10 Most Infamous Stains in History

By: Nathan Chandler  | 
Everyone's had one of these moments. Thankfully, most stains don't merit a place in the history books.
© Rainer Holz/Corbis
Key Takeaways
  • Some stains—like the Shroud of Turin’s mysterious image to the bloodied artifacts of tragic events—leave a mark on society.
  • The Shroud of Turin continues to puzzle both the religious and scientific communities. Other stains, like the infamous blue dress from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, have become symbols of political controversy and personal downfall.
  • These stains—whether on fabric, in vehicles or part of historical artifacts—transcend their physical presence, representing pivotal moments in history, human error, or the macabre fascination with crime and scandal.

Everyone has a stain story. One time your cousin stumbled down the stairs carrying a bottle of ketchup. The resulting mess resembled a gory crime scene ... and required the expertise of professional carpet cleaners. You even had to repaint part of the ceiling to obscure the tasty reddish disaster.

But those kinds of stain stories generally stay within the family circle. No one else really cares to hear about your crazy, tipsy relatives getting careless with condiments.


In the course of human history, though, there have been some truly epic stains. Stains that no laundry detergent can rinse from our collective story. Stains that perhaps change the course of millions of lives.

For better or worse, those kinds of stains are the toughest to get out. Not only do they permanently damage clothing and other materials -- their most lasting impression, really, is on our psyches.

Keep reading and you'll learn all about 10 of the most infamous stains ever to leave their mark on human possessions -- and our minds, too.

10: Shrouded in Mystery

The Shroud of Turin remains the subject of much debate and speculation.
© Philippe Lissac/Godong/Corbis

The Shroud of Turin is one of the most controversial pieces of fabric in the history of humankind. This rectangular linen artifact bears the ghostly imprint of a nude man with his hands folded delicately across his groin. No one yet has been able to explain exactly how this image was affixed to the material.

The cloth is centuries old, mostly likely dating back to the Middle Ages. Many people believe that the image on the cloth is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, and that the cloth is his burial shroud. They said this is true because aspects of the picture, including reddish stains, may show that the man died from crucifixion.


But the reddish stains are puzzling. Scientists aren't sure whether these discolorations happened when the man was buried, or perhaps at a later time, due to environmental or chemical reactions of some sort.

It's the mystery of this shroud that makes it so ceaselessly captivating. For religious types and secular scientists alike, the stains on the Shroud of Turin are enigmatic icons that will likely stimulate arguments and speculation for generations to come.

9: An Unmentionable's End

Bonnie Parker's blood-stained stocking, along with several other personal effects, sold at auction in 2012 for $11,400.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

In 1932, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker fell into each other's arms. And together, they roamed America as outlaws and robbers with a rotating cast of gang members, murdering law enforcement officers and civilians and living on the run.

They zoomed around the countryside in their cars. They took cover in backwoods hiding places wherever they could. And after two years of intermittent rampages, authorities finally spun up a massive manhunt to kill or capture Bonnie and Clyde and their cohorts. In 1934, in Louisiana, police finally ambushed the pair on a rural road. Both were killed by a storm of bullets.


Some personal effects were recovered from their automobile, including one of Bonnie's silk stockings, which was steeped in blood. In 2012, the stocking went to auction along with several other items, such as a screwdriver and an aspirin tin, for $11,400.

8: A Booth and a Chair

President Lincoln's chair remains on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
© Medford Historical Society Collection/CORBIS

In April 1865, the American Civil War was finally grinding to halt. A Union victory was a certainty, but desperate Confederates weren't quite ready to surrender their cause. One man in particular, John Wilkes Booth, concocted a scheme he hoped would swing momentum back to the South.

His plan was to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. In doing so, he imagined that the disarray and chaos would terrify the North and galvanize secessionists.


On April 14, Booth, a well-known actor, crept into the balcony of the Ford Theater, where Lincoln and his wife were watching a production of "Our American Cousin." Booth shot Lincoln in the head, and the president slumped forward on his rocking chair, which became soaked with blood.

The chair was impounded as evidence during the criminal trial, but eventually it was returned to the widow of Harry Ford, who owned the theater. In 1929 the chair was auctioned off for only $2,400, to none other than Henry Ford. To this day, the chair remains a symbol of Lincoln's hard work and ultimate sacrifice.

7: Fearsome Fashion

Jackie Kennedy's suit, which she was still wearing when Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president, can't be publicly displayed until at least 2063.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

On Nov. 22, 1963, the United States reeled in horror as President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The crime was caught on video, graphically displaying the president as he was shot, with his wife Jackie frantically scrambling to cover his body with her own.

