18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It

Steve - November 10, 2018

An unavoidable part of our flawed human condition is the tendency to make mistakes, yet instead of accepting our failings and seeking to learn from them, we retain an innate proclivity towards seeking to attach fault onto others. Whether attempting to place a recognizable face onto an abstract problem, or to simplify the issue into an easy answer inhabiting a single responsible repository, the history of humanity is the history of blame. The Normans burnt at the stake a cockerel for witchcraft, swords were prosecuted in Ancient Greece for murder, and St. Bernard excommunicated a swarm of flies that were persistent in annoying him. Whether comforting to blame others, or merely an evolutionary response to an inescapable feeling of responsibility and societal pressure, we have routinely affixed fault, sometimes with malicious intent and other times blindly, to innocent parties.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
Agnus-Dei: The Scapegoat by James Tissot (c 1870). Wikimedia Commons.

Here are 18 famous scapegoats unfairly blamed that people wrongly believed, some still to this day, to be at fault:

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt (1854). Wikimedia Commons.

18. The first recorded use of the term “scapegoat” was in reference to the Jewish Day of Atonement and the Judaic practice of exiling a goat in a symbolic casting off of one’s sins

The original scapegoat, an English translation of the Hebrew ăzāzêl loosely meaning “the goat that departs”, is a biblical figure who first appears in Leviticus as an animal who is symbolically burdened with the sins of man before being cast out into the desert. Occurring on the Jewish Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, two goats were brought to the temple wherein one was offered as a blood sacrifice and the other designated the “scapegoat“; throughout the day, the Israelites confessed their sins to the goat, figuratively attaching them to the animal, and thereafter it is expelled from the community taking their sins with him. This practice was not unique to the Jewish people and strong parallel can be made within Christianity, with the sacrifice of Christ in the role of a scapegoat allegedly washing away the original sin of mankind; similarly, a comparable practice is recorded in Ancient Syria as an act of ritual purification and in Ancient Greece in which an undesirable, namely a cripple, beggar, or criminal, is driven out in penitence in the wake of a disaster.

Furthermore, in an act of monumental irony the man responsible for the initial translation and introduction of the term into the English language, William Tyndale, was himself made into a scapegoat for his influential work. Translating the Bible during the early 16th century, of which over 80% of his work would be later copied into the King James Bible in 1611, Tyndale was condemned as a heretic and his actions were blamed as responsible for Henry VIII’s split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. Arrested the following year in Antwerp, incredibly at the behest of Henry VIII after Tyndale had written in opposition regarding the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Tyndale was found guilty of heresy and “strangled to death while tied at the stake, and then his dead body was burned” in October 1536; within just four years of his execution, Henry VIII had authorized the publication of Tyndale’s translations of holy scripture as the “Great Bible”: the first authorized edition of the Bible in English under the newly created Church of England.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left), handcuffed to Nicola Sacco (right); taken at Dedham, Massachusetts Superior Court, in 1923 during the 23rd day of a hunger strike by Sacco. Wikimedia Commons.

17. Sacco and Vanzetti were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for first-degree murder due to anti-immigrant bias in the United States

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants to the United States, both arriving in America in 1908, who were jointly convicted in 1920 of the murder of a guard and a paymaster in the course of an armed robbery of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, Massachusetts. Political anarchists, and believed to have been followers of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist who promoted revolutionary violence, police investigations focused on an anarchist cell believed to have been financing its activities through robberies; ultimately leading investigators to Sacco and Vanzetti, the former having worked previously at the shoe company, on May 5, 1920, the pair were charged with murder.

The trial was fraught with legal anomalies, including witnesses for the prosecution admitting to having rehearsed their testimonies and the descriptions presented by key witnesses varying wildly even in relation to details such as the length and style of Vanzetti’s mustache, and was presided over by Superior Court Judge Webster Thayer; Thayer had just weeks earlier given a speech proclaiming an existential threat to the United States from anarchism and opposed the civil rights of immigrants. After just three hours of deliberations, on July 21, 1921, the jury returned a guilty verdict and the pair were sentenced to death.

