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Famous People of the 19th Century

The 1800's kicked off with one of the most important presidencies in history - Thomas Jefferson's

The 1800's kicked off with one of the most important presidencies in history - Thomas Jefferson's

The 19th century was an interesting time in human history. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson became the third President of the United States of America and Tsar Paul I of Russia was assassinated. In 1804, the population of the planet rose to over one billion people. In 1836, the Battle of the Alamo was fought. Queen Victoria of England reigned from 1830 to 1901 and ushered in a new era of prosperity for her country. The American Civil War raged from 1861 to 1865 and wasn't the only civil war or revolution of that century. Russia abolished serfdom and America and Brazil abolished slavery.

Empires collapsed and wars were fought, but the achievements in science and even the arts knew almost no bounds. Tuberculosis was well on its way to becoming eradicated, Cro-Magnon man was discovered and Thomas Edison lit up the first light bulb in the 1800's.

Though there are innumerable noteworthy people of this era (think Thomas Edison, Florence Nightingale, Eli Whitney and George Carver) there are a few that many folks may not be aware of, so I'm focusing on a few that I think deserve a little more time in the spotlight.

Karl and Bertha Benz on one of their sweet, sweet rides.

Karl and Bertha Benz on one of their sweet, sweet rides.

Karl Benz

You may not recognize his first name, but I’m sure you know his last. Karl Benz was, indeed, the first person to actually build an automobile and is credited with patenting the first gas powered car. Although his contraption looked more like a kid's toy than the sleek luxury rides that Mercedes Benz is famous for today, remember that the only alternative forms of transportation in those days were trains and horses.

Benz was born in Baden Muehlburg, Germany in 1844 and his first foray into the world of engineering was a company he built with a friend called the Iron Foundry and Machine Shop where they manufactured and sold construction materials. His automobile was patented in 1879 and the first of his "motor carriages" rolled off of his assembly line in 1886.

Incidentally, Benz's wife Bertha takes credit for the very first long-distance journey in a gas powered vehicle. She drove about 66 miles total - to visit her mother - a trip that wasn't planned in advance and her husband had no idea she was going.

Bertha Benz's Joyride

Wilhelm Röntgen

This guy with the hard to pronounce last name invented something that's been angering airline travelers for quite some time now - the X-Ray.

Wilhelm Röntgen, born Germany in a time when most medical procedures involved large doses of narcotics and the occasional bloodletting, fiddled with some cardboard, electrodes and this thing called a Hittorf-Crookes tube - which was invented to effectively displace or discharge electricity - and discovered a whole new type of radiation. Stuff started glowing that hadn't glowed before and, a couple of weeks later, the first x-ray was taken. The image was of Röntgen's wife's hand and the resulting images freaked her out pretty good.

Though medical usages were not what Röntgen originally was aiming for, he is now known as the father of diagonostic radiology. He was also awarded the very first Nobel Prize for Physics.

Though many people experimenting with radiation and radioactive isotopes died at fairly young ages (either do to radiation poisoning or various cancers), Röntgen lived to the ripe old age of 77 before succumbing to intestinal cancer. He was one of the very few inventor/wizards of his age who protected himself from radiation with lead shields.

Empress Dowager Cixi

Cixi, born in China in a time where women rarely held power over anything other than their own households, was a rare example of a female who privately held the reins of her country's government.

When she was young, she participated in a "selection" with other women who were hoping to be chosen as a concubine for the ruler of China, the Xianfeng Emperor, who had just buried his primary wife. Chosen by the emperor and eventually becoming his favorite concubine, Cixi bore the Emperor his only son.

He would become the Tongzhi Emperor at a young age, allowing his mother to rule as regent with his stepmother, the Empress Dowager Ci'an, the only woman in the kingdom who outranked Cixi. (Cixi was considered a concubine and gained the title of Empress Dowager when her son became Emperor; Ci'an was the Xianfeng Emperor's official wife at the time of his death.) The two women would become civil enemies for the rest of their lives, ruling China from "Behind the Curtains."

Her story is loaded with intrigue, including political corruption, scandals and even possible poisonings. Throughout her unofficial reign, Cixi became known for many things, certainly not the least of which was trying to keep her country together when a woman ruler was unheard of and also possibly murdering her son's wife. She was tasked with trying to fend off foreign armies while trying to bring China into the modern world, the latter of which the country is still working on a hundred years after her death.

She is just now being remembered as something other than a monster of a tyrant. Unfortunately, because of China's guarded present and its past, we may never fully know the complete story of the Empress Dowager Cixi.

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Edmund Keane in character.

Edmund Keane in character.

Edmund Kean

Edmund Kean may have been the Robert Downey Jr. of his time, but without the comeback or the comic book superhero movie franchise.

