History brims with many incredible, defining moments, undertaken by long-ago figures who can seem larger than life. We’re taught these glorified moments in school, and we honor them during remembrance ceremonies. But there are also dumb moments, buried in time, that those involved might have wished to erase. Whether the result of foolishness, insanity, heartlessness, grave mistakes, or just plain awkwardness—here are 48 of history’s dumbest moments.
1. Playing It Too Safe
Walter Hunt invented the safety pin in Brooklyn, all the way back in 1849. He sold the patent right away for a measly $400. Hunt later died pennilessly, and by that time there were billions of safety pins being made annually. Talk about pricking yourself.
2. Beer Me
With all due respect to Charlton Heston’s shirtless overacting in The Ten Commandments, there’s evidence that the Egyptian pyramids were built with the sweat of paid labor—not broken slaves. But ancient Egyptian bosses were known to be huge cheapskates, and one of their penny-pinching moves was paying their workers in beer.
Each laborer got up to five liters of beer per workday, and historians surmise that the Egyptians would have had a worker riot on their hands if the kegs ever tapped dry. Nothing like being permanently tipsy in the blazing desert heat to take the edge off a lengthy construction job.
3. This Sounds Dumb
Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager, wanted to profit directly off of an Elvis record through his label. Presley was under contract to RCA, but greedy Parker figured he could release an album of strictly “spoken word” Elvis, and that RCA wouldn’t complain. That album, Having Fun With Elvis On Stage, was a complete disaster.
It contained zero songs, just Elvis’s banter from his live shows—which was mostly just Elvis mumbling jokes at the audience between tunes. Critics called it an auto wreck plowing into a carnival freak show, and RCA ended up claiming all the rights anyway.
4. What He Needed Was Smart Pills
Qin Shi Huang was China’s first emperor and the first man to singlehandedly rule over the seven kingdoms that he’d conquered. But Huang wasn’t resting easy—he was absolutely obsessed with his quest for immortality. Huang spent the last decade of his life badgering every medicine man in China to invent an elixir for immortality.
One of his browbeaten alchemists finally convinced Huang he’d found the magic pills, and Huang swallowed the bait with gusto. What that alchemist gave him was poisonous mercury, and Huang perished shortly afterward.
5. A Royal Pain in the…
George II’s worst mistake wasn’t just dumb, it was lethal. He was so constipated and exerting himself with such force on the toilet, that his heart physically burst.
6. King of Shame
It’s still creepy to see photos of Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis Simpson, with Adolf Hitler before World War II. Queen Elizabeth II’s uncle had shockingly given up his throne to marry Simpson, a twice-divorced American. But it’s equally shocking that pampered patsy Edward, and his self-absorbed wife, were foolish enough to sympathize with Hitler.
British intelligence tried hard to keep the ex-king’s buddy status with Hitler under wraps—but the whole messy situation was finally outed in an official document, published in 1957.
7. British Throne: Heirless.
The uncles of the future Queen Victoria were too dumb to think her birth was of any consequence. Her grandfather, King George III, suffered from acute mental illness throughout his life. But he did have a dozen surviving adult children, so a legitimate male heir to the throne was practically guaranteed, right? The short answer was no! By 1817, a “succession crisis” became the raging scandal of the day.
George’s dense sons were forced to dump their scores of mistresses, and get hitched to just one, worthy European princess each, in a race to provide an unblemished heir. It was Victoria who survived, winning the race, and becoming one of the longest rulers in British history.
8. Sweet Caroline
Queen Victoria’s uncle, King George IV, brought so much scandal to the British monarchy, the negative press of his foolishness spawned modern (AKA sleazy) British tabloid journalism. George IV showed exceptional stupidity in 1820. He detested his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick. But the only way George could divorce her, back then, was to have her charged with adultery, which would be a royally dumb move.
Salacious news of the trial was distributed to eager readers across the British Isles. While the excess-driven King was certain that his subjects sided with him, the majority supported Caroline. When the divorce proceedings failed, there was a celebratory riot in the streets of London.
