8 Historic Pregnancies Everyone Was Watching

Wikimedia Commons  // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When you consider that it only took about seven decades to go from public pregnancy talk being taboo to Beyonce’s epic “We’re expecting twins” photoshoot, it’s clear society’s collective obsession with baby bumps has come a long way in a pretty short time. Up until the 1950s, openly acknowledging that a woman was with child (and therefore openly acknowledging her sexuality) was thought to be inappropriate.

Of course, that hasn't stopped nosy citizens and subjects from paying attention to particularly noteworthy pregnancies throughout history. These eight royals, cultural trailblazers, and newsmakers had all eyes on them—and their growing bellies—long before today’s tabloids made celebrity baby watching an art.

1. JANE SEYMOUR // 1537

jane seymour
Public Domain

Henry VIII’s first two wives—Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn—had only successfully given birth to daughters before their husband divorced and executed them, respectively. So, when the King of England married Jane Seymour in 1536 (only days after wife #2’s death), the pressure was on her and her uterus to give her new husband the male heir he so desperately wanted. Seymour conceived seven months later. Despite a seriously poor record of treating his previous wives, Henry was devoted to Seymour during her pregnancy. According to some accounts, when Seymour craved out-of-season quail, Henry had them shipped from Calais, France. Astrologers at the time predicted the bun in the royal oven was a boy. They were right. In October 1537, Seymour delivered Edward VI after days of brutal labor. Henry was thrilled, but the birth had been too much for Seymour. She died of complications soon afterward.

2. LESLEY BROWN // 1978

Lesley Brown and her husband, John, had been trying to get pregnant for nine years before they became the first to ever successfully conceive and carry a baby to term via artificial insemination (and they did it on the first try). The English couple welcomed daughter Louise on July 25, 1978, but they were regulars in the headlines in the nine months leading up to the historic delivery, too. The attention was a bit much for the Browns, a quiet homemaker and railroad employee, to take. People were fascinated—and in some cases, outraged—by the medical breakthrough. "Test tube babies" were thought to be both a promising development for thousands of childless couples and a risky step toward playing God. The Browns’ fame only got bigger after Louise was born. They even had to move to a house with a backyard so Lesley could take her baby outside without reporters tailing them.

3. IFRA HORMIZD // 309 C.E.

Shapur II’s rise to rule the Sasanian Empire—which covered much of the Middle East and parts of central Asia—started before he was even born. First Shapur’s father, Hormizd II, died in 309 C.E., then three older brothers were killed, blinded, or captured by nobles, leaving Hormizd’s unborn child next in line for the throne. Some say Shapur was crowned in utero, with his mother, Ifra, even wearing the crown on her womb. Not all historians buy this legend, though, as they wouldn’t have known the baby was a boy.

4. MARIE ANTOINETTE // 1777

MARIE ANTOINETTE AND HER CHILDREN
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The French queen of “Let them eat cake” fame didn’t exactly have a peaceful road to motherhood. It reportedly took seven years for the young royal and her young husband, Louis XVI, to consummate their marriage, and the fact that they hadn’t produced an heir in that time was a problem for the monarchy. When Marie finally did get pregnant, not only was she expected to deliver a boy, she was also subject to the royal tradition of giving birth in front of a curious crowd of courtiers to ensure no baby swapping or other funny business was happening. In the words of Marie’s first chambermaid Madame Campan, when the time came for the birth, “it was impossible to move about the chamber, which was filled with so motley a crowd that any one might have fancied himself in some place of public amusement. Two Savoyards [people from Savoy] climbed upon the furniture for a better sight of the Queen.” Talk about awkward.

5. LUCILLE BALL // 1952

Due to the aforementioned scandalousness of addressing a pregnancy publicly, it was big news when Lucille Ball and her on-and-off-screen husband Desi Arnaz wanted to write her second real-life pregnancy into the storyline of their sitcom, I Love Lucy. CBS network execs weren’t wild about the idea of including a pregnancy in a show in which the married leads could only be shown in twin beds, but gave the couple the okay provided they didn’t actually use the word “pregnant”—it was considered vulgar at the time. Instead, the episode “Lucy is Enceinte” (“Lucy is Pregnant” in French) used quaint '50s euphemisms for Ball’s condition, like “blessed event.” Audiences loved it and the subsequent episodes following Ball and her character’s pregnancy, and Ball and Arnaz greeted Desi Arnaz Jr. in real life the same day the episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” aired with 44 million people watching.