Generally believed to have been an incorrect verdict fueled by political and xenophobic inclinations, the domestic and international response was considerable, with protests held on the pair’s behalf in every major city of Europe, among many more further afield, in addition to the United States, with petitioners in defense of the condemned pair including Albert Einstein and H.G. Wells; of particular note, the mine workers of Colorado went on strike in August 1927 in protest of the decision, with 1,132 out of 1,167 miners from the Walsenburg coal district participating in response to the imminent executions. However these appeals were in vain and on August 23, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed by electric chair; eventually, after decades of posthumous activism and debate, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation stating that the pair had been unfairly convicted and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names”.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
Andrés Escobar, in a television frame-grab on June 22, 1994, immediately after his own goal against the United States. Wikimedia Commons.

16. Andrés Escobar, a Colombian professional footballer, was shot dead after scoring an own goal in the 1994 FIFA World Cup

Andrés Escobar Saldarriaga (b. 1967) was a Colombian professional footballer, playing in the position of defender for both his national team and for Atlético Nacional and BSC Young Boys; nicknamed “The Gentleman” for his celebratedly clean playing style and friendly attitude on the pitch, Escobar was the face of Colombian football after having extensively worked to improve the nation’s sporting image abroad.

Selected for the Colombian national squad in the 1994 FIFA World Cup, held in the United States, during Colombia’s game on June 22 against the host nation in the group stages Escobar accidentally deflected a cross from American midfielder John Harkes into his own net. With the game goalless at the time of his mistake, the United States would go on to win the match 2-1 and Colombia would fail to qualify from the group into the knockout rounds; only a single point behind the third-place qualifiers in Group A, the U.S., a draw in the game would have been sufficient for the Colombian campaign to continue and consequently Escobar was widely blamed for the team’s collective failure in the competition.

Returning to his hometown of Medellín, in the early hours of July 2, 1994, Escobar was approached by three men in a parking lot and was shot six times; the assailants allegedly shouted “Goal” after each shot, once for each time the South American football commentator said it during the broadcast. Despite being rushed to a hospital, Escobar died 45 minutes later; in the days before his murder, Escobar had been quoted in Colombian newspapers as saying: “It’s been a most amazing and rare experience. We’ll see each other again soon because life does not end here”. His funeral was attended by more than 120,000 people and Humberto Castro Muñoz, a bodyguard for leading members of a Colombian drug cartel was arrested along with three accomplices; sentenced to 43 years in prison for the murder, Muñoz only served 11 whilst his co-accused were acquitted.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
Pandora, by Pierre Loison (1861). Wikimedia Commons.

15. Pandora was personally blamed for releasing all the evils of the world, despite being designed by Zeus as a punishment for humanity’s sin of accepting fire from Prometheus

Pandora, according to the Greek mythical tradition, was the first human woman, created by Hephaestus, the God of smithing, on the instructions of Zeus, the King of the Gods atop Mount Olympus. First appearing in Hesiod’s epic poem Theogony, after humans accepted the gift of fire from Prometheus, the Titan creator of humanity who had stolen the power from the Gods, Zeus sought to afflict humanity with punishment to balance out their condition; after deliberating, Zeus instructed Hephaestus to mold the first woman from clay and to make her a “beautiful evil” whose descendants would forever torment Prometheus’s creation.

Described by Hesiod as “sheer guile, not to be withstood by men”, “from her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth”. The arrival of Pandora, and women more generally, is said to have ended the Golden Age of Man – an all-male civilization of immortals who lived in perfect existence – and ushered in the Silver Age, in which man was now subject to illness, decay, and death. In later editions of the myth, instead of innately possessing and disseminating these undesirable virtues and ills Pandora is given a jar containing these evils by Zeus and told never to open it; unable to control her curiosity, Pandora peers inside and inadvertently releases darkness into the world of men.

Analyzing beyond the inherently misogynistic undertones of the legend, depicting women as the duplicitous root of all evil and men as divine goodness, Pandora is the physical embodiment of the very definition of “scapegoat”. Her creation and divine purpose was to exact the vengeance of Zeus for the rebellion of humanity against his authority, and as such Zeus, not Pandora, should be ultimately held responsible for the negative consequences of her existence; furthermore, Pandora as typically depicted in Greek mythology, never intended, even in opening the jar, to cause the outcomes that occurred, which were, as noted, divinely preordained.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
A stuffed Great Auk and replica egg in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow. Wikimedia Commons.

