Born Erik Weisz in 1874, Harry Houdini soon made a name for himself as a master escape artist. By the 1890s, the Hungarian-American performer was already wowing crowds with his ability to escape from terrifying situations.Public Domain
In one of Houdini's most famous tricks — called "Chinese water torture cell" — the magician locked his ankles into a frame and dangled his body headfirst above a tank of water. Then, he was lowered into the tank — as the frame locked to the top of the cell. Houdini then used his signature skills and tricks to miraculously escape unharmed. Ryan Stennes
When Helen Keller was just 19 months old, she became blind and deaf following a mysterious illness. Her parents enlisted experts to help their daughter learn, and before long, Keller blossomed under their tutelage. Pinterest
Keller would go on to publish 12 books throughout her life and give lectures in more than 25 countries. To this day, she remains one of the most famous disability rights advocates in history.Ryan Stennes
An iconic civil rights activist, John Lewis began fighting for the rights of African Americans in the late 1950s. Decades later, he would continue this fight as a congressman — despite the many challenges he faced along the way.Bettmann/Getty Images
Here, he's pictured bloodied after an attack by segregationists in May 1961.
Lewis would face segregationists again on March 7, 1965, when he led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Photos of state troopers attacking Lewis outraged the country. But Lewis knew that his work in the world of activism was far from over.
"I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life," John Lewis said, shortly before his death on July 17, 2020. Ryan Stennes
Born into slavery in New York around 1797, Sojourner Truth liberated herself in 1826 after her master went back on his promise to free her.
"I did not run away, I walked away by daylight," Truth said. Public Domain
She also changed her name from Isabella Baumfree to Sojourner Truth, explaining her decision as such:
"Sojourner because I was to travel up and down the land showing people their sins and being a sign to them, and Truth because I was to declare the truth unto the people."
Truth became an abolitionist and women's activist, perhaps most famous for her speech "Ain't I A Woman?"Ryan Stennes
Perhaps "Wild" Bill Hickok's greatest claim to fame is holding the so-called dead man's hand during a fateful game of poker: a two pair of black aces and black eights. That's what Hickok allegedly held in his hands when he was shot dead in a saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota in 1876. Wikimedia Commons
Hickok died as he lived. A legendary figure of the Wild West, he was known as a notorious gunfighter with a killer eye.
"He would get drunk, gamble, and indulge in the general licentiousness characteristic of the border in the early days," remembered one of his associates. "[But] he was loyal in his friendship, generous to a fault, and invariably espoused the cause of the weaker against the stronger one in a quarrel.”Ryan Stennes
After flying in an airplane for the first time in 1920, Amelia Earhart decided she wanted to fly one herself. She took flying lessons, and soon became the most prominent female pilot of her time. In 1922, she became the first woman to fly above 14,000 feet. Ten years later, she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Wikimedia Commons
Tragically, Earhart's love for the skies would also lead to her mysterious death — while she was attempting to fly around the world. On July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator went missing somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Her disappearance remains unsolved — and one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century. Ryan Stennes
Audrey Hepburn rose to superstardom after the release of the 1953 movie Roman Holiday — where she stunned audiences with her elegant beauty. Soon, Hepburn became the epitome of Hollywood glamour.
"You looked around and suddenly there was this dazzling creature looking like a wild-eyed doe prancing in the forest," remarked Billy Wilder, a director who worked with Hepburn. "Everybody on the set was in love within five minutes."Wikimedia Commons
But Hepburn didn't rest on her laurels. She also became involved with goodwill organizations like UNICEF.
In 1991, two years before her death, Hepburn said of her charitable works: "I just decided to do as much as possible in the time that I'm still up to it."Ryan Stennes
In the rollicking world of the Wild West, where male characters loom large, Calamity Jane stands out. Born Martha Jane Canary, Calamity Jane could shoot, ride, and drink as well as any other Wild West hero. Wikimedia Commons
But how did she earn her Wild West moniker? The truth is hazy. One legend suggests she pulled a man onto her horse, saving his life, after an attack by Native Americans. He dubbed her "Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.”Ryan Stennes
George Washington Carver
Born into slavery in Missouri in 1864, George Washington Carver went on to become a prominent inventor and scientist.
