Weird History
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People In History Who Were Unfairly Villainized

Updated August 12, 2021 32.7k votes 6.1k voters 214.4k views11 items

List RulesVote up the historic 'bad guys' who don't deserve their bad rap.

Separating the historic "good guys" from the historic "bad guys" is no easy task. Neither history nor humanity is black and white. And while some figures are easier to classify than others, the story is often complicated. In the cases of these historic figures, their bad reputation deserves a reevaluation. Whether it was Hollywood, propaganda from enemies, the media, or simply flawed public opinion of the time, their "villain edit" just wasn't fair.

Once in a while, history needs a rewrite, and these individuals deserve more than the negative light that was cast upon them. Vote up the people from history who are most deserving of a reputation reboot.

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  • Photo: Hot Coffee / HBO
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    Stella Liebeck

    The Villain Edit: In 1994, Stella Liebeck accidentally spilled her cup of hot McDonald's coffee on herself and decided to take the company to court. She was quickly mocked as a bumbling idiot who carelessly spilled an obviously hot beverage and expected corporate America to pay for it.

    The case came to exemplify frivolous lawsuits in the US, where anyone would sue for anything if they thought they could make a quick buck. After all, it's coffee. It's supposed to be hot.

    Why It's Unfair: Sure, customers like their hot coffee to be hot - but undrinkably so? McDonald's coffee at the time was kept between 180 and 190 degrees Farenheit (about 82 to 88 degrees Celsius). Food carries a burn hazard if it's more than 140° F (60° C). According to a McDonald's quality assurance manager, the company kept their coffee at a level that would burn your throat if you were to drink it.

    For Liebeck, who was 79 at the time, spilling her coffee resulted in third-degree burns on her legs and groin area that required hospitalization, extensive surgery, and skin grafts. And this wasn't the first time McDonald's had heard about the issue. Prior to the Liebeck case, they'd recieved 700 complaints from people who'd burned themselves with the coffee.

    Liebeck's reputation as a greedy and overly litigous consumer was also undeserved. She didn't even want to sue McDonald's; she merely requested they pay for her $20,000 medical bills. The company refused, which caused Liebeck to sue.

    She ultimately settled for a combination of compensatory and punitive damages worth around $640,000; the jury that originally heard her case had thought the payout should be $2.9 million. A judge presiding over the case described the corporation's actions as "reckless, callous, and willful."

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    • Photo: The Mummy Returns / Universal Pictures

      The Villain Edit: Mummies have gotten a bad rap since Hollywood decided they'd make the perfect risen-from-the-dead monster to wreak havoc on the big screen. Unfortunately for Imhotep, he was elected as the inspiration for the main villain in the 1932 classic The Mummy, its 1999 remake, and subsequent sequels and prequels of the franchise.

      In the films, Imhotep is a vengeful sociopath with supernatural powers, determined to bring his long-deceased lover back to life.

      Why It's Unfair: Sure, most film viewers probably know this isn't a documentary, but the movies hardly attempt to have any respect or regard for the actual people and culture they pull from. Even so, the 1999 remake director Stephen Sommers claimed, "Most of this movie is based on real myths and real legends even though it’s a story about a 3,000-year-old walking, talking corpse."  

      Is it, though? Not much is known about the real Imhotep, but from what we do know, he sounds like the antithesis of the movie villain. He was a commoner who worked his way up to hold important government positions under two different pharaohs. He was also an accomplished physician, engineer, priest, and architect who saved Egypt from famine and came up with the idea for the first pyramid.

      Imhotep did have a continued legacy long after his passing, but not in a haunt-your-dreams kind of way. He was deified by the Egyptians (a big honor for a commoner) and later by the Greeks as a god of medicine.

      • Birthplace: Memphis, Egypt
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    • Photo: Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

      The Villain Edit: As painted by the French revolutionaries, Marie Antoinette was a sex-crazed monster who slept on piles of money and bathed herself in the tears of poor people. She represented all the evils of excess, as embodied in her infamous quote, "Let them eat cake" - which she never actually said. 

      Why It's Unfair: While Antoinette certainly did have a taste for the finer things, she was mostly just a (very rich) person in the wrong place at the wrong time. She became a scapegoat for every problem in France, and didn't deserve much of the flak.

      The real Antoinette was a people person, far from the uncaring and cruel villain her enemies portrayed her to be. She loved children, and adopted several during her reign who couldn't otherwise be cared for or were in dire circumstances. She and Louis XVI were actually quite charitable. Antoinette herself would frequently visit poor families and provide financial assistance. She also established a home for unwed mothers. There are numerous examples of her personally going out of her way to help someone when she learned they were in need.

      Of course, France had a massive issue of economic disparity, and of course, Antoinette had no qualms about spending exorbitant amounts of money on luxurious personal items. But if anything, she was guilty of frivolity, and of not understanding her privilege - and did not deserve her gruesome fate.

      • Age: Dec. at 37 (1755-1793)
      • Birthplace: Europe, Austria, Vienna, Hofburg Palace, Central Europe
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    • Photo: Alexander Huey / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

      The Villain Edit: If you haven't heard of William Bligh specifically, you may have heard of the mutiny on his ship HMS Bounty in one of the many Hollywood versions of the incident.

      Bligh was the commanding officer of the merchant vessel that sailed from England to Tahiti in 1788. The mission was to collect breadfruit saplings from Tahiti and take them to the British colonies in the West Indies to feed the enslaved people there. However, Bligh and his crew had to bide their time in Tahiti for five months before the plants were ready for transport.

      Shortly after leaving Tahiti, a mutiny was led by Bligh's former BFF and protégé Fletcher Christian. Bligh and his 18 loyal crew members were forced onto a small, open boat with five days' worth of food and water, and abandoned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

      According to the many fictionalized adaptations of the event, Bligh deserved his mutiny and then some. He was a tyrannical and abusive commander who made life aboard the Bounty unbearable. The mutineers had no choice but to take over. After all, why would a group of men so brutally oust their own leader if he didn't deserve it?

      Why It's Unfair: For every account that makes Bligh look like a terrifying sadist, there's another that says he was the opposite. While he may not have always used the kindest words, it seems he would often choose words where other captains used violence. He was less inclined to flog and use physical punishment than was typical for the time, and paid particular attention to the health of his crew, ensuring they had appropriate rations and longer sleep shifts

      While such a long voyage at sea probably drained the crew, another theory proposes the mutiny wasn't motivated by Bligh at all. Rather, the mutineers had such a grand time partying in Tahiti that they wanted to return full time. Bligh himself suspected this was the reason for the mutiny, and the backstabbing party ended up doing just that. Meanwhile, Bligh and his supporters somehow managed to make it to safety in the Dutch East Indies after traversing 4,000 miles (6,500 kilometers) over 42 days. 

      • Age: Dec. at 63 (1754-1817)
      • Birthplace: Plymouth, United Kingdom
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