17 People in History Who Were Unfairly Painted as the Bad Guy

Some historical figures are celebrated for being forces of good in their societies as inventors, leaders, and philosophers. Others are remembered for their negative impact, but some are inaccurately portrayed. Here are 17 people who have been unfairly painted as the bad guy.

Richard III of England

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Richard III, England’s last Yorkist king, was depicted as an evil man for almost five hundred years after he died in 1485. William Shakespeare’s portrayal of the king significantly contributed to his villainous image, which historians now regard as excessive. Richard III advocated for legal reforms that benefited the common people of England, which doesn’t align with his historical portrayals.

Benedict Arnold

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Benedict Arnold is remembered primarily for his treason during the American Revolutionary War, overshadowing his substantial earlier contributions to the American cause, including his decisive victory at The Battle of Saratoga. Recent historical interpretations suggest his actions to defect to the British side were more complex, driven by disillusionment with the American leadership rather than mere personal gain.

Judas Iscariot 

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Judas has been traditionally vilified for betraying Jesus, and his name has become synonymous with treachery. Britannica notes that some texts portray him positively, notably the Greek 2nd-century Gospel of Judas, in which he “was the only apostle who understood Jesus’s message.”

Alan Turing 

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Despite Alan Turing’s groundbreaking work in computing and breaking the Enigma code during WWII, he faced persecution for his homosexuality. His criminal persecution for homosexual acts in 1952 and subsequent chemical castration highlight the unjust societal norms of the period. Recent recognitions, including a royal pardon in 2014 and calls for a statue to be erected in Trafalgar Square, underscore the unfairness of his post-war treatment. 

Galileo Galilei 

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Galileo Galilei is perhaps best known for his conflict with the Catholic Church over his support of heliocentrism, which often overshadows his scientific achievements. Recent Vatican statements have acknowledged his contributions to science, and Albert Einstein and Steven Hawking have praised him.

Joan of Arc 

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The English misrepresented Joan of Arc as a heretic and witch, leading to her execution rather than acknowledging her role in the Hundred Years’ War. Modern interpretations highlight her military genius and deep religious convictions, and the Catholic Church canonized her as a saint in 1920. 

Marie Antoinette

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Marie Antoinette, France’s last queen before the revolution, is often misrepresented as saying, “Let them eat cake,” a quote with no verifiable link to her. Antoinette allegedly gave the response after being told that starving peasants had no bread, and the quote has been cited as evidence of her obliviousness to her privilege. However, as Britannica notes, Antoinette likely didn’t say it, and the earliest known source connecting the two “was published more than 50 years after the French Revolution.”

Sacco and Vanzetti 

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These Italian immigrant anarchists were controversially convicted of murder in Braintree, Massachusetts, and later executed, reflecting the anti-immigrant and anti-radical sentiments of the time. Modern retrospectives view their case as a miscarriage of justice, influenced by the political climate and prejudices of the time. 

Gavrilo Princip 

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The Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the Bosnian Serb student Gavrilo Princip set off the July Crisis, a series of events that led to the outbreak of WWI. The assassination is often simplistically attributed as igniting the war, but some historians argue that war was inevitable due to the tense international relations of the era. 

Hedy Lamarr 

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Hedy Lamarr is often remembered solely for her Hollywood career, which overshadowed her significant contributions to technology, including the frequency-hopping spread spectrum. History notes that one of her technologies “laid a key foundation for future communication systems, including GPS, Bluetooth, and WiFi.”

Pontius Pilate 

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Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, is traditionally vilified in Christian narratives as the judge who sentenced Jesus to crucifixion. However, he is viewed more favorably by some Christian communities, including the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. 

Rosalind Franklin 

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James Watson and Francis Crick overshadowed Rosalind Franklin’s crucial contributions to the discovery of the DNA double helix structure at the time. Biography also explains that other scientists used one of her photographs that provided insights into DNA structure as “evidence to support their DNA model and took credit for the discovery.” 

Thomas More 

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Thomas More is best known for his satirical book Utopia and for his staunch refusal to acknowledge the self-appointed Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, which led to his execution. The Catholic Church venerates him as a saint, and recent historical discussions have emphasized his contributions to humanist literature and legal reform. 

Cleopatra

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Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator was often vilified in Roman historical accounts, portrayed as a manipulative seductress who overshadowed her political acumen and leadership qualities. History notes that she was “well-educated and clever,” speaking various languages when serving “as the dominant ruler in all three of her co-regencies.”

The Witches of Salem 

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The victims of Salem’s 1692 witch trials were murdered when fear, superstition, and tensions within the Puritan community in colonial Massachusetts led to mass hysteria. Modern interpretations view them as scapegoats caught in a web of hysteria, and they have been commemorated in a memorial. 

Nikola Tesla

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Nikola Tesla’s rivalry with Thomas Edison led to his being overshadowed and misrepresented in the AC electricity supply development narrative. Tesla’s eccentric personality and unorthodox ideas have contributed to his portrayal as impractical or out of touch. History notes that while he was famous and respected, he never translated “his copious inventions into long-term financial success—unlike his early employer and chief rival, Thomas Edison.”

Aaron Burr 

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Aaron Burr, a Founding Father and the third vice president of the United States, is known primarily for his duel with Alexander Hamilton, which overshadowed his political achievements and contributions as a statesman. Recent biographies and studies of Burr offer more nuanced understandings of his political ambitions and actions, challenging his one-dimensional villainous portrayals. 

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