16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others

Khalid Elhassan - September 13, 2018

In the movies and on TV, bad guys are usually depicted as clear cut baddies, personally repellent and often cartoonishly evil. Unfortunately, history shows that real life is usually more subtle than that, and that folk who are objectively terrible, or even outright monstrous, are often quite charming in person. Which makes sense, especially for those in positions of power: without some ability to charm enough loyal followers, they are unlikely to gain power in the first place, or hang on to it once they have it. After all, the modern era’s three worst monsters, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, all managed to convince millions of adoring followers that they were good guys.

Following are sixteen people, actually or reputedly terrible, who were also capable of being quite charming.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
Skulls from the Cambodian Genocide. New York Times

1. Pol Pot Was a Kind and Inspirational College Professor

Saloth Sar, better known to history as Pol Pot (1925 – 1998), was a Cambodian communist revolutionary who led the Khmer Rouge into seizing power in 1975. The country, which was renamed Democratic Kampuchea, was then transformed into a nightmarish ideological tyranny, masterfully depicted in the 1984 movie, The Killing Field.

During his years in power, roughly a quarter of Cambodia’s population was killed in a horrific genocide carried out by Pol Pot and his followers, that was made even worse by its irrationality. In an attempt at social engineering, Cambodian cities were evacuated, and the urban masses were forcibly converted into peasants toiling on poorly run collective farms. Roughly three million were murdered or starved to death before the nightmare ended when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979.

Monster though Pol Pot undoubtedly was, he was also a charismatic figure who gave little indication of what he would become. Born into a prosperous family, he received an elite education in Cambodia’s best schools, before moving to Paris, France, where he joined the French Communist Party. Upon returning to Cambodia, he became a college professor, teaching French and Geography, and was beloved by his students as a “very kind man“.

In those days, he frequently spoke on the themes of human decency and kindness, and was described as: “an attractive figure. His deep voice and calm gestures were reassuring. He seemed to be someone who could explain things in such a way that you came to love justice and honesty and hate corruption“. Some students remembered him as “calm, self-assured, smooth featured, honest, and persuasive, even hypnotic when speaking to small groups“. Many of those students became his most enthusiastic followers when he led the Khmer Rouge, and were among the most ruthless executioners of what came to be known as the Cambodian Genocide.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’. Pintrest

2. Captain Bligh Was an Inspirational Hero

In popular culture, Captain William Bligh (1754 – 1817) is the epitome of a tyrannical boss and cruel commanding officer. As portrayed in cinematic and fictional accounts of the mutiny on the Bounty, Bligh was an overbearing and despotic captain. He reportedly overworked, mistreated, and insulted his men, and was a sadist who gratuitously punished any who triggered his insecurities by flogging them to within an inch of their lives.

In reality, when viewed within the context and norms of his era, Bligh was a decent ship commander. He was no teddy bear, and frequently subjected his men to tongue lashings, but so did most captains back then. However, when it came to actual physical lashings, his men were flogged less frequently than were their peers sailing under other captains: Bligh preferred to chastise his crew verbally, instead of physically.

Also, unlike many captains of his day who neglected their crews’ wellbeing, Bligh invested significant time and effort in keeping his ship’s company healthy. He organized their shifts to ensure that they got plenty of rest, oversaw a daily exercise regimen, and saw to it that they got as highly nutritious a diet as was possible under the circumstances.

That his men eventually mutinied had little to with unbearable conditions or an impossible captain. The mutiny came about because, after an extremely long journey, the men had spent several weeks on leave in the tropical island paradise of Tahiti, partying it up with local women. When they finally sailed back home, the jarring contrast between the dreary ship life and the paradise they had left behind was too much, so they mutinied, ditched Bligh, and returned to Tahiti.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
Captain Bligh and his followers being cast adrift after the mutiny. The Telegraph

Bligh’s conduct after the mutiny was actually inspirational. After seizing the Bounty, the mutineers placed Bligh and 17 other sailors loyal to him on a 23 foot boat, gave them provisions for five days, and cast them adrift. Seeing as how they were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from civilization, Bligh and his followers were left to die. Instead, he demonstrated brilliant leadership under adversity. Bligh kept his men alive and navigated the dinky boat nearly 4000 until they reached civilization, all the while battling thirst, hunger, illness, and the occasional hostile natives. It was one of the most extraordinary feats of seamanship in history.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
King Edward I. ThoughtCo