6. QUEEN VICTORIA // 1853

Queen Victoria and her eldest child
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The British Empire’s Queen Victoria was no stranger to her pregnancies drawing the public eye. She was attacked in an assassination attempt while riding in a horse-drawn carriage with her husband Albert in 1840, four months into carrying her first child. Later, she became the first monarch to give birth under the influence of chloroform (she used the stuff with her eighth and ninth babies)—a distinction that helped popularize pain-reducing anesthesia for upper-class women during childbirth.

7. ANNE MORROW // 1930

Famous American aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow’s little bundle of joy was so eagerly anticipated, reporters camped out at the Morrow estate ahead of his arrival and radio stations played songs celebrating the event. As The New York Times described in a 1932 article about Charles Jr., “Perhaps nowhere in the world, at any time in history, had a child been the object of such wide public interest as was the Lindbergh child.” Sadly, the buzz around the baby ultimately turned deadly. When Charles Jr. was 20 months old, he vanished from his second-story crib in a kidnapping that captivated the nation for years. The Lindberghs paid $70,000 in ransom to have their toddler returned to them, but the boy’s remains were found a few months later. The man eventually convicted of “the crime of the century” was arrested in 1934.

8. FRANCES FOLSOM CLEVELAND // 1893

frances folsom cleveland
Library of Congress

There was a bit of a scandal when bachelor president Grover Cleveland proposed to Frances Folsom in 1885—most people had assumed the president would be proposing to Folsom’s widow mother instead. So the 21-year-old First Lady understandably became an instant celebrity and fashion icon when she married. (She was so sought-after at public events, the president was concerned for her safety.) As the first and only First Lady to give birth in the White House, “Frankie”s pregnancies were just as attention-grabbing. Esther Cleveland, the only baby of a president ever born in the White House, arrived in 1893.

16 Things You Might Not Know About William Shakespeare

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Despite his many contributions to English literature, surprisingly little is known about William Shakespeare’s life. For the past four centuries, historians have had the difficult task of piecing together the Bard's biography with only a handful of old legal documents. Here's what we do know about the celebrated actor, poet, and playwright, who was born on this day in 1564.

1. Shakespeare's writing was likely influenced by his father's legal troubles.

When Shakespeare was about 5 years old, his father, John—a glovemaker—was accused of illegal money-lending and wool-dealing by Crown informers. The ordeal plunged the elder Shakespeare into legal troubles that would plague him for the next decade. "William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank," historian Glyn Parry told The Guardian. Parry argued that the experience likely shaped Shakespeare's attitudes toward power, class, and the monarchy—major themes in his future works.

2. Shakespeare got married because of an unexpected pregnancy.

Shakespeare was 18 when he learned that Anne Hathaway, 26, was pregnant with his first child. The couple quickly decided to marry in November 1582 and greeted daughter Susanna in May 1583. Two years later, they had twins Judith and Hamnet. Unfortunately, Shakespeare has no living direct descendants: Hamnet died at age 11, probably a victim of some disease; Judith outlived her three children; and Susanna had one daughter, Elizabeth, who was childless.

3. Nobody knows what Shakespeare did between 1585 and 1592.

After the birth of his twins, Shakespeare fell off the map for seven years. One unsubstantiated theory (and there are many) suggests that he supported his family by working as a lawyer or legal clerk. Indeed, Shakespeare's plays show an impressive grasp of legal knowledge. "No dramatist of the time … used legal phrases with Shakespeare's readiness and exactness," wrote 19th-century literary critic Richard Grant White. (High praise considering that Shakespeare once wrote, "Let's kill all the lawyers.")

