This week on Horrible History Emily heads to Galveston, Texas to tell us the story of the 1900 Hurricane – one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. Then, Rachel brings home a big one – the story of Catherine the Great.
Story 1 – 1900 Hurricane of Galveston
Today Story 1 is about the Galveston Hurricane in 1900. This natural disaster was also known as the Great Galveston hurricane and the Galveston Flood, and known regionally as the Great Storm of 1900 or the 1900 Storm, was the deadliest natural disaster in United States history and the fifth-deadliest Atlantic hurricane. Oh – and thank you to our listener, Ashley, for the recommendation!
A Galveston Daily News reporter in 1900 said the story of the Sept. 8, 1900, hurricane could never truly be written. Another man said nothing could ever make him forget the sounds of that night. And for many, no words would ever truly explain what it was like to experience the deadly hurricane that reshaped the Gulf Coast forever and took thousands of lives.
Before we talk about the storm itself, let’s talk about Galveston in 1900 – because that’s a loooong time ago and things looked a little different back then. In the years before the great storm, Galveston had grown from a small settlement on the Texas coast into one of the wealthiest cities in the country. Why? Because there’s a natural, deep water channel in Galveston which made it a super important seaport in Texas. Trains carried cargo to and from the port, and ships traveled to it from overseas. In fact, more than 70 percent of the country’s cotton crop at the time passed through the port of Galveston, and some 1,000 ships ported there each year.
In addition to all of the importing and exporting… Galveston was also a spot that the wealthy flocked to because they loved bathing in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, the shallow water made it easy for bathers to wade several yards offshore safely and enjoy what was considered to be a therapeutic bathing in the Gulf. Plus, thanks to its wealth and prosperity, Galveston was home to numerous firsts for the state – they were the first to get electricity and telephones.
But some of those things that made the city attractive to residents and guests ALSO left it vulnerable to disaster. They didn’t have any kind of seawall – although one had been suggested – so there was nothing to protect the city from high tides or storms. But the city hadn’t really ever experienced a bad hurricane before 1900, so people said Naaaahhh, we don’t want to ruin the view!
So, when September 1900 rolled around, the city was not ready.
On top of being ill prepared physically, forecasting was super primitive in those days — they pretty much relied on spotty reports from ships. The Weather Bureau began receiving warnings that a tropical disturbance had moved northward over Cuba on Sept. 4 and they believed it was heading towards Florida. Unfortunately, that was all the only report forecasters received because the National Weather Bureau director blocked telegraph messages from Cuban meteorologists. The director said it was because of the ongoing tensions of the Spanish-American War.
Citizens of Galveston could see that a storm was brewing offshore, but had no idea that it was a monster.
It was around dawn on September 8, 1900 that the waters started to rise… the gulf was creeping slowly over the low ends of the island. But people – still in this false sense of security – went about their days. Kids even played around in the flood waters!
Meteorologists from that time watched from on top of a building and saw storm swells rise, the barometer drop and the winds pick up. According to one meteorologist’s memoir, he knew from that first moment at dawn that there was danger lurking. Like Paul Revere he rode up and down the beach on his horse urging visitors to go home and get to higher ground… “the hurricane is coming, the hurricane is coming!”
But, back in 1900, the highest house in the city was at an elevation between 8 and 9 feet. So, even if people would have gotten to higher ground, it wouldn’t have helped much.
One woman gave a written account of the event and said: “I was busy about my domestic affairs Saturday rearranging my house…when I heard a man who ran up the street exclaim, “My God! The waters of the bay and gulf have met on Fifteenth Street.” I went on the gallery to realize that what he said was only too true. But I felt no uneasiness and remarked to my niece, “We have nothing to fear, the water has never been over our place,” and I just felt that it could not come. In a few minutes we heard the lapping of the salt water against the side-walk, and then it slowly crept into the yard.”
Throughout the day, this Paul Revere type sent telegraph warnings to the Weather Service’s central office in Washington, D.C. But by midafternoon, phone lines went down, and he could no longer relay messages.