14. The last Great Auk in Great Britain was killed on the island of St. Kilda in 1840 after being accused of witchcraft by the locals

The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) was a species of flightless alcid that was driven to extinction in the mid-19th century as a result of human aggression. Although not closely related to penguins, the latter was so-named in memory of their physical resemblance to the great auk; measuring 75-85 centimeters in height, 5 kilograms in weight, and with a wingspan of only 15 cm thus rendering the bird flightless, the great auk had a white belly and a heavy hooked beak. Surviving on rocky and isolated islands in the North Atlantic, particularly those near the coastlines of Canada, Iceland, Norway, Ireland, and Great Britain, the great auk flourished with an abundance of food and an absence of natural predators; recognized as early as the mid-16th century as being endangered by the high demand among Europeans, the great auk became the subject of some of the earliest environmental laws in an effort to save the species.

In July 1940, on the islet of Stac an Armin, St. Kilda, Scotland, the last great auk was known to have existed in Britain was killed. After a huge storm resulted in the deaths of several local fishermen, the bird was netted by locals and in an act of general hysteria was blamed for the storm and deaths. Charged with witchcraft, the bird was placed on trial in a local church and found guilty; it was later stoned and beaten to death on the beach where it had originally come ashore. Soon after this incident, on June 3, 1944, the last two great auks in existence were killed on Eldey, off the coast of Iceland, when Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangled the surviving adult and smashed the last known egg.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1980, shortly before the former’s murder. Wikimedia Commons.

13. Yoko Ono, the second wife of legendary singer-songwriter John Lennon, was savagely hounded for her alleged role in the breakup of The Beatles in 1970

Yoko Ono (b. 1933) is a Japanese artist, singer, and songwriter who is best known for being the second wife of John Lennon, a singer-songwriter of the celebrated British rock band “The Beatles”. First meeting in November 1966 at Ono’s art exhibition, the pair subsequently began an affair in 1968 which culminated with Lennon divorcing his first wife, Cynthia, and marrying Ono on March 20, 1969.

The Beatles, at the time the most famous band in the world, broke up just a year later, with many blaming Ono as the principal figure responsible; the English press, in particular, was at fault in this regard, branding Ono “the woman who broke up the Beatles”. Despite the protestations of the other band members, with Lennon and Harrison both strongly denying at the time Ono’s involvement and McCartney since stating he does not blame her at all, Ono was vilified and accused of taking advantage of the emotional state of Lennon, who was depressed following the band’s trip to India in mid-1968 and had begun abusing drugs once again.
Whilst it is undeniable that Lennon and Ono’s relationship had a straining effect on the band, including the oft-cited recording of Abbey Road in which after Ono suffered injuries in a car accident Lennon arranged for a bed with a microphone to be installed in the studio to allow his recuperating wife to make comments on the album, many other factors performed equal, if not greater, roles in the breakup of the legendary quartet; among these were the death of manager Brian Epstein in 1967 from a drug overdose, George Harrison’s dissatisfaction with continuing to play a supporting role in the band and desiring greater opportunity for self-expression, and Starr’s dislike of McCartney for allegedly patronizing behavior. Given the breadth of internal issues that have since come to light, with almost every involved party possessing an intense grievance against another, a split was inevitable, with Yoko Ono unfairly ascribed the popular blame due to her public relationship with Lennon and the stark character changes observed in Lennon post-1969.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
A Sin-Eater at work; author and date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

12. Professional sin-eaters were history’s greatest scapegoats, being paid to absorb the sins of others after their deaths to ensure the deceased soul’s safe passage into the afterlife

A “Sin-Eater” was a paid professional who, in return for compensation, would willingly absorb the sins of the recently deceased in order to provide them with unfettered access to salvation in the afterlife. Typically involving the consumption of a meal at the funeral of the dead individual, usually seated next to the corpse with the food ritually passed over the body, the actions of the sin-eater was believed to absolve the deceased of all of their worldly misdeeds; consequently, by appropriating and carrying all of the sins they had eaten, and accordingly posthumously suffering the punishments due for these crimes, these innocent professionals are arguably the greatest scapegoats in history.

The figurative act of eating another’s sins is a recurring motif in a variety of cultures around the world, appearing in Meso-American civilizations such as the Aztec wherein Tlazolteotl, the goddess of earth, motherhood, and fertility, would cleanse a person’s soul by “eating its filth” should he confess his crimes upon death; similarly, the act of Jesus’s willing crucifixion in Christian mythology, in so doing taking upon himself the sins of all mankind, can be interpreted as a form of sin-eating.

