In 1988 Major Ronald Ferguson—a onetime officer in Her Majesty’s Household Cavalry, Prince Charles’ polo manager, and father of Sarah, duchess of York—was discovered by a London tabloid to be a habitué of the Wigmore Club, a West End massage parlor. When it was alleged that Ferguson paid for sexual services from a number of women and gave them perfume and bath oil said to be used by the royal family, he admitted, “I’ve been a fool.” “He’ll have to deal with this himself,” said a spokesperson for Buckingham Palace. “It’s nothing to do with us, despite the fact that he’s the Duchess of York’s father.”
After being tortured, an Athenian named Herostratus confessed to having set fire to the Temple of Artemis during the fourth century bc in order to attain long-lasting fame. Ephesian officials executed Herostratus and ordered his name removed from public record and never to be uttered again. Despite these injunctions—known as damnatio memoriae—Herostratus’ name appeared in the writings of Strabo and Theopompus. The term Herostratic fame thus refers to “fame gained at any cost.” “Herostratus lives that burned the Temple of Diana,” wrote Thomas Browne in 1658. “He is almost lost that built it.”
After “a certain knight shamefully divulged the intimacies and the secrets” of his lover, André Le Chapelain wrote in his late twelfth-century The Art of Courtly Love, an ad hoc tribunal of noble Gascon women “decided unanimously that forever after he should be deprived of all hope of love, and that in every court of ladies or of knights he should be an object of contempt and abuse to all.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement returned nearly four thousand ancient Iraqi artifacts in 2018 that Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma City–based chain of craft stores owned by an evangelical Christian family, had purchased from dealers in the United Arab Emirates. A year later investigators alleged that the Museum of the Bible, founded by the same family, had in its holdings thirteen artifacts belonging to the Egypt Exploration Society. The museum said it would return the artifacts.
As a young man, Giacomo Casanova spent his nights roaming through Venice, “thinking up the most scandalous practical jokes and putting them into execution,” he later wrote in his memoirs. “When we could get into bell towers, we thought it great sport to alarm the whole neighborhood by ringing the tocsin that announces a fire, or to cut all the bell ropes…The whole city was complaining of our nocturnal malefactions, and we laughed at the investigations that were made to discover the disturbers of the public peace.”
Punishments have been used throughout history to leave marks of shame on the body. “Perhaps the most important” one inflicted on men, writes Richard Trexler in Sex and Conquest, “was depilation, especially the burning off of anal and pubic hair. The practice was known to ancient Jews—Isaiah prophesied that they would be humiliated in this way—and to the Athenians. In both cases the insult lay in part in the fact that only women singed their pubic hair.”
In 1851 an Episcopal rector wondered why Nathaniel Hawthorne had selected the theme of adultery for his 1850 novel. “Is it, in short, because a running undertide of filth has become as requisite to a romance as death in the fifth act to a tragedy?” wrote the cleric. “We honestly believe that The Scarlet Letter has already done not a little to degrade our literature and to encourage social licentiousness.”
When Julius Caesar learned that an all-female religious ceremony at his home had been infiltrated by the politician Clodius Pulcher in drag, Caesar divorced his wife Pompeia. A lawyer asked why he had responded so harshly, considering that Pompeia had not done any wrong herself. “Because,” Caesar responded, “I thought my wife ought not even to be under suspicion.”
Saint Augustine based his definition of original sin on a misinterpretation of the Greek in Romans 5:12. According to Augustine’s misreading, sin is contracted and passed through the human race like a venereal disease. “We all were in that one man,” he wrote of Adam, who Augustine believed contained the nature of all future men, which was transmitted through Adam’s semen. The human race is therefore a “train of evil,” headed for destruction. The monk Pelagius argued against this concept, known as seminal headship. The Council of Orange accepted Augustine’s doctrine of original sin in 529.
President Warren Harding embarked on a journey to Alaska in June 1923, taking with him his secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover. “If you knew of a great scandal in our administration,” he asked Hoover, “would you, for the good of the country and the party, expose it publicly or would you bury it?” Hoover urged the president to reveal what would become known as the Teapot Dome scandal, but Harding feared the political fallout. He died of a heart attack in San Francisco two months later.