3. The Bad King From ‘Braveheart’ Actually Wasn’t That Bad

Edward I (1272 – 1307) is best known today as the short tempered king from Braveheart, who invaded Scotland and wreaked havoc upon the locals for no discernable reason other than to slake his cruelty. In reality, he had been invited into Scotland by that kingdom’s fractious nobles, who wanted him to arbitrate between rival claimants for the throne and choose their next king. He eventually decided to keep Scotland for himself, but few in those days would have done different in his shoes.

While Edward could be pretty ruthless – even outright cruel at times – he was also capable of being likeable and charming. Indeed, until Braveheart wrecked his image, Edward had a pretty good reputation, as the most competent and influential king of the Plantagenet Dynasty. His long list of accomplishments include reforming England’s administration and laws, solidifying the common law, conquering Wales, and unifying Britain under his rule by exercising suzerainty over Scotland.

Edward started doing great stuff while he was still a teenager, when he successfully crushed a rebellion against his hapless father, king Henry III, known as the Second Barons’ War. He then went on a Crusade that solidified his reputation as a capable military commander. While on Crusade, he accomplished the rare feat of fighting off a killer of the Assassins cult, who tried to kill Edward in his sleep.

After becoming king, he spent decades codifying the legal system and ensuring the uniform administration of laws. He was also determined to enforce his primacy over Britain, and started off with Wales, which he subdued and brought into the English legal and administrative framework. He also increased the role of Parliament – not out of any love for democracy, but because he saw Parliament as a useful vessel for raising taxes to fund his military campaigns.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
King John of England. Discover Middle Ages

4. King John of England Was More Sad Than Bad

King John of England (1166 – 1216) is best known as the bad guy from the Robin Hood legend: the cowardly usurper who kept trying to seize the throne while his heroic brother, king Richard the Lionheart, was doing God’s work, fighting in the Crusades. While the reality was more complicated, and Richard was actually a bad king who detested England and the English, John was no saint: among other things, he personally murdered his teenaged nephew, Arthur of Brittany, in a drunken rage.

However, king John could also be quite a likeable fellow when he wanted to be. The problem was that he often did not bother to even try. So his reign ended up being disastrous for England: he lost his French holdings, got the Pope to excommunicate him and place England under an interdiction, and triggered a baronial rebellion that ended with the Magna Carta.

However, all of that came about not because John was a cartoonishly evil king, but because he was an epically incompetent one. His brother Richard was captured and imprisoned on his way back from the Crusades, so John tried to usurp the throne, but bungled it and ended up banished and had his property confiscated. When he became king, he entered into a disastrous marriage that cost him much of his holdings in France, then got into a ruinous war with the French king that cost him the rest.

At home, he got into an argument with an archbishop, that ended up with the Pope excommunicating John and all of England. Even when he tried to do the right thing and shifted some of the burden of taxation from the peasants to the wealthy nobles, it backfired, leading to a baronial rebellion that forced him to sign the Magna Carta. Fittingly, his final days were just as pathetic: while suffering a bout of dysentery that would ultimately do him in, he decided to take a shortcut through some marshy ground by a tidal estuary. The tide came, and John barely escaped drowning, but ended up losing his baggage train and the Crown Jewels of England.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
‘Alkibiades Being Taught by Socrates’, by Francois Andre Vincent, 1775. Wikimedia

5. Alikibiades Charmed and Betrayed His Way Through Classical Greece

Ancient Athenian aristocrat Alkibiades (450 – 404 BC) was a brilliant politician and general who had no ethics, sense of loyalty, or a functioning moral compass. What he did have was natural charisma in abundance, which made people overlook and forgive his venality, time after time. He was the most dynamic, fascinating, and catastrophic Athenian leader of the Classical era.

