The Day Notre Dame Students Pummeled the Ku Klux Klan

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the men who stepped off the train in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of May 17, 1924. Dapper and mannered, they drifted from the station to the downtown area. Some headed for a nearby office that sported a red cross made out of light bulbs stationed in the window. Others roamed around looking for Island Park, the site of a planned social gathering.

A closer look at these visitors revealed one common trait: Many were carrying a folded white robe under their arm. Those who had arrived earlier were fully clothed in their uniform and hood, directing automobile traffic to the park.

The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in town.

Fresh off a controversial leadership election in Indianapolis, Indiana, there was no reason for Klansmen to have any apprehension about holding a morale booster in South Bend. Indiana was Klan territory, with an estimated one in three native born white men sworn members within state lines. Just a few months later, Klansman Ed Jackson would be elected governor.

It was only when Klansmen found themselves guided into alleys and surrounded by an irate gang of Catholic students from nearby Notre Dame University that they realized mobilizing in South Bend may have been a very bad idea.

The Klan wanted a rally. What they got was a full-scale riot.

Photo of KKK Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
By IndyStar, Decemeber 12, 1922 issue, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Politically-endorsed prejudice was the order of the day in the early part of the 20th century, when the Klan—first created in 1866 to oppose Republican Reconstruction with violent racial enmity and then revived in 1915—expanded its tentacles to reach law enforcement and civil service. No longer targeting people of color exclusively, the KKK took issue with Catholics, the Jewish faith, and immigrants. An estimated 4 million Americans belonged to the Klan in the 1920s, all echoing the group’s philosophy that only white, God-fearing citizens were worthy of respect.

Under the guidance of Indiana's Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, the group had attempted to shift public perception from the lynch mobs of the past to an orderly and articulate assembly. Rallies were held in KKK-friendly areas; propaganda material was becoming an effective weapon for their cause. Acceptance of the Klan’s ideology seeped into political office; Stephenson was a prominent Indiana politician.

To help continue that indoctrination, the Klan made plans for a parade in South Bend to be held on May 17, 1924. That it would be in close proximity to the Notre Dame campus was no mistake: At the time, 75 percent of the school's nearly 2000 students were Catholic, a religion the Klan found abhorrent. By pledging allegiance to the Vatican, their reasoning went, Catholics were acknowledging a foreign power. In the fall of 1923, they had persisted in setting crosses on fire near the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a predominantly Catholic college, and were frequently chased off by angered football players. That December, the Klan set off firebombs in Dayton during Christmas break. While no one was seriously injured, the intent was to send a message—one they wanted to spread to Indiana.

In the weeks and months leading up to the parade, both students and faculty began to get a taste of that perspective. Copies of the Fiery Cross, the official Klan newspaper, circulated on campus; one Klansman showed up at an auditorium to broadcast that Catholics were not good Americans. He exited the stage when attendees began throwing potatoes at him.

If that public response was foreshadowing, the Klan either ignored or failed to heed the warning. Members began arriving the Friday evening prior to the rally and were met at the train station by irritated students, who scuffled with the early arrivals by ripping their robes. By Saturday morning, when more Klansmen arrived, hundreds of students were in town, a loosely organized anti-Klan task force.


Keystone Features/Getty Images

Klan members were used to breezing into towns without incident. Here, they were immediately confronted by young, ornery college kids proud of their Catholicism. Klansmen were led into alleys and tossed into walls; students who played for the school’s legendary football squad formed wedges, the offensive line-ups found on the field, and plowed into groups of Klan members like they were challenging for a state title.

The violence, swift and sudden, prompted the Klan to retreat to their headquarters in South Bend. The students followed, their blood pumping hot at the sight of the red cross lit in the office window. Below it stood a grocery store with barrels of fresh potatoes. The students lobbed them at the glass, smashing the bulbs inside.

The conflict had been uninterrupted by law enforcement, but not for lack of trying. Deputy Sheriff John Cully, himself a Klansman, tried to enlist the National Guard but was shot down by officials. Notre Dame president Matthew Walsh had already implored students not to go into town, but his words went unheeded.