4. Shakespeare was, first and foremost, an actor.

An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Shakespeare became an actor at a time when the job was considered downright unsavory. "[A]ctors were already marked as undesirables by England's vagrancy laws, which mandated that traveling troupes had to find aristocratic patronage," John Paul Rollert wrote in The Atlantic. "Rogue players ran the risk of being flogged, branded, and finally hanged." Little is known of Shakespeare's acting chops, but it's believed Shakespeare favored playing "kingly parts," including the ghost in his own Hamlet.

5. Shakespeare may have participated in organized crime.

In the 1590s, many of London's theaters operated as shady fronts for organized crime. (The Lord Mayor of London decried the theater—and specifically plans for the new Swan Theatre, where Shakespeare may have briefly worked—as a meeting spot for "thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners, conny-catching persons, practisers of treason, and such other like.") In 1596, Swan Theater owner Francis Langley accused William Gardiner and his stepson William Wayte of making death threats. Soon after, Wayte retaliated with the same accusations against Langley and—for some reason—William Shakespeare. This has led historian Mike Dash to suggest that Shakespeare may have been involved in some unspoken criminal activity.

6. Shakespeare was a matchmaker (and a marital peace-maker).

It may be no surprise that the author of Romeo and Juliet had a penchant for bringing lovers together: He once helped arrange the marriage of his landlord's daughter. The only reason we know this, however, is because the marriage had a rocky start. When a dispute over the dowry boiled over, Shakespeare had to go to court to act as a character witness for his landlord, whom he called a "very honest fellow." The transcript is the only record of Shakespeare speaking.

7. The first printed reference to Shakespeare as a playwright was an insult.

The first mention of William Shakespeare as a playwright appeared in 1592, when the dramatist Robert Greene (or possibly Henry Chettle) called him an "upstart Crow [who] … supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." (In other words: A jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.) Future reviewers would offer kinder words; in 1598, the critic Francis Meres called him "mellifluous and honey-tongued."

8. Shakespeare likely helped steal a theater, piece by piece.

In 1596, the Theatre in Shoreditch—where Shakespeare cut his teeth as an actor—went dark. The lease for the property on which it was built had expired, and Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were forced to take their show elsewhere. Two years later, the former owners hatched a crazy plan to take their playhouse back. One winter night in 1598, a group armed themselves with swords and axes, snuck into the theater, and began dismantling the playhouse piece by piece—although it would take more than one night to demolish it. While there's no evidence that Shakespeare joined the crew, he certainly knew about the raid. Eventually, parts of the playhouse would go into the construction of a new theater just south of the River Thames. Its new name? The Globe.

9. Only one handwritten script of Shakespeare's exists.

Five examples of the autograph of English playwright William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Five examples of the autograph of William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Anyone interested in studying the Bard's cramped handwriting has only one reliable place to look—the original draft of the Book of Sir Thomas More, a politically-charged play that targeted, in-part, xenophobia in England. Written mainly by dramatist Anthony Munday, the play was completed with the help of four fellow playwrights. One of them, presumed to be Shakespeare, helped write a stirring monologue in which the lead character asks an anti-immigrant mob to imagine themselves as refugees.

Say now the king …
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?

The play, by the way, would not be performed. Censors believed it could start a riot.

10. Shakespeare might have experimented with drugs.

Shakespeare might have had some, well, experience with drugs. According to analyses by South African scientists, a handful of 400-year-old clay tobacco pipes excavated from the playwright's Stratford garden contained potential evidence of cannabis (although the study authors noted that "Unequivocal evidence for Cannabis has not been obtained"). Other pipes nearby contained remnants of cocaine and hallucinogens. (There's no evidence that any of these pipes belonged to Shakespeare, but it does indicate that "narcotics were accessible" at the time, the Telegraph reports.)

11. Shakespeare may have been a tax cheat.

In the late 16th century, English residents had to pay a tax on personal wealth called a lay subsidy. In 1597, Shakespeare was supposed to pay a tax of five shillings. The following year, he was supposed to pay a larger tax of 13 shillings and 4 pence. Documents show that the Bard never paid the piper. (His reasons are a matter of speculation, but it could have been a clerical error because he'd already moved away from the parish.)

