What Was the Biggest Scandal of All Time?

Graham Roumieu

Melissa Herrington, artist

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain forever altered and scandalized the established art world, challenging the very definition of art. But what if the founding father of conceptual art was actually a woman? Recent speculation is that Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the forgotten pioneering feminist, may be responsible for the most significant work of art of the 20th century.

Cynthia Herrup, history and law professor, USC

For duration, extent of damage, and betrayal of trust, no scandal matches the Catholic Church’s exploitation of authority over sexuality.

Jenna Glass, author, The Women’s War

Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of more than 300 young gymnasts is a crime, not a scandal. But the massive cover-up; the length of time it went on; and the number of adults who made excuses, ignored complaints, and chose to protect institutions instead of the gymnasts? That’s the biggest sports scandal ever.

Graham Roumieu

Kitty Kelley, biographer

A scandal is a soul-destroying event that rains down shame and disgrace. The most recent moral repugnancy is the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was dismembered in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul last year.

Kristin Hahn, writer and producer, Dumplin’, and author, In Search of Grace

Drag queens being outlawed in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy)—because a good drag show does the Lord’s work by celebrating the feminine in all of us.

Reader Responses

Leslie Ellen Brown, Spring Mills, Pa.

The bargain of 1877 between supporters of the Republican presidential candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Southern industrialists, restoring Southern power to the federal government.

Roger L. Albin, Ann Arbor, Mich.

The South Sea Bubble of 1720 was probably the first major financial crisis. It had everything: massive overvaluation of a questionable asset, dramatic collapse with deleterious systemic consequences, insider trading, bribery, and ineffectual subsequent regulation. We never learn.

Graham Roumieu

Maida Follini, Halifax, Nova Scotia

During and after his term as vice president, Aaron Burr conspired with the British to set up an independent country in the southwestern United States and parts of what is now Mexico. He was arrested for treason, but found not guilty.

Sanjiv Maheshwari, New Delhi, India

The Opium Wars, which Britain and France waged against China in the mid-19th century, with the aim of continuing to sell opium to the Chinese people. In the process, the imperial summer palace in Beijing was burned, and the Chinese ultimately ceded Hong Kong to Britain. The Chinese recall this period in their history as the “century of humiliation.”

Elinor Adams, Phoenix, Ariz.

The affair between Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds created the first major sex scandal in the U.S., and completely destroyed Hamilton’s political career.

Richard Marcovitz, Toronto, Ontario

The Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish French army captain was wrongly convicted of espionage. He was partially exonerated after political and intellectual leaders convinced many of their countrymen that Dreyfus was innocent—and that members of the ethnic majority should not collude to blame a problem on a member of a minority group.

Harvey Karten, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Peter Minuit’s conning the Lenape tribe in 1626 to sell Manhattan Island for 60 guilders’ worth of trade goods, or no more than $15,000 in today’s dollars. The value of real estate across Manhattan today is more than $1 trillion.

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