She continued: “In an incredibly short time the water surged over the gallery driven by a furiously blowing wind. Trees began to fall, slate shingles, planks and debris of every imaginable kind were being hurled through the air. We brought our cow on the gallery to save her life but soon had to take her in the dining room where she spent the night. Ten very large trees were soon uprooted and fell crashing, banging, and scraping against our house. We opened all downstairs and let the water flow through. Soon it stood three feet in all the rooms. Blinds were torn off windows, frames, sash and all blown in, and the rain water stood an inch and a half on upstairs floors. Then slowly dripped through taking paper and plastering from ceilings in rooms below.”
When the storm’s fury was at its greatest, it is estimated that the wind exceeded 130 and 140 miles per hour. The storm rolled over the island going from gulf all the way to the bay. The storm reached 15 1/2 -feet. There were eyewitness reports that the water rose about 4 feet in just four seconds. Houses collapsed, and as the surge continued, a wall of debris described as at least two-stories high pushed across the island. This wall destroyed everything in its path, and kept building force as it moved across the island.
People were battling for their lives – and the worst of the winds lasted from 8 p.m. until midnight. And then, the electricity that had been such a blessing to the island was gone in a flash. Then, literal flashes of lightning were the only lights to guide people through the night as they tried desperately to find their loved ones and dig through the carnage.
What they found at first light was that few buildings escaped without damage, and no one escaped loss of property or family. Houses were bulldozed flat for up to 15 blocks from the beach.
Pictures taken after the storm show empty streets. No people, animals, trees or personal belongings. Only piles of debris that buried families beneath the remains of their homes. Bodies occasionally hang outside the debris piles. But, for the most part, an eerie emptiness paints a picture few words could describe. For all intents and purposes, the island was completely destroyed that night.
And the next day the stench started to hit. Decaying bodies and fish and other animals rotting in the streets. That stench came from the likely 6,000 people who died that night in Galveston… Oh, side note, NPR reported six to twelve thousand… but, most places said six. And, since there were about 38,000 people in Galveston back then, that means 16.5% of the city died that day. In one fell swoop.
There are some horrific tales of how people died. There are stories of women with long hair who had been caught in the trees with their hair and cut to pieces with slates that had been flying.
The single most heart-wrenching tragedy happened to St. Mary’s orphanage. Ten Catholic nuns from the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and 90 children died when fearsome waves destroyed two wooden dormitories, that were built close to the beach in the belief that ocean breezes would reduce the danger of yellow fever. The sisters tethered the orphans together with clothesline. That’s how they were found the next day, drowned. Only three boys escaped.
The more fortunate did what they could to try to aid the people who had lost everything. A lot of people had to sleep on the streets and many people weren’t even fully clothed. Unfortunately some of the worse citizens were pilfering dead bodies and some others were trying to fight back by shooting the people who were doing the pilfering. Some rumors suggested that four men were shot for robbing the dead, but that is not confirmed.
Authorities declared martial law and began to force men — most of whom were black — at bayonet point to collect the dead, pile them on barges, and dump them in the Gulf for burial. But the cadavers washed back onshore. Finally, they had to be burned in funeral pyres.
And even with all that in mind… one of the most intriguing parts of this story is the optimism of the survivors. For the most part, residents chose to remain in Galveston and rebuild the city they so loved.
Almost immediately after the storm, a committee of residents was convened to plan for the future. Committee members developed the plan to clean up the debris, bury the dead and rebuild the city. These city leaders set out not only to rebuild but to make a better city.
To prevent future floods, city leaders devised a plan not only to build a seawall along the beachfront, but also to raise the grade of the entire city. They decided that every part of the city should be raised to a level that would be less likely to flood and they raised it about 16 feet at the seawall and then gradually slope toward the bay. The slope dropped one foot in elevation for every 1,500 feet from the beach.
More than 2,100 buildings were raised on jacks. The elevation of the land beneath them was raised by pumping in sand from the bay.
Catwalks were built connecting houses and buildings, and canals were dug through town to allow the dredge barges to bring in the sand.
In 1911, area businessmen raised money to build the Hotel Galvez as a symbol of the prosperity that had returned to Galveston since the storm a decade before.
The city was determined not only to survive, but to grow. That attitude is seen in longtime residents whose families survived the storm. Despite economic recessions and depressions, declines in the shipping industry and changes in the overall economy of the island, there remains a sense of optimism of what Galveston could become. If the city could survive the storm, it could survive anything, or so it is said.