It is unknown whether the task was considered unholy or benevolent, with some historians recording sin-eaters as avoided by people “as they would a leper” for their “unholy practices” whilst other accounts recognize the selflessness of the sin-eater, that he was “taking upon himself the sins of the deceased, who, thus freed, would not walk after death”. A known practice in Great Britain, definitively recorded during the late-17th century, it is believed the last professional sin-eater in England died in 1906; a Shropshire farmer named Richard Munslow, an account of his specific method survives, detailing that he would eat bread and ale, before making a short speech: “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
Gaëtan Dugas; date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

11. Gaëtan Dugas, the so-called “Patient Zero”, was blamed for the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in the United States in the 1980s

Gaëtan Dugas (1953-1984) was a gay Canadian flight attendant and early HIV patient, who during the 1980s was labeled as “patient zero” for AIDS in the United States. In the course of his work for Air Canada, Dugas claimed to have had over 2,500 homosexual partners across North America from 1972; misidentified as “patient zero” in the popular media after a Center for Disease Control researcher referred to Dugas as “patient O”, meaning “outside California” and not the number 0, Dugas was subsequently, and posthumously, blamed personally for the outbreak and spread of the disease in the United States.

Initial medical understanding of HIV was extremely limited, so much so that it was, in fact, originally referred to as “GRID” or gay-related immune deficiency, and a study published in The American Journal of Medicine in 1984 traced several early cases of infection to an unnamed gay male flight attendant. After Dugas was posthumously identified as this person he was subjected to unprecedented public shaming and vilification, being depicted as a sociopathic monster who deliberately sought to infect others.

In the years since the emergence of HIV in the United States, Dugas’s status as the one and only source has been thoroughly debunked, with modern analysis demonstrating that “on the family tree of the virus, Dugas fell in the middle, not at the beginning”; a 2016 study likewise found “neither biological nor historical evidence that he was the primary case in the US or for subtype B as a whole.” Furthermore, the “patient zero” hypothesis, in general, has been heavily discredited by modern medical research; instead of a singular source of HIV, scientists have traced the source of the disease to a multitude of potential individuals simultaneously throughout the 1970s.

Moreover, the average length of time between sexual contact with an infected individual and the emergence of symptoms was ten and a half months, with some persons remaining undiagnosed for years; as Dr. Robert Grant of the University of California poignantly stated in defense of Dugas: “Just because you are the first to be diagnosed doesn’t mean you started the epidemic.”

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
Grigori Rasputin; date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

10. Rasputin was contemporaneously blamed for the Russian Revolution and the destruction of the Romanov royal dynasty

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin (1869-1916) was a Russian mystic, holy man, and a close friend of the Romanov royal family of Imperial Russia during its downfall. Although holding no official position in the Russian Orthodox Church Rasputin successfully rose to a popular standing within the religious community of St. Petersburg, first meeting Tsar Nicholas II on November 1, 1905, and from 1906 serving as a healer for the royal household, in particular to the Tsar’s only son and heir Alexei who suffered from hemophilia.

Developing a close relationship with Tsarina Alexandra through his ability to ease the pain of her beloved son, with historians concluding the Tsarina as having a “passionate attachment” to the nomadic monk, Rasputin exploited his standing with the royal family to extract bribes and sexual favors from those seeking his patronage; in so doing Rasputin quickly became a highly controversial figure in Russian society, with many accusing him of heresy, sedition, espionage, and a popular rumor begun that he was having an affair with the Tsarina.

Whilst this behavior was tolerated and protected as long as the Tsar was unchallenged in his authority, as the First World War proceeded poorly for Russia he increasingly became the figure held responsible for the nation’s misfortunes. Eventually, after an early assassination attempt by stabbing in 1914, a group of nobles murdered Rasputin on December 30, 1916; after first being given cakes and wine laced with cyanide to no effect, Rasputin was shot three times by Prince Felix Yusupov and right-wing politician Vladimir Purishkevich.

Throughout his association with the Romanovs, Rasputin was repeatedly employed as a scapegoat for the ill fortune of the Russian Empire, particularly after the advent of World War I; similarly, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917 Rasputin was commonly blamed for contributing to anti-Romanov propaganda and fueling dissent against the monarchy. However, although his behavior was highly questionable, it is unfair for Rasputin to be blamed for the downfall of the already widely disliked royal family he befriended, enjoying no control over the scandalous rumors and stories concerning his person and seemingly having far less influence over government policy than popularly depicted.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
Bill Buckner, during his infamous 1986 season with the Boston Red Sox. Wikimedia Commons.