During the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, Alkibiades gained a reputation for courage and military talent, and was elected a general. In 415, he convinced Athens to send a massive expedition to invade Sicily. On the eve of sailing, however, statues of the god Hermes were desecrated, and suspicion fell upon Alkibiades, whose dissolute clique had a reputation for drunken vandalism and impiety.

After the expedition sailed to Sicily, he was summoned to return to Athens and stand trial. Rather than obey the summons, he fled and defected to Sparta. He advised the Spartans to adopt the strategy that culminated in the annihilation of Athens’ Sicilian expedition. Of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, few ever saw home again: those who were not massacred in the fighting were enslaved, then worked to death in Sicilian quarries.

Alikbiades also convinced the Spartans to change their strategy of marching into Athenian territory each year to burn and loot, then repeat that the following year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent fortified base near Athens, which allowed them to exert direct pressure on that city year round. He also went to Ionia, and stirred Athens’ allies and subjects into revolting.

Alkibiades thus helped bring Athens to the brink of collapse, but then wore out his welcome in Sparta after he was caught in bed with the wife of the Spartan king Agis II. Fleeing again, this time to the Persians, Alkibiades convinced them to adopt a strategy that would prolong the war as long as possible, keeping the Athenians and Spartans too busy fighting each other to challenge Persia’s interests.

Then, incongruously, Alkibiades convinced the Athenian fleet to accept him as its commander. From 411 to 408 BC, he led the Athenian navy in a dramatic recovery, winning a series of stunning victories that turned the war around, and suddenly it was Sparta that was reeling and on the verge of collapse. He returned to Athens in 407 BC, where he received a rapturous welcome, his earlier treasons forgiven and temporarily forgotten, and was given supreme command in conducting the war.

However, Athens turned on Alkibiades a few months later, after a minor naval defeat when he was absent from the fleet. He fled again, and having burned bridges with all sides, holed up in a Thracian castle, before taking refuge in Phrygia. There, a Spartan delegation convinced Phrygia’s Persian governor to have Alkibiades murdered in 404 BC.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
Hassan al Sabbah. Vidas Famosas

6. The Old Man of the Mountain

Sheik Hassan al Sabah (1034 – 1124) was a charismatic but shady Islamic scholar who founded the Assassins cult, which terrorized the Middle East for a century and a half. He started in 1090 by seizing Alamout Castle in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea. His followers expanded from there to establish a series of remote mountain fortresses in the highlands of Persia and Syria, earning Sabah the nickname Old Man of the Mountain.

He reportedly had so much charm that he convinced recruits that he held the keys to paradise, aided by innovative brainwashing techniques. Prospects would be summoned to an Assassin fortress, housed in bare cells, and subjected to daily religious lectures, during which it would gradually be hinted that the Sheik held the keys to paradise. Then, a promising recruit would be drugged with hashish, earning the group the Arabic name “Hashashin” – eventually rendered into “Assassins” by Europeans.

The recruit came to, high on hash, amidst beautifully landscaped gardens, with gurgling streams meandering between trees ripe with fruit, and vines heavy with grapes. Tame deer and lambs frolicked about; peacocks wandered around, ruffling and spreading their plumes; and birds of paradise flitted above, filling the air with their song. The stunning surroundings were complemented by stunningly beautiful women to seduce the recruit and satisfy all his desires.

Plying the youth with wine and hash, and feeding him mouth watering delicacies, the temptresses would convince the besotted recruit that he was in paradise, and that his seductresses were the houris promised those who made it into heaven. Then, after days of delights and heavenly pleasures, the youth would be drugged senseless again, and removed from the gardens.

He would awake back in his bare cell, and informed that he had been in paradise, sent there by the grace of Sheik Sabah, who held the keys to heaven. The recruit would then be told that he could return to paradise, provided he died while killing the Sheik’s enemies. It was highly effective: suicide squads of horny fanatics, high on hash and desperate to die while killing the cult’s enemies, descended from the Assassins’ mountain holdfasts to terrorize the Middle East.