9. Yes, Virginia, There Is a Claudius
Claudius, who eventually became Rome’s fourth emperor, was kept hidden until relatively late in his life, due to his ignorant family. Historians believe Claudius suffered from cerebral palsy or a form of Tourette’s. His brutal mother called him “a monstrosity of a human being,” and his nut-job nephew, infamous Roman Emperor Caligula, encouraged people to mock Claudius by pelting him “with the stones of olives and dates” at gatherings.
10. Warning: Don’t Bug Him
I highly doubt that Joseph Stalin ever felt dumb about being known as being so nasty. That may have cost him his life. His guards were petrified to disobey him, and one of Stalin’s more ominous orders was to never be disturbed in his bedroom. When he didn’t make it out of bed after sunup on the morning of March 1, 1953, everyone gulped hard.
But they were too afraid to knock, and it wasn’t until closer to midnight before quivering guards sucked up the courage to crack Stalin’s bedroom door open. They found him splayed on the floor, alive, but marinating in his own urine. He’d suffered a stroke, and he was dead within four days.
11. Worst. Pope. Ever.
Popes in medieval Rome were hardly pinnacles of religion, but John XII was the dumbest, drunkest, most debauched of the lot. He was barely 18 years old when he was elected pope, in an unwise political move. Partying like a frat-boy on holy Roman grounds, John XII also had zero guilt about betraying Otto I—the German emperor who’d sworn to protect him.
A humiliated Otto had John overthrown. Somehow, John managed to scramble up an army, but he perished shortly afterward (in bed with another man’s wife, or so it was rumored.)
12. Bonaparte Vs. the Barbarians
Napoleon Bonaparte took control of France in 1799. After that, the diminutive, overconfident emperor stormed through Europe, until most of the continent lay at his feet. In 1812, Napoleon vowed to “once and for all…finish off these barbarians of the North,” and he invaded Russia. Seriously dumb decision.
13. Napoleon Un-Dynamite
Although he’d amassed a European army of over one million soldiers, Napoleon was utterly ignorant of the brutal Russian climate. The smaller, but undoubtedly shrewder, Russian army also employed ‘scorched earth’ tactics, a total game-changer. On June 24, 1812, the first wave of Napoleon’s army entered Russia, prematurely convinced of victory.
By October 19, 1812, a dumbstruck Napoleon was forced out of Moscow, with more than 90% of his million-strong army annihilated.
14. Hank’s Coffin Sprung a Leak
Henry VIII had seemed to be such a promising young king. But he grew increasingly paranoid during his turbulent reign, aging through six wives, and producing just one sickly male heir. Henry grew obese too, weighing over 400 pounds at death. Court officials assumed that a lead-lined coffin would hold Henry’s immense corpse. Not only were they wrong, the worst possible outcome was in store.
During his funeral procession, Henry’s corpse exploded, leaking diseased, bodily fluids onto the streets.
15. Cannonballs on Point
James II of Scotland figured a fiery cannonball display would dazzle his lady. Perhaps he felt too invincible (or too turned on to think straight). Either way, James got too close to the weaponry. When his men fired, a cannonball blew directly into James’ thigh, and he perished from the blood loss.
16. Medieval Fear Factor
When Henry I took on a food dare, he paid—with his life—to play. During one banquet, Henry scarfed down a stupid number of bloodsucking eels. Food poisoning hit, and Henry perished. There is a reason boiled cabbage is on the menu, folks.
17. Back in the Saddle…The End
William the Conqueror was brilliant in battle—but not so much at horse whispering. During a chaotic skirmish, William’s horse halted so abruptly that William’s innards ruptured against his saddle, and he perished from the force. It sounds like the worst way to ride off into the sunset.
18. Seven Years of Dumb George
In 1754, George Washington was an overachieving colonel, serving the British by strengthening their claim to the Ohio Valley. Washington and his crew encountered Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, who was on a similar expedition in the Ohio Valley, claiming lands for France. The two countries weren’t yet at war, but Washington ordered de Jumonville’s camp ambushed, and Washington’s guide delivered a fatal tomahawk blow to de Jumonville.
Washington’s blunder served as a trigger to the Seven Years’ War, and he suffered his first defeat in battle shortly thereafter.
