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History's Trainwrecks

Stacey Roberts

This is the stuff they never taught us in history class.


Ever wonder why famous historical figures like Aaron Burr, George McClellan, Douglas MacArthur, Cato the Younger, Julius Caesar, and many others fell from the great heights to which they had ascended to end up in death or disgrace?


History's Trainwrecks explores the self-destructive tendencies of historical figures who lose everything even when the prize of a lifetime is in reach, often costing them a treasured place in history.


History is full of trainwrecks, and we can’t look away.


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042 - Ben Franklin In The Cockpit, Part I
Jun 24 2022
042 - Ben Franklin In The Cockpit, Part I
England’s American colonists were a serious problem for the British Empire by 1774. Mad old King George was pretty…well…you know. Great Britain was the world’s foremost military power, which meant it had bills to pay. The American colonies were prosperous, what with all their self-starting go-getterism, so Parliament and the king decided they should bear some of the financial burden of being subjects of the world’s foremost military power.England did, after all, kick the French out of Canada and the land east of the Mississippi, which opened all that territory for development by the colonists.Here’s your bill, said the King.The resulting taxes got the colonists all in an uproar. Things were set on fire and Boston Harbor was turned into the world's biggest tea kettle. Ben Franklin, the most famous American in the world, was in London, and he became a handy target for all the pent-up frustration the British Empire had with its uppity provincials. He was summoned to appear before the King's Privy Council in 1774 to take a beating in a room Henry VIII had once used for cockfights. The British Solicitor General spent an hour tearing Franklin to shreds. Ben Franklin stood in silence the entire time. It is said that he went into the Cockpit an Englishman and came out an American. Subscribe to History's TrainwrecksSupport this show See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information. Help keep trainwrecks on the tracks. Become a supporter at
042 - Ben Franklin In The Cockpit, Part I
Jun 24 2022
042 - Ben Franklin In The Cockpit, Part I
England’s American colonists were a serious problem for the British Empire by 1774. Mad old King George was pretty…well…you know. Great Britain was the world’s foremost military power, which meant it had bills to pay. The American colonies were prosperous, what with all their self-starting go-getterism, so Parliament and the king decided they should bear some of the financial burden of being subjects of the world’s foremost military power.England did, after all, kick the French out of Canada and the land east of the Mississippi, which opened all that territory for development by the colonists.Here’s your bill, said the King.The resulting taxes got the colonists all in an uproar. Things were set on fire and Boston Harbor was turned into the world's biggest tea kettle. Ben Franklin, the most famous American in the world, was in London, and he became a handy target for all the pent-up frustration the British Empire had with its uppity provincials. He was summoned to appear before the King's Privy Council in 1774 to take a beating in a room Henry VIII had once used for cockfights. The British Solicitor General spent an hour tearing Franklin to shreds. Ben Franklin stood in silence the entire time. It is said that he went into the Cockpit an Englishman and came out an American. Subscribe to History's TrainwrecksSupport this show See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information. Help keep trainwrecks on the tracks. Become a supporter at
033 - Stubborn Nags of Ancient Rome, Part IX
Feb 13 2022
033 - Stubborn Nags of Ancient Rome, Part IX
The dancing girls would take their clothes off, but not while Cato the Younger was in the audience. It was 55 BC, and the Floral Games were in full…um…bloom. The Games were the culmination of a week-long festival celebrating fertility, with the usual accompanying shenanigans: outrageous dress, lots of drinking, prostitutes being treated like queens, and a troupe of dancing girls in an amphitheatre reminding the spectators of the rites of spring. A message came down to Cato where he was seated in the crowd. The spectators wanted “to encourage the girls to take off their clothes, but are embarrassed to do so with Cato watching.”Cato got up from his seat without a word and went for the exit. A chronicler reports that “As he was leaving, the crowd loudly applauded him and then went back to their usual theatrical pleasures.”The spectators catcalled, the dancers disrobed, “and the Floral Games went on.”This scene captures the feeling Rome had for the man who was their moral compass. They didn’t want him to see them at their low points, but instead of rising to the high ground that Cato had staked out for himself, they just wanted him to be somewhere else. They were “eager to applaud him for leaving, unwilling to follow him out.”If we can equate the dismantling of the Republic with some dancing girls stripping to the buff, the same scenario plays out: Rome would embrace empire, shamefully, as long as Cato wasn’t watching them as they did it, reminding them the entire time that they could have done better.  Subscribe to History's TrainwrecksSupport this show See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information. Help keep trainwrecks on the tracks. Become a supporter at
032 - Stubborn Nags of Ancient Rome, Part VIII