An early believer in “propaganda of the deed”, Sabah had his Assassins murder their victims in as dramatic and public a manner, to advertise his cult’s reach. It also struck fear into the hearts of leading men by fostering the perception that those targeted by the Assassins were dead men walking, no matter the precautions taken. Sabah’s cult survived him for nearly two centuries, until they were done in by the Mongols.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
Black Bart. Alchetron

7. Black Bart, the Gentleman Bandit

The “Gentleman Bandit” Black Bart, real name Charles Boles (1829 – circa 1888), was one of the Old West’s most charismatic outlaws. He joined the California Gold Rush in 1849, and spent a few years prospecting before returning east and settling in Illinois. He enlisted in an Illinois regiment during the Civil War, became Company First Sergeant within a year, and was brevetted as a lieutenant before his discharge in 1865.

He returned to prospecting for gold after the war, but had a run in with Wells Fargo agents in 1871 that left him vowing vengeance. He got his revenge by changing his name to Black Bart, after a character from a dime novel, and taking up a career as a highwayman. He specialized in robbing Wells Fargo stagecoaches in northern California and southern Oregon.

He had an air of sophistication and polite charm about him while robbing people at gunpoint, and was thus viewed as a gentleman bandit. His modus operandi was to rob on foot, wielding a double barreled shotgun and clad in a linen duster and bowler hat, his face concealed by a flour sack with eyeholes cut into it. Halting the stagecoach, he would cover the driver with his shotgun while politely ordering him to throw down the strongbox. He would then order the driver to move on, recover the strongbox, and vanish. He never fired his weapon, and sometimes left behind handwritten poems, which further enhanced his notoriety and gained him yet another the nickname, “Black Bart the Poet”.

His career came to an end in 1883, when a robbery went bad and he was shot in the hand. Fleeing, he dropped some personal items, including a handkerchief with a laundry mark, that was eventually traced to a San Francisco laundromat and thence to Charles Boles. Under interrogation, he confessed to robbing Wells Fargo stagecoaches, but only before 1879, on the mistaken assumption that the statute of limitations had run out on robberies committed before that year.

Wells Fargo pressed charges only for the last robbery, and he was convicted and sentenced to 6 years, but was released early in 1888 for good behavior. In poor health, he did not return to his family, but wrote his wife that he was depressed and wanted to get away from everybody. He was last seen in a hotel in Visalia, CA, from which he vanished a month after regaining his freedom.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
Zabiba and the King. Bercodo Mundo

8. The ‘Butcher of Baghdad’ Penned Poetry and Maudlin Romances

“The Butcher of Baghdad”, Saddam Hussein (1937 – 2006), ruled Iraq from 1979 until his ouster in 2003, a period marked by extreme brutality, repression, and corruption at home, plus costly wars against his neighbors. At least a quarter of a million Iraqis were killed in a variety of purges and genocides by Saddam’s security services. Hundreds of thousands more Iraqis were killed in Saddam’s invasions of Iran and Kuwait.

He was also a smooth operator who knew how to lay on the charm when he wanted to. Indeed, on the day he was led to his execution, most of Saddam’s American guards had tears in their eyes at the impending death of the kindly old man they had come to know. Odder yet, Saddam had a maudlin streak, writing four steamy romance novels, plus numerous poems and poetry collections.

His best known novel is Zabibah and the King, a convoluted love story set in 7th century Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown. It revolves around the beautiful and brilliant Zabibah; her perverted husband; and a handsome ruler named Hussein. Each night, Zabibah is summoned to Hussein’s palace, where she fobs off Hussein by giving long political speeches.

Hussein eventually gets the hots for Zabibah’s, and sexual tension builds up between the duo. Her husband, fond of orgies and money and deviant sexual practices, is unhappy with the budding relationship between his wife and handsome Hussein. So hubby disguises himself and rapes Zabibah as she walks home from the palace one night in order to shame her. However, Hussein loves Zabibah too much to let that destroy the romance, so he goes after the perpetrator. After various adventures, Zabibah leads an army and is mortally wounded in battle, dying while proclaiming Arab nationalism with her last breath. Hussein kills the rapist, avenging Zabibah’s honor.

The novel was as unsubtle an allegory as it gets. Zabibah represents the Iraqi people. The rapist husband represents America. The rape represents the United States’ ousting of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, and is dated January 17th – the same date as the commencement of Operation Desert Storm. The heroic king Hussein is Saddam Hussein.