Unencumbered by authority, the 100 or so students idling near the Klan’s office decided they wanted to seize the hideout. Dozens began running up the stairs but were greeted by a Klan member who produced a gun. Unarmed, the students backed off. Four seniors went back and came to an impromptu truce: The student body would disperse if the Klan agreed to hold their rally without weapons or their robes.

The agreement seemed to placate both sides until Stephenson finally arrived in town before the parade’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. Assessing the roughed-up Klansmen and their skittish behavior, he complained to the police, who posted officers on horseback around their assembly at Island Park.

But there would be no rally: A heavy downpour prompted Stephenson to call it off, although the potential for further violence likely weighed on his mind. Lingering students who still hadn’t returned to campus met departing Klansmen as they attempted to drive out of town, smashing windows and even tipping over one car.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down. Walsh cringed at newspaper reports of the incidents, fearing it would portray the students as thugs.

Unfortunately, neither side was done protesting. And when they met a second time, the robed men would be backed up by lawman Cully and a squad of 30 deputized Klansmen.


Denver News - The Library of Congress (American Memory Collection), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Students back on campus Monday had taken to hanging up seized Klan robes and hoods on their walls like trophies. It had been a rout, with the Klan barely putting up a fight.

Now, word was spreading through the halls that the Klan had captured or perhaps had even killed a Notre Dame student. Roughly 500 students jogged the two miles back into South Bend, eager for another confrontation.

When they arrived at the Klan’s headquarters, the light bulb cross had been rebuilt. It was an act of defiance, and the students moved forward. But the Klan was prepared: Many had been deputized, and uniformed officers joined the melee. Axe handles and bottles were brandished, and blood began to stain the street. It was a clash, with parties on both sides laid out.

When he got word of the conflict, Walsh rushed to the site and climbed on top of a cannon that was part of a monument. Shouting to be heard, he implored students to return to campus. His voice cut through the sounds of breaking glass, snapping the students out of their reverie. They returned to the school.

Absent any opposition, the Klan did the same. Stragglers from out of town returned home. With bombastic prose, writers for the Fiery Cross later recapped the event by accusing Notre Dame students of “beating women and children.” Later that summer, they declared they’d be returning to South Bend in greater number.

It never happened. Although the Klan maintained an aura of strength for several more years, the conviction of Stephenson for raping and murdering a woman in November 1925 extinguished one of their most enthusiastic leaders; the Depression dampened the ability of new recruits to pay dues. By 1930, the Klan was down to an estimated 45,000 members.

While Walsh never condoned the vigilante justice exacted that weekend, he never disciplined a single student for it.

Additional Sources:
Notre Dame vs. the Klan, by Todd Tucker (Loyola Press, 2004)
"Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s" [PDF], by William Vance Trollinger

25 Regal Facts About Queen Elizabeth II

Jane Barlow, Pool/Getty Images
Jane Barlow, Pool/Getty Images

On April 21, Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate her 93rd birthday—and her first of two official birthdays. Though millions of words have been written about the world's longest-reigning monarch, few people know the woman behind the crown, or even what her daily duties entail. In honor of Her Majesty, here are some things you might not know about this royal legend, and why it's good to be the Queen.

1. She wasn't born an heir apparent to the throne.

The Queen Elizabeth (3rd-L, future Queen Mother), her daughter Princess Elizabeth (4th-L, future Queen Elizabeth II), Queen Mary (C) , Princess Margaret (5th-L) and the King George VI (R), pose at the balcony of the Buckingham Palace in December 1945.
The Queen Elizabeth (3rd-L, future Queen Mother), her daughter Princess Elizabeth (4th-L, future Queen Elizabeth II), Queen Mary (C) , Princess Margaret (5th-L) and the King George VI (R), pose at the balcony of the Buckingham Palace in December 1945.
AFP, Getty Images

For the first 10 years of her life, Princess Elizabeth was a relatively minor royal—her status was akin to Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York today—but that all changed with the death of her grandfather, King George V, in 1936.

The next in the line of royal succession was Elizabeth's uncle, Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne less than a year after taking it so that he could marry an American socialite named Wallis Simpson. Edward didn't have any children at the time, so his brother Albert (Elizabeth’s father) ascended to the throne, taking the name George VI and making the then-10-year-old Elizabeth the first in line to become Queen.