In the process, Jackie's pink Chanel suit was stained with John's blood. The wool suit, which had navy blue trim and a matching hat, almost immediately became a symbol of an age of innocence and idealism wrecked by a murderer's gun. It became the most infamous article of clothing in American history.


In the aftermath of the shooting, Jackie refused to remove the garment. She wore it two hours later as Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the new president. To the people who tried to convince her to change her clothes, she said, "Let them see what they've done." So she wore it the rest of the day and night, until the next morning.

The suit is now preserved in an undisclosed location and can't be publicly displayed until at least 2063, a full century after JFK's death.

6: The Accursed Queen

A portrait of signature-bungler Marie-Antoinette and her children, painted by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun
© Corbis

In 1774, when she was only 19 years old, Marie Antoinette became Queen of France. Her rise to power as the wife of Louis XVI seemed like the stuff of fairy tales. And it all began as she signed her name to the marriage certificate several years earlier.

As she applied her signature, a drop of ink fell and blotted the top of her name. Historians have attributed this accidental splash to the nervousness and excitement that the young girl must have felt as she instantly became one of the world's most powerful people.


But her eventual fate helped to seal the signature as one of history's most famous case of poor penmanship. Although the people loved her at first, she was later vilified for her extravagance and supposed heartlessness towards hungry citizens.

As the French revolution took hold, Louis and his queen were driven from power and eventually executed. Marie went to the guillotine and was beheaded on October 16, 1793.

5: Bloody Brothers

This painting depicts Joseph's father, Jacob, weeping at the sight of his son's blood-stained coat.
©Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the Bible's Book of Genesis, a story of murderous jealousy unfolds, and a coat becomes a legendary symbol of humankind's inhumanity.

In the tale, a man named Jacob gave his favorite son Joseph a many-colored coat. The coat immediately drew the envy of his brothers, who disliked the act of favoritism and suspected that Jacob intended for Joseph to become the family leader.


The 11 brothers began plotting against Joseph. Eventually, they dragged him away and sold him to a group of slave merchants. Then they smeared goat blood on Joseph's coat and showed it to their father, hoping to convince him that Joseph had been killed by wild animals. Jacob believed the brothers and went into mourning for his lost son.

In the meantime, Jacob managed to rise from his shackles to become one of the most powerful men in Egypt. He was eventually reunited with his father, and they both wept in joy upon seeing each other. In the centuries since, the story relates the ongoing human drama of sin, suffering and redemption.

4: Toga Party for the End Times

The death of Julius Caesar as painted by Alexander Zick
© Bettmann/CORBIS

Julius Caesar was a masterful politician and warrior, and as he gained and influence in the Roman Republic, he set his sights ever higher. After a struggle that resulted in civil war, he emerged as the most powerful man in Rome.

He installed hundreds of his allies in the Senate and in effect became a dictator. Then he initiated a sweeping series of governmental changes. He commanded artists to create works of art in his likeness, which were installed all over the country.


Caesar's egotistical power grabs hardly went unnoticed. A group of around 60 senators began plotting to assassinate him in order to save their republic. When the opportunity arose, they stabbed him to death.

Yet Caesar was actually wildly popular with many Romans. At the funeral proceedings, Marc Antony raised Caesar's blood-soaked toga and waved it to stoke their anger, perhaps as part of a ploy to take power for himself.

These days, the phrase, "waving the bloody shirt" is meant to touch on the sacrifices of martyrs or to attack political opponents. And it all harkens back to the bloody betrayal of Rome's most powerful man.

3: Broncos and Bloody Gloves

O.J. Simpson tries on the gloves found at the crime scene and his home before the jury and the court on June 15, 1995.
©SAM MIRCOVICH/X90064/Reuters/Corbis

It began with a slow-motion police chase and a white Ford Bronco winding through the streets of Los Angeles, Calif. Then it segued into the most-publicized murder trial ever. It all ended with an acquittal ... and a free O.J. Simpson walking the streets and basking in the spotlight of his (rather sullied) fame. And along the way, Americans and the rest of the world got to know, in excruciating detail, all about Mr. Simpson's bloody glove.

In June 1994, Simpson's ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were murdered outside her home in L.A. Evidence at the scene led police to suspect that Simpson was to blame for the horrible crime. A pair of dark leather gloves turned out to be important evidence. One glove was found at the murder scene. The second glove? Found near Simpson's house, soaked in blood.


DNA testing showed that the gloves were stained with blood from Simpson, Brown and Goldman. During the trial, defense attorneys famously told Simpson to try on the gloves, which didn't fit. Prosecutors countered by saying that the gloves had been soaked in blood and then frozen and thawed multiple times, shrinking them.

