Which 19th century celebrities were bastards?
March 13, 2013 6:31 PM   Subscribe

Were there any famous writers, politicians, public figures etc in the 19th century who were both extremely popular and also known to be born out of wedlock? (And by "famous" I mean for talent or achievement, rather than say, axe-murder.) I'm curious about the public's relationship with celebrity vs class hierarchies in the mid to late 1800's.
posted by pgswim to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Alexandre Dumas (fils), the writer of Camille, was the illegitimate son of Alexandre Dumas (père).
posted by musofire at 6:42 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sarah Bernhardt, apparently. (via)
posted by SoftRain at 6:46 PM on March 13, 2013

I was going to say Mary Shelley, but Wikipedia informs me that her parents Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin married after finding out Wollstonecraft was pregnant specifically so that Shelley would not be illegitimate.

Wollstonecraft's other daughter, Fanny, was born out of wedlock, though Fanny committed suicide at 22 and was not famous in her own time/independently of her famous relatives.

Ada Lovelace is another legitimate... but barely... famous 19th century figure. Byron had several other illegitimate children, one of whom ended up interrelated in the Godwin-Wollstonecraft family of all things. I'm not sure that any of his illegitimate children were "famous" in their own time for achievements independent of being Byron's offspring.
posted by Sara C. at 6:57 PM on March 13, 2013

The Booth family was a famous acting family of the 19th century. Edwin Booth was one of the foremost Shakespearean actors of the day. He and his siblings were illegitimate (Unfortunately, Edwin is now mostly remembered as the brother of John Wilkes Booth.)
posted by gudrun at 7:06 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

The explorer Henry Morton Stanley of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame.
posted by drlith at 7:10 PM on March 13, 2013

Barely 19th century, but: Alexander Hamilton.
posted by thetortoise at 7:13 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia has a list of notable people born to parents who were not legally married.
posted by alms at 7:27 PM on March 13, 2013

A few more, not on the notable people list:

Possibly Lafcadio Hearn
Adelaide Neilson
Probably James Stephens
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:30 PM on March 13, 2013

This isn't exclusive to the 19th century though it does include many names: famous illegitimate children. Try just Googling that.
posted by Miko at 8:26 PM on March 13, 2013

Go to a well stocked law school library and you can find fascinating treatises and digests of the law of illegitimacy (often called "bastardy"). You can get the sense of the social disabilities of various degrees of out of wedlock birth (loosely devided into legitimated, acknowledged, and unacknowledged, with another axis for born of adultery or merely of fornication).
posted by MattD at 9:31 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Monsieur Caution:
Frederick Douglass
Booker T. Washington
Interesting point - were slaves regularly (or ever) legally married in the US? If not, were slave "common law marriages" considered binding by post-Civil War courts, for purposes of inheritance and such?
posted by IAmBroom at 10:59 AM on March 14, 2013

A little removed, but Charles Dickens' grandmother was a maid in a house where Charles James Fox used to visit. Here's a picture of Dickens senior. Draw your own conclusions.
posted by BWA at 11:08 AM on March 14, 2013

Interesting point - were slaves regularly (or ever) legally married in the US? If not, were slave "common law marriages" considered binding by post-Civil War courts, for purposes of inheritance and such?

It's a big big topic and one that varies a lot both by period and by region/state, because state law then as now was what generally applied, because different kinds of slave-supported economies created different customs, and because the structures of slavery got much more stricter and more legislatively controlled in the nineteenth century than they'd previously been. In general most marriages between enslaved people were not recognized in civil law. However, sometimes slaveowners actually forced slaves to marry because of the theory that would prevent runaways, although they also didn't hesitate to break up families if that was more profitable. It's hard to make a generalization. Because of the heterogeneity of the record, doing genealogy for enslaved ancestors is really challenging. The lack of a record of a marriage doesn't always mean there was no marriage in the eyes of the family, but it can also mean people were considered illegitimate who were, as far as their parents were concerned, the products of a union.
posted by Miko at 1:11 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

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