"Discovered" by Mad King George, Kean is referred to as one of the greatest actors of his time, if not the very best. He began his career in the circus which, at that time, was some of the best entertainment that England had to offer. After a disastrous horse riding accident and a brief foray into music, Kean decided to take on Shakespeare, interpreting the leading characters in a more modern light than his predecessors.

Kean's problem was that he brought the crazy in a very big way. What few records exist about him before he became famous indicate that his father was mentally ill and that the man committed suicide at the age of 22. Kean himself had lifelong issues with drugs and alcohol.

While privately and publicly battling his demons, Kean went on to star in some of the most enduring classics by writers such as Shakespeare, Marlowe and Philip Massinger. In each performance, he played his role in twisted and unusual ways that became his trademark. He was a true master over his on-stage emotions and was known for his depth of expression and his ability to convey emotions without having to speak.

However successful he may have been, Kean landed himself on hard times that would rival the Downey's or the Lohans of this age. He was sued by a man who charged Kean with sleeping with his wife, he engaged in very public fights with rivals and was more often drunk than sober.

Kean eventually collapsed on stage, during a production of Othello where his son also had a role, and died eleven days later. Although his name is rarely mentioned when it comes to the greats of the acting world, Kean was one of the first who used his talents to change people's perception of certain classical characters.

Charles Guiteau even looks crazy!

Charles Guiteau even looks crazy!

Charles Guiteau

As far as presidential assassins go, Guiteau might have been the craziest of the bunch. Known as the guy who shot President James A. Garfield (who would later die of blood poisoning related to his injury), Guiteau didn't do it because he didn't like the President's policies, he did it because Garfield wouldn't give him a job.

Failure seemed to follow Guiteau wherever he went. He tried to enter New York University, but couldn't get through admissions because of his poor academic performance. He moved to a utopian society in New York, but they apparently didn't like the guy so they eventually encouraged him to leave. He bgan a newspaper that failed and ended up becoming a lawyer in Chicago because getting the official licensing was pretty easy back then. He only tried one case in court.

He had written a speech for Ulysses S Grant but, when Garfield won the election, Guiteau changed the name on the title and then managed to convince himself that he was responsible for Garfield's election. He also decided that he deserved a little bit of compensation for the deed, so he attempted to gain an ambassadorship to Paris.

After his request was denied multiple times, Guiteau bought a gun, spent about a month learning how to use it, then proceeded to shoot President Garfield in the back. The President died less than two weeks later and Guiteau was charged with murder, convicted and sentenced to death.

Throughout his trial, Guiteau exhibited signs of what some believe was schizophrenia. Indeed, his defense lawyers attempted to spare him from the death penalty by reason of insanity, but Guiteau was having none of it.

On the day of his execution, Charles Guiteau actually danced across the courtyard to the gallows.

Video of a Musician Performing a Song About Charles Guiteau

© 2013 Georgie Lowery


Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on August 25, 2020:

Intriguing folk. These were quite interesting people. Thanks for sharing with us.

Seckin Esen from Ankara, Turkey on April 13, 2014:

Very interesting hub with lots of information. Thank you for the list. Voted up.

Hubert Williams on May 12, 2013:

Very interesting article about these mostly unknowns. Guiteau even failed at the assassination since the president actually died from blood poisoning. Even if the blood poison was a result of the wound. One item in this otherwise excellent article that caught my eye was that the global population reached only one billion in 1804, not 4 billion. I am guessing a typo.

Georgie Lowery (author) from North Florida on April 28, 2013:

Kieran Gracie:

The 19th century had so many important people that it's easy for some of them to have gotten overshadowed. They all deserve to be remembered, even the rotten ones... LOL.


It was kind of hard to pick just a few. This could easily have been a 5000 word Hub, maybe I'll do a part two at some point!

Thank you for your comments! :)

Kate P from The North Woods, USA on April 28, 2013:

What an interesting mix of people! I hadn't heard of a few of them actually, and found this article very informative. Voted up and interesting.

Kieran Gracie on April 06, 2013:

Thank you for your list of lesser-known characters from the 19th century. Although overshadowed now by others, you have managed to bring them back up the ladder of importance - well done! Voted up and interesting, as this Hub richly deserves.

Georgie Lowery (author) from North Florida on April 06, 2013:


After the 1500's, my favorite century is the 1800's. I think what strikes me the most about it and is a good gauge of how much actually changed during those 100 years, is that we started the century off with oil paintings and ended it with photographs. There were a lot of amazing inventions and even more amazing people in those ten decades!

Thank you for commenting! :)

Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on April 06, 2013:

Thanks for a wild ride through the 19th century. I thought the world was going crazy. Now, I see I was wrong: It's always been crazy!

I'm not sure why that is cheering me up today, but it is.

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