As a boy, he was especially fascinated by plants. Local farmers called him a "plant doctor" because of his ability to assess a crop. Wikimedia Commons
George Washington Carver
But Carver faced challenges when he tried to pursue an education. Although he was accepted at Highland Presbyterian College — and given a full scholarship — he was turned away once school administrators learned that he was Black.
Carver eventually enrolled at Simpson College to study music and art but then transferred to Iowa State Agricultural College to follow his true passions. He later became a professor at the all-black Tuskegee Institute. Determined to help poor farmers in the South, Carver promoted the peanut as a crop — and came up with over 300 different uses for it. Ryan Stennes
"When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person," Harriet Tubman wrote about escaping slavery. "There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven."
Born a slave in 1822 in Maryland, Tubman managed to escape from bondage in 1849. As soon as she was free, Tubman vowed to help other slaves escape as well. Wikimedia Commons
Soon, she became one of the so-called "conductors" of the Underground Railroad — the highly secretive network of abolitionists who helped slaves to freedom.
Tubman returned to the South over a dozen times to free some 70 people. As she proudly told Frederick Douglass,
she "never lost a single passenger" on the Underground Railroad.
Millions of people died under Joseph Stalin's rule in the Soviet Union between 1927 and 1953. But surprisingly, Stalin once pursued a far more peaceful vocation than a dictator. He studied to be a priest until about 1899, when he became enchanted by the teachings of Karl Marx. Wikimedia Commons
Around the turn of the 20th century, Stalin joined the revolutionary movement against the monarchy of Russia. By the time the Soviet Union was established in 1922, Stalin began to rise to power under Vladimir Lenin's leadership. When Lenin died, Stalin took over — and ultimately ruled the Soviet Union for a quarter of a century. Ryan Stennes
As the minister of propaganda for the German Third Reich under Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels was one of the most frightening figures of the Nazi Party — and LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt had the misfortune of finding that out firsthand. Twitter
While Goebbels was polite and even cheerful toward Eisenstaedt at first, everything changed when he found out that the man taking his picture was Jewish. Soon afterward, Eisenstaedt captured this infamous portrait of Goebbels, which is now known as "Eyes of Hate."Ryan Stennes
In 1848, Karl Marx published The Communist Manifesto — and cemented his place in history.
His book — which was written with the help of Friedrich Engels — criticized capitalism and predicted that a looming revolution would put the working class in power. Wikimedia Commons
Although Marx died in 1883, his ideas outlived him. The historic Russian Revolution of 1917 was built on Marxism. And throughout the 20th century, dozens of revolutionaries in countries around the world would cite Marx as an inspiration. Today, Marx is known for being one of the most influential — and controversial — thinkers of all time.Ryan Stennes
King George V
King George V wasn't supposed to rule the United Kingdom. Born in 1865, he expected to support his older brother, Prince Albert Victor, on the throne. But after his brother's death, George found himself in the seat of power. Twitter
King George V
After coming to power in 1910, King George V helped guide Great Britain through World War I. Because of anti-German sentiment at the time, he changed the royal family name from the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the House of Windsor, as it is still known today. Ryan Stennes
Queen Elizabeth II — pictured here with her husband, Prince Philip, during her coronation on June 2, 1953 — is the longest serving English monarch in history. Twitter
She became queen at age 25, after the death of her father, King George VI. Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee is expected to be held in 2022, to mark her 70 years on the throne.Ryan Stennes
The inspiration for Annie Get Your Gun, Annie Oakley was an American sharpshooter who awed audiences in the 19th century. Born Phoebe Ann Moses in August 1860 in Ohio, Oakley became an expert shot at a young age when she killed a squirrel sitting on a fence. "I still consider it one of the best shots I ever made," she later said. Wikimedia Commons
Oakley went on to compete in shooting contests (and met her husband in one, after beating him). She joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1885 and showed off her aim to enthusiastic audiences across the country. Dynamichrome
An iconic Wild West outlaw, Butch Cassidy made a name for himself as a notorious cattle rustler and bank robber in the 19th century. He and his "Wild Bunch" gang succeeded in stealing thousands of dollars from banks across the West. Public Domain