Indeed, the city survived, rebuilt and withstood hurricane after hurricane since that night. No storm since could compare to the intensity of the Storm of Sept. 8, 1900, in which 6,000 died and 30,000 survived to tell the story and rebuild the city.
Story 2 – Catherine the Great
Today it’s time for my favorite kind of story – one about a baaaadddd bitch. Sophia Friederike Auguste was born in Prussia in 1729. But you might know her better as Catherine II AKA Catherine the Great, so that’s what I’ll be calling her from now on.
Catherine was a minor German Princess, born to Johanna Elisabeth of Holstien-Gottorp and Christian August. At the time they were married, Johanna was 15 and Christian was 37. Needless to say, it was not a love-connection. It seems like he was kind of straight-and-narrow and religious, while she was vivacious, as well as known as shallow and quick-tempered.
Johanna had been born in Lubeck, Germany – call back to our last episode! – but she was one of 12 children, so her father passed her along to be raised by her godmother, the duchess of Brunswick. Here in northern Germany, it was all dancing and fun. She and Christian moved to Stettin, Germany, which was a military community, as Christian was a retired officer. I picture everything as very gray and not awesome. So Johanna settled in to a life of motherhood – she could have a son, and then he would be an heir to marry off and their lives would be extravagant once again.
Unfortunately for Johanna, her first-born was a daughter – (Sophie, but again, Catherine). Johanna resented Catherine – partially because she was only 16 when her daughter was born, and partially because having a daughter meant staying stuck in a life she hated. So, she ignored Catherine. She didn’t cuddle her, nurse her, or show her any affection, which sounds a lot like postpartum depression to me. She also almost died during childbirth, leading her to be bedridden for 19 weeks. But 18-months later, when she gave birth to a little boy, Wilhelm Christian, she couldn’t have been more maternal.
Catherine shut down emotionally toward her mother and brother, however she was a bright, precocious little girl who excelled at her studies – except religion, because she asked a lot of logical questions, which pissed off her teacher. She bonded with her governess, Babet, who was nurturing to Catherine and taught her to speak French and oversaw her education.
As a 10-year-old princess, Catherine was trained in royal etiquette to prepare her for her one and only job: Being someone’s wife. Oh, and her family would tell her at age 10 that she was ugly, so she’d better be intelligent and work on that personality.
In 1739, Catherine’s uncle Adolphus Frederick was given stewardship over an odd little boy, Charles Peter Ulrich. Peter was 11 at the time and had been recently orphaned. He was also the only living grandson of Peter the Great, and first in line to be on the Swedish throne. Wedding bells were dinging in everyone’s mind for these tweens. Oh and PS, they were second cousins.
In 1742, Peter moved to St. Petersburg to live with his Auntie Elizabeth, who was the empress at the time. He was declared heir to the Russian throne, thereby renouncing his claim to be the King of Sweden.
Johanna had been sucking up to Elizabeth for quite some time, and in 1744 it paid off. Elizabeth invited Johanna and Catherine to visit Russia so that she and Peter could be married. They sent a letter with travel money, which is the mother-fucking dream. Catherine was about to get away from her mother and even become the queen of Russa.
It was a long journey from Germany to Russia, as you might imagine. And there were some politics in there, in which King Frederick of Prussia was all, “hmmm I wonder if we can use this teen as a pawn to get a foothold in Russia?” and he made her mother less of a travel companion and more of a political liaison, which of course thrilled Johanna and annoyed Catherine.
The pair arrived at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on February 3, 1744 and were given an imperial welcome. They then traveled with Peter to Moscow to celebrate Peter’s 16th birthday with Elizabeth.
A quick note for context – Elizabeth was pretty cunning. She overthrew Ivan VII to become empress and he was a literal baby – and then she had him imprisoned for 22 years. Because she knew she needed an heir, but she was too old to produce one, hence her calling dibs on weird little Peter and trying to marry him off and make babies to continue her chosen bloodline. So, she was all, “suck on that, baby!”
And let’s just throw out there that Peter wasn’t awesome either. Much like Catherine, Peter was raised by people other than his parents – in his case, it was military officers and tutors. And one of his tutors, Otto Brümmer, used to beat the living shit out of him, and also abused him mentally and emotionally. This abuse mixed with his sickly demeanor and the loss of both his parents turned Peter cruel. He found joy in physically abusing servants. He also enjoyed torturing animals. When he got to St. Petersburg in 1742 with Elizabeth proclaiming that she would adopt him, as he was her favorite sister’s only child, it was the first time Peter and Elizabeth had met in person.
