Petain quelled the French Army’s 1917 mutinies with a carrot-and-stick mix of reforms to improve the soldiers’ living conditions, combined with the execution of the mutiny’s ringleaders. By war’s end, he was a beloved national hero. Two decades later, after the French collapse in 1940, an 84-year-old Petain was dragged out of retirement by the French president and asked to form a new government. Accepting that France had been defeated, and declining to continue the fight from overseas as urged by a junior minister, Charles de Gaulle, the aged marshal sought an armistice. The French legislature dissolved itself and ceded its powers to Petain.
Thus was born the collaborationist Vichy Regime, named after its capital in Vichy. It aligned itself with the Germans and against the French Resistance and Free French who continued the fight inside occupied France and abroad. After the war, Petain was tried on charges of high treason alongside Pierre Laval, the Vichy Regime’s other main collaborationist. Both were convicted and sentenced to death in 1945. However, in recognition of his WWI services, Charles de Gaulle, as head of the French government, commuted Petain’s sentence to solitary life imprisonment. He was jailed in a Pyrenees citadel, then in a fortress on a small island off France’s Atlantic coast until his death in 1951.
Muammar Qaddafi (1942 – 2011), commonly known as Colonel Qaddafi, was born near Sirte in then-Italian Libya into a poor Bedouin family. He joined the Libyan Army, rose to the rank of colonel, and overthrew the country’s monarchy in a 1969 coup. He made himself dictator until his overthrow and death in a popular uprising. While in power, Qaddafi bestowed upon himself the title of “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamihirya” of Libya.
US President Ronald Reagan bestowed upon him the title of “The Mad Dog of the Middle East”, shortly before sending American jets to bomb him. Qaddafi’s 42-year reign was marked by dramatic twists and turns. He morphed from advocating socialism to backing Islamic fundamentalism, and from being a key sponsor of international terrorism to an avid cooperator in the Global War on Terror. He was once a committed Arab nationalist but ended up reviling Arabs and turning to African nationalism instead.
22. The Dictator Smitten by an American Secretary of State
Muammar Qaddafi saw himself as a messiah. Modeling himself on Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book, Qaddafi published The Green Book, containing a political philosophy labeled The Third International Theory. It was a mix of direct democracy, Arab and African nationalism, and Islamic socialism, which Qaddafi presented as an alternative to capitalism and communism. It formed the theoretical basis of Qaddafi’s government, and he made it required reading for all Libyans. In reality, Libya was a terrible kleptocratic dictatorship, governed on the basis of nepotism to enrich Qaddafi’s family and his tribe. The country’s economy was grossly mismanaged and only survived because of abundant oil and gas.
A creepy womanizer, Qaddafi had a habit of hitting on female reporters, often meeting them for interviews in bathrobes or in his underwear. He became obsessed with former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, whom he referred to as his “darling black African woman“. When she made an official visit to Tripoli, Qaddafi showered her with $212,000 worth of gifts, including a lute and a locket with his picture inside. He also saw himself as a fashion icon, and to that end cultivated an odd collection of ensembles and sartorial choices that made him modern history’s most bizarrely dressed ruler.
As Muammar Qaddafi changed in and out of silly uniforms multiple times a day, he was the closest real-life depiction of a James Bond villain. The Libyan dictator’s cartoonish villain look was further enhanced by his all-virgin female bodyguard, who was officially designated the “Revolutionary Nuns”. They were more commonly known as the Amazonian Guard. Beneath the buffoonish look and cuckoo philosophy, however, was a terrible dictator whose regime engaged in repression, torture, murder, and sundry human rights violations.
Among Qaddafi’s less amusing vices was his habit of ordering women, including teenaged girls, kidnapped off the street and taken to one of his many palaces. One of them was imprisoned in his basement for six years. He forced her to watch explicit videos while doing drugs with him, and repeatedly violated her, urinated on her, and subjected her to sundry perversions. He was finally overthrown in popular a revolt in 2011, and went on the run. He was captured by rebels, who tortured Qaddafi before killing him.