19. Those Invaders Be Tripping
During the War of 1812, the Americans figured that Canada would be a cinch to invade, and a large-scale American militia marched north. But the invading Americans started hearing mysterious rumors about a huge, bloodthirsty swarm of natives ready to ambush them. Panic blew up, and the Americans hightailed it back to their fort in Detroit. The smaller British force then appeared at Fort Detroit.
They warned that the bloodthirsty native warriors were still going to pounce if the Americans didn’t surrender immediately. It probably took about a hot second for the Americans to abandon the fort.
20. Happy Hour Turned Friendly Fire
In 1788, Austrian horsemen made the dumb decision to mix schnapps and muskets. Austria was battling with Turkey over the Danube River, and many Austrian horsemen were on a night patrol to sniff out Turks. They never found the enemy, but the horsemen did happen upon a gypsy party—and free booze. Austrian foot soldiers found out about the happy hour, and they wanted in too.
Fistfights broke out between the Austrian horsemen and foot soldiers. A gunshot was heard, and shouts of “Turk, Turk!”. Mass confusion ensued, and the Austrians tramped off in disorganized directions. Convinced they were under attack by the Turks, the Austrians shot at each other all night. By morning, friendly fire had claimed at least 10,000 Austrians.
21. Talk About a Hard Sell
Discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb was one of history’s greatest archeological accomplishments. It took Howard Carter, and his team, over a decade to catalog the priceless riches of Tut’s burial site. One prominent detail, unmentioned in more conservative accounts, is that the boy king’s mummy had a full-on mummified erection. Until it disappeared.
Stupid accusations flew that someone had stolen Tut’s embalmed manhood for profit. The accusers were silenced when CT scans revealed that the erection had crumbled enough to fall off, getting buried in the sandy debris around the mummy post-excavation.
22. The Lust Boat
Thousands of years pre-Tinder, ancient Egyptian dudes could get mighty brazen about encouraging their ladies to swipe right. A Greek documenter of the period, named Herodotus, wrote about Egyptian men sailing down the Nile to get to a religious ceremony. It was a sacred occasion, but the ignorant men still jeered at the women on shore, pulling up their garments, and flashed as they sailed past.
23. Peace Out, Deviant
The Greek historian Herodotus also documented a bizarre custom amongst the Egyptian upper classes, that intended to thwart more perverted embalmers. The timely method of embalming always occurred with Egyptian men, who were embalmed immediately after death. However, women’s bodies were left to decay for three to four days.
That cringe-worthy change in custom stemmed from an embalmer in the Egyptian royal house, who’d been dumb enough to get caught in an act of necrophilia with a “fresher” woman’s body.
24. Misjudging Menstruation
Ancient Egyptians believed that men menstruated too and that blood in men’s urine, and stool, was a positive sign of fertility. Little did they know, parasitic worms were the likely cause of heavy flow in males.
25. Death Was Like a Box of Chocolates
Thoughts about the Third Reich generally aren’t sweet or delicious. But during World War II, some evil scientists had the dumb idea to invent a bomb disguised as a chocolate bar. The explosives were intended to get smuggled into Britain, right into the dining room where Winston Churchill and his advisors convened. The British unwrapped the sweet-toothed scheme before disaster struck, and chocolate bombs never got anywhere near Churchill.
26. Nixon Failed the Juice Test
Who knows what fate would have squeezed out for Richard Nixon, if he’d succeeded at freezing California orange juice? In 1938, the future president and his investor cronies started the Citra-Frost Company—convinced they’d strike it rich, selling frozen orange juice. Nixon got right in there, dicing oranges to a pulp on the production line.
But freezing orange juice isn’t doable, and Citra-Frost went bankrupt after 18 months.
27. The Founding Fathers of Smack Talk
Today’s mudslinging politicians should look to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams for smack-talking inspiration. The two had been close friends at one point—but then they became bitter political enemies, eventually going head-to-head for the presidency. And those two talking heads came up with some pricelessly dumb insults.
Jefferson’s finest included accusing Adams of being a hermaphrodite. Adams attempted to swing voters by telling everyone in earshot that Jefferson had dropped dead.
28. The Monarch Is Team Moby Dick
There’s a dumb British law, still in existence, proclaiming that whales in UK waters are the property of the British monarchy.