9. Bill Buckner was personally blamed for the loss of the 1986 World Series after he failed to catch an easy ball against the New York Mets

William Joseph Buckner (b. December 14, 1949), colloquially known as Bill, is a former professional first baseman who played in the United States’ Major League Baseball (MLB) from 1969 to 1990. Recording an accumulative 2,700 hits throughout his career, during which time he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cub, Boston Red Sox, California Angels, and Kansas City Royals, Buckner batted in 1,208 runs and hit 174 home runs.

During the sixth game of the 1986 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets, with the seven-game series 3-2 respectively, the game went into extra innings. At a critical moment, Mookie Wilson hit a slow roller to Buckner’s first base and in his attempt to prevent Wilson reaching the base Buckner failed to collect the ball; instead, the ball rolled to the side of Buckner’s glove and through his legs into right field, allowing Ray Knight to score the winning run from second base.

The Mets would go on to win the series and deny the Red Sox what would have been their first victory since 1918, with Buckner becoming a scapegoat and personally blamed for the defeat. Buckner began receiving death threats, in addition to being harassed and booed by his own fans, and the inaccurate belief that had he caught the ball the Red Sox would have won the series became widespread popular opinion; the following year, Buckner was released from his contract by the Red Sox, despite recording a proficient .273 batting average. The so-called “Buckner Ball” has since become a valuable artifact among collectors, with Charlie Sheen purchasing the ball in 1992 for $93,000 and it was most recently sold in 2012 for $418,250.

It is now popularly believed by experts that Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans was at fault for failing to back up Buckner sufficiently. Furthermore, Boston manager John McNamara’s choice to deploy Buckner instead of Dave Stapleton has been called into question; Buckner was severely injured, in fact being the first player to wear high-top baseball cleats in an effort to relieve the pain from his chronic ankle problems, and was routinely replaced in the late-game by Stapleton.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
William Murray, 1st Earl Dysart, by David Paton (17th Century). Wikimedia Commons.

8. William Murray was Charles I’s whipping boy, receiving corporal punishment for the young prince’s transgressions and rewarded for his pains with an earldom

William Murray (1600-1655) was the whipping boy of the young Charles I of England, later becoming the first Earl of Dysart and a close advisor to the ill-fated king. During the early modern period of Europe, a whipping boy was a lesser child granted the privilege of education alongside a prince and in exchange received corporal punishment on behalf of the royal person; as the teacher was inferior in social status to the prince, especially to a crown prince, he was unable to administer a beating and it was believed that seeing a friend punished on his behalf would inspire the prince to not learn and not recommit the offense.

Beginning his friendship with the young Prince Charles at an early age when his uncle, Thomas Murray, took his nephew to court for the opportunity of a royal education, Murray and Charles became close friends; the latter appointed Murray as one of the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber in 1626, retaining his services throughout his tenure as monarch. Granted the lease of Ham House, an extravagant estate close to the royal palaces of London, Murray remained a key advisor to King Charles I during his turbulent reign and frequently used his position to procure favors; in spite of this loyalty, Murray was unintentionally responsible for the leaked plans to arrest five members of the House of Commons when he told Lord Digby of the king’s intention, an act which set in motion the English Civil War.

Ennobled in 1643 by Charles I, becoming Lord Dysart, during the Civil War Murray traveled across Europe and Scotland in an attempt to procure support for his king, in the course of said duties being captured in February 1646 and released only on the condition he beseeched the king to yield to parliament. Arranging in secret for the king’s exile, Charles rejected his plans at the eleventh hour and Murray fled abroad alone; it is believed he later supported Charles II during his own exile at The Hague in the aftermath of Charles I’s execution in 1649. Murray died in December 1655 in Edinburgh, still awaiting the restoration of the English monarchy.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
J. Bruce Ismay, President of the White Star Line, in 1912. Wikimedia Commons.