Peter was sickly, had no friends, and wasn’t a huge fan of anything Russian, including the language, since he had been raised in Germany. Elizabeth had chosen Catherine as a match for Peter because she thought having someone who was also from Germany might help Peter feel more at home. Catherine and Peter were not into each other romantically at all. Peter immediately told Catherine that he had the hots for someone else but Auntie said “no,” and Catherine, much more intelligent and politically savvy then Peter, realized that if she wanted to make it in Russia, she needed to please Elizabeth, not Peter.
Catherine threw herself into learning Russian and working to convert from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy, which was apparently a huge deal. In March, she got pneumonia and almost died because Johanna tried to cover it up, for fear that rumors would spread about Catherine being too sickly to be an empress. Johanna then freaked out because doctors wanted to bleed Catherine to get the sickness out, as you do in the 18th century, and it was actually Elizabeth who stayed by Catherine’s side for the next month or so and nursed her back to health.
This near-death experience actually just made Russian people love her more – you see, Catherine got so sick because she had been staying up late, sneaking around the freezing castle by candlelight to further her reading and knowledge of all things Russian. She also asked for an Orthodox priest instead of a Lutheran pastor when she was knocking on death’s door. She was their fucking Princess Diana.
Catherine recovered fully, and by her 15th birthday in April she was back to schmoozing in the Russian court. She denounced Lutheranism and converted to Russian orthodox in June, the day before she and Peter were to be married, officially being baptized as Catherine.
But Catherine and Peter couldn’t get married yet. There were a variety of political reasons, but also, Peter was 16 going on 14 and there were no sign of his balls dropping any time soon. These two kids couldn’t make an heir! And then, when they were traveling for a religious pilgrimage, Peter got smallpox. He and Catherine were separated for about 8 months. When they were finally reunited, this skinny, odd-looking boy had become “hideous” to Catherine, with his head having been shaved and permanent pock marks jading his face.
Side note – after reading about Catherine’s reaction to Peter I immediately googled pictures of Peter III, and there aren’t any pock-marks in the paintings of him. HOWEVER, there are many pictures of him holding military weapons and looking like he is doing it for Ru Paul’s Drag Race. I don’t think he was into drag, but he definitely isn’t burley and looks ridiculous holding weapons and I will post a picture of him where the only word that came to my mind was “heyyyyyy.”
Anywho, Catherine didn’t care about his face, she just wanted to marry the emperor, so she wasn’t about to call off their engagement. But Peter was super self-conscious about his new face and felt that Catherine was getting hotter while he was turning into Quasimodo, so he started to resent her. By 1745, Peter was a recluse in his room, making his servants dress up in military uniforms so he could stage them like miniatures.
Finally, on August 21 1745, Catherine and Peter were married in an extravagant-ass party. At the end of the night, Auntie Elizabeth was all, “okay you crazy kids, go make me an heir,” and literally escorted them up to their bridal chamber. Catherine ended up changing into a nightie from France and waiting in bed for hours before Peter drunkenly stumbled in and passed out. Pretty anticlimactic.
Catherine would lie next to Peter waiting to be impregnated by her husband for NINE YEARS. He told Catherine 2 weeks after their wedding that he was in love with another Catherine – one of her ladies in waiting. Catherine quickly realizes that her husband can never love her, meaning she will never be vulnerable enough to love him (trauma response, anyone). Her mother FINALLY goes back to Germany, and then it’s just Catherine, Peter, and Elizabeth.
After Johanna’s departure from Russia, Elizabeth’s maternal instinct for Catherine turned to jealousy. She was staying up late, eating and drinking a ton, and partying, which all sounds fine, but dude I need my sleep. Also, at some point she drunkenly got some shit tangled up in her hair and had to have her head shaved – and made all her ladies-in-waiting do the same. At this point, around age 17/18, Catherine was revered as traditionally beautiful, which only pissed off Elizabeth more.