Feb 5 2022
032 - Stubborn Nags of Ancient Rome, Part VIII
Cato the Younger’s exile from Rome began with a cross-dressing aristocrat who had a crush on Julius Caesar’s wife. In 62 BC, Publius Clodius figured that the best way to get close to Pompeia—Mrs. Caesar—was to dress as a female lute player and worm his way into the Good Goddess ceremony. This religious rite was only attended by women and was being hosted by Caesar’s wife. Clodius was found out when he spoke to a maid in a deep baritone voice and was eventually caught hiding under a bed. Caesar divorced his wife, asserting that “Caesar’s wife must be above reproach.”Which she was. Clodius was hauled into court on charges of “sacrilege and sexual immorality.” Cicero got involved in the case because his wife believed he was having an affair with Clodius’s sister. In order to defend himself, Cicero had to testify that he had seen Clodius in Rome on the day of his offense, which destroyed the alibi Clodius had offered—that he was out of town on the day of his cross-dressing. Clodius was acquitted, thanks to bribes paid to the jurors by Rome’s rich crime lord Crassus. But his reputation, and with it his political future, was ruined. Instead of the many others Clodius could have blamed for the debacle—well, really just himself—he set the whole thing at Cicero’s feet, despite the fact that Cicero’s involvement in the whole sordid mess was insignificant. I sure hope Clodius doesn’t find his way to any kind of political power any time soon.  Subscribe to History's TrainwrecksSupport this show See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information. Help keep trainwrecks on the tracks. Become a supporter at
026 - Teddy Roosevelt's Third Term, Part X
Dec 26 2021
026 - Teddy Roosevelt's Third Term, Part X
In 1916, the world was on fire, and Theodore Roosevelt was down in the dumps. The country, with either Woodrow Wilson or Charles Evans Hughes destined for the White House, was “in the hands of two aloof and cagey deliberators. Wilson and Hughes were men who waited for events to happen and then reacted.” Teddy saw things coming, and got ready. But as happened in 1912, Teddy allowed his candidacy, and his potential third term, to be derailed in the “smoke-filled room” of the nominating convention. He let party insiders, many with presidential ambitions of their own, talk him out of running, and he surely didn’t help himself by doing the same thing he accused Wilson of doing in Mexico: taking one step forward and two steps back. He forgot that his true power came from the American people. In time of war, the best argument to get or retain the presidency was experience in office—it was an argument Teddy’s “fifth cousin by blood and nephew by marriage” would use decades later to win four terms in the White House. In 1916, only two men had the kind of experience the country knew it needed—Wilson and Roosevelt. But Teddy allowed his emotions to get in the way, and his political shrewdness and canny assessment of the mood of the people was lost in a wave of self-pity. 1904 Theodore Roosevelt went after what he knew to be best for the nation. 1916 Teddy waited to be asked, not by the people, but by cynical party insiders. And he let his temper get the best of him. As President Wilson had once said about Teddy, “The way to treat an adversary like Roosevelt is to gaze at the stars over his head.”Woodrow Wilson’s chances in 1916 were looking pretty good. Subscribe to History's TrainwrecksSupport this show See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information. Help keep trainwrecks on the tracks. Become a supporter at
025 - Stubborn Nags of Ancient Rome, Part IV
Dec 11 2021
025 - Stubborn Nags of Ancient Rome, Part IV
Rome’s greatest orator pointed his finger at Cato the Younger and said, “Do you not see a storm coming?”Marcus Tullius Cicero was consul for the year 63 BC, and thanks to the aforementioned storm, was a virtual dictator. But he had a number of problems, and he was going to use Cato the Younger to try and solve them.Here’s the thing: it wasn’t just one storm.Cato ran for his first office in 67 BC—military tribune. This would put him in command of a legion of about four thousand troops and pave his way to a Senate seat when his year was up.He campaigned for his first office at a time when the average Roman-on-the-street was feeling pretty nervous about the state of the Republic. Rome’s success had come, in part, from its ability to learn and adapt, to see what worked and make it their own. Military formations and tactics, education, politics, engineering, territorial conquest and management—the Romans were great learners. The problem was that the lessons currently being taught were the ones that would ultimately end the Republic.He won his election and went to take command. Like his famous great-grandpa, he shared his men's hardships and they loved him for it. When the year was up, he went back to Rome and took over the Treasury, calling in old debts and paying off others. But his moral handling of the public trust didn't survive past his term in office. Back in the throes of corruption, a new populist arose - Catiline - who proposed cancelling all debts and redistributing land to the poor. The elite of Rome freaked out, and backed another "man of the people" candidate to beat him - Cicero, Rome's greatest orator. But Catiline didn't give up, and planned to take the city by force.Cicero and Cato were going to have to team up to stop him.  Subscribe to History's TrainwrecksSupport this show See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information. Help keep trainwrecks on the tracks. Become a supporter at