By the turn of the century, however, staying in the United States had become too risky for Cassidy. Fleeing law enforcement, he and his friend Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (the "Sundance Kid") fled to Bolivia, where they were likely killed by the Bolivian Army. Dynamichrome
As well-known for her acting chops as her eight marriages, Elizabeth Taylor wowed movie audiences from the time she was 10 years old. Taylor's beautiful eyes and striking presence made her a favorite of the silver screen throughout the 20th century. Wikimedia Commons
Taylor dazzled in films like Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Cleopatra, and Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. Her fifth (and sixth) husband Richard Burton, with whom Taylor had a highly public relationship, once quipped: "That girl has true glamour. If I retired tomorrow, I'd be forgotten in five years, but she would go on forever."Dynamichrome
Born in 1817 in Maryland, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and went on to become one of the most prominent abolitionists of his day. His 1845 autobiography — which was released about 15 years before the Civil War — made a powerful argument against the institution of slavery. Wikimedia Commons
Douglass's enduring goal was to "abolish slavery in all its forms and aspects, promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the COLORED PEOPLE, and hasten the day of FREEDOM to the Three Millions of our enslaved fellow countrymen."
Before, during, and after the Civil War, he stood out as a passionate advocate for equality — including for women. Dynamichrome
Known for her series of self-portraits — and bold eyebrows — Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist whose work brightened the 20th century. "I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best," Kahlo noted. Wikimedia Commons
Although relatively unknown during her life, Kahlo's work experienced a renaissance of interest in the 1970s.
She became a feminist icon and a noted surrealist.
However, while she was alive, Kahlo often dismissed labels. "Really I do not know whether my paintings are surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself," she once said. Dynamichrome
George Armstrong Custer
A controversial figure in American history, George Armstrong Custer was a former Union general who died infamously at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The battle, which set Custer and his men against Native Americans of the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes, ended in a gruesome defeat for the federal troops. Wikimedia Commons
George Armstrong Custer
Like other defeated soldiers, Custer's body was mutilated after his death. One grisly report even claimed that an arrow had been forced up his penis. Dynamichrome
Ida B. Wells
One of the founders of the N.A.A.C.P., Ida B. Wells was a prominent American writer, journalist, and activist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her fearless 1892 expose about lynching enraged whites in Memphis, who burned down the office of the newspaper that she co-owned. Wikimedia Commons
Ida B. Wells
“Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so," Wells wrote.
Undaunted by threats to her life, Wells continued to travel and speak on the horrors of lynching in the United States. She fought against racism for the rest of her life.Dynamichrome
A Confederate guerrilla turned violent Wild West outlaw, Jesse James terrorized the American Midwest in the 1860s and 1870s. Public Domain
His exploits were parroted throughout the Eastern press, giving his crimes a romantic and glamorous edge. But while he was often portrayed as a Wild West "Robin Hood," many historians say that's a myth — and that there's no evidence he ever shared his loot with ordinary people.Dynamichrome
Perhaps most famous for his iconic line — "What happens to a dream deferred?" — Langston Hughes was a Black American poet whose work made him one of the leading voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in 1901, Hughes wrote novels, short stories, and plays in addition to poems. Library of Congress
Hughes's writing was often political and focused on the Black experience in America. In his 1943 work Jim Crow's Last Stand, Hughes demanded: "I swear to the Lord, I still can't see, why Democracy means, everybody but me."Dynamichrome
Arguably the face of non-violent protest, Mahatma Gandhi rose to prominence during India's struggle for independence from Great Britain. After experiencing discrimination abroad, Gandhi began to develop the idea of "satyagraha," or civil resistance. Wikimedia Commons
His ideas took on life as India chafed under British rule. Gandhi engaged in acts of civil disobedience and lived to see Indian independence in 1947. Sadly, he was assassinated just a year later. Dynamichrome
Famous for his sharp wit and cutting turn of phrase, Mark Twain was a 20th-century novelist best known for penning Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Library of Congress
"It is nothing to be proud of," he once said of his ability to write humor, "but it is my strongest suit."
