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8 Belated Apologies from the History Books

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In the 21st century, it’s very easy to get caught. Sexual indiscretions, racist tirades, drug abuse: It’s likely they’re all being recorded in some way, and glum-faced apologies delivered to the world via Oprah are daily news. But it wasn’t always so. Until recently you had to screw up pretty big to lay down a public mea culpa, usually after years of public outrage and long after the victims could be helped by it. 

1. “We’re sorry we had you burned at the stake. But you looked awful in those pants.”

When she was 13, saints in heaven began telling Joan of Arc to drive the English out of her native France. By the time she was 17, she was doing exactly that. She led her armies to retake half the country. When she was eventually captured, the English knew she was no ordinary prisoner of war. She was too inspirational, and so they needed to crush her. They told her if she recanted her visions and stopped wearing men’s clothes, they wouldn’t kill her. She obeyed, signing a confession she could not read. Days later she was back in men’s clothes, as the threat of rape in her cell had become a constant. This enabled the English to say she’d relapsed, and they burned the 19-year-old at the stake. Twenty years later, in 1450, her king, Charles VII, who had made no effort to save her from the English, decided it was safe to try and cleanse the stain of heresy from Joan’s name (and his own). He sought a retrial from the Church, who took six years to decide that Joan had been the victim of political corruption. She was declared a martyr, not a heretic, in 1456.

2. “We regret that we massacred that wagon train from Arkansas. But Utah makes everyone a little crazy.” 

One hundred and sixty years of shame and blame have muddled the details and motivations of why the Mountain Meadows Massacre ever took place. Everyone can agree that a Mormon militia and a handful of Paiute Indians slaughtered 120 members of an emigrant wagon train heading toward California. At that point in history, many Mormons were fearful of outsiders and the religious persecution they might bring. They bribed Paiute Indians to help attack the pioneers. After a long siege, the Mormon militia broached the encircled wagons waving a white flag. They coaxed the pioneers out, then ambushed and murdered all but 17 children under age 7, deemed too young to ever relate what had happened. Though the church has expressed regret in dribs and drabs over the years, the closest thing to an official apology came in 2007, when high-ranking Elder Henry B. Eyring made the statement, “What was done here long ago by members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct. We cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed here." Some descendants of the survivors couldn’t help but note the lack of the word “sorry” anywhere in the statement. 

3. “We’re sorry we convicted you of homosexuality and chemically castrated you. Also, thanks for inventing computers and saving our country in WWII.” 

So, Mr. Alan Turing. You were a genius mathematician. You laid the groundwork for all digital computers and invented the Turing Test. You were an Olympic qualifier in track and field. You kept the Germans at bay in WWII by cracking their impossible-to-crack cipher. And you were gay. Which is why, in 1952, England convicted you of "gross indecency and sexual perversion,” and forced you to take female hormones to curb your "unnatural" desires. You died of apparent suicide two years later. In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a public apology for the “appalling way” you were treated. Better yet, there is a bill in Parliament to pardon you. It’s so far been denied.

4. “I’m sorry my lies got you executed for witchcraft. All the kids were doing it!”

When Ann Putnam was 12, she would lay writhing and screaming on the ground, accusing local women of causing her invisible anguish. She was one of the young girls whose hysterics caused the death of 26 accused witches in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Ann was different, though. In 1706, she apologized for the innocent blood her accusations had spilt. Sorta. “I can truly and uprightly say, before God and man, I did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them; but what I did was ignorantly, being deluded by Satan.” Note how much worse the mischief is that teens get up to when they don’t have violent video games and cell phones. 

5. “I’m sorry I reported gayness as curable without doing any real research. That didn’t mess with your head or anything, did it?”

Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Spitzer literally wrote the book (DSM-III) about modern mental disorders. So when he declared in 2001 that if a person wanted it bad enough they could “cure” their gayness, it shook the psychiatric world. He did do a study, phone interviewing over 200 “reformed homosexuals” on their urges and happiness levels, but his research was sloppy and biased. Almost all his interviewees were sent to him from religious organizations, not to mention that people saying they feel different does not prove they have really changed. In 2012, Spitzer recanted his study. “I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some 'highly motivated' individuals.” Unlike most belated apologies, this one takes full responsibility, and may still help the people who hear it.

6. “We’re sorry we ate your missionaries.” 

Neither the descendants of missionary Rev. Thomas Baker, nor the descendants of the Fijian tribe that ate him in 1867, can remember what started it all. Some think it was because Baker violated a taboo by touching the Chief’s hair, but more likely it was just a general resistance to the spread of Christianity. At any rate, Baker and his Fijian converts were clubbed to death, roasted on flat rocks, and eaten. More than a century later, the villagers of Nubutautau believed that act had cursed their tribe, and gathered in 2003 to offer a powerful ceremonial apology to 10 of Baker’s Australian descendants. Peter Tale, a Fijian government official, said: "Many people were killed and eaten in the olden times. But we in this generation don't like it at all." Good. Just so we’re clear on that before my vacation to Lautoka. 

7. “I’m sorry I got photographed pretending to shoot guns designed to kill Americans. But seriously guys, communism is awesome.”

Jane Fonda: Actress, fitness guru, political activist, and despised traitor to America. At least, that’s what the general opinion was after photos were taken of her relaxing on and even looking into the sight of enemy anti-aircraft guns during the Vietnam War in 1972. Fonda approached peace from a different angle than most Americans liked, telling an audience at Michigan State University in 1970, “I would think that if you understood what communism was, you would hope, you would pray on your knees that we would someday become communists.” Toward the end of her tour, she claims she was exhausted and distracted and didn’t even notice what she was sitting on when all those photos started snapping. Those photos engendered a hatred of Fonda that still burns today, something her multiple apologies haven’t changed. “I was trying to help end the killing and the war, but there were times when I was thoughtless and careless about it and I'm very sorry that I hurt [military service members]," Fonda told Barbara Walters in 1988. "And I want to apologize to them and their families. [...] I will go to my grave regretting the photograph of me in an anti-aircraft gun, which looks like I was trying to shoot at American planes. It hurt so many soldiers.”

8. "We’re sorry we ruined your Olympic career and made you a national pariah. But seriously, supporting human rights? You kinda had it coming."

You’ve seen the picture. The winners' dais at the 1968 Olympics, the two black American medalists with their heads bowed, fists raised in the Black Power salute. Next to them is the white guy, Australian sprinter Peter Norman. It may look like he’s standing there hapless as history is made, but that wasn’t the case. He supported his fellow athletes, having promised them earlier that he’d “stand by them.” He wore a controversial badge, representing the Olympic Project for Human Rights. We may not have noticed, but his country sure did. Upon returning to Australia, Norman was decried as a disgrace for supporting Tommie Smith and John Carlos in their silent protest. Even though he was the fifth fastest sprinter in the world at the time (and still the record holder for Australia), he was banned from the 1972 Olympics, and his career was effectively over. He was offered the chance to condemn Smith and Carlos many times over the next decades, and refused to. In 2012, the Australian Parliament passed a motion which “apologises to Peter Norman for the treatment he received upon his return to Australia and the failure to fully recognise his inspirational role before his untimely death.” That death was in 2006. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers.

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17 Things to Know About René Descartes
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The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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8 Arresting Facts About Scotland Yard
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Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Depicted in fiction for well over a century as the world's premier police force, Scotland Yard might be the most famous banner for law enforcement in history. Though the name itself is officially a term for the location of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, it’s taken on a colloquial use to describe the collective brain trust of that station’s patrolmen and detectives. Here’s what we’ve deduced about the past, present, and future of this historic—and sometimes controversial—institution.

1. IT GOT ITS NAME FROM A TRICKY BIT OF GEOGRAPHY.

London didn’t have a formal police force until 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel arranged for a squad to replace the fractured system of watchmen, street patrols, and the River Police. Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne were tasked with organizing the force: Mayne’s house at 4 Whitehall Place opened to an adjacent courtyard that had once been a medieval palace that hosted Scottish royalty while they were in London. This “Great Scotland Yard,” which was also reportedly the name of the street behind the building, became synonymous with Rowan and Mayne’s efforts to create a new era in law enforcement.

2. CHARLES DICKENS TAGGED ALONG ON PATROLS.

Author Charles Dickens poses for a photo
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The renowned author of Great Expectations and other literary classics wasn’t a policeman, but he did perform the 19th-century equivalent of a ride-along. Dickens was friends with Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard inspector, and their relationship led to Dickens occasionally accompanying patrolmen on their nightly rounds. He even based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields.

