A posthumous pardon is a form of symbolic redemption; a way of trying to right a wrong and redeem a reputation that had been tarnished for a long time. By definition, the person it is intended for is already dead, and that does prompt a discussion over the true merits of such a pardon. Some feel it is a waste of time and resources, others believe it remains necessary, even if it is overdue.
We’re not here to debate any of that. Instead, we are going to look at ten famous cases where historical figures received pardons decades, centuries, and, in some cases, even millennia after their deaths.
Back in 63 BC, a group of angry politicians, soldiers, and farmers led by Lucius Sergius Catilina (better known simply as Catiline) tried to stage a coup on the Roman Republic and overthrow by force the two ruling consuls, Cicero and Gaius Antonius Hybrida. Their plan didn’t work. The Catiline Conspiracy, as it was known, was exposed by Cicero, causing Catiline to flee Rome and later be defeated by Antonius at the Battle of Pistoria.
Meanwhile, back in Rome, Cicero exposed several other co-conspirators and had them executed without trial. For 2,000 years, this has been a blemish on the record of the famed orator and statesman, who has been accused of murder after embellishing the threat to the state posed by the conspirators to advance his own career. But now, after all this time, Cicero has been cleared of any wrongdoing in a trial held at the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
Of course, this wasn’t legit, but rather a mock trial organized by the charity Classics for All. Cicero’s defense was provided by King’s Counsel Ali Bajwa while the jury was comprised of 50 of his peers, all of them history buffs. The barrister noted at the outset of the trial the lengthy delay in bringing the case to court. He argued that the attempted coup brought the Roman Republic into a state of war and that Cicero acted lawfully as a head of state during such a time by purging the government of enemies within who were guilty of treason. The jury voted in Cicero’s favor by a vote of 28-22 and the Roman statesman was cleared of all charges.
9. Lenny Bruce
American comedian Lenny Bruce said a lot of things that upset and offended people. It was kind of his thing. Eventually, this started getting him into trouble with the law, as Bruce was arrested several times on obscenity charges during the 1960s. In all cases, he was either acquitted or had the charges dropped, but not in New York.
After performing in April 1964 at the Cafe Au Go Go, he was, once again, arrested for obscenity and, this time, he was prosecuted and found guilty following a highly-publicized six-month trial. Lenny Bruce was released on bail during his appeal but died of a drug overdose before it was decided on August 3, 1966.
Almost 40 years later, Bruce was cleared of any wrongdoing when he received the first posthumous pardon in New York State history courtesy of Governor George Pataki. The campaign to clear the comedian’s good and smutty name was spearheaded by his daughter and ex-wife, multiple prominent First Amendment activists, as well as entertainers such as Robin Williams, Penn & Teller, and the Smothers Brothers.
8. Henry Ossian Flipper
Henry Ossian Flipper made history in 1877 when he became the first Black American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point. He then earned a commission as a second lieutenant with the US Cavalry, joining one of the Buffalo Soldier regiments. After serving in the Apache Wars, Flipper was transferred to Fort Davis where he became the new quartermaster.
During his time there, some money went missing from the safe and Flipper was arrested and charged with embezzling. A court-martial in 1881 found him innocent of the main charge, but guilty of a secondary one which had been added during the trial – conduct unbecoming of an officer. For this, Flipper received a dishonorable discharge in 1882.
Ever since then, there has always been talk that the actions that led to the lieutenant’s dismissal were racially motivated. An Army review conducted at a later date indicated the same thing. Rumors suggested that Flipper might even have been set up by his commanding officer.
It took a long time, but Flipper eventually found justice. In 1976, the Army exonerated him and changed his dismissal to an honorable discharge. Then finally, in 1999, President Clinton gave him a full pardon and restored his good name.
7. Susan B. Anthony
President Trump also offered a full posthumous pardon to a person in a similar situation – 19th-century women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony who campaigned tirelessly to grant women the right to vote.
Back in 1873, she was the defendant in a trial that caused a bit of a brouhaha in the country after being arrested for voting illegally in the 1872 presidential elections. She wasn’t the only one who did this; fourteen other women from the same ward voted but none of them had the high profile of Anthony so the government didn’t bother taking them to trial.
The judge in the case, Supreme Court Justice Ward Hunt, already had an obvious negative view of women’s suffrage. He didn’t allow Anthony to speak until after the verdict and even directed the jury to find her guilty. The punishment wasn’t severe – a $100 fine – but Anthony still proudly announced in the courtroom that she would not pay a single cent. She knew what she was doing – she wanted to take her case all the way to the Supreme Court. The judge knew this, too, so he declared that Anthony would not be jailed for refusing to pay the fine, and the court took no further action.
6. Oscar Wilde
Nowadays, Oscar Wilde is hailed as one of the greatest writers of the English language, but people did not always have such a positive opinion of him. In fact, following a highly-publicized trial, Wilde was convicted of homosexual acts and did two years of hard labor that left him a weakened shell of his former self and brought on his death a short while later.
This drama started unexpectedly – with Wilde serving as the accuser, not the defendant. In 1895, the Marquess of Queensberry publicly denounced the playwright as a “posing sodomite” because he was having a secret liaison with the Marquess’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde decided to take him to court for criminal libel, but this turned out to be a terrible move because the nobleman produced evidence that he was telling the truth. The case against the Marquess was dropped and Wilde was then arrested for sodomy and gross indecency. He was found guilty and given the maximum sentence of two years of labor which left him frail and sickly. After being released, Wilde moved to France and died of meningitis three years later, although what caused the illness is still a matter of debate.
In 2017, Oscar Wilde and tens of thousands of other men in similar situations all received posthumous pardons after Turing’s Law went into effect, named after World War II codebreaker Alan Turing. But more on him later.
5. Jack Johnson
In 1908, boxer Jack Johnson pissed off a lot of racist white people when he became the first black world heavyweight champion in history. He pissed them off even further in 1910, after winning a match dubbed the “Fight of the Century.” His opponent was James Jeffries, a previously undefeated fighter who was billed as the “Great White Hope” and came out of retirement just to take the title away from the black boxer. When Johnson defeated Jeffries, race riots erupted in at least a dozen cities across the country.
The city of Chicago got its chance to take revenge on Johnson in 1912, only a few months after the boxer opened a swanky, desegrated nightclub named Cafe de Champion. A white woman from Minneapolis complained to the police that her daughter, who worked at the club, was in a relationship with Johnson after he somehow abducted her. The City Council passed a resolution to revoke the club’s liquor license, music was prevented from playing on the premises and Johnson wasn’t even allowed inside the building anymore.
Still, the city wanted even more, so when another white woman admitted that she, too, had an affair with the boxer and that the couple traveled across state lines, Johnson was arrested for violating the Mann Act which pertained to “white slave traffic.” He was found guilty and fled to Europe before eventually returning and serving his sentence. There was no doubt that the targeting of the boxer was racially motivated, so after a passionate campaign spearheaded by actor and boxing enthusiast Sylvester Stallone, Jack Johnson received a full pardon from President Trump in 2018.
4. Robert E. Lee
Following the Civil War, President Lincoln issued a general amnesty to the Confederates as long as they accepted the abolition of slavery and subscribed to an oath to “henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of States thereunder.” There were a few exceptions, though, including officers who held and resigned Army and Navy commissions in order to join the South. They could still receive clemency, they just needed to apply directly.
General Robert E. Lee, the man who led the Confederate Army, was among them. He accepted the oath and filed the petition but, somehow, the paperwork slipped through the cracks. Secretary of State William Seward usually gets the blame. As a final “screw you” to Lee, he received his petition and gave it to a friend as a souvenir, while instructing his underlings to “lose” the oath somewhere in the State Department records. A few years later, Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, issued a second amnesty which removed those exceptions. For whatever reason, Lee never followed up on his petition and he died in 1870, technically, stateless.
Fast-forward an entire century and an archivist going through old records found the general’s lost-lost oath inside the National Archives. After five more years of tedious bureaucracy, President Gerald Ford signed the congressional resolution on August 5, 1975, which granted Robert E. Lee a pardon and restored his full citizenship.
3. The Groveland Four
A particularly dark chapter in Florida’s history was the Groveland Four case. In 1949, four Black teenagers stood accused of raping a white woman and assaulting her husband in Groveland, Lake County, Florida. One of them, Ernest Thomas, went on the run and was caught by an angry mob and shot over 400 times. Another one, Samuel Shepherd, was killed by a sheriff after claiming that he tried to escape. The other two, Walter Irvin and Charles Greenlee, confessed after torture and were both found guilty and sent to prison. Irvin was paroled in 1968 and was found dead in his car a year later, while Greenlee became the only one able to put the whole ordeal behind him. He was paroled in 1962 and moved to Tennessee with his family, passing away in 2012.
Even during the 1950s, the Supreme Court ruled that the four men did not receive a fair trial. By the time the second trial came around, only two of them were still alive, and even if they were represented by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, they were still found guilty by an all-white jury.
It wasn’t until half a century later that the state of Florida recognized the injustice done to them. In 2019, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued a posthumous pardon to the Groveland Four, and two years later, a judge exonerated them of all charges.
2. Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great faced a similar trial to the aforementioned Cicero. And by similar, we mean identical. It was the same kind of mock trial organized by the charity Classics for All, just in a different year. As before, the trial took place at the UK Supreme Court, where the Macedonian king stood accused of war crimes during the burning of Persepolis. His defense was provided by King’s Counsel Patrick Gibbs, while King’s Counsel Philippe Sands served as prosecutor and Lord Leggatt, Justice of the Supreme Court, presided over the trial.
There was no debate over whether Alexander was responsible for the city’s destruction or not. We know he was. It was just a matter of the motivation behind it. The prosecution claimed that it was a deliberate political act, while the defense argued that it was merely a tragedy resulting from drunken behavior. We’ve all been there. Unfortunate, sure, but not a war crime.
In the end, the mighty conqueror walked out of the courtroom a free man, having been acquitted on all four counts of war crimes.
1. Alan Turing
Alan Turing was an English mathematician, computer scientist, and cryptanalyst. He was one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence and computer science and, as a codebreaker, was instrumental during World War II by helping the Allies crack coded messages from the Axis powers. Nowadays, there are like a bajillion things named after him, he’s on the £50 note, and he regularly features among the first in polls of greatest Britons who ever lived.
Unfortunately, in his own time, Turing wasn’t as appreciated for one reason – he was gay. In 1952, he was charged with “gross indecency” and pled guilty. To avoid prison, he accepted a hormonal treatment to reduce his libido, a process we now call chemical castration. Less than two years later, Turing committed suicide by cyanide poisoning, although some believe his death might have been accidental.
In 2009, the British government issued an apology for how Turing was treated, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown writing that he “deserved so much better.” Still, it wasn’t a pardon. In fact, a pardon was denied by then Justice Minister Lord McNally, reasoning that Turing was correctly convicted based on the laws at the time. Eventually, the queen stepped in and used a special exception known as the royal prerogative of mercy to grant a pardon to the computer scientist. Not only that, but in 2016 the UK passed the Alan Turing Law which granted retroactive pardons to all men who had been convicted for homosexual acts in the past, including the aforementioned Oscar Wilde.