In addition to writing novels, Twain was also a prolific travel writer whose prose added depth to far-off places that most Americans hadn't seen. Dynamichrome
A 19th-century journalist, Nellie Bly is best known for penning Ten Days in a Mad-House. Bly's undercover investigation of a New York insane asylum revealed the deplorable conditions that patients lived under and led to massive reforms. Wikimedia Commons
Bly, whose real name was Elizabeth Jane Cochran, also set out in 1889 to "beat" Jules Verne's fictional journey Around the World in Eighty Days. Bly took 72 days to complete her trip — holding a world record for a few months. Dynamichrome
A Serbian American who immigrated to the United States in 1884, Nikola Tesla had a mind like few others. He is perhaps best known for inventing the first alternating current (AC) motor, but Tesla also invented a number of other devices during his life. While he didn't complete all of his projects, his ideas laid the groundwork for future thinkers.Wikimedia Commons
His patents were allegedly used by Guglielmo Marconi, who's often described as the "official" inventor of the radio. And Tesla toyed with ideas like neon lights, X-rays, and radio control. But near the end of his life, Tesla's impressive mind deteriorated — and he died alone in a New York hotel room. Dynamichrome
One of England's most famous royals, Queen Victoria reigned over the British Empire for an impressive 63 years. The so-called Victorian era is bookmarked by her reign, from 1837 until her death in 1901. Wikimedia Commons
Victoria was an unlikely queen. The only child of King George III's fourth son, Victoria rose to the throne when her uncles died without heirs. She oversaw an expansion of the British Empire which was so massive that it led to the quip that in Britain, "the sun never sets." Dynamichrome
Considered the father of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud was an influential 19th- and early 20th-century neurologist. He developed the idea of psychoanalysis, a therapy which attempted to treat mental disorders through techniques like dream interpretation. Wikimedia Commons
Although Freud's theories are well-known, many of them — especially about gender and sex — have either been discredited or questioned today. Dynamichrome
Florence Owens Thompson
Florence Owens Thompson became famous as the "Migrant Mother" after Dorothea Lange took her picture in 1936. Thompson and her children were living in a pea pickers' camp during the Great Depression. Wikimedia Commons
Florence Owens Thompson
When Lange visited the camp, she was immediately drawn to Thompson.
"I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet," Lange later wrote. She wasn't the only one who felt that way — this iconic photo was later credited with humanizing the cost of the Great Depression.Dorothea Lange/Farm Security Administration/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/Color by Ryan Stennes
Sitting Bull And Buffalo Bill
The friendship of Sitting Bull (left) and Buffalo Bill (right) was a surprising one for their time. Sitting Bull was from a Lakota Sioux tribe. Meanwhile, Buffalo Bill was a Wild West cowboy who slaughtered countless buffalos that Sitting Bull's people depended on for survival. Wikimedia Commons
Sitting Bull And Buffalo Bill
Nevertheless, Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill struck up a strange friendship. They even toured together in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show — which drew well over a million visitors.Dynamichrome
The British Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945, and again from 1951 to 1955, Winston Churchill steered England through the stormy days of World War II. He was famous for his inspiring wartime oratory. Wikimedia Commons
In 1940, Churchill famously thundered:
"We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!”
Albert Einstein is regarded by some to be the greatest physicist of all time. He developed the theory of relativity, which helped frame future ideas about space, time, gravity, and the universe as a whole. Wikimedia Commons
Born in Germany in 1879, Einstein was educated in Italy and Switzerland. In 1932 — shortly before Hitler took power in Germany — Einstein decided to move to the United States, where he would later become a citizen and spend the rest of his life. Though he remained best known for his work in science, he also used his platform to speak out against the Nazi regime — as well as racism in America.Wikimedia Commons
The Apache leader Geronimo became famous in the 20th century for his persistent and determined defense of his people against the U.S. and Mexican armies.
