti Troubadours, a variety ensemble that included comedy and minstrel songs along with arias. Her group played at major Vaudeville theaters, but Jones was forced to retire to Providence in 1916 to care for her ailing mother. She died penniless in 1933.

10. Ranjitsinhji


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Even in the 19th century, many great athletes were treated like royalty. Rarer was the athlete who could leverage his or her achievements to actually become royalty. Such was the case for Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, who used his prowess at the game of cricket to pursue his claim to the throne of Nawanagar, a princely state on India’s western coast. Born into relative obscurity, as a boy Ranjitsinhji was briefly named heir to the throne by the Maharaja of Nawanagar (his distant relative), but then disinherited in favor of the ruler’s newborn son. This stroke of mixed fortune put Ranjitsinhji on the path of education, first in a British-run school for Indian princes’ sons, and eventually at Cambridge University, where he proved a prodigy at the quintessentially British game of cricket.Despite protests about his race, in 1893 Ranjitsinhji became the first Indian to play for an English university team, and a year later broke a similar barrier to play for the prestigious Sussex county cricket side. He excelled as a batsman, perfecting a signature move called the leg glance, in which the incoming ball is deflected with a flick of the wrist rather than a full swing of the bat. Between 1896 and 1902 Ranjitsinhji played 15 test matches for England’s national team. He was hailed for his achievements both in India and abroad, where he was seen as a singular product of British colonialism—a “native” who could beat Englishmen at their own game. In 1907 Ranjitsinhji was able to leverage his fame to win allies among both India’s princely class and British administrators, becoming the Maharaja of Nawanagar after his chief rival died of typhoid in 1907.

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