Knowing that they had better, Iraqi critics praised Zabibah as a literary masterpiece. It became a domestic best seller, with over a million copies flying off the shelves, and a musical appeared in Iraqi theaters. Saddam’s sycophants in the Iraqi Ministry of Information turned the novel into a twenty part television series, which aired on and was frequently rerun on Iraqi TV.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
Israel Beer. Mida

9. Israel Beer Charmed His Way Into the Highest Reaches of Israeli Government

Israel Beer (1912 – 1966) was a charismatic and well liked Israeli officer who rose to prominence as an expert on Israeli military history. That expertise secured him a high ranking position in the Israeli Ministry of Defense, which tasked him with writing a book on the Israeli War of Independence. It also won Beer a place as a trusted confidant and advisor of Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion.

Beer arrived in Palestine in the late 1930s with an impressive CV, having graduated from the Austrian military academy and served as an officer in the Austrian army. He then fought in the Spanish Civil War with the International Brigade, where he was known by the nom de guerre “Colonel Jose Gregorio”. Between his martial exploits, he managed to get a PhD in literature from the University of Vienna.

The resume was bunk: the real Israel Beer had died years earlier. His rapid rise highlighted the difficulty Israeli intelligence had during a period of mass immigration in spotting infiltrators. In reality, Beer was a Soviet spy, and not even a Jew. Supposedly a man of the sword and letters, urbane and handsome, he cut a swath through Israeli society and Tel Aviv’s nightlife as a ladies’ man. However, it took a long time before the fact that he was uncircumcised raised suspicions.

In the meantime, Beer took advantage of his access to Israeli secrets and Israel’s prime minister, whose diary he raided to not only photocopy, but to tear out entire pages and pass them on to his handlers. The deception finally fell apart in 1961, when he was caught delivering a briefcase stuffed with sensitive materials to the KGB. He never revealed his true identity during subsequent interrogations. He was tried and convicted of espionage, and sentenced to jail, where he died in 1966, taking the secret of his identity to his grave.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
Jonathan Wilde. Wikimedia

10. Jonathan Wilde Was a Crime Fighter and Criminal Kingpin

Eighteenth century English master criminal Jonathan Wilde (1682 – 1725) reigned over an underground kingdom of thieves and highwaymen, ran a far flung extortion racket, and was Britain’s biggest fence for stolen goods. After he feigned reform, the authorities turned to Wilde, gave him the title “Thief Taker”, and set him loose on the criminals running amok and terrorizing London at the time.

Wilde took to his new job and title with a passion, forming highly effective teams of thief catchers who fell upon the criminals with a will, breaking up gangs and sending criminals to the gallows by the dozen. During his thief catching career, at least 120 were executed based on Wilde’s testimony and information that he furnished the authorities.

As a side business, Wilde also had a gig as a private detective, recovering stolen goods for a fee. What he failed to tell his clients, however, was that their goods had been stolen by thieves working for Wilde, and that “recovery” simply came down to sifting through his warehouses of stolen property. Far from going legit, Wilde had hoodwinked everybody, and the Thief Catcher became an even bigger criminal kingpin, ridding himself of competitors by delivering them to the authorities.

He was finally brought down when a criminal double crossed by Wilde accused him of fencing stolen goods. An investigation confirmed the malfeasance, and Wilde was arrested. That was when many of his underlings turned crown’s evidence against him, and his whole scheme of simultaneously being England’s greatest crime fighter and greatest criminal came out. He was swiftly tried, convicted, and hanged at Tyburn, where he had sent so many others to their doom.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
Eric Gill. The Guardian

11. The Founder of the Charming Arts and Crafts Movement Was a Total Perv

Celebrated English sculptor, printmaker, and type face designer Eric Gill (1882 – 1940) created many of the fonts that are still in use today, and was named Royal Designer for Industry – Britain’s highest award for designers. He also played a leading role in the charming and cozy Arts and Crafts Movement that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which popularized the use of folk styles of decoration.