29. It Tasted Awful, and It Didn’t Work
You think bitter cough syrup tastes icky? Try swallowing the nonsense from priests and apothecaries in the 1600s. They instructed gullible patients to take “medications” containing ground-up tissues and bones from dead bodies. Suddenly Buckleys seems way more palatable.
30. Why Didn’t Tudors Blind Date?
Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, came out lucky—as in wealthier and alive—following her short marriage to the king. Before they met in person, Henry ordered a portrait of Anne to be painted and delivered to him, to assure his huge ego that she was beautiful enough. He probably should have sprung for at least one blind date.
When they finally did meet, Henry was immediately turned off. He even cruelly nicknamed Anne the “Mare of Flanders” behind her back.
31. No Soap for You
Chairman Mao was the tyrannical leader of the people’s republic of China. But who would think he was capable of anything, given the string of vocations he failed at miserably when he was growing up? Mao dropped out of police academy, a school of law, and a school of economics. He couldn’t even get through soapmaking school without quitting.
32. Don’t Call Her Fat
Charles II was notorious for his revolving door of side chicks, and the British monarch had a penchant for giving them dumb nicknames. He called one lady Fubbs—an old English insult for chubby.
33. Must Love Dog-doo
How sweet it is to have a dog breed named after you! In the case of the Cavalier King Charles spaniel, it’s been documented through portraiture, and written accounts, that there was an extremely close bond between Charles II and the yappy toy spaniels bearing his moniker. His contemporaries groused about Charles and his ankle-biters during official meetings, when Charles preferred playing fetch instead of paying attention to the business at hand.
Even worse, the dogs were free to do their business everywhere. The whole court apparently stunk like a modern-day, off-leash dog park.
34. Here, Fishy, Fishy
There were random, slapstick moments of comedy during the French Revolutionary conflict with Britain: including one testy Welsh woman, capturing 12 stupid-drunk French soldiers with just a pitchfork in the sleepy town of Fishguard, Wales. The French planned to support an Irish rebellion, leading to a full-blown invasion of the UK.
Brutal seas forced all but the third wave of French invaders to retreat. The third wave blew well off course, to the nowhere port of Fishguard. The Welsh were outnumbered, their version of a militia including just 400 hundred men and an equal number of women—nowhere near the 1,800 well-armed French soldiers who’d drifted into town.
But the French soldiers had been wiling away their time in Fishguard, drinking, and dozing it off. When they saw the Welsh marching towards them, they just gave up.
Royal Oak, Fishguard
35. Someone Jam a Cracker Down Polly’s Throat
Andrew Jackson was called “the people’s president,” although his more inhumane accomplishments include a forced Native American migration—that’s the aptly named “Trail of Tears.” After Jackson died, thousands of people turned up at the funeral, and someone was also dumb enough to let a parrot in. The bird had been Jackson’s pet, and it apparently started cussing a blue streak before the funeral sermon even began.
I guess no one found a cracker to shut that parrot down, because the feathered friend had to be forcibly removed from the service.
36. Spain Defeated by Skates
In the 1500s, the Netherlands was controlled by Spain—but Dutch rebels were demanding religious reforms. Spain was foolish enough to think a Dutch beatdown would be a cinch. Although the Dutch were seriously outnumbered, they had a nifty trick up their sleeve. They could skate. The Spanish tried to invade Amsterdam with their military vessels, but the waters had frozen.
Spanish soldiers disembarked onto the ice, skidding around like idiots. Suddenly, Dutch soldiers appeared to be flying across the ice. The stunned Spanish finally clued in. The Dutch weren’t flying—they had skates on. Spain retreated in humiliation.
37. Mission Impossible
Rudolf Hess was devoted to his Third Reich boss—yeah, the one with the bad mustache. Hess even had himself voluntarily imprisoned to be closer to him in jail. While he initially appointed Hess deputy party leader, Hess’s influence waned towards the start of World War II. In 1941, Hess hatched a plan, desperate to win back his fearless leader’s affection and reinstate his prestige.
Flying secretly from Bavaria, Hess parachuted alone into Scotland, carrying with him bogus peace proposals that he delivered to the British. The British dismissed him completely, tossing him in jail. Hitler was even more harsh, rejecting Hess for good and accusing him of “pacifist delusions.”