2. Her younger sister gave her a family nickname.

Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth in 1933.
Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth in 1933.
AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth and Margaret were the only children of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and King George VI, who said of his daughters: "Lilibet is my pride, Margaret my joy." "Lilibet," of course, is Elizabeth, who earned her nickname because Margaret—whom the family affectionately called Margot—constantly mispronounced her big sister’s name.

3. She didn't go to school.

Princesses Elizabeth (right) and Margaret at Waterloo Station, London, 1939.
Princesses Elizabeth (right) and Margaret at Waterloo Station, London, 1939.
Fox Photos, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Heirs apparent don’t just show up to primary school like normal kids. Instead, Elizabeth was tutored at home during sessions by different teachers like Henry Marten, vice-provost of Eton College (which is still for boys only), and was also given private religion lessons by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

4. But she and Margaret technically did have a teacher.

Stamps from 1937 featuring Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, The Coronation Chair, Westminster Abbey, The Coronation Coach, The Houses of Parliament, Windsor Castle, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to commemorate the King's Coronation.
Stamps from 1937 featuring Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, The Coronation Chair, Westminster Abbey, The Coronation Coach, The Houses of Parliament, Windsor Castle, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to commemorate the King's Coronation.
London Express, Getty Images

Just because she didn't attend school doesn't mean that Elizabeth didn't receive an education. She received the bulk of it through her nanny, Marion Crawford, who the royal family referred to as "Crawfie." Crawford would eventually be ostracized by the royal family for writing a tell-all book in 1953 called The Little Princesses without their permission; the book recounted Crawford's experiences with Elizabeth during her younger days.

5. She wanted to go to war, but was too young.

Queen consort Elizabeth holds Princess Margaret's hand as Princess Elizabeth follows, in 1936.
Queen consort Elizabeth holds Princess Margaret's hand as Princess Elizabeth follows, in 1936.
Central Press, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When World War II broke out in 1939, Elizabeth—then just a teenager—begged her father to join the effort somehow. She started out by making radio broadcasts geared toward raising the morale of British children. During one of the broadcasts, the 14-year-old princess reassured listeners, "I can truthfully say to you all that we children at home are full of cheerfulness and courage. We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers, and airmen and we are trying too to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war."

6. She eventually served in World War II.

Princess Elizabeth changing the tire of a vehicle as she trains at as ATS Officer during World War II in April 1945.
Princess Elizabeth changing the tire of a vehicle as she trains at as ATS Officer during World War II in April 1945.
Central Press, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite the risks, Elizabeth eventually joined the women's Auxiliary Territorial Service and trained as a truck driver and mechanic in 1945, when she was 18 years old.

Queen Elizabeth remains the only female royal family member to have entered the armed forces, and is currently the only living head of state who officially served in World War II.

7. She celebrated the end of the war by partying like her subjects.

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1947.
Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1947.
William Vanderson, Fox Photos/Getty Images

When then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that the war in Europe was over on May 8, 1945, people poured out into the streets of London to celebrate—including Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The sheltered duo were allowed to sneak out of Buckingham Palace to join the revelers at their father's behest.

"It was a unique burst of personal freedom," recalled Margaret Rhodes, their cousin who went with them, "a Cinderella moment in reverse."

8. She married her cousin.

Then-Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, following their wedding ceremony in November 1947.
Then-Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, following their wedding ceremony in November 1947.
AFP, Getty Images

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Queen Elizabeth are third cousins; both share the same great-great-grandparents: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

9. Elizabeth and her husband have known each other since childhood.

A family portrait in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace on the wedding day of Princess Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II) and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on November 20, 1947.
A family portrait in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace on the wedding day of Princess Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II) and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on November 20, 1947.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Philip, son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg, first met Elizabeth when she was only 8 years old and he was 14. Both attended the wedding of Princess Marina of Greece (Prince Philip's cousin) and Prince George, the Duke of Kent (Elizabeth’s uncle).

Five years later the pair met again when George VI brought Elizabeth to tour the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, where Philip was a cadet. In a personal note, Elizabeth recalled falling for the young soldier-in-the-making: "I was 13 years of age and he was 18 and a cadet just due to leave. He joined the Navy at the outbreak of war, and I only saw him very occasionally when he was on leave—I suppose about twice in three years," she wrote. "Then when his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, were away he spent various weekends away with us at Windsor."