3. THERE WERE DIRTY COPS AMONG THE RANKS IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.

For all of the public acceptance of Scotland Yard—Londoners were initially wary of the plainclothes cops walking among them—the squad suffered a sensational blow to its image in 1877. Known as the “Turf Fraud Scandal” or the “Trial of the Detectives,” the controversy erupted after a Parisian socialite named Madame de Goncourt was conned by two men named Harry Benson and William Kurr. Scotland Yard inspector Nathaniel Druscovich was dispatched to Amsterdam to capture a fleeing Benson while others pursued Kurr. The men proved surprisingly elusive, which prompted suspicion among Scotland Yard officials. When the two con men were finally arrested, they explained that an inspector named John Meiklejohn was taking bribes in exchange for tipping off Kurr to police activity. Two other policemen were implicated; the three each received two years in prison. The high-profile breach led to a reorganization, with the Yard inserting detectives into a new Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to help minimize misconduct.

4. THEY HELPED PIONEER FINGERPRINTING.

A Scotland Yard employee examines fingerprints
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At one time, the science of fingerprinting was more of a theory than anything that could be put into practice. Most police forces instead relied on anthropometry, a system created by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, which used 11 body measurements taken by calipers to provide a unique physical identity for an individual. While fingerprinting was beginning to take off in India in the late 1800s, the English-speaking world didn’t adopt the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints until 1901, when Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. In 1902, a billiard ball thief was convicted based on a fingerprint he left on a windowsill. In 1904, a Yard detective demonstrated the efficacy of fingerprinting at the St. Louis World’s Fair, helping spread the new science to American law enforcement officials.

5. THEIR PATROL OFFICERS DIDN’T CARRY GUNS UNTIL 1994.

The uniformed police officers who wander London’s streets with an eye on keeping the peace were unarmed for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1994 that select patrol officers were permitted to carry guns, a policy shift that stemmed from increased assaults on police. The addition of firearms was limited to armed response cars intended to be dispatched to high-risk calls; previously, officers were instructed to keep their weapons in a lockbox inside their vehicles. Today, 90 percent of Metropolitan police officers go on duty without a gun, a policy largely maintained in response to a relatively low number of guns carried by civilians. Less than four in 100 British citizens own a firearm.

6. THEY HAVE A SQUAD OF “SUPER RECOGNIZERS.”

A surveillance camera is posted in London
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

With surveillance cameras dotting London, facial recognition for identifying criminal suspects is in high demand. But no software can outperform Scotland Yard’s team of “super recognizers,” who are recruited for their ability to match a face to a name based on their own memory. These officers are hired by administering a facial recognition test first implemented by Harvard in 2009. Those in the top percentile have an uncanny ability to retain facial feature details and are often dispatched to cull out known criminals like pickpockets at public gatherings. One such specialist, Constable Gary Collins, identified 180 people out of 4000 while examining footage of the 2011 London riots. Software was able to identify exactly one.

7. THEY KEEP A SECRET CRIME MUSEUM HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC.

Housed across two floors at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London is the Black Museum, a macabre cavalcade of evidence from nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the collection houses body parts (gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of a murder victim) and seemingly innocuous items that take on sinister connotations: A set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh. It’s closed to the public, though visiting law enforcement and sometimes celebrities can secure an invite: Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have toured its inventory. A sample of the collection went on display at the Museum of London in 2015.  

8. YOU COULD LIVE THERE ONE DAY.

The former New Scotland Yard building at 10 Broadway
Jack Taylor, AFP/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Police have changed locations several times over the years. It was situated at its original location of 4 Whitehall Place from 1829 to 1890, then housed in a large Victorian building on the Victoria Embankment from 1890 until 1967. That’s when the operation was moved to a 600,000 square-foot building at 10 Broadway in Westminster: a famous revolving sign announced a New Scotland Yard was taking up residence. In 2014, the building was sold to investors from Abu Dhabi for $580 million: London cited operating expenses and budget cuts as the reasons for the sale. The buyers plan to mount a residential housing project in the spot. Scotland Yard staff moved to a trimmed-down facility at the Curtis Green Building in Westminster and within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament.   

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