38. Uniformly Incompetent
General Ulysses S. Grant won the Civil War, eventually serving as the 18th American president. But when he was a 17-year-old kid attending military school at West Point, Grant failed miserably at the school uniform. He constantly received demerit points for his sloppy appearance, and his classmates took a play on his name by calling him “Useless.”
39. What Not to Wear
President Ulysses S. Grant suffered numerous political scandals in office. On a strictly personal note, he dressed like a complete idiot. Observers joked that Grant would show up looking like some guy delivering woodpiles in St. Louis. Others said he was so unimpressive a specimen, he went unnoticed in crowds.
40. Was It Bird Flu?
Ulysses S. Grant loved his future wife so much, it was borderline daffy. When her pet canary died, he painstakingly made a small coffin, and he painted it yellow. Then he made eight of his fellow military officers show up at her house, where he conducted a funeral service for the canary. Is that a cuckoo clock I hear?
41. Move Over, Rover
Ulysses S. Grant has been ranked one of the five worst presidents in American history—with unflattering descriptions ranging from his “peculiar ignorance” of the constitution, his “errors of judgment,” and lack of “previous political training.” A historian even clarified his dumbness by commenting that “dogs didn’t like him,” either.
42. Not a Complete Idiot
Ulysses S. Grant’s wife, Julia Dent Grant, was the object of many cruel, unflattering opinions too. She was cross-eyed and very embarrassed about her condition. Julia pressed for surgery to correct it, but Grant refused. Before we all think that Grant deserved a solid kick in the butt for that dumb refusal, consider this. He loved his wife very deeply, and he insisted that she remain looking just as she had on their wedding day.
43. Columbus Hosed His Crew
The legacy of Christopher Columbus has been tarnished over the years, and it’s known now that he wasn’t shy about alienating his crew. During his voyage of 1492, Columbus promised a hefty reward to the first crewman who spotted the new world. Rodrigo de Triana, a sailor on the voyage, reported seeing a small island, now named San Salvador.
But Columbus kept the reward of gold, lying to his crew that he’d spotted the same island the evening before.
44. His Odds Were Terrible
Columbus had a disastrous track record on his voyages. He captained the flagship of his 1492 voyage—the Santa Maria—right into the ground, stranding 39 of his sailors after the boat sank. During his fourth voyage to the Caribbean, his ship rotted out. Columbus and his crew were marooned on Jamaica for an entire year after that.
45. He Got Arrested for Being a Horrible Governor
The Spanish king and queen made Christopher Columbus the governor of Santo Domingo, in appreciation of his discovering new lands for Spain. Columbus might have been cut out for exploring, but he sucked at governing. Columbus and his brothers stole profits from the government’s coffers, and they alienated the settlers who were trying to establish a life in the new world. The enraged king and queen had Columbus dragged back to Spain in chains.
46. Crazy-Stupid Caligula
Caligula reigns supreme in history as Rome’s craziest emperor. During his chaotic rule, Caligula declared himself a god, humiliating and terrorizing his senators, and his high command. But the dumbest move, that really sunk Caligula’s boat, was his bizarre revenge against the mythical Roman sea god. Caligula ordered his army to wade into the ocean, play-fight with the waves, and collect seashells in treasure chests before he claimed victory over Neptune.
In AD 41, Caligula was taken out by a fed-up Praetorian Guard.
47. Higher Infidelity
The King James version of the Bible is historically known as “the people’s Bible.” But an ill-fated, 1631 edition of the King James Bible contained a dumb printing error, that must have freaked people out. The Seventh Commandment should have read “Thou shall not commit adultery”, but the “not” was omitted.
The printers’ lives were ruined, and great efforts were taken to destroy all copies of the so-called ‘Wicked Bible’. 10 copies of the Wicked Bible still exist, and one sold at auction, in 2015, for £31,250.
48. Political Footwork for Dummies
In 1967, a small town in Ecuador held a mayoral election with write-in balloting. An Ecuadorean foot powder company got the dumb idea to advertise their foot powder on leaflets that said, “Vote for Pulvapies.” The townsfolk thought the ads were for an actual candidate, so the advertising was a runaway success for the wrong reason—the foot powder got elected mayor.