10. She didn't tell her parents she was getting hitched.

Princess Elizabeth, Philip Mountbatten, Queen Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother), King George VI, and Princess Margaret pose in Buckingham Palace on July 9, 1947, the day the engagement of Princess Elizabeth & Philip Mountbatten was officially announced.
Princess Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II), Philip Mountbatten (also the Duke of Edinburgh), Queen Elizabeth (future Queen Mother), King George VI, and Princess Margaret pose in Buckingham Palace on July 9, 1947, the day the engagement of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten was officially announced.
AFP/Getty Images

In 1946, Philip proposed to Elizabeth when the former planned a month-long visit to Balmoral, her royal estate in Scotland. She accepted the proposal without even contacting her parents. But when George VI finally caught wind of the pending nuptials he would only officially approve if they waited to announce the engagement until after her 21st birthday.

The official public announcement of the engagement finally came nearly a year later on July 9, 1947.

11. She has a very royal name.

Princess Elizabeth (left) and her mother, Queen consort Elizabeth, in 1951.
Princess Elizabeth (left) and her mother, Queen consort Elizabeth, in 1951.
Reg Speller, Fox Photos/Getty Images

She's the second British monarch named Elizabeth, but Elizabeth II wasn't named after Henry VIII's famous progeny. Queen Elizabeth II's birth name is Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, after the names of her mother, Elizabeth, her paternal great-grandmother, Queen Alexandra, and her paternal grandmother, Queen Mary.

12. She got to choose her own surname.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with two of their children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, circa 1951.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with two of their children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, circa 1951.
OFF, AFP/Getty Images

Technically, the Queen's last name is "Windsor," which was first chosen by George V in 1917 after the royal family wanted to distance themselves from "Saxe-Coburg-Gotha"—the dynasty to which they belonged—for sounding too Germanic during World War I.

But as a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of the royal family, in 1960 Elizabeth and Philip adopted the official surname Windsor-Mountbatten. (Fans will surely remember that the surname drama was briefly discussed in Netflix’s series The Crown.)

13. She has two birthdays.

Princess Elizabeth just before her 21st birthday in April 1947.
Princess Elizabeth just before her 21st birthday in April 1947.
AFP/Getty Images

Like most British monarchs, Elizabeth gets to celebrate her birthday twice, and the reason why boils down to seasonably appropriate pomp and circumstance.

She was born on April 21, 1926, but April was deemed too cold and liable to fall during inclement weather. So instead, her official state-recognized birthday occurs on a Saturday in late May or June, so that the celebration can be held during warmer months. The specific date varies year to year in the UK, and usually coincides with Trooping the Colour, Britain’s annual military pageant.

14. Her coronation was televised against her wishes.

Queen Elizabeth's coronation, June 1953
Queen Elizabeth's coronation, June 1953.
AFP, Getty Images

Elizabeth officially ascended to the throne at just 25 years of age when her father, George VI, died on February 6, 1952. Elizabeth was in Kenya at the time of his death and returned home as her country's Queen. As fans of The Crown will remember, the hubbub surrounding her coronation was filled with ample amounts of drama.

The notoriously camera-shy Elizabeth—who didn't even allow photos to be taken of her wedding—didn't want the event televised, and others believed that broadcasting the coronation to commoners would break down upper-class traditions of only allowing members of British high society to witness the event. A Coronation Commission, chaired by Philip, was set up to weigh the options, and they initially decided to only allow cameras in a single area of Westminster Abbey "west of the organ screen," before allowing the entire thing to be televised with one minor caveat: no close-ups on Elizabeth's face.

15. She paid for her wedding dress using war ration coupons.

A 1947 sketch of Princess Elizabeth's wedding dress by Norman Hartnell.
A 1947 sketch of Princess Elizabeth's wedding dress by Norman Hartnell.
Central Press, Getty Images

Still reeling from an atmosphere of post-war austerity, Elizabeth used ration coupons and a 200-coupon supplement from the government to pay for her wedding dress. But don't be fooled, the dress was extremely elegant; it was made of ivory duchesse silk, encrusted with 10,000 imported seed pearls, took six months to make, and sported a 13-foot train. (It cost just under $40,000 to recreate the dress for The Crown.)