There was also the issue of the lack of sexual tension between Catherine and Peter. This was an almost 20-year-old man who enjoyed putting on puppet shows and making Catherine listen to him play the violin. Rumors started swirling about a flirtatious friendship that Catherine had with one of Peter’s entourage, Andrei Chernyshev. This seemed to be fairly innocent on her part, although it seems Andrei had fallen for her. Andrei ended up being put under house-arrest (though Catherine and Peter were told he was banished), and Elizabeth decided Catherine needed to be watched more closely. Enter: Maria Semenovna Choglokova.
Essentially, Elizabeth figured it was Catherine’s fault that Peter wasn’t charmed by her and they weren’t having any babies. Maria was a devoted wife who popped out babies pretty much annually. Surely she could teach Catherine to be fertile, virtuous, and submissive. Maria acted as a buffer between Catherine and Elizabeth, who was sick of Catherine’s lack of pregnancy. From Catherine’s point of view, Maria told Catherine after every statement, “that wouldn’t please the empress.” It sounds really annoying, and Maria would go on to watch Catherine closely for the next 7 years, essentially making her a prisoner within the palace.
Catherine’s father Christian died in 1747 – Catherine mourned him severely, but don’t worry, Maria came in with words of comfort, telling Catherine she couldn’t mourn so much because her father wasn’t even a king. Elizabeth continued to mess with Catherine and Peter, rearranging their court and dismissing any people they liked, hoping that by isolating these crazy kids together they would figure they’d better fuck and produce an heir.
This was a good idea in theory, but Peter was self-absorbed, playing the violin and dismissing anything that Catherine found important. They slept in the same bed but Peter would rather play with his miniature soldiers than any part of Catherine. Literally, he would act out war scenes on top of their marital bed until like 2am while Catherine was trying to sleep. Not sexy. Peter would flirt with ladies-in-waiting and encourage Catherine to flirt with other men. He was mocking her, attempting to disempower her, probably because, in my opinion, she had much more of a commanding presence than he did, even at age 17.
Peter continued to avoid Catherine like the plague, but by the time she was 21 she had grown into an objectively beautiful woman, and she had many admirers. Multiple men asked to have private encounters with her, but Catherine seemed so afraid of Elizabeth and the consequences of a potential affair that she abstained.
Until she met Sergei Saltykov. This guy was tall, dark, handsome, and married to one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting… but he was bored of her. He noticed that Catherine was ignored by Peter and thought he had the perfect solution: This dick!
He pursued her intensely, and Catherine pretended not to like him for a while. But she would later state in her memoirs: “I held out all of the spring and part of the summer.” They started boning in late 1752, which Peter knew about and didn’t seem to care about at all.
But Saltykov started to worry, because he knew Catherine was a virgin. If she got pregnant with his baby, everyone would know it wasn’t Peter’s. So, he and some bros got Peter drunk and started talking about how great sex was. When Peter said he didn’t know much about that, they’re all, “ooooh bro you gotta try it. Go find that wife of yours and put a baby in her belly!” First of all, the empress set him up with a widow so he could practice getting over that stumbling block of virginity. Oh and also, when he was drunk and in his early 20s, he was circumcised.
But pretty much everyone knew that Peter and Catherine would have been literal kissing cousins, but more awkward. So Saltykov kept sneaking into Catherine’s room and eventually knocked her up – although by this point, he was bored of her. This guy was an OG fuckboi. Catherine suffered a miscarriage in December of 1952. Saltykov stayed around, somewhat indifferent but still asking Catherine if she could help advance his career, and still sexing her up on the regular.
In May of 1753, Catherine got pregnant again, and again, she miscarried. Peter stayed in his room, getting drunk and playing with his toys. In February of 1754, Catherine got pregnant for a 3rd time. She finally gave birth to a son in September, named Paul. Elizabeth immediately swooped in and grabbed baby Paul – seriously, Catherine didn’t even get to hold her son for a week. And Elizabeth was not a mother – she was a smother – literally. They bundled the crap out of this baby, keeping him so warm that he would sweat, his little face super red. Catherine suspected that Paul’s difficulty breathing later in childhood came from this over-mothering. Elizabeth also sent Saltykov on a mission to announce Paul’s birth in Sweden, meaning Catherine was separated from the two people who brought her any sense of comfort. Catherine was left in her room, alone.
This was a turning point for Catherine. She had worked to fit in with Peter and Elizabeth, but at this point, she starts to give zero fucks. She treated Peter with indifference, except that she started to advise him politically.
