Five Historical ‘Numbnuts’ We Owe an Apology To
It’s a grim truth of modern life that society needs punching bags. With no one to compare ourselves favorably, we’ll spiral down a dark hole of misguided self-help and Instagram influencers. The system works when we’re railing against true scumbags like Jeffrey Epstein or that woman who tackled a kid because she lost her own phone, but sometimes, we realize the target of our derision didn’t deserve it.
That’s happening faster than ever these days, resulting in countless headlines demanding justice for various Y2K whipping persons, but in the olden days, it could take decades. People could die before we went, “Oh, we were kind of a dick to them for no reason.” People like…
Rarely do the ostensible ramblings of accused murderers become memes, but in the 1980s, Lindy Chamberlain’s tearful insistence that a dingo ate her baby (though what she actually said was, “A dingo’s got my baby”) became a literal punchline. Seriously, it got huge laughs on Seinfeld.
The idea that Chamberlain’s infant daughter was taken by a dingo from their campsite in the Australian outback was considered so absurd that people showed up outside the courthouse where Chamberlain was tried for murder wearing T-shirts proclaiming, “The dingo is innocent!” She was convicted and served three years in prison before further investigations found fault with the “evidence” presented against her and the ensuing reasonable doubt forced her acquittal in 1988. But people were still pretty sure she did it, or at least that the possible mauling death of her daughter was funny. That Seinfeld episode, for example, is from 1991.
Finally, in 2012, the coroner ruled definitively for the first time that Chamberlain’s daughter had been killed by a dingo. It turns out we’d spent 30 years laughing at a woman who had witnessed the worst thing a parent can possibly see because the word “dingo” is fun to say. Of course, by then, all the sitcoms had gotten their jokes in, so nobody really cared. Sure, a woman’s life was torn apart, but at least we all got to bust out our Australian accents.
Robert H. Goddard
You know, we don’t go that hard on wacky science claims anymore. When someone insists they can, say, cure cancer by drinking pee, we mostly just become the “Lucille Bluth closing the door” GIF. Obviously, those people draw a lot of attention to themselves — it’s arguably their only goal. Robert H. Goddard was fairly secretive about his research on rockets, probably because he knew it sounded crazy. Still, in 1920, he was convinced to quietly publish a paper on his theories about how rockets could move in a vacuum and perhaps, one day, reach the moon.
His modest proposal was met with the kind of reaction you’d expect if he’d suggested shooting you personally into space with a cartoon cannon, which wasn’t exactly out of line with the general public’s understanding of rockets. Back then, they were mostly just fireworks, and it had been believed for a century that they needed air to push against, so it did kinda sound like he wanted to point some big ol’ Roman candles at the moon for no reason. That’s just because he was much smarter than everyone else, but that didn’t stop the press from assuming the opposite. One New York Times writer sneered that Goddard “seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools”; others nicknamed him the “Moon Man.” And after an experiment whose goal was clearly not so ambitious, one newspaper mocked him with the headline “Moon Rocket Misses Target by 238,799 1⁄2 Miles.”
Fortunately, Goddard didn’t let the haters get to him, and his work did indeed lead to the launch of Apollo 11. The next day, The New York Times published the correction, “It is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in the atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”
Sadly, Goddard was too dead to reply, “Suck iiiiiiit.”
If you washed your hands and subsequently failed to die from a gruesome infection today, you can thank Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who noticed in the 1840s that patients in an obstetric ward tended to die of postpartum infection a lot more than patients in another ward. He eventually concluded that the big difference was that doctors on one ward were also dissecting cadavers between patients and must have been spreading infection from dead bodies to living ones, instructed them to wash their hands and watched as infection rates fell dramatically. Bam! Science, bitch.
Outside Hungary, however, doctors weren’t nearly as excited by Semmelweis’s findings as he was. In fact, they were offended by the suggestion that they might have dirty hands, as if you get dipped in some kind of bacterial Teflon the day you graduate med school. They politely declined his recommendations, and he reacted the way we wish scientists would respond today to anti-vaxxers and COVID truthers: calling them a bunch of idiots. He published a series of increasingly aggressive open letters to his detractors, to the point that his family and colleagues were embarrassed to be associated with him, even though he was completely right.
As his work continued to be rejected by the medical community, he fell into a deep depression and began drinking heavily and behaving erratically, giving his humiliated associates just the excuse they needed to get rid of him. He died in a psychiatric institution, ironically of an infection probably transferred from an employee’s unwashed hands.
Pour one out for Semmelweiss, and by “one” we mean “a good squeeze of Purell.”
As the wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney general, Martha Mitchell’s politics weren’t unproblematic, but for all her bluster about feminism, you couldn’t call her an obedient wife either. She was a thorn in the side of liberals and conservatives alike whose favorite pastime was pouring herself a glass of whiskey and calling up reporters to share political secrets she’d gathered from eavesdropping on her husband’s conversations and rifling through his papers. Not a force of public good, perhaps, but a messy bitch after our own hearts.
But she did almost do some good after she recognized one of the men arrested for the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and did what she did best: got on the phone with one of her media contacts to tell them she was pretty sure the Committee to Reelect the President was involved. The reporter then heard Mitchell order someone to “get away” before the line went dead. According to Mitchell and the CIA guy she recognized, she was beaten, kidnapped and drugged over the course of several days in an attempt to keep her quiet. It didn’t work. As soon as she was released, she called the reporter back and said, “I’m black and blue. They don’t want me to talk.”
Again, that didn’t stop her, but the Nixon administration convinced the media that it was all just “Martha being Martha.” No one was ever charged for crimes against her, she continued to be a national laughingstock, her husband left her, and after he was convicted for his role in the Watergate scandal, he told reporters, “It could have been a hell of a lot worse. They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha.”
Nixon even told David Frost, “If it hadn’t been for Martha, there would have been no Watergate.” He meant that her “mental and emotional problems” were taking up so much of her husband’s time that he “wasn’t mindin’ that store,” but what he really meant was that she got him caught.
In 1891, C.Y. O’Connor was appointed Engineer-in-Chief of Western Australia and tasked with improving its railways, harbors and roads, and pretty much immediately, the Western Australian Parliament and media tasked themselves with preventing him from doing any of that. His first major project, Fremantle Harbour, was regarded about the same as Trump’s wall: hilariously expensive and logistically impossible anyway. Unlike Trump, however, O’Connor managed to secure the funding for and complete the harbor, which is still Western Australia’s largest and busiest general cargo port.
Thoroughly chastened, the government and media enthusiastically supported O’Connor’s other best-known project, a pipeline to supply water to the settlers in the Eastern Goldfields who were dying in droves of typhoid fever due to the lack of sanitation. Just kidding! They lodged the same complaints of “too expensive” and “won’t work” and also threw in libelous accusations of corruption for good measure.
Again, the Goldfields Pipeline was a success, but tragically, O’Connor ended his life before he got to see it. The cause of his 1902 suicide is unclear, but it’s generally accepted that relentless political attacks for the crime of improving infrastructure didn’t help, though there’s still a persistent myth that it was because the pipeline failed, which it clearly didn’t. Even in death, the man can’t catch a break, though his reputation has recovered considerably in the intervening century. You can find several monuments to him in Western Australia now, including a creepy-ass statue off the coast of the beach where O’Connor died, presumably to scare surfers into respecting nerds.