People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History
People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History

People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History

Larry Holzwarth - July 15, 2021

People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History
Napoleon is considered an enlightened despot by some, a bloodthirsty tyrant by others. Wikimedia

13. Napoleon I continues to generate controversy among historians and scholars

Napoleon’s Empire of the French, at its peak in 1812, spanned the European continent from Spain to Russia. Within, the French Emperor established codified laws, removed the feudal system, established freedom of religion, developed free secular education, and modernized infrastructure. Nonetheless, driven by unrelenting British propaganda, a series of coalitions formed by the nations of Europe, chiefly Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain, fought for years to depose him. Unable to match his forces on land, Britain financed the wars conducted by Napoleon’s enemies and supported territorial gains if the Emperor was defeated. Meanwhile its fleets blockaded European ports and crushed free trade with France, even by neutral nations such as the United States. Most of the conflicts known as the Napoleonic Wars started in Coalitions against Napoleon fomented by British diplomacy.

Yet despite the modernization of the lands allied with or absorbed into the French Empire, Napoleon remains, in some circles, as a bloodthirsty tyrant set upon conquest and domination. The nearly 2 million lives lost in the Napoleonic Wars (some claim up to 6 million) supports the argument. To some, he remained the vilest European ruler of history until the emergence of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. The Napoleonic Wars began with Austrian and British attempts to restore the monarchy to revolutionary France. They continued, more or less, for another two decades before Napoleon’s first abdication, when a Bourbon monarch ascended to the French throne. Both vilified and lauded by history, Napoleon was a controversial figure during his lifetime, and has remained one ever since.

People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History
Lucrezia Borgia is often the stereotype of a femme fatale, though somewhat unjustly. Wikimedia

14. Lucrezia Borgia may or may not have been a murderer

Lucrezia Borgia has been vilified for centuries, as a conniving and cunning woman capable of murder. To some she poisoned several victims. The daughter of a Roman Catholic Cardinal who later reigned as Pope Alexander VI, she entered into an arranged marriage at the behest of her father, who wanted to ally himself with a powerful family. When the family’s support was no longer need Alexander annulled the first marriage and arranged another. A child born to the Borgia family prior to her second marriage was recognized first as her brother Cesare’s, and secondly as her father Alexander’s though the mother was never named. Rumors that she had borne the child followed her throughout the rest of her life. Her second marriage ended after less than two years, when her husband was murdered in 1500. Her brother Cesare may have ordered him killed.

Lucrezia’s third marriage lasted 17 years, during which she gave birth to eight children, though she maintained extramarital relationships throughout. But she also proved to be a capable administrator of the duchy of her husband, the Duke of Ferrara. A contemporary rumor that she killed former lovers when she was finished with them included her wearing a hollowed-out ring in which she carried poison. The Borgia family, known for extravagance throughout the Italian lands, were the subject of similar rumors throughout her life. Lucrezia bore a dozen or more children, depending on the sources, and numerous miscarriages. She died following the birth of a child in June, 1519. The child, a girl, died the same day. Lucrezia died ten days later, at the age of 39. Her name conjures images of an alluring but deadly woman to this day, probably undeservedly.

People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History
History usually depicts baseball’s legendary Ty Cobb as a hateful and hated man, somewhat inaccurately. Wikimedia

15. History is unfairly harsh on baseball legend Ty Cobb

During his playing career, Ty Cobb approached the game of baseball with openly displayed ferocity. His style of play led to numerous altercations with other players, fans, and occasionally sportswriters. He also took care of his money. As a star player in Detroit, Cobb invested in General Motors stock early in the corporation’s history. As a resident of a Georgia farm near Atlanta, Cobb supported a local business by investing early. That business was Coca-Cola, and Cobb, a major shareholder, grew wealthy from that investment alone. Still, he is remembered mainly as an antagonistic, quick-to-anger hothead, hated by his teammates and his opponents. Most of that reputation came from since discredited books by sportswriter Al Stump. Cobb certainly wasn’t beloved by fellow players, but he was widely respected for his approach to the game.

In retirement Cobb put his wealth to good use. He supported former players down on their luck, providing money and using extensive business contacts to help them find jobs. His first wife divorced him in 1947, and he married his second two years later, at the age of 62. He used his money to create the Cobb Memorial Hospital in Royston, Georgia, though he made the donation in his parents’ name. He gave another $100,000 to create the Cobb Educational Fund in Georgia. Today known as the Ty Cobb Educational Foundation, it has, as of April 2021, provided scholarships to needy students in excess of $19 million. At Cobb’s death in 1961 his estate was worth nearly $12 million (about $109 million today). A quarter of his wealth went to the Educational Fund, the rest divided up between children and grandchildren.

