Favourite Unusual Minor Historical Figures

Fiberglass Cyborg

Well-Known Member
Jul 13, 2021
Who are your favourite colourful characters from history? Not so much the great movers and shakers, but those whose stories have been preserved because they were just so unusual.

Joshua Abraham Norton was a San Francisco businessman in the mid 18th century. After going bankrupt, he reinvented himself as Emperor Norton I, rightful ruler of the United States of America. He soon became a much-loved local hero and something of a tourist attraction, parading around the streets in a comic-opera uniform given to him by some cadets. Norton made a living "exchanging" his own homemade banknotes for dollars. Fancy restaurants allowed him to dine for free to attract customers. He was a surprisingly civic-minded megalomaniac, who issued many reformist proclamations, agitated for improvements to his city, and single-handedly tried to face down a race riot. There are various other tales of his good deeds. He died in poverty, but around 10,000 people attended his funeral.
Virginia Woolf is mainly remembered as an author now (Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando) but in 1910 she and her friends carried out an astounding hoax on the mighty Royal Navy.

On February 7th, 1910, Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) and five of her Bloomsbury companions boarded the pride of the British Royal Navy, HMS Dreadnought, dressed in blackface and outlandish stage costumes. In what became known as “The Dreadnought Hoax,” the six convinced the Dreadnought’s officers that they were the “Emperor of Abyssinia” (now Ethiopia) and his entourage, and they were received with high honours.
The “princes” asked for prayer mats, presented the officers with fake military honours, and exclaimed “bunga, bunga!” each time they were shown some marvel of the ship. The Dreadnought was then, in the words of Woolf’s nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell, “the flagship of the Home Fleet, the most formidable, the most modern, and the most secret man o’ war then afloat.” The next day, Cole anonymously sent the photograph below to The Daily Mirror, revealing the hoax. No charges were made or further action taken, probably due to the embarrassment of the Navy top brass.

Virginia Woolf is far left:

I have been fascinated by Temple Houston, youngest son of Sam Houston. Actually born after his father died.

He was a lawyer, famous in Oklahoma and to some extent, Texas, for his courtroom strategies and success. There was even a short-lived TV show about him starring Jeffrey Hunter.
Probably Will Sommers, Henry VIII's jester. Keeping him amused must have been a full time job, and (knowing the king's irracibility in later years) fraught with some little peril.

He occupied the post of court jester through the reigns of Henry, Edward, Mary (apparently he was the only person who could make her laugh) and up until the coronation of Elizabeth.

Pictured in several paintings (including the famous one featuring all of Henry's family) he is certainly the forgotten Tudor, but will have played a significant role in court politics.

The job of court jester was a highly skilled one.

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