In 1755, Catherine took on another lover – Polish nobleman Stanislaus Poniatowski. Poniatowski was the anti-Saltykov and the cure for the toxic masculinity that surrounded Catherine. He was gentle and kind, and he respected her – what a concept! In 1757, Catherine got pregnant again and spoilers – it wasn’t Peter’s. He was quoted saying, “God knows where my wife gets her pregnancies. I have no idea whether this child is mine and whether I ought to take responsibility for it.” But he didn’t outright deny ever sleeping with her, so Catherine’s daughter, Anna, born in December of 1757, is considered to be Peter’s on the record. And guess what? Elizabeth snatched that baby too. Tragically, Anna died in 1759 when she was only 15 months old, and Catherine was so grief-stricken she would never mention her daughter’s name again.
At this point, Peter was getting even douchier. He had a new mistress-of-the-moment, Elizaveta Romanovna Vorontsova, whom he apparently loved, so he started publicly being a dick to Catherine. And so did Elizaveta, leading all of the other ladies in waiting to act cruelly to Catherine too. As if she wasn’t isolated enough. Catherine pleaded with Elizabeth to let her return to Prussia. Presumably, at this point she was sick of all this Russian noble bullshit and she wanted to be with Poniatowski and make more babies.
Elizabeth was all, we can’t have that. She tried to coax Catherine into staying, thereby making Peter feel more jealous and leading him to act even weirder. For example, he would hold dinner parties for himself and Elizaveta with Catherine and Poniatowski. Then he and his mistress would leave and he’d be all “you kids have fun!” Catherine was annoyed, not because of any sort of affection for Peter, but because of the political fallout that could happen by being so brazen instead of having your affairs on the down-low like everyone else. Elizabeth recognized that Peter was wrecking his image and decided the only cure was sending Poniatowski back to Poland, again, breaking Catherine’s heart. Poniatowski did go back to Poland and ultimately became king, but this is Catherine’s story, not his.
Let’s jump forward to 1761. Elizabeth’s health is failing and Catherine is worried about her political future – either Peter becomes emperor and Catherine is ousted out of power by their lack of connection and his love of mistresses and toy soldiers, or Paul becomes emperor and Catherine essentially becomes Cersei from Game of Thrones. Neither was a great option to her.
Catherine’s lover at this time was Gregory Orlov. He was an artillery officer in St. Petersburg, with, and this is a direct quote, “the head of an angel and the body of an athlete.” Hot damn. He was five years her junior and way below her in terms of status, but that didn’t seem to matter to Catherine. And, her relationship with Orlov seemed to endear her to the guards, giving her more allies than she had had in years.
Oh and PS, she was apparently super fertile, because Catherine got pregnant again. Fearful that her baby would be taken away again, and simultaneously afraid that everyone would for sure know that this baby wasn’t Peter’s, Catherine isolated herself and tried to hide her pregnancy. Ironically at this point, Elizabeth is trying to hide her failing health as well, but it’s not a well-kept secret. Elizabeth died on Christmas in 1761.
And just like that, Peter III became emperor of Russia. Nobody liked this, least of all Catherine, who essentially would remember him as drunk and incompetent. There is a lot political stuff I’m skipping over here, just because this story is already crazy long, but essentially, six months after Peter comes into power, Catherine and Orlov start a coup. They get 14,000 soldiers to come to the Winter Palace, overthrow Peter, and are like, “hey bro we need you to sign these abdication papers so Catherine can be the real empress.” Then Peter went to jail and died the following month under mysterious circumstances. Orlov had a bunch of brothers who were also military badasses, so there is a solid chance it was one of them. Also, in April of 1762, Catherine gave birth to a son: Alexei Grigorievich Bobrinsky.
On July 9. 1762, Catherine II, Empress of Russia, is officially in power. Of course, not everyone is stoked about this, so Catherine tries to right all of Peter’s political wrongs. She pulled troops out of Denmark, and she returned land to the church. She modeled herself after Peter the Great, publicly noting this to gain support from the Russian people, and she created a statue in his form, known as the Bronze Horseman.
