5 Tyrants Who Died Relatively Peaceful Deaths (and 5 Who Weren't So Lucky)

According to Herodotus, when the Athenian lawgiver Solon visited Croesus, the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia, Croesus -- showing off his riches and sumptuous palace -- asked Solon who the happiest man in the world was, arrogantly assuming Solon’s answer would be the king himself.

But the king was disappointed and angry when Solon named other men, explaining, “Croesus, I see that thou art wonderfully rich, and art the lord of many nations; but with respect to that whereon thou questionest me, I have no answer to give, until I hear that thou hast closed thy life happily. .. He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of ‘happy.’” Croesus only realized the wisdom of Solon’s words some years later, when he was about to be burned alive by his captor, the victorious Persian King Cyrus.

Mark III Photonics / Shutterstock.com

Judging by this standard, or by pretty much any other standard you care to name, Muammar Qaddafi’s life did not end happily, a judgment that is confirmed by images of his battered, bloody body being dragged around after he was killed by angry Libyan rebels. Indeed, history shows that tyranny is a risky game. What follows are the stories of ten tyrants -- five “winners,” who met relatively peaceful ends, and five “losers,” who weren’t so lucky (suicide, being self-inflicted, doesn’t count as “losing” in this rubric).

The Winners

1. Mao Zedong (China)

One of the most prolific killers of the 20th century ended his days peacefully, enjoying absolute power to the very end of his life. After an arbitrary reign of terror that left anywhere from 30 million to 60 million Chinese dead, Mao died on September 9, 1976, at the age of 82.

Although there was no justice for Mao, happily his death led to the downfall of the notorious “Gang of Four,” a clique of radical officials led by his wife Jiang Qing, who were responsible for many of the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. After his death, Mao was given a Soviet-style embalming treatment so his body could be viewed (and worshipped) as a kind of living god… except, dead. In 1978, as the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution subsided, Deng Xiaoping took the reins of government and launched China on a course of reform and rapid economic growth that continues today.

2. Pol Pot (Cambodia)

The Khmer Rouge have to be one of the craziest, most murderous political movements that ever existed -- and that’s saying something. Marxists who paradoxically declared war on modernity, these fanatics were intent on turning Cambodia into a simple agricultural utopia. This involved decreeing the mass murder of city dwellers, merchants, teachers and other “intellectuals,” which in practice could mean anyone guilty of wearing glasses. Ultimately the Khmer Rouge slaughtered about two million of their fellow Cambodians from 1975-1979, urged on in their bloody work by Saloth Sar, a.k.a. “Brother No. 1,” a.k.a. Pol Pot (the nom de guerre probably came from the French politique potentielle, or “political potential,” of which he actually possessed very little). His potential for violence, on the other hand, was nearly limitless. An ill-advised invasion of Vietnam provoked a Vietnamese counter-invasion in 1978-1979, toppling Pol Pot and forcing the Khmer Rouge to retreat to the jungles of western Cambodia along the Thai border.

Pol Pot survived a mutiny and defection among his followers in 1996, only to be put under house arrest following an internal Khmer Rouge show trial in 1997. However he lived in peace and died of a heart attack on April 15, 1998, at the age of 77; his death saved him the indignity of a planned trial for genocide in front of the Hague War Crimes Tribunal.

3. Idi Amin (Uganda)

True, he wasn’t in the catbird seat until the very end, but the crazed Ugandan dictator still managed to have a fairly pleasant post-dictating retirement. After seizing power in 1971, Amin would be responsible for persecuting tens of thousands of South Asian immigrants (many of whom were driven out of the country after having their property seized) and also unleashed massacres against rival African ethnic groups, whom he accused of collaborating with Western imperialist spies, ultimately murdering about 300,000 people. He also tried to give safe harbor to Palestinian hijackers who forced an Air France plane land at Entebbe, Uganda, provoking a bloody commando operation by Israeli special forces to free scores of Israeli hostages. Oh, and he murdered and dismembered his wife and was also accused of being a cannibal for good measure.

Despite all this, Amin lived the good life after being toppled by a Tanzanian invasion (actually, a counter-invasion) in 1978, first hanging out with Qaddafi before jetting on to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where the Saudi royal family bankrolled a luxurious life in exile in return for (mostly) staying out of trouble.

4. Francisco Franco (Spain)

While he may rank somewhat lower on the brutal-o-meter than other dictators, Franco was nobody’s idea of a nice guy (favored means of extra-judicial murder: the garrote) and the Spanish dictator got off scot free. After winning the Spanish Civil War, when he shared responsibility for the infamous bombing of Guernica, Franco ruled from 1936-1975, during which time a further 30,000 political dissidents were probably executed at his order. His staunch anti-Communism also made him a natural, if uncomfortable, U.S. ally in the Cold War.

In his old age, Franco developed health problems including Parkinson’s, finally falling into a coma and dying on November 20, 1975, at the age of 82. But once again this story has a happy ending: in his final years Franco carefully laid the groundwork for a restoration of constitutional monarchy after his death, with King Juan Carlos serving as head of state for a democratic Spain.

5. Augusto Pinochet (Chile)

Like Franco, Augusto Pinochet steered clear of genocide but still managed to earn a well-deserved reputation as a vicious tyrant. After the CIA helped orchestrate the assassination of the commander-in-chief of the Chilean armed forces in 1970, Col. Pinochet took the top spot, where he was ideally positioned to overthrow the leftist president Salvador Allende and seize power in 1973. From 1973-1990, the Chilean dictator was probably responsible for the murder of some 3,197 leftist political opponents, most of them during a surge of violence immediately after the 1973 coup d’etat.