16. She doesn't need a passport to travel.

Queen Elizabeth II in Nuku'alofa, Tonga in December 1953.
Queen Elizabeth II in Nuku'alofa, Tonga in December 1953.
STRINGER, AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth II is the world's most well-traveled head of state, visiting more than 115 countries between more than 270 official state visits, but she doesn't even own a passport. Since all British passports are officially issued in the Queen’s name, she technically doesn't need one.

17. She doesn't need a driver's license either.

Queen Elizabeth II drives a car in 1958.
Queen Elizabeth II drives a car in 1958.
Bob Haswell, Express/Getty Images

It's not just because she has a fleet of chauffeurs. Britain also officially issues driver's licenses in Elizabeth’s name, so don’t expect her to show off her ID when she gets pulled over taking other heads of state for a spin in her Range Rover.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, recounted to The Sunday Times the time when Elizabeth drove former Saudi crown prince Abdullah around the grounds of Balmoral: "To his surprise, the Queen climbed into the driving seat, turned the ignition and drove off," he said. "Women are not—yet—allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah was not used to being driven by a woman, let alone a queen."

18. She doesn't have to pay taxes (but chooses to anyway).

Queen Elizabeth rides in a carriage in 2000.
ODD ANDERSEN, AFP/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth has voluntarily paid income and capital gains taxes since 1992, but has always been subject to Value Added Tax.

19. She survived an assassination attempt.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II rides a horse side saddle and salutes during a Trooping of the Colour ceremony in London in 1952.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II rides a horse side saddle and salutes during a Trooping of the Colour ceremony in London in 1952.
STRINGER, AFP/Getty Images

During the 1981 Trooping the Colour, the Queen led a royal procession on horseback down the Mall toward Buckingham Palace when shots rang out. A 17-year-old named Marcus Sarjeant, who was obsessed with the assassinations of figures like John Lennon and John F. Kennedy, fired a series of blanks toward Elizabeth. Sarjeant—who wrote in his diary, "I am going to stun and mystify the whole world with nothing more than a gun"—was thankfully unable to purchase live ammunition in the UK. He received a prison sentence of five years under the 1848 Treason Act, but was released in October 1984.

20. She also survived an intruder coming into her bedroom.

Queen Elizabeth II in Australia in 1954.
Queen Elizabeth II in Australia in 1954.
Fox Photos, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A year after the Trooping the Colour incident, Elizabeth had another run-in. But instead of near Buckingham Palace, this time it was inside Buckingham Palace. On July 9, 1982, a man named Michael Fagen managed to climb over the Palace's barbed wire fence, shimmy up a drain pipe, and eventually sneak into the Queen's bedroom.

While reports at the time said Fagen and the Queen had a long conversation before he was apprehended by palace security, Fagen told The Independent the Queen didn't stick around to chat: "She went past me and ran out of the room; her little bare feet running across the floor."

21. She technically owns all the dolphins in the UK.

The HMAS Vengeance seen from a helicopter, as the Australian Naval crew spell out the signature of Queen Elizabeth II on the deck, in 1954.
The HMAS Vengeance seen from a helicopter, as the Australian Naval crew spell out the signature of Queen Elizabeth II on the deck, in 1954.
Keystone, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In addition to owning all of the country's dolphins, she owns all the sturgeon and whales, too. A still-valid statute from the reign of King Edward II in 1324 states, "Also the King shall have ... whales and sturgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere within the realm," meaning most aquatic creatures are technically labeled "fishes royal," and are claimed on behalf of the Crown.

As the song goes, "Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!"

22. She has her own special money to give to the poor.

Queen Elizabeth II hands out maundy money in 2004.
Queen Elizabeth II hands out maundy money in 2004.
PHIL NOBLE, AFP/Getty Images

Known as "Maundy Money," the Queen has silver coins—currently with Elizabeth's likeness on the front—that are given to pensioners in a ceremony called Maundy Thursday. The royal custom dates back to the 13th century, in which the royal family was expected to wash the feet of and distribute gifts to penniless subjects as a symbolic gesture to honor Jesus’s act of washing the feet of the poor in the Bible. Once the 18th century rolled around and washing people's dirty feet wasn't seen as befitting of a royal, the act was replaced with money allowances bequeathed by the monarch.