Catherine quickly got to work attempting to reform Russia’s policies. She believed herself as an absolute ruler, but wanted more equality otherwise. For example, she pushed for the outlawing of capital punishment and torture and invited Russian delegates from different social classes to get together and discuss the country’s issues. She also established a girls’ boarding school in St. Petersburg and later pushed for free schools to be established throughout Russia. She commissioned a theatre in St. Petersburg for opera and ballet – she loved the arts and enjoyed reading and writing, eventually authoring her own memoirs.
Of course, it wasn’t all easy breezy beautiful for Catherine the Great during her reign. First, in 1763, Catherine publicly supported her former lover Poniatowski as he attempted to become king of Poland. He got the throne, but Polish citizens started to push back, thinking that he would just be a Russian puppet. So, he really worked to strengthen Poland’s independence, which pissed off Catherine. She eventually turned her favor away from him and he ended up being forced to abdicate the throne.
in 1772, it was bye-bye Orlov – mostly because he couldn’t keep it in his pants (allegedly), but they stayed friends. Also, Russia’s economy at this point had been built on the backs of serfs, and Catherine hadn’t figured out how to continue to grow her power without the support of others who kept people enslaved. So, in return for political cooperation of noblemen, Catherine allowed noble people authority over serfs, to include them being punished with hard labor in Siberia – which at the time was generally used only for convicted criminals. Of course, this led to multiple rebellions, the most famous of which was Pugachev’s Rebellion, occurring between 1773 and 1775. Yemelyan Pugachev rallied serfs and promised them their freedom. Unfortunately, these rebels were literally fighting the Russian army, and their rebellion was crushed. Pugachev attempted to flee, but he was beheaded and dismembered in 1775.
And, like any bad bitch, a little political instability didn’t keep Catherine from getting hers. In 1774, she engaged in a relationship with Grigory Potemkin. He was a military leader with one eye, 10 years younger than Catherine, but apparently, he had “elephantine sexual equipment.” She had the hots for him, to the point that allegedly she made a cast of his penis to keep herself company when he was away with the military. History’s first dildo?! They were hot and heavy for a couple of years, after which Potemkin took on an interesting role, vetting some of Catherine’s future lovers to make sure they were smart enough and sensual enough to hang with her.
Catherine was also into expanding Russia’s borders. She took some of Poland, giving some to Prussia and Austria as well. She was in on-again-off-again conflict with the Ottoman Empire, and frequent military conflict with Turkey.
Let’s talk for a hot minute about what happened to Catherine’s first-born, Paul. After she assumed power, Catherine continued to keep Paul at arm’s length. She never really bonded with her son, since Elizabeth essentially snatched him up as soon as he was born (ironically mimicking the insecure attachment between Catherine and her mother, Johanna). In 1783, Paul and his wife lived on an estate, and Paul was given a very small amount of power, though he wasn’t privy to any of Catherine’s big political moves. She stayed so far away from Paul that apparently, he was worried that she was plotting his death. She wasn’t, but she also thought he would be an incompetent ruler like Peter was.
Also interesting, Catherine ended up taking over raising and educating Paul’s sons, just like Elizabeth did to her. Rumor had it that Catherine wanted to bypass Paul as her heir and name his son, Alexander instead, but she died before she was able to do so. And Paul had her will destroyed before it could be made public, which is obviously a totally normal thing to do. And side note, Paul was incredibly unpopular with the Russian people after seceding Catherine and he ended up being assassinated 5 years into his reign, and his son, Alexander I did end up taking power just like Catherine wanted him to.
Also, I didn’t know exactly where to put this in, but I wanted to throw out there that in 1789, Catherine took on a 22-year-old lover, Platon Zubov. She was in her ‘60s. For the record, Potemkin was not a fan of this one, and it turns out that nobody really was aside from Catherine. He was kind of stupid and kind of greedy, but still, get it girl. Anywho Paul had him “voluntarily” exiled after Catherine died.
Catherine continued to rule Russia in absolute power until 1796, when she died on November 17 after suffering a stroke. Some of her enemies tried to use her sexuality to poison her reputation post-mortem, saying that she died from bestiality with a horse. This is some bullshit – it was a stroke; they just didn’t like the idea of an empowered woman who had sex with younger men. Catherine was buried with Peter III at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul.
And although this is the longest story I’ve done on this podcast yet, there is still SO MUCH MORE information on Baaaaadddd Bitttcccchhhhh Catherine the Great, so thank you so much for your suggestion, Marilyn! Keep researching and keep those story recommendations coming!