On the other hand, he was also a total pervert – a man of many contrasts, to say the least. He converted to Catholicism in 1913, and like many newcomers to a religion, he became a zealot, loudly and ostentatiously professing devoutness to his new faith. He founded a lay Catholic religious order with his wife and others, called The Guild of Saint Joseph and Saint Dominic, and went around wearing habits, with a chastity girdle beneath. The chastity girdle was merely aspirational, seeing as how it did not stop Gill from being a complete creep.

He had an obsession with sex, working it into almost anything. And his obsessions did not revolve around normal sex: he was into bestiality, incest, and pedophilia, was addicted to prostitutes, and abused his maids. One of Gill’s most famous sculptures, Ecstasy, depicts a couple passionately entwined. The model was his own sister – with whom he had a lifelong incestuous relationship – and her husband. Some of his most celebrated artwork used as models his own prepubescent daughters, whom he liked to draw nude in semi erotic poses.

Gill’s diary described his perversions in exhaustive detail: extramarital affairs, decades of sex with his sisters, incest with two of his daughters, plus bestiality with his dog. In short, Britain’s most celebrated sculptor, founder of a charming art movement, and one of the greatest artists of the modern era was the kind of person who would probably be behind bars or on a sex offender registry if he was alive today.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
Mao Zedong in his younger days. Wikimedia

12. China’s Chief Communist Was a Classical Poet Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm

China’s main Marxist theorist, Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976), was a guerrilla fighter, soldier, and statesman, who played the key role in his country’s communist revolution. He led the Chinese Communist Party from 1935 until his death, and after the communists won control in 1949, he ruled China until his demise. During his years in power, he was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions Chinese, killed outright by his followers, or starved to death because of his disastrous economic policies.

However, while a monster in many ways, Mao also oozed charisma when he wanted to lay it on, and there was more to him than just the revolutionary and man of action. He had a particular fondness for classical Chinese poetry and literature, and in addition to being a prolific mass murder, he was also a prolific writer and poet. Incongruously, for somebody so politically radical and revolutionary, he liked to compose and pen verses in classical Chinese forms. That would be analogous to a modern American anarchist who liked writing poems in the manner of Chaucer.

Mao’s education, like that of most intellectuals of his era, was based on a foundation of classical Chinese literature. However, while most of Mao’s contemporaries moved on to modern styles and themes, he stuck with the old. From his youth, he composed poetry in the classical style, and his image as a poet played a significant role in shaping his public persona as he rose to power in China.

He was actually considered a good poet, and not just by critics in China, who would have been foolhardy indeed to pan his poetry, but also by literary critics who were outside China and thus beyond his clutches. His poetry tended to be on romantic end of things, rather than the more modern realist genre, and hearkened back to the style of the Tang Dynasty, of the 7th to 9th centuries.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
William Kidd. Pintrest

13. Ruthless Pirate Was a Manhattan Socialite and Philanthropist

One of New York City’s most charismatic socialites and leading citizens, William Kidd (circa 1645 – 1701) was personal friends with at least three colonial governors of New York. A philanthropist, he played a leading role in building New York City’s now historic Trinity Church. There was little to indicate that he would end up swinging from the gallows, hanged as the notorious pirate, Captain Kidd.

His first sea command was as a privateer, commissioned in 1689 by the governor of Nevis to fight the French, with a letter of marque authorizing him to prey on French vessels for the duration of hostilities between Britain and France. His mission was expanded in 1695, when he received a roving commission to attack pirates in the Indian Ocean.

Things got off to a bad start: sailing out of London in a newly equipped ship, the 34 gun and 150 man crew Adventure Galley, Kidd offended a Royal Navy captain by failing to salute his warship. The captain retaliated by stopping the Adventure Galley, and seizing half of its crew to press them into the Royal Navy. Kidd crossed the Atlantic short-handed, and replenished his crew in New York with whatever unemployed seafarers he could find. Most them were hardened criminals and former pirates. Sailing into the Indian Ocean, a third of Kidd’s crew died of cholera by the time they reached the Comoros islands. To top it off, he was unable to find any of the pirates he had been sent to hunt down.