Pinochet stepped down as head of state in 1990 but continued to serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces until 1998, whereupon he became a lifetime member of the Chilean Senate, which served (for a time) to guarantee immunity from prosecution. Later, multiple attempts to prosecute him for crimes including murder, torture, tax evasion and corruption ultimately came to nothing: Pinochet died under house arrest on December 10, 2006, at the age of 91.

The Losers

1. Benito Mussolini (Italy)

The inventor of Fascism was actually a fairly weak ruler, as dictators go. After building a distinctly second-rate empire and foolishly plunging Italy into the Second World War on the side of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler’s BFF was humiliatingly deposed by his own Fascist Grand Council in July 1943, following the Allied invasion of Sicily. Mussolini would have been well-advised to sit the rest of the war out, but Hitler had other ideas: freed from captivity by a crack S.S. unit in a daring glider raid on his mountaintop prison in September 1943, Mussolini was reinstalled as dictator of the much-reduced Italian Social Republic, now under German domination.

But the tide of war had turned against the Axis, and the “Sawdust Caesar” had unquestionably worn out his welcome with the Italian people: on April 27, 1945, Italian partisans caught Mussolini and his mistress as they attempted to flee approaching Allied forces. The next day they were shot and their bodies hung upside down, on meat hooks, from a lamppost in the town square of Milan.

2. Saddam Hussein (Iraq)

© INA/Handout/Reuters/Corbis

Hussein was abundantly hated at home and abroad. At home, his vicious Mukhabarat secret police (just one of several organs of repression maintained by the paranoid dictator, who modeled himself on Stalin) killed tens of thousands of political dissidents and hapless victims who happened to run afoul of the regime. He also used nerve gas to kill at least 100,000 Kurds and Shiites during the Anfal genocide in 1986-1989, and slaughtered a similar number of Shiites during the rebellions against his regime in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Abroad, the Iraqi invasions of Iran and Kuwait earned him a reputation as a bloodthirsty serial aggressor (leaving up to one million Iranians dead in the Iran-Iraq war alone). He also tried to have President George H.W. Bush assassinated.

No surprise, then, that Hussein’s days were numbered after the second President Bush ordered the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. After evading U.S. forces for almost nine months, Hussein was captured on December 13, 2003, then tried by an Iraqi court on charges of genocide relating to the murder in 1982 of 148 Iraqi Shiites. He was found guilty on November 5, 2006, and executed on December 30 of that year. Thanks to lax security, an Iraqi observer was able to surreptitiously record the execution with a camera phone; the snuff film of Hussein’s hanging became a macabre viral hit on the Internet.

3. Hideki Tojo (Japan)

A general in the Imperial Army of Japan, Tojo first rose to become Army Minister, where he helped engineer the disastrous alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and played a key role in furthering Japanese aggression against China and French Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). In October 1941, he was appointed Prime Minister by Emperor Hirohito, which made him squarely responsible for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 of that year, as well as the numerous war crimes which followed, including (but not limited to) the Bataan Death March of U.S. prisoners of war in the Philippines, the enslavement of “comfort women,” and countless massacres of unarmed civilians and prisoners of war throughout Japanese-occupied territories in Asia and the Pacific.

Unsurprisingly, Tojo was high on the “to hang” list compiled by Allied forces, meeting his fate on December 23, 1948. During the downtime between the end of the war in 1945 and his execution three years later, an unusual extra bit of punishment was meted out by his American military dentist.

“Remember Pearl Harbor” was etched in Morse code on the back of Tojo’s dentures as a constant reminder of his misdeeds.

4. Vidkun Quisling (Norway)

When your last name ranks alongside Benedict Arnold’s as a synonym for traitor, you would be well-advised (like the Revolutionary turncoat) to steer well clear of the people you betrayed. The Norwegian traitor Vidkun Quisling learned this the hard way.

The leader of an authoritarian, Fascist-style movement in a country with little love for such things, Quisling remained a minor political figure until his big moment came in 1940, courtesy of the Nazi German invasion of his homeland in April 1940. Cravenly selling out Norwegian political independence, Quisling maneuvered to make himself the Nazi-backed dictator of Norway, earning the undying hatred of his countrymen, who continued to resist German occupation to the end of the Second World War. Quisling was arrested by Norwegian partisans in May 1945, tried in August, sentenced to death in September (despite attempts to distance himself from his Nazi backers and pleas of ill health) and executed by firing squad on October 24.

5. Nicolae Ceausescu (Romania)

To be the most-hated dictator in the former Warsaw Pact, beating out even the leaders of the former East Germany, is no small accomplishment. That honor goes to the Romanian Communist Nicolae Ceausescu, with an assist from his wife Elena, who was possibly hated even more than her husband.

The bizarre, arbitrary nature of their rule leaves little question why they were so hated: the 60,000-member Securitate secret police was rumored to eavesdrop on every household in Romania, while the paranoid couple moved between a network of luxurious palaces, where Elena kept hidden a vast collection of pornography, and Nicolae stockpiled literally thousands of tailored suits (each worn just once, then burned, out of fear his clothes might be used to poison him).

With Soviet power in Eastern Europe crumbling, in December 1989 the Ceausescus were finally overthrown in a bloody popular uprising, followed by a quick trial and execution to prevent their rescue by diehard supporters. Their crumpled bodies were shown on a national TV broadcast to reassure the Romanian public they were really dead. Several hundred soldiers had reportedly competed for the honor of serving in the firing squad.

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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