He claimed to have once heard a voice that told him: "No gun can ever kill you. I will take the bullets from the guns of the Mexicans, so they will have nothing but powder. And I will guide your arrows."GERONIMO. Photograph by A. F. Randall. Copyrighted 1886.A. F. Randall/Getty Images
But by the turn of the century, Native American tribes like Geronimo's had been defeated and confined to reservations. Geronimo spent the last 20 years of his life as a prisoner of war, and was put on display at various fairs and exhibitions. Wikimedia Commons/Color by Matt Laughrey
America's 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt entered the White House upon the assassination of William McKinley, to whom Roosevelt served as vice president. Roosevelt, at just 42, became the youngest president in American history. Library of Congress
He was known for his bursts of energy, his powerful oratory skills, and his reputation as a hero in the Spanish-American war. Roosevelt served two terms in office and attempted to run for a third term, but was unsuccessful. Dynamichrome
The first leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin came to power on the heels of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Having disposed of the monarchy, Lenin steered the country into communism. Wikimedia Commons
He believed in a “dictatorship of the proletariat" — that is, a society where power rests in the hands of its workers, and not in the hands of royalty. In 1922, he created the Soviet Union, but died in 1924 following a number of strokes. Dynamichrome
A beguiling figure of Tsarist Russia, Grigori Rasputin enjoyed a rapid rise from obscurity to the inner circle of the country's royal family. He earned the royals' trust by allegedly healing their son of hemophilia. Wikimedia Commons
On December 29, 1916, a group of nobles who feared the "Mad Monk's" close ties with the royal family carried out a plan to assassinate him.
But they soon realized that it would be a lot harder than they thought. Not only did they brutally bludgeon him, but they also poisoned him twice and shot him at least five times. But he survived all of it — until they finally managed to wrap him up and throw him into a freezing river to die. And to this day, it's still believed that he was one of the hardest men to kill in all of human history.Wikimedia Commons/Color by Marina Amaral
An English naturalist, Charles Darwin is famous for outlining the theory of natural selection — that the "fittest" individuals survive to reproduce and pass on their genes. Wikimedia Commons
In 1859, Darwin explained his theory in his book On the Origin of Species. His ideas continue to inform studies of evolution to this day. Wikimedia Commons
With her blond curls and bright smile, Marilyn Monroe dazzled American movie audiences in the 20th century. She churned out a number of high-grossing pictures, including The Seven Year Itch. Wikimedia Commons
But Monroe struggled privately as her fame grew. In 1962, she was found dead in her bedroom of an apparent suicide. Dynamichrome
The first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie is remembered for her work on radioactivity. She won the Nobel Prize in 1903 for Physics and again in 1933 for Chemistry.Wikimedia Commons
However, Curie's work took a toll on her life. She died in 1934 from aplastic anemia, which was believed to have been brought on by her exposure to radiation. Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Robert E. Lee
One of the most controversial figures in American history, Robert E. Lee led the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Although he wasn't a secessionist, Lee refused to fight for the Union and instead sided with the Confederacy. Wikimedia Commons
Robert E. Lee
"I look upon secession as anarchy," he said. "If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?"
Lee oversaw some of the war's bloodiest battles, including Gettysburg, and surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865. Wikimedia Commons
Walt Whitman is recognized as one of the greatest poets of the 19th century, but he was under-appreciated in his time. Whitman's Leaves of Grass was met with poor reviews for its openness toward sex and its free-flowing style. Wikimedia Commons
But during the Civil War, Whitman absorbed the pain of the country around him and produced some extraordinary work. His 1865 collection, Drum-Taps, includes "When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd," an elegy for President Lincoln.Wikimedia Commons
William Tecumseh Sherman
William Tecumseh Sherman was a Civil War general best known for his violent "March to the Sea." Under orders from Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman set out to break the South's will to fight — and to destroy everything in his army's path as they marched through Georgia. Library of Congress
William Tecumseh Sherman
Although he came out as a victor, Sherman's fortunes were not always so assured. In 1861, newspapers sniped that Sherman was insane. He redeemed himself during the war, although many in the South despise Sherman to this day. Wikmedia Commons