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.

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER