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6 Vicious Rivalries

From warring paleontologists to a pair of dueling founding fathers, explore six of history’s fiercest rivalries.
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1. Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh

In the 19th century, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh turned the hunt for new dinosaur species into a cutthroat game of one-upmanship. The two scientists started out on friendly terms—each had once named new fossils after the other—but they had a falling out in the late 1860s, after Marsh bribed workers into helping him acquire bones from one of Cope’s dig sites. Over the next two decades, the pair engaged in a heated and often malicious race to out-excavate and out-discover each other. They hired spies to keep tabs on each other’s movements (Marsh referred to his rival by the codename “Jones”), hired away each other’s employees, and even ordered their workers to destroy dig sites and smash fossils so the other couldn’t claim them. The “Bone Wars” would eventually ruin both men professionally and financially, but it left paleontology all the richer—by the 1890s, Cope and Marsh’s competition had led to the discovery of thousands of fossils and 136 new dinosaur species including the Triceratops, the Stegosaurus and the Apatosaurus.

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2. Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson

Credit: MPI/Getty Images

Credit: MPI/Getty Images

The bad blood between two of America’s political titans first began in 1960, after John F. Kennedy decided to choose former rival Lyndon Johnson as his presidential running mate. Robert Kennedy was still fuming over Johnson’s vicious primary campaign against his brother, and he personally confronted Johnson in a hotel room and urged him to turn down the offer. Johnson refused, and the two went on to cultivate a healthy resentment toward each other. Kennedy ridiculed Johnson behind closed doors, and was once even given a Johnson voodoo doll as a joke gift. Johnson called Kennedy a “grandstanding little runt” and vowed, “I’ll cut his throat if it’s the last thing I do.” The feud only intensified when Johnson became president after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Robert Kennedy was highly critical of Johnson’s rush to be sworn into office, and later claimed that his nemesis was taking credit for some of his brother’s achievements. Once in the U.S. Senate, Kennedy lambasted the President over the mounting quagmire in Vietnam. Johnson, meanwhile, went out of his way to neuter RFK’s bills or rebrand them as his own. The battle looked set to reach new heights in 1968, when Kennedy announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination, but Johnson abruptly withdrew from the race. The old rivals would remain at odds until RFK’s assassination later that year.

3. Michelangelo Caravaggio and Giovanni Baglione

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Famed artist Michelangelo Caravaggio had no shortage of personal vendettas—he was known to stalk the streets of Rome carrying a sword for protection—but one of his most famous feuds involved rival painter Giovanni Baglione. The disagreement began in the early 1600s, when Baglione painted a response to Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro masterwork, “Amor Vincit Omnia.” Caravaggio and his circle ridiculed him and claimed plagiarism, so Baglione upped the ante and painted a second version—this time with a caricature of Caravaggio’s face on the body of the devil. Never one to let an insult stand, Caravaggio got revenge by distributing a series of vulgar and highly comic poems denouncing Baglione and suggesting he use his paintings as toilet paper. A deeply offended Baglione took Caravaggio to court on libel charges and had him jailed for several days. He would later write a biography of Caravaggio that offers a particularly unflattering portrait of his former rival. When discussing Caravaggio’s untimely demise, the book notes, “He died as miserably as he had lived.”

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4. Adi and Rudi Dassler

Employees of German sports equipment manufacturers Puma and Adidas prepare to kick-off the match between them in the city of Herzogenaurach. (Credit: Timm Schamberger/AFP/Getty Images)

Employees of German sports equipment manufacturers Puma and Adidas prepare to kick-off the match between them in the city of Herzogenaurach. (Credit: Timm Schamberger/AFP/Getty Images)

The rift between German brothers Adi and Rudi Dassler was so extreme that it managed to tear apart their business, their family and even their hometown. The pair first rose to prominence in the 1920s as the owners of the Dassler Brothers Shoe Company, but their company later splintered after they had an infamous falling out during World War II. The argument involved several factors, but it stemmed from a seemingly mundane incident in which Adi yelled an insult at Allied aircraft conducting a bombing raid on Germany. Rudi believed the jibe was directed at him and his wife, and the misunderstanding soon spiraled into a feud that lasted for decades.

By 1948, the Dasslers had split their business into two now-famous companies. Rudi launched Puma, while Adi started a brand dubbed “Adidas” after his own first and last names. Both business set up shop in the town of Herzogenaurach and began an intense rivalry over worldwide market share and celebrity endorsements. Over time, the city became fiercely divided between the two companies. Businesses catered to either Puma or Adidas workers, and people were hesitant to marry or even fraternize with people from the other side. Puma and Adidas would later stage a reconciliation in 2009, but the Dasslers never settled their differences before their deaths in the 1970s. In keeping with their feud, they were laid to rest on opposite sides of the same cemetery.

5. Jefferson Davis and Joseph E. Johnston

Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Joseph E. Johnston served on the same side of the Civil War, but they regarded each other with a level of distrust usually only reserved for enemies. The feud stretched back to their early careers—some accounts even say they had vied for the affections of the same woman while at West Point—but it reached its zenith in the early days of the war. Johnston had resigned from a senior position in the U.S. Army, and he was furious when he learned Davis had placed him behind Robert E. Lee and others in rank. He fired off a letter accusing Davis of looking to “tarnish my fair fame as a soldier and a man.” Davis responded that Johnston’s concerns were “as unfounded as they are unbecoming.”

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The men later engaged in repeated squabbles over Johnston’s famously cautious field tactics. When Vicksburg, Mississippi fell to Union forces after an 1863 siege, Davis blamed Johnston for not relieving the city and wrote a letter accusing him of “abandonment of your duties.” Johnston, meanwhile, fumed at what he viewed as muddled and contradictory orders. The tensions came to a head in July 1864, when Davis removed Johnston from command of the Army of Tennessee after the general refused to go on the offensive against William T. Sherman’s rampaging Union army in Georgia. Johnston considered his removal a personal slight, and blamed Davis for meddling in his field strategy. The war of words would continue even after the war, when the pair published competing memoirs defending their conduct and partially blaming the other for the Confederate defeat.

6. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton

On July 11, 1804, founding father Alexander Hamilton and U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr engaged in a famous pistol duel near Weehawken, New Jersey. The “affair of honor” left Hamilton with a mortal wound in his stomach, but it was only the last in a long line of personal slights and political disputes that extended back more than 25 years. Hamilton and Burr’s relationship had first soured during the Revolutionary War, when they frequently locked horns while serving as members of George Washington’s staff. The enmity later deepened in 1791, when Burr—whom Hamilton described as “unprincipled both as a public and private man”—claimed the senate seat previously held by Hamilton’s beloved father-in-law. In 1800, Burr once again humiliated his rival when he obtained and helped publish a pamphlet Hamilton had secretly written criticizing President John Adams, a supposed ally and fellow Federalist. Hamilton responded by fiercely opposing Burr in the 1800 presidential race, but the incident that sparked their duel came in 1804, when Hamilton vociferously campaigned against Burr’s bid for the governorship of New York. Burr demanded an explanation, and when Hamilton refused, he challenged him to the duel. Hamilton accepted, setting the stage for the fateful showdown that led to his death.

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