20. The Buccaneer Who Earned One of the Most Terrible Nicknames in the History of Piracy
French buccaneer Daniel Montbars (1645 – disappeared 1707), better known as Montbars the Exterminator, richly deserved his terrible nickname. One of the era’s most feared pirates, Montbars earned the Exterminator handle because of the sheer bloody-mindedness and glee he displayed in killing Spaniards. Montbars, born into a wealthy family, was raised and educated in France as a gentleman. As a child, he read about the Conquistadors cruelties towards Native Americans, and developed a hatred of Spain and all things Spanish.
In 1667, Montbars joined his uncle in the French Royal Navy, and accompanied him to the Caribbean. There, his anti-Spanish sentiments grew by leaps and bounds when his ship was sunk in a battle against Spaniards, during which his uncle was killed. Soon thereafter, Montbars left the French Navy and headed to the buccaneer haven of Tortuga, an Island off the Haitian coast. Between his professional expertise as a naval officer, and his seething hatred of Spain, the buccaneers’ main foe, he was welcomed with the open arms. Soon, Montbars captained his own buccaneer ship.
Daniel Montbars made a name for himself in an early action against a Spanish vessel. As one account put it: “Montbars led the way to the decks of the enemy, where he carried injury and death; and when submission terminated the contest, his only pleasure seemed to be to contemplate, not the treasures of the vessel, but the number of dead and dying Spaniards, against whom he had vowed a deep and eternal hatred, which he maintained the whole of his life“. He went on a terrible piratical rampage against the Spanish Main – Spain’s possessions in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the coastal mainland from Florida to Venezuela.
On the Venezuelan coast, Montbars sacked and burned the towns of Maricaibo, San Pedro, Porto Caballo, and Gibraltar, among numerous other settlements and forts. It was during this rampage that Montbars became known as the Exterminator. He gave no quarter and tortured captured Spanish soldiers in highly inventive – and shockingly gruesome – ways. Montbars and his crew amassed a fortune, which they reportedly buried near Grand Saline, Texas. However, the Exterminator never came back to retrieve it: he vanished in 1707, most likely lost at sea.
On April 10th, 1815, Mount Tambora on Sumbawa Island in the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) erupted. It was the most powerful volcanic explosion of the past 10,000 years. It started on April 5th, when the first loud eruption occurred with a thunderous clap that was heard almost 1000 miles away. In the following days, the volcano streamed steadily, with faint detonation sounds every now and then. Then, on April 10th, people in Sumatra, 1600 miles away, were startled by a terrible noise that sounded like cannons going off. Tambora had finally gone off.
On Sumbawa Island, the eruptions had grown more energetic early that morning. Flames rose up into the sky, and lava and glowing ash began pouring down the mountainside. By 8 AM, bits of pumice up to eight inches wide were raining down, and ash spewed into the air so thickly that it stayed pitch dark for two days as far as 400 miles away. The volcano poured rivers of incandescent ash down its sides to scorch the island, while its tremors sent tsunamis racing across the Java Sea. When it went off in a cataclysmic explosion, 12,000 were killed instant in Sumbawa. Another 80,000 died in the surrounding region from famine and starvation, after falling ash and pumice ruined their crops and fields.
17. Tambora’s Eruption Changed Global Weather for a Year
The eruption of Mount Tambora spewed ash and twelve cubic miles of gasses up into the skies. The result was extreme weather conditions around the planet. The fine ash dispersed throughout the atmosphere created optical phenomena worldwide. It produced prolonged and brilliantly colored sunsets and twilights that were red or orange near the horizon, and pink or purple above. The ashes had another, less lovely impact. They caused a volcanic winter that lowered global temperatures and turned 1816 into what came to be known as The Year Without Summer.
The temperature drop caused an agricultural disaster of crop failures and food shortages in the northern hemisphere. Among the weird and extreme weather phenomena caused by Tambora was the impact thousands of miles away, on the far side of the planet in the eastern US. There, the spring and summer of 1816 were marked by a persistent dry fog that reddened and dimmed the sunlight. That May, a frost killed off most crops in upstate New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Snow fell as late as June 6th in Albany, NY. Other parts of the world also recorded strange weather phenomena that year.