But the damage had been already done. The too-small gloves made an impression that the prosecution couldn't overcome, and Simpson was acquitted of the murders, even though several jurors (and millions of spectators) later said they were sure Simpson was guilty.

2: The Junked Trunk

Grandmother Cindy Anthony, pictured right, made the 911 call that sparked the investigation.
© Phelan Ebenhack/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Two-year-old Caylee Marie Anthony was reported missing in July 2008. At the time, no one knew that her disappearance would ignite one of the strangest and most scrutinized legal proceedings ever.

Oddly, it wasn't a parent who reported the child missing. It was her grandmother who called 911. Even weirder, the call didn't take place until 31 days after Caylee's disappearance. In the meantime, her mother Casey had told people that her toddler was with a nanny.


The fact that she hadn't reported her missing daughter immediately drew suspicion. So too, did the fact that the trunk of her car smelled like a rotting corpse and featured a strange stain. Casey was charged with first-degree murder, and a few months later, Caylee's duct-taped body was found buried near the family's home.

Investigators found that the trunk stain contained fatty acids consistent with the decomposition of human flesh. In the carpet, they also discovered a lot of chloroform, which can be used to render a person unconscious.

The murder trial featured hundreds of pieces of evidence. Prosecutors included Casey's own conflicting statements, which proved that she lied to authorities numerous times.

Yet in spite of all of the evidence, including the trunk stains, jurors weren't sure that the state had proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. They agreed that Casey couldn't be convicted, so she walked free in July 2011, setting off a media frenzy and public outrage.

1: The Case of the Messy Dress

The stain on Monica Lewinsky's dress put the young woman at the center of a U.S. policial controversy.
©Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma/Corbis

Unpaid internships get a bad rap these days. But back in the halcyon days of the late 1990s, a White House internship, a little blue dress and lack of hygiene was all it took to propel you to the ultimate heights of stain history.

It was in 1995 that Monica Lewinsky began an internship in Washington, D.C., and shortly afterward, developed a relationship with the very married President Bill Clinton. She wound up spending so much time in close proximity to the commander in chief that her bosses sent her to the Pentagon to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

But Lewinsky made the mistake of telling a co-worker, Linda Tripp, that she'd had encounters of a sexual nature with the president. She even mentioned that one of her dresses still bore the bodily fluid stains from one of their escapades.

Tripp, as it turned out, hated Clinton's guts. And she knew that a stained dress bearing DNA evidence of philandering could cause the president all sorts of problems. So she recorded her phone conversations with Lewinsky and turned the tapes over to officials.

Clinton used every linguistic loophole he could to deny his relationship with Lewinsky. But when confronted with DNA evidence recovered from the dress stain, he was cornered. Eventually, the president admitted that he'd had an "improper relationship" with the intern.

The scandal didn't quite unravel his presidency the way Tripp and other foes hoped. Lewinsky, however, became forever infamous for her little blue dress causing a really big mess.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do these infamous stains contribute to our understanding of history and society?
They serve as tangible remnants of significant events, encapsulating complex stories and emotions and often igniting or sustaining public interest and debate.
What role does the preservation of these stains play in historical and cultural memory?
Preserving these stains helps maintain a physical connection to past events, offering insights into human behavior, societal values and the consequences of actions, thus enriching cultural heritage and historical understanding.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Infamous Stains

Stains are generally, well, a pain. You scrub your clothes or carpet in a frantic effort to remove them, and all too often those stubborn marks come out on top. Yet stains also tell interesting stories. Take my running shirts. Some of those shirts have seen hundreds of sweaty miles in the sun. They're steeped in yellowish sweat stains, sunscreen, road grime and blood ... and they smell like it, no matter how many times I wash them. Instead of fighting those intractable stains, I wear them with pride. After all, they are a visible reminder of the hard workouts I've slaved through for months and years of my life.

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  • Art and the Bible. "Joseph's Bloodstained Coat Is Shown to Jacob." (June 20, 2013).
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  • BBC News. "Why I Kept 'That Dress.'" Sept. 24, 1998. (June 20, 2013) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/events/clinton_under_fire/tapes_and_transcripts/176949.stm
  • Bible Gateway. "Genesis 37." (June 20, 2013) http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+37&version=NKJV
  • Bookman, Todd. "Bonnie and Clyde's Guns, Other Items Go on Auction." NPR. Sept. 26, 2012. (June 20, 2013) http://www.npr.org/2012/09/26/161696072/bonnie-and-clydes-guns-other-items-go-on-auction
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  • Goldoni, Carlo. "The Shroud of Turin and Bilirubin Blood Stains." Ohio Shroud Conference. 2008. (June 20, 2013) http://www.ohioshroudconference.com/papers/p04.pdf
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