People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History
Captain Edward Smith commanded RMS Titanic on its ill-fated maiden voyage. Wikimedia

16. Captain Edward Smith is unfairly treated over Titanic’s collision with an iceberg

As one of the most senior captains serving the White Star Line, Edward Smith had the honor of commanding Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912. Though he was aware of the presence of ice reported in his path, he continued on course at a high rate of speed. He has since been condemned for such action as reckless, though it was standard practice at the time. All of the major ocean liners operated under rigidly held schedules regarding departures and arrivals. The schedules were often of supreme importance for passengers traveling for business purposes. Speculation, usually in fictional accounts of the voyage in films, that White Star Chairman J. Bruce Ismay ordered the Captain to maintain speed is unlikely. The order would not have been necessary. Smith would have continued as he did, relying on the lookouts to provide sufficient warning.

Obviously, they did not. Titanic struck an iceberg with a glancing blow, which sprung several hull plates and caused it to sink about two hours later. Conflicting reports of Smith’s behavior as the ship went down exist, with some claiming he actively worked to get as many as possible into the boats. Others claim he did little or nothing, and that he wasn’t seen on the boat deck at all. His duties would have taken him to the radio room, the signal rockets, and the bridge. He couldn’t have been everywhere at once. At any rate, he last appeared, according to one account, standing on his bridge. Others reported having seen him swimming in the water. Neither the collision nor the shortage of lifeboats was his fault. Nonetheless he is frequently criticized for steaming at speed toward an ice field, causing the loss of the ship.

People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History
Admiral Husband E. Kimmel (center) with aides in a conference at Pearl Harbor, 1941. US Navy

17. Admiral Husband Kimmel was unfairly blamed for the Pearl Harbor disaster

In May, 1940, the United States Pacific Fleet moved from its usual West Coast homeport to Pearl Harbor. Its commander, Admiral James Richardson, vocally opposed the move, claiming it unnecessarily placed the fleet in danger of attack. Richardson was relieved of his duties, and Husband E. Kimmel assumed them in February, 1941. He maintained the fleet at a high state of readiness for the remainder of the year. With the fleet in port, its aerial defense relied on the US Army Air Corps. In November Kimmel sent the aircraft carrier Enterprise to ferry aircraft to Wake Island. In the first week of December he sent USS Lexington, another carrier, on a similar mission to Midway Island. Thus, both carriers were absent Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. The American battleship fleet was heavily damaged in the attack.

Kimmel was relieved of his command on December 17, after having ordered a relief force to Wake Island. His successor, Admiral William Pye recalled the operation. Wake Island was left to hold out on its own. In Washington, President Roosevelt appointed the Roberts Commission to examine the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Commission presented its report in January, 1942. It found Kimmel, and his army counterpart General Walter Short, were both guilty of “dereliction of duty”. It also found both officers had erred in judgment, and exonerated all of their subordinates. Both officers claimed they were deprived of critical information by Washington prior to the attack. Kimmel retired early in 1942. Subsequent investigations and research have been more favorable to Kimmel, though he has never been exonerated for his role in the disaster. Nor has General Short.

People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History
Joseph Kennedy and family at Hyannisport in 1931. JFK LIbrary

18. Joseph P. Kennedy is widely villainized in America and Great Britain

Joseph P. Kennedy’s fortune began through stock manipulation, using techniques illegal today but acceptable in his time. He expanded it through investments in real estate and several businesses across the United States. In the 1920s he began investing in Hollywood movie studios, eventually combining several into RKO Studios. With the studios came theaters in which the films were shown. As it became evident that Prohibition would be repealed he acquired distribution rights for alcohol, along with a partner, James D. Roosevelt, son of Franklin Roosevelt. His large family became socially prominent, in the United States and in Great Britain, where Joseph served as the Ambassador to the Court of St. James. His pro-appeasement policies brought him into disfavor with FDR, and he returned to the United States with his political aspirations in ruins.

Since his second son, John Fitzgerald ran for President in 1960, he was accused of conspiring with organized crime in the United States, and of being a bootlegger during Prohibition. Neither accusation has ever been proved, and much evidence contradicts the accusations. He was a lifelong womanizer, a practice followed by each of his four sons. For the past 70 years he has been accused of a lifelong practice of criminal activity, nearly all of which comes from unsourced claims and outright falsehoods. His real foibles were bad enough. They included having his daughter Rose Marie lobotomized without the consent, or even knowledge, of her mother. It went badly. The Kennedy name became one of the most polarizing in American politics, despite their long record of service. Much it began with the man known as Old Joe.

