Our culture is obsessed with sex scandals, the more sordid the better. In between tut-tutting and being uncomfortably aroused, we like to imagine that things were better in an earlier, more civilised age. But we're wrong. Our ancestors were a little more reluctant to print the sweaty details of their sex scandals (but not as reluctant as you think), but what we do know about them suggests that they were every bit as depraved.
Here are a few of the best of history's famous sex scandals:
The Reynolds Affair: Presidential Mistress
A hit Broadway musical about his life has made American founding father Alexander Hamilton famous again, but the real joy for those of us who enjoy the history of human prurience is the attention it's given to the “Reynolds affair.” Suspected in 1792 of misusing his government post to help a swindler named James Reynolds. Hamilton was forced to tell a government committee, headed by future president James Monroe, that he had actually been paying blackmail money to Reynolds, whose ex-wife Maria had been Hamilton's mistress. Monroe leaked the evidence, which came to light in 1797.
An older, married man, a young woman, a scheming husband – nothing too weird there, right? The difference is that instead of denying everything, Hamilton published a 95-page pamphlet explaining the history of his affair as a way of clearing his name from the other charges. He even included his mistress's execrably-spelled love letters and her husband's menacing demands, as well as a few shots at his political rivals. His political career took a nasty hit, and history does not record what Mrs Hamilton had to say.
Suing the Prince: Victorian Sensibilities
We think of the Victorians as prudish, and maybe they were – after all, previous Princes of Wales had been drunken playboys, and mostly people didn't take them to court. But when Lady Harriet Mordaunt, wife of Sir Charles Mordaunt, gave birth to a child with severe medical problems, she confessed to her doctors that they just might be the result of syphilis. How did she get syphilis, you ask? Why, by frequent affairs with a range of aristocratic lovers including the Prince of Wales. This was pretty plausible – the future Edward VII was a frequent visitor to brothels and carried on affairs with dozens of women, ranging from actresses and prostitutes to noblewomen. The incautious prince even wound up in court over the Mordaunt affair, although only as a witness.
The Mordaunt divorce trial was shaping up to be one of the biggest sex scandals of the age, but Harriet's father stepped in to prevent it spiralling out of control. He publicly announced that his daughter was mad; she spent the rest of her life in mental hospitals. Charles Mordaunt eventually got his divorce when another nobleman, Viscount Cole, fessed up to being the baby's father. The moral of the story is: sleep with who you like, but in Victorian England it's not wise to talk about it.
Fatty Arbuckle: Naughty Celebrities
Our media loves to tell tales of naughty celebrities. Who's sleeping with who? Who got out of a car without any pants on? Who's got some mild kink imagery in their music videos? Yeah, yeah, you amateurs. Come back when you've fucked someone to death.
The suspect: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, beloved star of silent comedies (although not really that fat by modern standards). His contract with Paramount Pictures was worth a million dollars – in 1920 money. That's about $13 million today, which is pretty good. But all Fatty's money couldn't save him when the law came calling in 1921. An aspiring actress, Virginia Rappe, had died following a party at a San Francisco hotel; a friend of hers suggested that Arbuckle had raped her and that his huge weight had caused her ruptured bladder. This sex scandal lead to a media circus after the trial went through two juries. The third acquitted Arbuckle and even wrote him a formal letter of apology, declaring that he was “in no way responsible” for Rappe's death. Owing to the fact, the actress had a history of ill health and there was no evidence to suggest that the two had slept together, let alone that he had raped her.
By this time, though, legendary media scumbag William Randolph Hearst's newspapers had run wild on Arbuckle, suggesting among other things that he had raped Rappe with a champagne bottle. Arbuckle's career was dead; studios even destroyed copies of films he'd already made. Although he did gradually return to making movies, Arbuckle was never the same.
Image by Orange County Archives
with CC BY 2.0 license