7. J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, was blamed for the sinking of the Titanic and for his survival of the ship’s calamitous fate

Joseph Bruce Ismay (December 12, 1862 – October 17, 1937) was an English businessman most remembered for his tenure as the chairman and managing director of the White Star Line: the shipping company behind the RMS Titanic. Demanding a rival vessel to their competitor, Cunard Line, Ismay was an early advocate of the luxury ocean steamship later known as the Titanic and journeyed aboard the ship on its maiden voyage in April 1912; Ismay survived the sinking of the Titanic after it collided with an iceberg 400 miles south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, departing the doomed vessel on “Collapsible C” which launched less than 20 minutes before the submersion of the ship.

Despite Ismay’s clear emotional distress at the events, reportedly eating nothing during the remainder of the journey after rescue by the Carpathia and with one survivor stating that “I have never seen a man so completely wrecked”, the blame for the sinking was quickly attached to the businessman. Summoned before both Congress and a British inquiry, Ismay was tarred as the “Coward of the Titanic” and publicly shamed, depicted as a cruel tyrant and brutal murderer in the newspapers of the day. Rumors emerged that he had encouraged Captain Smith to attempt a faster voyage for greater publicity, a fact later debunked and was responsible for the lack of safety features aboard the ship. As a result of this popular belief, Ismay was forced to resign his positions, with his last official act ensuring all subsequent vessels of the International Mercantile Marine Company would carry sufficient lifeboat space for all passengers, and became a pariah within London society before dying in seclusion in 1937.

In all subsequent representations of the sinking of the Titanic this narrative has been maintained, including an infamous depiction of Ismay in dressing as a woman to sneak into a lifeboat and Paul Louden-Brown, consultant to the 1997 James Cameron directed-film, strongly protested the villainous portrayal in the blockbuster picture; Louden-Brown was informed that “under no circumstances are we prepared to adjust the script” because “this is what the public expect to see”. However, historical evidence strongly suggests Ismay was not, in fact, to blame for the sinking of the Titanic. The British inquiry led by Lord Mersey in the aftermath of the event found that Ismay categorically followed the “women and children first” policy and that “after rendering assistance to many passengers, found ‘C’ collapsible, the last boat on the starboard side, actually being lowered. No other people were there at the time. There was room for him and he jumped in. Had he not jumped in he would have merely have added one more life, namely his own, to the number of those lost”.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
Portrait by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1778). Wikimedia Commons.

6. Marie Antoinette was blamed by French society for the political and financial ills of the country and was later held responsible for stoking the underlying motivations which resulted in the French Revolution

Marie Antoinette (November 2, 1755 – October 16, 1793) was the daughter of Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and the Queen of France prior to the French Revolution; married to heir-apparent Louis-Auguste at the age of 14 in 1770, she was elevated just four years later to the title of Queen of France and Navarre. Originally popular within French society, by the 1780s her reputation had suffered significantly. At court, Antoinette was increasingly disliked for her unorthodox and excessive use of royal patronage; in particular, the appointment of the Duchesse de Polignac as Governess of the Enfants de France was met with severe disapproval due to the Duchesse’s comparatively modest birth. Her position suffered further due to her role in the dismissals of reformist ministers of finance Turgot in 1776 and Necker in 1781, who were seen as attempting to reign in the perceived indulgent spending of the royal family.

Within wider society, Marie Antoinette‘s standing grew even more tenuous, with rumors of infidelity spreading rapidly. Pamphlets describing her alleged sexual deviancy, among other members of her court, became items of common parlance across France, claiming intimate knowledge of her affairs with a variety of public figures; these rumors were unaided by her nationality, with French society viewing rival Austria as morally corrupt and Antoinette’s supposed lesbianism was considered the “German vice”. Complicating these mutterings, Antoinette gave birth in March 1785 to Louis Charles, Duke of Normandy, exactly nine months after a key speculative lover, Axel de Fersen, had returned to court. In combination with several other high-profile incidents, including the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace” and the noted extravagant expenses of the royal family, and the queen, in particular, Marie Antoinette became a figure of great dislike and a focal point of anti-monarchist criticism.

Known as “Madame Déficit” by the time of the French Revolution, with the financial crisis blamed heavily on her political interference and undue spending, on August 13, 1792, Marie Antoinette was imprisoned along with her husband in the Temple Prison; with the monarchy abolished on September 21 the trial of Marie Antoinette begun on October 14, 1793, culminating in a conviction for high treason and her execution by guillotine on the Place de la Révolution.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
Eve by Pantaleon Szyndler (1889). Wikimedia Commons.