12. Shakespeare was a grain hoarder.

According to the UK Parliament, between 1604 and 1914 over 5200 enclosure bills were enacted, which restricted the use of vital, publicly-used farmland. Ensuing riots in 1607, called the Midland Revolts, coincided with a period of devastating food shortages. It appears that Shakespeare responded to the situation by hoarding grain. According to the Los Angeles Times, he "purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen."

13. The Globe Theatre burned down during a performance of one of Shakespeare's plays.

An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe theatre.
An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

On June 29, 1613, a prop cannon caused a fire at the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII. Sparks landed on the thatched roof and flames quickly spread. "It kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground," a witness Sir Henry Wotton claimed. According to The Telegraph, "the only reported injury was a man whose flaming breeches were eventually put out using a handy bottle of ale."

14. Shakespeare laid a curse upon his own grave.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, grave-robbing was extremely common. To ensure he'd rest through eternity peacefully, the Bard is believed to have penned this curse, which appears on his gravestone.

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust Encloased heare:
Bleste be [the] man [that] spares these stones,
And curst be he [that] moves my bones.

Unfortunately, somebody apparently ignored the dead man's foreboding words. In 2016, researchers scanned the grave with ground-penetrating radar and discovered that grave robbers might have stolen Shakespeare's skull.

15. Shakespeare's legacy has killed a lot of trees.

And we're not just talking about the millions of copies of books that have been printed with Shakespeare's name on them. In 1762, an anonymous magazine writer claimed that a drunken Shakespeare, after an evening out on the town, once spent the night sleeping under a crabtree in Bidford-upon-Avon. The story is probably a legend, but that never stopped souvenir-hungry Shakespeare lovers from flocking to the famed crabtree and picking it to pieces. By 1824, the tree was nothing but a stump and had to be uprooted.

16. Shakespeare's legacy lived on thanks to two fellow actors.

The cover of a 1623 collection of Shakespeare's works.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

Shortly after Shakespeare died, two of his longtime friends and colleagues—John Heminge and Henry Condell—edited Shakespeare's plays and collected them in a 1623 book titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. That same book, now called the First Folio, helped preserve Shakespeare's work for the coming generations and is widely considered one of the most significant books printed in English.

The Time the U.S. Government Planned to Nuke Alaska

iStock.com/mesut zengin
iStock.com/mesut zengin

In the 1950s, the idea of harnessing nuclear power was a bit of a public relations disaster. The world at large knew nuclear bombs only as tools of mass death and destruction. But if the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)—later the Department of Energy—had its way, nuclear explosions would have been reinvented as peacetime assets to humanity.

As proof of concept, the AEC planned to nuke Alaska.

Atlas Obscura details the plot, which reads almost as farce. In the late 1950s, the AEC was developing Project Plowshare, a plan to repurpose thermonuclear weapons to change the literal face of the Earth. Imagine blasting through mountains to create railways or widening the Panama Canal. The instantaneous landscape shifts caused by such weapons were economically attractive—saving on labor costs—and might also provide access to natural resources like oil. The excavation and fracking potential seemed limitless.

In 1958, the AEC and physicist Edward Teller proposed the first step in this bold new direction: Project Chariot. The plan was to detonate a 1-megaton H-bomb near Cape Thompson in Alaska along with several other, smaller explosions to create a crater 1000 feet in diameter and 110 feet deep. The resulting deepwater harbor would facilitate mineral mining and fishing access. The U.S. government rhapsodized about the idea in the media, claiming the then-contemporary weapons had low fallout and would create a port that would be nothing but a net gain for Alaskans.

Residents, however, met these plans with a degree of skepticism. The Inuit population who lived nearby and would have to cope with the radioactive consequences of such a scheme voiced their opposition to the idea. They pointed to earlier test blasts that showed radioactivity showering the vicinity. In 1954, a blast in the Bikini Atoll had a nuclear fallout of 7000 square miles in the Pacific Ocean. Owing to such tests, the Inuit were already demonstrating heightened radioactivity levels. So were the caribou they ingested. The notion of a “clean” nuclear bomb was something no one wanted to test with their own life.

Project Chariot never materialized, and the idea of wielding nuclear power to replace manual labor was laid to rest by 1977.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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