The enterprise seemed a failure, and the crew urged him to attack some passing vessels in order to make the voyage worth their time, and threatened to mutiny if he declined. Under pressure, Kidd reluctantly started attacking ships not covered by his privateering letters. He overcame his early scruples, and by 1698, Kidd had morphed into a full blown pirate. That year, he sealed his fate when he attacked a British East India Company ship. The powerful company exerted its influence in London, and Kidd was declared an outlaw.

By the time he returned to the American Colonies, Kidd’s public image had gone from charismatic socialite and philanthropist, to that of an infamous pirate. Worse for him, attitudes towards piracy had hardened during his absence, and changed from the leniency that had prevailed when he began his voyage. Now, crackdown was in the air, and the authorities were eager to make an example of somebody.

So Kidd was seriously unlucky to return when he did. He was arrested as soon as he docked in Boston, was clapped in chains, and shipped across the Atlantic for prosecution in London. There, his powerful contacts abandoned him in droves. He was swiftly tried and convicted, then hanged on May 23, 1701, with his corpse left to rot in a cage on the Thames for all to see.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
19th century illustration depicting Gilles de Rais’ victims and accomplices. Missed in History

14. French National Hero Was a Serial Child Rapist and Killer

French aristocrat Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440), was a respected knight, and a beloved national hero who oozed charm and rose to prominence as Joan of Arc’s right hand man. Then the veil was removed, and his popularity and career were cut short, along with his head, when it was discovered that, in his private life, he was an outright monster.

By age 15, Gilles had earned a reputation as an accomplished knight, and by the time Joan of Arc challenged the English in 1429, he was already one of France’s most celebrated military men. He was assigned to guard Joan of Arc, fought in several battles at her side, and became her chief lieutenant. In recognition of his services, king Charles VII honored Gilles de Rais by naming him Marshall of France.

He retired from the military in 1434, but he was not as good with money as he was with soldiers, and soon dissipated his inherited wealth with a recklessly lavish lifestyle. Within a year of retirement, Gilles lost most of his lands, and to raise more cash, he turned to alchemy in the hope of turning base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil.

He also turned to the serial rape, torture, and murder of children. In 1440, Gilles got into a tiff with local church figures, and things escalated until he ended up kidnapping a priest. That triggered an investigation of Gilles, which revealed that the celebrated national hero had been murdering children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the hundreds.

Gilles habitually lured peasant and lower class children to his castle with gifts, such as candies, toys, or clothing. After they were fed and pampered to put them at ease, the children were led to a bedroom where they were seized by Gilles and his accomplices. As he confessed, he derived sadistic pleasure from watching the kids’ fear when he explained what was in store for them: torture, sodomy, and murder, usually via decapitation.

The children and their clothing would then be burned, and their ashes dumped in a moat. After Gilles confessed to his crimes, he and he and his accomplices were sentenced to death. He was executed on October 26th, 1440, by burning and hanging, simultaneously. His deeds inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial wife killer.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
Charles Sobhraj. India Times

15. A Charismatic Conman Who Murdered Dozens on the Hippie Trail

Charles Sobhraj spent much of his childhood moving between Indochina and France. A delinquent from early on, he graduated from petty crimes to burglary, which got him sent to jail at age 18. A charismatic and manipulative sociopath, Sobhraj met and endeared himself to a rich prison volunteer, who introduced him to high society after his release. He used that to run scams and scout the homes of his new upper class circle so he could burglarize them.

He had to flee France in 1970 one step ahead of the law, and after a series of crimes that stretched from Eastern Europe to India, he ended up in Afghanistan. There, the charismatic Sobhraj preyed on tourists along the “Hippie Trail” – a route between Europe and South Asia, that was popular with Beatniks and Hippies from the 1950s to 1970s.

Sobhraj engaged in a variety of criminal schemes, including one with his brother that backfired, and left his sibling doing 18 years in a Turkish prison. Sobhraj then took a dark turn, graduated from scams and thefts to murder, and began piling up corpses all along the Hippie Trail. It is estimated that he murdered at least 20 Western tourists, and the actual count might be significantly higher.

