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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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Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter
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Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

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7 of History’s Most Unusual Riots
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Some sociologists theorize that most rioters only join a crowd because the crowd is big enough to justify joining. But there’s always that one person who sparks the violence, and sometimes the reason for doing so can seem pretty baffling. Maybe a work of art scandalizes its audience, like the famous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or maybe it’s simply a notable act of disrespect, like history’s first recorded mooning (in Jerusalem in the first century CE). From balloonists to brown dogs to daylight saving time, here are seven weird reasons things just got out of hand.

1. THE MELBOURNE DART RIOT

The Darts Invitational Challenge, an international tournament held in Melbourne, attracted international gawking in January 2015 during the finals match between Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen and Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. The dart players weren’t making a scene, though: Rather, hundreds of spectators, many of them drunk and in costume, began throwing plastic chairs as they watched (pictured above). The reasons for the fight remain unclear; footage and photos show police trying to control adults dressed as Oompa-Loompas, numerous superheroes, and, in one instance, in a ghillie suit (heavy camouflage meant to resemble foliage).

2. THE LEICESTER BALLOON RIOT

In 1864, balloonists were the great daredevils of their time, and a major draw for eager audiences. That summer, Henry Coxwell, a famous professional aeronaut, was set to make an appearance for 50,000 paying ticketholders in Leicester, England. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that he hadn’t brought his biggest and best balloon to the event. After heckling from the crowd, Coxwell deflated his balloon, and attendees rushed it, ripping it to shreds, setting it on fire, and threatening to visit the same fate on Coxwell. Rioters even paraded the remains of the balloon through the streets of town, which briefly brought residents a new nickname: Balloonatics.

3. THE TORONTO CLOWN AND FIREFIGHTER RIOT

Toronto was still a pretty rough place in the 1850s, but not so rough that the circus wouldn’t come to town. As it turns out, circus entertainers were also a tough lot back then, so when a group of off-duty clowns spent an evening at a brothel popular with the city’s firefighters on July 12, 1855, tensions came to a head. Accounts differ as to who started the fight, but after one firefighter knocked the hat off a clown things escalated into a full-on rabble intent on chasing the circus out of town. Only the mayor calling in the militia put an end to the uproar, an incident Torontonians credit with kicking off much-needed local police reforms.

4. THE BELGIAN NIGHT AT THE OPERA RIOT

A painting by Charles Soubre of the Belgian Revolution
Charles Soubre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many nations can claim their independence started with an aria, but for 19th-century Belgians sick of living under Dutch rule, an opera was just the right fuse for a revolution. To honor the birthday of King William I of the Netherlands, a theater in Brussels put on La Muette de Portici, about an uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. One song, "Amour Sacre de la Patrie" ("Sacred Love of the Fatherland"), aroused nationalistic passions so much that after the opera ended, the crowd began destroying factories and occupying government buildings. That was August 25, 1830; Belgium declared independence on October 4.

5. THE NEW YORK DOCTORS' RIOT

Hamilton fans, take note: Everyone’s favorite Founding Father once tried to quiet a mob bent on burning corpses. For centuries, anatomists and medical students relied on gruesome means to learn about the human body. Cadavers for dissection class often came from grave robbers, since the corpses of executed criminals were the only legal source—and they were in limited supply. In New York in 1788, rumors abounded that medical students were digging up paupers’ graves and black cemeteries. When one mob came after the doctors responsible, Alexander Hamilton tried, and failed, to restore the peace. The crowd swelled to about 5000 before militiamen intervened, leading to up to about 20 deaths.

6. THE BROWN DOG RIOTS

Photo of an anti-vivisection demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, to protest the removal from Battersea Park of the Brown Dog statue
The Anti-Vivisection Review, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riots against the dissection of dead human bodies were not rare in the United States at one time. But on December 10, 1907, a thousand Britons marched in support of vivisection, or surgery on live animals. At the center of the controversy was a small terrier allegedly vivisected without anesthetic in 1903 during a class at London’s University College. Animal rights activists erected a statue to the dog in 1906, which enraged area medical students, and protesters tried to destroy the statue using crowbars and hammers. For the 1907 march, 400 mounted police were deployed to contain marchers. The statue became such a flashpoint (and an expense to local authorities) that in 1910, it was removed and melted down.

7. THE EEL-PULLING RIOT

Palingtrekken (eel-pulling) was once a popular contest in Amsterdam, in which a writhing eel was suspended over a canal and hopefuls on boats would leap to snatch it as they passed beneath (usually landing in the water instead). However, “eel-pulling” was also illegal—the government deemed it a “cruel popular entertainment”—and in July 1886, police intervened at a particularly large gathering in the city’s Jordaan district. Civilians threw stones and bricks at police, and when some nearby socialist protestors joined them, a riot broke out that lasted for several days. The army finally intervened and opened fire on the protestors. All in all, 26 people died and 136 were wounded, but somehow, the eel itself at the center of the riots was allegedly saved and auctioned off in 1913.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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