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

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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 /

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.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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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:
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:

"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
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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