4. Catherine O’Leary and her Cow were wrongly blamed for starting the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
Catherine O’Leary (March 1827 – July 3, 1895) was an Irish immigrant who was blamed, along with her cow, for starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; occurring between October 8 and October 10, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire was responsible for the deaths of up to 300 people, along with the destruction of 3.3 square miles of the city with property damages totaling $5bn in 2018 inflation-adjusted currency, and left more than 100,000 inhabitants homeless.
Beginning around 2100 hours near a small barn belonging to the O’Leary family, a long drought over the preceding summer and a strong southwesterly breeze resulted in the rapid spread of the inferno throughout the predominantly wooden buildings of the greater city of Chicago. Although the official cause of the fire was never determined, with the official report stating that “whether it originated from a spark blown from a chimney on that windy night, or was set on fire by human agency, we are unable to determine”, the Chicago Tribune published a claim that the fire had started when a cow kicked over a lantern whilst being milked; anti-Irish sentiments typical of the United States during the late-19th century, encouraged this narrative, with stereotypical Irish drunkenness on the part of Mrs. O’Leary popularly blamed for her accident.
In 1893, the author of the original claim, Michael Ahern, finally admitted that he had made the story up, yet his fictional version of events remains indelibly attached to public memory. An alternative theory that has garnered historical attention in recent years is that the barn was being used for gambling by a group of men, who inadvertently knocked a lantern over and fled the scene; this version of events is supported by Louis Cohn, who claimed to be in the barn with the O’Leary’s son that night with several others.
3. Alfred Dreyfus was the victim of antisemitism in 19th century France, being wrongly and summarily convicted of treason
Alfred Dreyfus (October 9, 1859 – July 12, 1935) was a French-Jewish Army officer wrongly convicted of treason in 1894. Forced to relocate at the age of 10 due to the Franco-Prussian War, Dreyfus resolved to pursue a military career and enrolled at the École Polytechnique military school in Paris upon turning 18 in 1877. Graduating in 1880, Dreyfus received his commission and attended the artillery school at Fontainebleau between 1880-1882; an able officer, by 1889 Dreyfus had been promoted to the rank of captain but his advancement had been hindered by his ethnic and religious status, with his marks during the War College examination reduced by General Bonnefond on the grounds that “Jews were not desired” in French military establishments.
In 1894, after learning that strategically important information concerning French artillery was being acquired by rival nation Germany, on October 15, 1894, Dreyfus was arrested and charged with treason; summarily convicted in a secret court-martial, Dreyfus was stripped of his rank and sentenced to life imprisonment in French Guiana. As was customary within the French Army for disgraced officers, Dreyfus was forced to endure the public indignity of having his uniform torn from him and his sword broken in the courtyard of the École Militaire before an abusive crowd of soldiers and members of the public; during this humiliation, Dreyfus appealed to the crowd stating: “I swear that I am innocent. I remain worthy of serving in the Army. Long live France! Long live the Army!”.
In August 1896, evidence emerged revealing the true traitor to be Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy; when Chief of French military intelligence Lt. Col. Picquart attempted to report this finding, he was transferred to Tunisia. After reports leaked of a cover-up, Esterhazy was tried and inexplicably found innocent before fleeing to England. In light of these mistakes, Dreyfus was granted a fresh trial in 1899 but was again found guilty despite the new evidence proving his own innocence; however, public opinion grew too great and Dreyfus was offered a pardon by President Loubet the same year. Eventually, in 1906, Dreyfus was formally exonerated and was readmitted to the French Army with an accompanying promotion to Major; Dreyfus would retire in 1907, before re-entering service during the First World War including on the front-lines during the Battles of Verdun at the age of 58.
2. Leon Trotsky was blamed for a host of problems in post-revolution Russia in the wake of Stalin’s rise of power and was eventually assassinated for them
Leon Trotsky (b. Lev Davidovich Bronstein, November 7, 1879 – August 21, 1940) was a Russian politician and revolutionary. Originally a leading figure of the Menshevik political faction within the Russia Social Democratic Labour Party, Trotsky defected to the Bolsheviks just prior to the Russian Revolution and supported Lenin’s call for an armed uprising to remove the Provisional Government from power on November 7, 1917. Becoming one of the seven original members of the Politburo upon its creation in 1917, Trotsky served as one of the most senior figures of the early Soviet Union, first as the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs and secondly as the founding commander of the Red Army; in his capacity as the former Trotsky was responsible for the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk, whilst in the latter Trotsky was instrumental in securing a Bolshevik victory during the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) and the survival of the communist dictatorship in Russia.
With Lenin’s health deteriorating, suffering his third stroke in March 1923, Trotsky sought to lead the ultimately unsuccessful “Left Opposition” to Joseph Stalin’s increasing control over the political apparatus of the USSR; after years of infighting in the wake of Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin finally garnered sufficient support within the Politburo to oust Trotsky. Removed from the Central Committee in October 1927, Trotsky, along with his supporters, was subsequently expelled from the Communist Party itself on November 12; exiled to Alama Ata, Kazakhstan, on January 31, 1928, Trotsky was formally deported from the Soviet Union in February 1929 and went into exile. During this time Trotsky sought to oppose Stalin’s reign of terror from abroad, before being murdered by an NKVD operative in Mexico City on August 21, 1940; Stalin subsequently awarded the assassin the Order of Lenin for his service.
In the wake of his death, positive portrayals of Trotsky were erased from Russian history and the once loved revolutionary was demonized as a capitalist stooge and counter-revolutionary. Despite being responsible for certain ills, most notably the implementation of War Communism and the extremes of harm caused by the radical policy, Trotsky was blamed for anything and everything wrong with the Russian state by the Stalinist faction. Any Trotskyists remaining in Russia after his exile were ultimately executed during the Great Purges of 1936-1938, blamed along with their leader as responsible for the many missteps and woes in the communist nation.
1. The Devil and God serve as the two most common scapegoats in world history, blamed without evidence for the troubles of all mankind
The Devil and God, the yin and yang of the world’s theistic religions, are unquestionably the most “scapegoated” individuals in global history. Blamed for anything and everything including natural disasters, family bereavements, famine, or war, God and/or Satan is commonly held to account for these acts in spite of zero evidence of their participation in these affairs.
In particular, some sympathy might be had for the mythical character of the devil within Christian lore, whose scriptural appearances are a far cry from his demonic role in popular religious conception. Throughout the Old Testament, Satan is merely an angel of heaven, acting as an agent of God; in fact, it is on God’s instruction that Satan inflicts his torture of Job in the incorrect belief that the man will recant his faith under pressure. It is not until the New Testament that Satan developed into a more malevolent figure, with the Book of Revelations introducing his expulsion from heaven due to a rebellion against the authority of God whereupon he was cast down into the lake of fire. Despite this, throughout the Middle Ages Satan was still not considered a key figure in Christian mythology and was routinely used merely as comic relief in theater; it is not until the emergence of the witch-hunts during the early modern period that Satan evolved into a feared and hated character, responsible for wickedness and sin, becoming indelibly attached to other nameless biblical evils such as the snake in the Garden of Eden.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources: