We may never know the actual number of people who died in the Great Fire of London. The colossal blaze that raged from September 3 to September 5, 1666 left more than 80 percent of the city in ruins and destroyed an estimated 70,000 homes. While only a few verified deaths were recorded, the absence of any formal listing of London's residents and the sheer heat of the flames which likely cremated many of the fire's victims makes it impossible to know the real death toll. Almost as soon as the fire was finally extinguished, the murmurs began regarding the true reason for the blaze. Numerous conspiracy theories sprang up over who set the fires. England was then at war with France and the Netherlands so any nationals from those countries were targeted. Catholics were a familiar target ("papists" usually were). Even King Charles II was believed by some to have ordered the fire to punish the people of London for the role that they played in his father's execution. Foreign residents were attacked in the street and lynchings occurred.
And then came Robert Hubert...
His confession to starting the Great Fire was never very convincing. He was a (possibly mentally ill) French immigrant who kept changing his confession as inconsistencies were pointed out to him. It isn't certain at this date why he confessed at all, whether it was mental illness or torture (or a combination of the two). While he mentioned having 23 other co-conspirators who helped him start the fire, there was no evidence to implicate anyone else. All that mattered was that he was an ideal scapegoat who would satisfy the conspiracy theorists. His trial was almost a foregone conclusion, especially with a biased jury. Contemporary accounts reported that "'Neither the judges, nor any present at the trial did believe him guilty; but that he was a poor distracted wretch, weary of his life, and chose to part with it in this way". Despite the doubt concerning the case, his hanging was well-attended by an angry crowd. As his body was taken down for dissection, it was literally torn to pieces by the mob. A later inquiry determined that Hubert had not even been in the country when the fire started but it was much too late by then. He passed into English history as an embarrassing footnote and the Great Fire was written off as an "Act of God".
The institution of scapegoat is an old one. The ancient Greeks had a tradition in which two men, known as Pharmakoi, would be led out on special holidays following a natural disaster and ritually stoned (and perhaps executed) to lift whatever misfortune led to the tragedy. The pharmakoi were usually slaves, crippled, or otherwise considered undesirable. According to tradition, Aesop met his death this way since he was both a slave and physically deformed. The word pharmakos entered the English language to become pharmacology through a long, tortuous route that I won't describe here (ask your pharmacist).
Through centuries of pogroms, blood libels, and inquisitions, the scapegoat process remains the same: identify the outsiders, attribute whatever social problem or disaster you like to them, and then remove them from our midst to take the evil with them. Much like with the Tripoli 6, for those of you who are following the story. In their case, they are being used as scapegoats by the Libyan government to divert attention from the negligent hospital practices that are really responsible for the estimated 500 HIV-infected children for whom they were blamed. The accused doctor and nurses were given death sentence that was upheld by the Libyan Supreme Court, but this has since been changed to life imprisonment. Their possible transfer to Bulgaria has been made a little more likely by a sizable financial settlement by the European Union, ostensibly to help the infected children (with a substantial overhead, no doubt). Unfortunately, there is considerable opposition to any transfer by the enraged families of the children who hold the medical team personally responsible for their plight and who are demanding that they be punished.
Robert Hubert would find it all very familiar.