23. Gin is her drink of choice.

Queen Elizabeth II sipping a drink.
RUSSEL MILLARD, AFP/Getty Images

The Queen drinks gin mixed with Dubonnet (a fortified wine) and a slice of lemon on the rocks every day before lunch. She also reportedly drinks wine at lunch and has a glass of champagne every evening.

24. She created her own breed of dogs.

Queen Elizabeth with her dog Susan, circa 1959.
Queen Elizabeth with her dog Susan, circa 1959.
AFP, Getty Images

Elizabeth has a famous, avowed love of Corgis (she has owned more than 30 of them during her reign; her last one, Willow, passed away in 2018), but what about Dorgis? She currently owns two Dorgis (Candy and Vulcan), a crossbreed she engineered when one of her Corgis mated with a Dachshund named Pipkin that belonged to Princess Margaret.

25. She's on social media ... kind of.

Queen Elizabeth II tours a Canadian Blackberry factory in 2010.
Queen Elizabeth II tours a Canadian Blackberry factory in 2010.
John Stillwell, Pool/Getty Images

The Queen joined Twitter in July 2009 under the handle @RoyalFamily, and sent the first tweet herself, but hasn't personally maintained the page since then (she has a digital communications team for that). She's also on Facebook (and no, you cannot poke The Royal Family) and in March 2019, the Royal Family posted its first Instagram.

This story originally ran in 2017.

12 Amazing Facts About Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great moved to a foreign land as a teenager and became one of the most important leaders in its history. During her 34-year reign, she transformed Russia’s culture while expanding its borders. Here's what you need to know about the unlikely ruler, who is the subject of not one, but two series coming soon: HBO's Catherine the Great, due in 2019, and Hulu's The Great, slated for 2020.

  1. Catherine the Great's name wasn't catherine.

The woman who would become Catherine the Great was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst on April 21, 1729 (Julian Calendar) in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland). She was the daughter of Christian August, a minor German prince and general in the Prussian army, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth, who had connections to the Russian royal family.

Despite being a princess herself, young Sophie wasn’t exactly a top-tier member of the European nobility. But thanks to her mother’s campaigning, she was chosen to marry Karl Peter Ulrich (later known as Tsar Peter III), heir to the Russian throne. The couple wed on August 21, 1745. Sophie converted to Russian Orthodoxy—despite her Lutheran father’s objections—and took on a new Russian name: Ekaterina, or “Catherine.” Her official title would be Empress Catherine II (Peter the Great's second wife had been Empress Catherine I).

  1. Catherine the Great's marriage to Peter the III was rocky.

Catherine and Peter were an ill-matched pair: Catherine was bright and ambitious whereas Peter, according to Britannica, was "mentally feeble." Catherine didn’t like him: “Peter III had no greater enemy than himself; all his actions bordered on insanity,” she wrote in 1789. Her memoirs portray the Tsar as a drunk, a simpleton, and somebody who “took pleasure in beating men and animals.” Whether these statements are accurate or not, Catherine and her spouse were clearly unhappy, and they both had extramarital affairs. Catherine had at least three affairs, and hinted that none of her children were her husband's.

  1. Catherine the Great overthrew Peter the III so that she could rule.

Peter III assumed the throne on January 5, 1762, and was immediately unpopular. He enraged the military by pulling out of the Seven Years’ War and making big concessions to Russia’s adversaries in the process.

Eventually, Catherine believed that Peter was going to divorce her—so she worked with her lover, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, and her other allies to overthrow him and take the throne for herself. In July 1762, just six months after he took the throne, Peter III was deposed in a coup d'état. Eight days later, he was killed while in the custody of one of Catherine's co-conspirators.

With Peter out of the picture, Catherine became the new empress of Russia. She was formally crowned on September 22, 1762. She never married again, and took numerous lovers during her long reign.

  1. Voltaire was basically Catherine the Great's pen pal.

Catherine, a bibliophile, built up a collection of 44,000 books. Early in her reign, she began a correspondence with one of her favorite authors: The great Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Russia fascinated Voltaire, who had written a biography of Peter the Great. Catherine would never get the chance to meet him in person, but through these letters, she and Voltaire discussed everything from disease prevention to Catherine's love of English gardens.