People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History
Sam Sheppard served 10 years for murder before the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Cleveland Police Department

19. Sam Sheppard was convicted for murdering his wife, though later acquitted

In the early morning of July 4, 1954, Marilyn Sheppard was beaten to death in her bed in her Ohio home. Her husband, Dr. Sam Sheppard, reported hearing her screams and twice grappling with an intruder, once in the home and again outside. Both times the intruder, whom he described as “bushy-haired”, rendered him unconscious. After weeks of investigation marked with rampant media speculation, most of which claimed Dr. Sheppard murdered his wife, he was charged. One possible motive presented by the authorities was Sheppard’s having an extramarital affair. Newspaper headlines and radio and television reports assumed his guilt. Prior to the trial beginning in October, the judge, Edward J. Blythin, told New York journalist and celebrity Dorothy Kilgallen, “Well, he’s guilty as hell. There’s no question about it”. Convicted of second degree murder, Sheppard received a life sentence.

After years of unsuccessful appeals Sheppard’s attorney died, and F. Lee Bailey took over the case. Bailey succeeded in having the United States Supreme Court overturn the conviction, a decision in which they referred to the “carnival nature” of the trial. In a second trial for the murder, Bailey won an acquittal, vaulting him into national prominence. For the rest of his life the first verdict, for which he served ten years in prison, haunted Sheppard. Though other suspects and theories regarding the case have been proposed, none have definitively solved the case. Sheppard performed for a time as a professional wrestler (as “Killer” Sam Sheppard), remarried twice, and died in 1970 as a result of advanced alcoholism. He is still widely regarded as a murderer, in a case often presented in film and television.

People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History


20. Yoko Ono is still blamed by many for the dissolution of The Beatles

From early 1968 until the announcement made by Paul McCartney on April 10, 1970, the wildly popular band The Beatles grew more and more distant from each other. Despite the multiple factors which contributed to their breakup, including future management and projects, their fans immediately focused on John Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono, as the cause of their sudden disharmony. In truth it wasn’t sudden at all. Ringo Starr had temporarily left the band during 1968 recording sessions. George Harrison did the same during the recording sessions for the Get Back project in 1969. John Lennon announced his departure from the band in September of that year, though he was persuaded to keep the decision private for the time being. But Paul’s announcement made official what some already suspected, and Yoko Ono became the primary cause of the breakup.

Fans and the media speculated that Yoko had permanently damaged the relationship between John and Paul, the band’s principal songwriters. In fact, by the time she appeared in the public eye the two frequently worked alone, even during projects released as The Beatles. When John recorded his song, The Ballad of John and Yoko, released as a Beatles track, of the remaining three Beatles only Paul showed up to the session. Throughout the early 1970s Yoko bore the brunt of the blame for The Beatles’ breakup, a fact John resented and denied. Harrison and Starr supported John Lennon in several of his solo projects, but for business reasons McCartney remained distant. Many Beatles fans, supported by the mass of literature purporting to describe the history of the band, continue to blame Yoko for the end of one of the greatest performing and recording acts of history.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Brutus, the Noble Conspirator”. Matthew Leigh, History Today. April 12, 2018. Online

“Marie Antoinette 1655-1793”. Article, Chateau de Versailles. Online

“Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea”. Article, the Editors, Britannica Online

“Niccolo Machiavelli”. Biography, The Great Thinkers. Online

“Nero, the Man Behind the Myth”. Article, The British Museum. Online

“The Myth of ‘Bloody Mary'”. Meilan Solly, Smithsonian Magazine. March 12, 2020

“Sherman’s March to the Sea: Scorched Earth”. Dr. John F. Marszalek, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“Captain William Kidd”. Ben Johnson, Historic UK. Online

“The feud that never was”. Erica Jeal, The Guardian. December 18, 2003

“Sympathy for the Neville”. Robert Citino, National World War II Museum (US). August 30, 2018

“Captain Bligh’s cursed breadfruit”. Caroline Alexander, Smithsonian Magazine. September, 2009

“Ulysses S Grant” Article, The White House. Online

“Life of Napoleon Bonaparte”. John Abbott. 2005

“Lucrezia Borgia: Is her bad reputation deserved?” BBC History Extra. Online

“Young Philanthropist Lessons From Ty Cobb”. Peter Lipsett, America’s Future. August 21, 2020. Online’

“The Story of Captain Edward John Smith”. Article, The National Archives (UK). Online

“Admiral Kimmel’s Story”. Husband E. Kimmel. 1955

“Joe Kennedy” Article, The American Experience. Online

“Sheppard Murder Case”. Article, Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Online

“Paul McCartney” Yoko Ono didn’t break up the Beatles”. Hollie McKay, Fox News. May 17, 2013