Original image
Warner Bros. // Facebook

The Current Sheriff of Nottingham, and 7 Other Pop Culture Titles Held By Real People

Original image
Warner Bros. // Facebook

The kings, queens, and captains that populate pop culture are, for the most part, imagined. But then there are those familiar figures who are far from fictional. While unfortunately there's no evidence there was ever an actual Mother of Dragons, other positions from books, folklore, television, and other cultural channels are (or were) very real, and we’ve got the backstories (and, in some cases, current titleholders) to prove it.


He was Robin Hood’s villainous rival in the classic English tale, trying his best to thwart the folk hero's stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. But in real life, the Sheriff of Nottingham’s responsibilities are remarkably less sinister.

Some argue Robin Hood’s sheriff was based on actual Nottingham Sheriff Reginald de Grey, who was tasked with pulling together an army to defeat the outlaws (including possible Robin Hood inspiration Roger Godberd), defying the area royals in the 13th century. Once modern police forces came along, the job had less law enforcement pull. Today, it’s largely ceremonial, with current Sheriff Jackie Morris (who now holds the position for a second time, having also been the predecessor to last year's sheriff, Mohammed Saghir) trading in the historic hunt for Merry Men for important stuff like supporting the city's tourism strategy, encouraging residents to utilize all Nottingham has to offer, and "hosting welcome receptions in order to promote the city."


"The Queen of Sheba's Visit to Solomon." Getty

Nobody has been able to definitively prove who the Queen of Sheba actually was, but the legendary royal appears in the sacred religious texts and traditions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, so scholars are pretty sure she must have been based on somebody (though the stuff about her having a goat hoof for a foot is probably less likely). Clues from her various cultural appearances suggest she came from a place rich with gemstones, spices, and incense, which would hint at roots in modern day Ethiopia, Yemen, or Somalia, and her interactions with King Solomon narrow down her lifespan to a few different periods people have assigned to the historic king. While Yemen and other regions still see the Queen of Sheba as their own legend, in Ethiopia she is credited with having a son with the biblical King Solomon named Menelik, who was said to have brought the Ark of the Covenant (yep, the same one Indiana Jones was after) back to their country. Sheba giving birth to Menelik was also believed to have been the start of the Solomonic dynasty, the Ethiopian emperors who ruled the country as recently as the 1970s.


The greatest thing since sliced bread was clearly the sandwich since it put bread to an even more delicious use—and the real-life man behind everyone’s favorite lunch staple was the Earl of Sandwich, a title that’s lived on for centuries in the quaint English community that shares its name. It was, in fact, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, who developed the edible namesake in the 18th century, apparently so he could keep snacking while he played cards (although people had eaten bread with fillings long before Montagu came along). But generations later, members of the Montagu family continue to use their inventive relative to their personal advantage: The 11th Earl of Sandwich (also named John Montagu) teamed up with Planet Hollywood founder Robert Earl in 2004 to launch a restaurant chain named after the family title. And the same Montagu’s son Luke, the heir to the earldom, is married to Julie Montagu, an American yoga instructor who joined the cast of Bravo's Real Housewives offshoot Ladies of London in 2014; on it, she often mentions her efforts to modernize and promote the family estate, Mapperton, and has told the story of her husband's ancestor and his favorite snack. The town of Sandwich celebrated the 250th anniversary of its most famous food in 2012.


Getty Images // Wikimedia Commons

When the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I returned to Broadway for its 2015 revival, director Bartlett Sher was careful to pay homage to the real people whose lives inspired the musical: Indian-English governess Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut of 19th century Thailand, then known as Siam. Leonowens's 1870 memoir about her years as a governess at the Siamese court was the work former Christian missionary Margaret Landon based her 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam on. Landon's book sparked an Oscar-winning movie and the iconic stage production, which led to another Oscar-winning movie, starring Yul Brynner as the king. The real Mongkut’s descendant, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, sat on the Thai throne for 70 years as the world’s longest-reigning living monarch until his death in October 2016 (his son was then crowned in December of that year). As far as we know, no musicals are being penned about Bhumibol—though even if they were, they’d probably be banned in his country, much like the play that made Siam’s king so famous in the first place.


Even after Downton Abbey closed its TV doors in 2015, the proper lords and ladies who reside in the real Downton—southern England's Highclere Castle—aren’t going anywhere. The estate where the popular drama was shot has been home to the aristocratic Carnarvon family for generations, and Downton creator Julian Fellowes has said he finds the real Highclere "very intriguing." Currently, the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon live part-time on the grounds, but in the early decades of the 20th century when the fictional action of Downton was unfolding, the lady of the manor was Lady Almina, the wife of the estate's 5th Earl. Almina shared many qualities with the TV show’s Lady Grantham: She was a wealthy American heiress, she turned the house into a makeshift hospital during World War I, and she modernized the property by adding electricity and a telephone line.


The world has long had mixed feelings about the guy who inspired the word sadism. Born in Paris in 1740, the infamous Marquis de Sade got an understandably bad rep for both his seriously scandalous writings (think violent orgies, prostitution, murder, and more) and his own troubling behavior (he died in an insane asylum). For generations after the marquis's death, the de Sade family chose to pretend their rebellious relative hadn’t existed at all. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that de Sade descendants started owning their famous forebear. Today, current marquis Elzéar de Sade and his brothers, Hugues and Thibault, have embraced their ancestor and hope others will too via exhibits of family artifacts and, of course, branded merchandise (Marquis de Sade wine, anyone?).


Columbia TriStar Television // Ian Muttoo, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

His title was bestowed by contemporary sitcom writers, not ancient officials, but the so-called Soup Nazi was based on a very real New York soup-slinger with very little patience for those unable to adhere to his strict ordering rules. Initially, Al Yeganeh wasn’t crazy about the classic Seinfeld episode based on his restaurant (and was pretty vocal about it), but in the 20-plus years since the show first aired, Yeganeh and his Original Soupman brand have used the unexpected fame (and the actor who played the Yeganeh-inspired character on the show) to promote their soups and franchises.


You probably know him as Count Dracula. Author Bram Stoker's fictional, bloodthirsty noble went down in horror history when the eponymous novel was published in 1897. The original Dracula, otherwise known as Vlad III (and better known still as Vlad the Impaler), ruled the southern region of what is now Romania centuries earlier. Stoker likely looked to the 15th-century prince and his legendary brutality as a partial model when he penned his famous book—and there was plenty of reported cruelty to scour, such as Vlad's proclivity for leaving his enemies on spikes (thus giving him his posthumous nickname) and the legend of his dipping his bread in their blood. Subsequent Romanian royals were a lot more humane. The kingdom of Walachia was dissolved in 1859, and today it’s the president and prime minister that hold the real power in the region, though Britain's Prince Charles did claim to be a descendent of Vlad a few years back (prompting some to speculate he might take over the Romanian throne) and 95-year-old former monarch King Michael I, who abdicated in 1947, is still known as the king.

Original image
Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
Original image

The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

Original image
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
Original image

Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.


In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.


Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.


The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.


More from mental floss studios