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


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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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.

  • rpugliese16

    Would’ve never expected the Wright Brothers to be on this list.

  • Alex

    I think one of the scariest situations today of false accusations is the death penalty. Many people have been falsely accused and then put to death; something that cannot be undone.

  • Drew K

    Fritz Zwicky is my personal favorite on here. His postulations are part of the foundation of astrophysics now and are being studied to understand the foundations of the universe

  • M Pribula

    It is incredible how many facts a person can ignore if they really don’t want to believe in something. Maybe that is why it is often said that geniuses are rarely recognized within their own time.

  • Marisa M.

    It really is amazing how people denounce others before giving them a fair trial or allowing them to explain their situations. The public however will believe anything that they are force fed so in actuality its really not that surprising.

  • IG

    The case of Galileo annoys me because of the huge contributions to our modern understanding of science. Although I do not have anything against faith, I do think that if overly politicized religion can be damaging to other people who might not be so devout. Thankfully, the founding fathers of this country could see this issue and we try to keep the separation of church and state. Although history cannot be changed, we can certainly look for our mistakes to help create a better world.

  • Nikki Buzalka

    All of these are very interesting to me because it makes me think about what we are doing today and who we do not believe when we should.

  • GB

    Galileo was the most surprising. I had no idea he was condemned for making so many advances in science. At least we recognized our error and now is a father of advanced science.

  • imengri17

    I never knew the Wright Brothers were seen so negatively at the time of their invention of the airplane. I always thought people would squirm at the thought of what we now know to the airplane. Martin Luther King, Jr. has to have one of the greatest comeback stories of the list and history in general. Once hated by many, now honored with a holiday among other things. Galileo Galilei proves, to me at least, how powerful science can be and how an idea that seems outlandish and blasphemous at first might actually not be.

  • R J

    Fritz Zwicky speaking on dark matter, dark energy, etc is exciting to me. It’s interesting because it is obvious that the subjects he speaks about flip everything we thought we knew on its head. He even seems unsure speaking about this information because he does not at that moment understand much of what he is talking about.

  • Angelina Huber

    It’s interesting to see that most of the people on this list were rejected because of their theories in science. Some of them were even locked up because the church or government did not believe their viewpoints even though they were right.

  • Jay Russell

    It’s also amazing see how intolerant scientists are as well when one of their own promotes a theory that’s not yet accepted by the establishment. Fritz Zwicky is a good case in point, as is Elizabeth Kerry.