5. The biblical figure of Eve is wrongly blamed for the fall of man from paradise and ascribed as the progenitor of the Christian fear of “original sin”

Eve is a legendary figure in the creation myth of the Abrahamic religious traditions, serving as the first woman. Created by God from the rib of Adam, the first man, so that he might enjoy companionship, Eve engages in conversation with a duplicitous serpent who encourages her to eat of the fruit from the tree of knowledge; in penance for this crime against God both Adam and Eve are exiled from paradise, with Eve additionally penalized with the roles of childbearing and subservience to her husband.

Due to her role in the fall of man, resulting in the pain and suffering of all mankind ever since, Eve is commonly held at fault and responsible in a similar manner to Pandora. The Apostle Paul promoted the submission of women due to Eve’s temptation of Adam, Tertullian blamed all women as responsible for the death of Christ to wash away her sins, and Saint Augustine’s enshrinement of the doctrine of “original sin” – which dictates that humanity exists in a state of sin as a result of our ancestral exile from Eden – was based on the sin of Eve; in a similar manner, the Council of Macon in 585 CE considered the issue that “woman” could not be included under the term “mankind” due to Eve’s misdeed, and throughout Renaissance art, the serpent of the garden was frequently depicted as that of Eve herself.

However, this interpretation is greatly unfair to the mythical character of Eve. Firstly, Eve was not present at God’s warning to Adam concerning the tree of knowledge; although Adam ate at Eve’s request, he was the one most informed concerning the proscription. Furthermore, as represented in scripture Adam is supposed to have dominion over Eve as her husband and master, and thus any mistakes by her are ultimately his responsibility. At best, Adam and Eve are equally at fault for the fall of mankind from paradise – if one even regards the eternal damnation proclaimed by God as justification for their meager sin – and thus Eve, like Pandora, serves as merely a scapegoat to relieve Adam, and more broadly men in general, of their sins.

You May Interested: Meet Lilith, Adam’s First Wife.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
Illustration from Harper’s Magazine in 1871: Mrs. O’Leary seeing her cow kicking over the lantern while she is milking. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
Alfred Dreyfus c. 1894. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
Leon Trotsky in 1929. German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons.

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.

18 Times In History That A Scapegoat was Blamed And People Fell For It
St. Michael Vanquishing Satan (1518) by Raphael, depicting Satan being cast out of heaven by Michael the Archangel as described in Revelation 12:7-8. Wikimedia Commons.

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:

Medium – The Life And Execution Of William Tyndale In 1536

Rolling Stone – Why the Beatles Broke Up

Biography – Did Yoko Ono Break Up the Beatles?

Pan Mcmillan – Who Were The Real Sin Eaters? Megan Campisi On The Truth Behind Her Novel And This Rare Post-Mortem Ritual

Atlas Obscura – The Worst Freelance Gig in History Was Being the Village Sin Eater

Express UK – Could Rasputin REALLY Heal The Sick?

History Collection – 12 Details About Rasputin’s Controversial Life

The Great Course Daily – “Paradise Lost” and the Innocence of Adam and Eve

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“Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People”, Charlie Campbell, Duckworth Publishing (2011)

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“A Probabilistic Analysis of the Sacco and Vanzetti Evidence”, Joseph Kadane and David Schum, Wiley Series in Probability and Mathematical Statistics (1996)

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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica: Sin-Eater. Study Light.Org

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“Bill Buckner’s critics are too harsh about Red Sox 1986 World Series”, Garry Brown, Massachusetts Live (October 30, 2010)

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“How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay”, Frances Wilson, Harper Perennial (2012)

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“People & Events: The Great Fire of 1871”, PBS (September 3, 2004)

“The O’Leary Legend”, Chicago History Museum (October 1, 2011)

“The Dreyfus Affair: The Story of the Most Infamous Miscarriage of Justice in French History”, Piers Paul Read (2012)

“Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary”, Dimitri Volkogonov, Free Press (1996)

“Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary”, Bertrand Patenaude, Harper Collins (2009)

“Satan in America: The Devil We Know”, Scott Poole, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers (2009)

“The Myth and Reality of Judaism: 82 Misconceptions Set Straight”, Simon Glustrom, Behrman House, Inc. (1989)

“The Origins of Satan”, Elaine Pagels, Vintage Publishers (1996)