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
Antonio Salieri neither murdered Mozart nor held a long-standing feud with his fellow composer. Wikimedia

9. Antonio Salieri had nothing to do with the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The tale of Italian composer Antonio Salieri poisoning his rival in Vienna began with the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin in 1832. He included rumors and gossip which persisted that Mozart and Salieri had been rivals for the ear of the Emperor. Mozart’s popularity, according to Pushkin’s play Mozart and Salieri, led the Italian to poison his rival. In 1897 it was adapted into an opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Though not a particularly popular opera, it continued to be staged into the 1930s, keeping alive the rumors that Salieri poisoned Mozart out of jealousy. In truth, Salieri was the leading composer in Vienna during the time he knew Mozart, and one of the most sought teachers of music in Europe. Among his students were Beethoven, Liszt, Schubert, and Mozart’s own son, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart.

In the 1970s, playwright Peter Schaffer revived the story in his play, Amadeus. It later served as the basis for the award-winning film of the same name. It is true that Mozart and Salieri had occasional differences, though most of them came from the Austrian Mozart’s resentment of the influence of the Italians in the Emperor’s Court. At one point they jointly composed a piece for piano and voice, lost for decades before a manuscript was discovered in the Czech Museum of Music. During Mozart’s lifetime, he wrote in a letter of Salieri’s enthusiastic reception of his opera, The Magic Flute. Yet the persistent tale of the two being bitter rivals, leading Salieri to kill his fellow composer remains, despite efforts by historians, scholars, and musicians to quash it. In recent years, Salieri’s music, long forgotten, has been revived, despite many still believing he murdered Mozart.

People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History
Neville Chamberlain, long chastised for having appeased Adolf Hitler. Wikimedia

10. Many blame World War II on Neville Chamberlain’s policies of appeasement in the 1930s

As Nazi Germany grew in strength during the 1930s, its territorial ambitions were on display. Hitler demanded the expansion of Germany’s borders to include those territories of Europe where Germans resided prior to the treaty of Versailles. Such lands included the Alsace-Lorraine region, the Sudetenland, Austria, and others. His bloodless expansion of Germany reached a peak during the Czech crisis. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain negotiated a settlement which avoided war in Munich in September 1938. He had little choice in the matter. Britain remained unprepared for war, though Chamberlain had already initiated rearmament policies strengthening the army, the Royal Navy, and most importantly, the Royal Air Force. By the late winter of 1939, when Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia, thereby violating the Munich agreement, Chamberlain responded more forcefully.

The Royal Air Force and Britain’s chain of radar stations that allowed it to respond to attacks efficiently were built under Chamberlain. Later, Winston Churchill used both to enhance his own reputation and effectiveness as a war leader in his memoirs of World War II. In the same volumes, Churchill disparaged his predecessor with faint praise and outright omissions of fact. Chamberlain enjoyed wide popularity during his tenure as Prime Minister, including 68% approval ratings at the time of Munich. When he left office after Britain’s disastrous campaign in Norway, it remained above 60%. Subsequently, the writings of right-wing journalists and those of Churchill himself presented Chamberlain as weak, frightened, and fearful of war with Germany, utterly dominated by Adolf Hitler. In truth, Chamberlain bought badly needed time for the British and its Empire to prepare for the conflict which ensued.

People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History
William Bligh, in the uniform of a Rear Admiral in 1814. Wikimedia

11. William Bligh became the symbol of tyranny in the 1930s

William Bligh and the mutiny on his ship, His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty, were all but forgotten outside the circle of naval buffs by the 1930s. Then World War I veterans Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall published their romanticized trilogy of novels relating the tale. Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea, and Pitcairn’s Island all became best-sellers and were combined in the screenplay for the MGM film, Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935. Charles Laughton portrayed Captain Bligh, and Clark Gable had the role of Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutineers. As had the novel, the film depicted Bligh as a deranged tyrant, almost unspeakably cruel to his men. Fond of punishments such as flogging and keelhauling, and of starving his crew, Bligh symbolized the tyranny of unrestricted authority. His name became synonymous with cruelty.

It was wholly undeserved. Bligh’s logs and those of others who testified when he was court-martialed for losing Bounty depicted an officer concerned for the welfare and health of his crew. Following his court-martial, he was sent on a second mission to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica, in command of a larger vessel. During his absence powerful Manx families of the mutineers attacked his character, creating the myth of Bligh as an unrepentant tyrant. In two films subsequent to the 1935 version of the story, he was again portrayed as a mentally unstable Captain prone to violent attacks on his officers and men. Despite this enduring reputation, he served in the Royal Navy with distinction, earning the praise of Lord Nelson following the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Eventually, he retired as a Vice Admiral. History continues to villainize him 200 years later.

People Unfairly Judged and Villainized by History
Ulysses S Grant as a private businessman, in the years following his Presidency. Library of Congress

12. Ulysses S Grant is vilified for his war tactics and his corrupt Presidency.

Grant’s reputation as a general during the Civil War suffers from the high casualty rates suffered by his commands. Particularly during his Overland Campaign in 1864, Grant’s casualty lists, published in Northern newspapers, led to his being widely known as Butcher Grant. Rumors of his excessive drinking persisted throughout the war. Claims that his tactics relied on brute force, leading to the high casualty rates, dogged him during the war. Yet Grant accepted and agreed with Lincoln’s assessment of the war. The destruction of the Confederate Armies took precedent over the capture of territory. Once assigned as commander of all the Union armies Grant pursued that destruction relentlessly. And, as a percentage of the troops involved in combat, Robert E. Lee’s casualties often exceeded Grants. Yet Lee enjoyed the reputation of a brilliant tactician, while Grant did not, for a century after the war.

As President he initiated reforms which created the modern civil service, removing political patronage from the hiring of workers. He supported the rights of Blacks in the American South, and took steps to crush the Ku Klux Klan in the states of the former Confederacy. Yet his two administrations were marked with corruption, though through the activities of associates. Grant’s personal integrity, maligned during his lifetime by enemies and critics, has been proven irreproachable during his military and political career. During the Lost Cause period in the late 19th and early 20th century, Grant continued to be vilified while many of his former opponents, especially Robert E. Lee, were elevated to a point of reverence. Grant’s memoirs, completed shortly before his death from throat cancer, became an American classic regarded highly by critics, historians, and the public. Yet in many regions, he remains villainized by history.

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 needed 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 a 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 from 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 his 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
Yoko Ono (left), and John Lennon (right). Wikimedia

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:

“Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight”. Khalid Elhassan. History Collection. April 25, 2020

“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

“What caused Bligh’s crew to lead a mutiny on his ship, the Bounty, in 1789?”. Royal Museum Greenwich. 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