Can you tell me if the rumor is true concerning Catherine the Great, her unusual interest in horses, and her resulting death?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
I knew if we waited around long enough someone was sure to ask this question, C., and I and the Straight Dope staff want to thank you for coming through for us. It’s all very well explaining the theory of relativity and so on, but Catherine the Great and the horse is a story that truly comes from the heart.
The simple answer to your question is no, the rumor is not true. However, that won’t stop us from repeating the rumor, to wit: that Catherine the Great, empress of Russia in the latter part of the 18th century, was crushed to death when attendants lost their grip on ropes supporting a horse that was being lowered on her for, ah, sexual purposes. This is without doubt the most outrageous story I heard during my entire college career, which is when you usually come across these historical tidbits.
The boring truth is this: Catherine the Great died of a stroke while sitting on the commode in the palace at St. Petersburg. Another less commonly circulated rumor has it that Catherine was so grossly fat (true in itself) that she broke the commode and died of blood loss from resultant injuries, but this is regarded as a fabrication also.
The story about Catherine’s alleged yen for horses probably has its roots in the fact that she had an active and unusually public sex life. She had numerous lovers throughout her long reign, one of whom, Grigori Potemkin, procured young men for her after their own relationship cooled. The lucky stud would be "tested" by one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting, and if he showed promise he would be appointed adjutant general, or something along those lines, and spend a couple soft years performing as required.
Catherine developed a colorful reputation among the courts of Europe on account of this system. She had lots of enemies, any of whom might have embellished on the already randy truth and come up with the horse story. There is some thought that Polish emigres might have invented it after her death to discredit her and the Russians in general, Poland having fared badly at the hands of Russian armies during her reign.
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