  1. Catherine the Great annexed Crimea.

Russian interest in the Crimean Peninsula long predates Vladimir Putin. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774, Catherine seized the landmass, thus strengthening Russia’s presence on the Black Sea. And her conquests didn’t end there. Over 200,000 square miles of new territory was added to the Russian empire during Catherine’s rule. Much of it was acquired when the once-independent nation of Poland was divided between Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Tsarina Catherine’s slice contained portions of modern-day Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine.

An illustration of Catherine the Great.
iStock.com/traveler1116
  1. Great Britain asked for Catherine the Great's help when the Revolutionary War broke out.

In 1775, the Earl of Dartmouth approached Catherine with a request for 20,000 Russian troops to help Britain put down the colonial rebellion in America. She refused. As the war continued, British diplomats kept trying to establish an alliance with Russia, hoping that the Empress would either send military aid or, failing that, pressure France into abandoning the American cause. Catherine did neither. However, out of concern for Russian shipping interests in the Atlantic (and elsewhere), she did attempt to mediate an end to the violence between Britain and its rebellious colonies in 1780.

  1. Alaska was colonized on Catherine the Great's watch.

Russian explorers had been visiting Alaska since 1741, but the empire didn’t set up its first permanent colony there until 1784, when merchant Grigory Shelikhov sailed to Kodiak Island and established the Three Saints Bay Colony. Later, in 1788, he visited Catherine in St. Petersburg and asked if she’d give his company a monopoly over the area’s lucrative fur trade. She denied his request, but thanked the explorer for “[discovering] new lands and peoples for the benefit of the state.” Russia’s colonial presence in North America would continue long after Catherine’s death—and it wasn’t limited to Alaska.

  1. Catherine the Great embraced inoculation.

Thomas Dimsdale, an English physician, built upon an existing technique for immunizing people to smallpox. The technique involved finding a carrier of the ailment, then taking a blade dipped in a very, very small amount of "the unripe, crude or watery matter" from that person's pustules and injecting it into the patient’s body. In 18th century Russia, smallpox claimed millions of lives, so Catherine was eager to see if Dimsdale’s strategy worked. At her invitation, he came to Russia and quietly inoculated the empress. The procedure was a success, and with the Tsarina’s encouragement, Dimsdale inoculated about 150 members of the nobility. Before the end of the century, approximately 2 million Russians had received smallpox inoculations.

  1. A rebel claimed to be Catherine the Great's dead husband.

Catherine’s Enlightenment-fueled beliefs didn't lead to the demise of serfdom. According to Marc Raeff in his book Catherine the Great: A Profile, "During her reign it was possible to buy and sell serfs with or without land, buy whole families or individuals, transact sales on the estate or marketplace; contemporaries termed all this ‘veritable slavery.'”

The unjust arrangement triggered 160 documented peasant uprisings in the first 10 years of Catherine’s reign. The best known of them was Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773-1775) [PDF], which was organized by Yemelyan Pugachev, a veteran of the Russo-Turkish wars. To win support, he introduced himself as Catherine’s deposed and deceased spouse, Peter III (even though Pugachev looked nothing like Peter). Pugachev and his followers enjoyed some big military victories early on, but after a crushing defeat in August 1774, their revolution fell apart. Pugachev was captured and executed in Moscow on January 10, 1775.

  1. Catherine the Great's art collection was the basis of St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

In 1764, Catherine purchased a set of 225 paintings—including works by Rembrandt and Frans Hals—from a Berlin dealer, and founded the Hermitage with those works. Catherine went on to buy or commission thousands of additional pieces for her budding museum. Today, the State Hermitage Museum has more than 3 million items in its collections.

  1. Catherine the Great was Russia's longest-serving female leader.

Thirty-four years after assuming the throne, Catherine passed away on November 6, 1796. The monarch was succeeded by her son, Tsar Paul I.

  1. Wild rumors flew after Catherine the Great's death—including that one about the horse.

A lot of rumors sprung up in the wake of Catherin's death. One said that she had died while on the toilet, while another—the most persistent tale, and a completely unfounded one—claimed that Catherine the Great was crushed to death while attempting to have sex with a stallion. Where exactly the story came from is unknown; an autopsy determined that the empress had actually died of a cerebral stroke.

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