He was finally caught in 1976, after he tried drugging some tourists in India, but screwed up the dosage. His intended victims remained conscious enough to realize what Sobhraj had tried to do, and overpowered him until police arrived. He was convicted of numerous offenses and imprisoned, but escaped in 1986 after drugging his prison guards, He stayed on the lam for a month before he was recaptured.

While behind bars, Sobhraj used his cunning and charisma to keep himself in the public eye and maintain his celebrity status. He made good money charging for interviews, and made even better money selling his Indian movie rights. Released in 1997, he returned to Paris, where he enjoyed a celebrity lifestyle, and sold his international movie rights for U$15 million. Karma caught up with him, however, when he unwisely travelled to Nepal in 2003. Nepalese authorities arrested him for a 1975 double murder, tried, convicted, and sentenced him to life. He is still (2018) locked up in Nepal.

16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others
Wernher von Braun (in business suit) with German officers. YouTube

16. The Founding Father of NASA and the Space Age Was a War Criminal

Wernher von Braun (1912 – 1977) was a genius, visionary, and brilliant engineering manager who created America’s space program. He is why we went to the Moon, and why someday we might go to and colonize Mars. A charismatic figure, he had a hit kids’ TV show to proselytize science and space. He was also responsible for the deaths of thousands of slave workers, who perished while building his rockets in WWII.

Von Braun was an SS officer who developed and built the world’s first ballistic missiles, the V-2 rockets. His rockets, with a one ton warhead, killed thousands of civilians in London, Antwerp, and other cities. After the war, he put up an oblivious scientist act, and pretended to have been too focused on his egghead work to have fully understood the horrors of the regime he served.

In reality, far from being oblivious, von Braun was a hands-on participant in war crimes. He personally supervised the manufacturing of rockets, using tens of thousands of slave laborers. About 20,000 of von Braun’s slave workers died of starvation, maltreatment, or were murdered by guards while building his rockets. He had firsthand knowledge of the horrific workplace conditions.

He was secretly moved to the US after the war in Operation Paperclip, which sought to make use of Nazi scientists, irrespective of their wartime activities. He worked for the US Army in developing a ballistic missile program, and he developed the rocket that launched America’s first space satellite. He joined NASA when it was created, oversaw the Saturn V rockets that got us to the Moon, and received the National Medal of Science in recognition.

Von Braun was history’s most influential rocket engineer. He contributed greatly to advancing the space sciences, and if we ever become a multiplanetary species – something many scientists see as the only safeguard against our extinction in the next millennium – it will be thanks in large part to him. Does that remove the stain of having been a loyal Nazi and member of the SS? Does that make up for the tens of thousands of slave laborers who died under his supervision in WWII? On balance, was the man a monster or a hero?


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Air & Space Magazine, January 1st, 2008 – How Much Did Wernher von Braun Know, and When Did He Know It?

All That is Interesting – Gilles de Rais, the Child Serial Killer Who Fought Alongside Joan of Arc

Cracked – 5 Reasons Horrible Dictators Always Catch Us Off Guard

Encyclopedia Britannica – Alcibiades, Athenian Politician and General

Encyclopedia Britannica – Mao Zedong

English Monarchs – Edward I, 1272 – 1307

Guardian, The, March 31st, 2011 – Dictator Lit: Saddam Hussein Tortured Metaphors, Too

Guardian, The, April 9th, 2017 – Eric Gill: Can We Separate the Artist From the Abuser?

Head Stuff – Jonathan Wild, the Thief-Taker General

Listverse – 10 Brutal Dictators With a Secret Soft Side

Mekong.Net – Pol Pot’s Charisma

Royal Museums, Greenwich – William Bligh

Shabak – Yisrael Bar (1961)

“The Serpent: Surgeon who saved serial killer Charles Sobhraj”. The Sun. Robin Perrie. 29 Jan 2021.

Telegraph, The, March 12th, 2017 – Mutiny on the Bounty: The True Story of Captain Bligh’s Mutineers

True West Magazine, October 11th, 2016 – October Was Black Bart’s Favorite

Vintage News – Captain William Kidd, the Unluckiest Pirate in History

Wikipedia – Hassan-i-Sabah

Wikipedia – John, King of England