10 People Executed, Convicted, or Ridiculed That Were Vindicated Too Late

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A Brief History

On July 7, 1456, Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) was acquitted of heresy.  Unfortunately, the acquittal came 25 years after she was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake.  Every so often someone gets railroaded into being executed, imprisoned, or discredited, often to the point of having their life and reputation ruined only to be vindicated later, sometimes even becoming a hero.  Here we list 10 such people.  Who would you add to the list?  (So many people have been condemned to death or life in prison that turned out to be innocent you would need a book to list them.)

Digging Deeper

10. Wright Brothers.

Skeptics in the US government and military kept observers from even bothering to watch a demonstration flight for over a year after the Wrights invented the airplane.  Scientific American Magazine called them the “Lying Brothers.”  Obviously, within a few years aviation was catching on in a big way, although America had squandered the lead it originally had.

9.  Fritz Zwicky.

In the 1930’s Zwicky made the observation that galaxies do not behave in concert with what their apparent mass would indicate their behavior should be, therefore observable matter must not be all the matter there is, and the rest must be “dark matter.” (Forgive the layman’s attempt at explanation.)  Contemporaries laughed at his assertions about dark matter, but by the 21st Century scientists now tell us that only 4.6 % of matter in the universe is “ordinary matter” and that 23% is “dark matter.”  (The remainder being “dark energy.”)

8.  Robert Goddard.

An American rocketry pioneer, Goddard was the first man to make a multistage rocket and the first to make a liquid fueled rocket.  Derided in the press for his enthusiastic talk about the future of manned space travel, Goddard died in 1945 when Germany was already using liquid fueled Inter-regional Ballistic Missiles as weapons.  Of course, 15 years after his death the US and Soviet Union had manned space programs and only 24 years after his death had landed on the moon.

7.  Josiah C. Nott.

Nott was a proponent of the theory of racial superiority of the Caucasian race over the primitive and inferior Negro race.  For that, of course he was not vindicated, but for claiming that mosquitoes caused malaria and Yellow Fever and not the popularly believed “bad air,” he was vindicated after his death in 1873 when Walter Reed and others found his theory to be true.  If more people had believed his mosquito theory instead of his racial theory, thousands or even millions of people world wide may have been saved.

6.  Mata Hari.

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod as she was actually named, was a famous courtesan and exotic dancer when she was executed by France during World War I as a spy for the Germans. Research of documents released in 2001 indicate that Mata Hari was killed for political reasons, to whip up patriotism and cover up corruption by French officials.  She was actually working as a double agent for the Allies, but she faced a firing squad anyway.  Cracked fact:  Her head was kept in a French museum and went missing in 2000.  The remainder of the Mata Hari files will not be released until 2017.  What are they hiding?

5.  Martin Luther King, Jr.

A man considered an enemy of the United States by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and many other (white) Americans, King now has a national holiday honoring him as well as numerous schools, roads, and buildings named in his honor.  After his shocking death by an assassin’s bullet in 1968, he gradually became accepted by mainstream America as a national hero.

4.  Galileo Galilei.

Galileo was a leading scientist of his time and a proponent of the work by Copernicus (Polish astronomer, Mikolaj Kopernik), basically that the Earth is not the center of the solar system, the sun is.  The Catholic Church disagreed and forced him to recant, and then kept him under house arrest the rest of his life.  Of course today we are well aware that the Earth goes around the Sun and not the other way around, and Galileo is remembered as a great scientist.  Galileo died in 1642 and about 100 years later the Church started letting people read his work again, and by 1835 almost acknowledged that he had been correct.  Not until 1992 did Pope John-Paul II admit the Church was wrong for persecuting Galileo.  (Note:  Galileo was much more than just an astronomer and dabbled in other scientific fields as well.)

3.  Oliver Cromwell.

Taking the side of the Roundheads against King Charles I and the Cavaliers (Royalists), Cromwell deposed the king and had him executed, taking power himself.  The people of Britain waited until their Lord Protector was dead for 2 years before they dug him up and beheaded him for treason.  Later, when he had been long buried (a second time) he was vindicated and once again became one of the British people’s favorite historical persons.  (Note:  Not all British people are enamored of Cromwell, especially the Scots and Catholics.)

2.  Billy Mitchell.

A US Army Air Service Brigadier General, Mitchell was a vocal proponent of air power.  When his prophetic exhortations fell on deaf ears, he was accused of insubordination and court martialed (at the order of President Coolidge) after first being reduced in rank to Colonel.  He was convicted of insubordination and resigned.  After he died his vision of air power and the primacy of aircraft carriers over battleships became accepted doctrine and he became a retroactive hero.  Given a Congressional Gold Medal and a promotion to Major General after his death might make his heirs feel better, but came too late for him.  Cracked fact: Mitchell is the only American to have a military airplane named after him, the North American B-25 Mitchell.

1.  Joan of Arc.

OK, so they acquitted her 25 years after burning her to death, small consolation.  The Catholic Church also made her a saint, and of course she is a big hero in France now, but where were her fans when she was put to death?

Historical Evidence

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.