Terrible Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada (circa 1925 – 2003) began his career as a military officer. He was commander of the Ugandan Army when he got wind that he was about to be arrested for theft, so he decided to overthrow the government. He seized power in a 1971 coup, declared himself president, and ruled Uganda as dictator until 1979. His regime was known for repression, ethnic persecutions, human rights abuses, economic mismanagement, corruption, and nepotism. However, Amin set himself apart from other brutal and incompetent kleptocrats with his sheer bizarreness.
Amin’s behavior as ruler was odd from the start and grew increasingly more erratic with time. He started off as a conservative and was initially supported by the West and Israel. Then he switched and became an ardent supporter of the PLO and of Libya’s anti-Western dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. He also expelled Uganda’s ethnically Asian population, and seized their and Europeans’ businesses and enterprises, which formed the economy’s backbone. Amin handed them to relatives and supporters, who promptly drove them to the ground.
15. The Dictator Who Declared Himself “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas”
When London severed diplomatic relations, Amin declared that he had defeated Britain and awarded himself a CBE (“Conqueror of the British Empire”) medal. He also conferred upon himself a VC, or Victorious Cross, which copied the Victoria Cross. Among the titles he bestowed upon himself were “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular“. Amin also declared himself King of Scotland. His personal life was no less bizarre – and he was no less terrible to many in his inner circle.
A polygamist, Amin married at least six women, and murdered and dismembered one of them. In 1975, a nineteen-year-old go-go dancer caught his eye, so he had her boyfriend beheaded. He then married her in a lavish wedding that cost about ten million dollars, at a time when hunger and malnutrition were rife in Uganda. Estimates of his victims range go as high as half a million. A boneheaded attempt to seize a province of neighboring Tanzania led to a war, which Amin swiftly lost. He fled in 1979, first to Libya, and then to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royal family gave him asylum, refused to extradite him, and paid him generous subsidies until his death in 2003.
14. The Terrible Nineteenth-Century Outlaw Brothers
Outlaw Frank Reno (1837 – 1868) was raised in Jackson County, Indiana, by strictly religious parents. They saw to it that their children observed all the strictures, attended church regularly, and spent all day Sunday reading the Bible. It backfired with Frank and his younger brother, John, who rebelled and turned bad early on. By their early teens, the brothers had gained a terrible reputation as notorious delinquents. They drank, brawled, cheated travelers in crooked card games, and were suspected of horse theft and of committing a series of arsons around the county.
Fearing a backlash, their father fled with them to Missouri, where they lived for a few years. They returned to Indiana in 1860, but they had not been forgotten. To escape angry neighbors, Frank and John enlisted when the Civil War broke out and became serial bounty jumpers. They would join a regiment to collect enlistment bonuses, which steadily grew as the war progressed, then desert at the earliest opportunity. They would then join another regiment elsewhere with fake names, collect more enlistment bonuses, and repeat the cycle.
13. The Reno Gang Was So Contemptuous of the Law, it Attacked and Robbed a Courthouse
Frank Reno returned home in 1864, and with his brother John, formed the Reno Gang. They were joined by horse thieves, safecrackers, counterfeiters, gamblers and other misfits, and began robbing Post Offices and stores in southern Indiana. Frank and two gang members were arrested but were released on bail. One agreed to testify against Frank, but was murdered before the trial, and Frank walked. That emboldened Frank and his gang to become more violent, and they effectively took over the small town of Rockford Indiana. They transformed the town’s Rader House Hotel into their headquarters and robbed and murdered unwary travelers who checked in.
The terrible gang soon expanded its reach and ambition. They began robbing trains and banks, and raiding communities throughout the Midwest. In 1866, the gang carried out history’s first peacetime train robbery. A passenger identified John Reno and two accomplices, and they were arrested. However, the witness was shot dead soon thereafter. The other passengers then refused to testify, and the charges were dropped. In 1867, Frank and his crew demonstrated their disdain for the law by attacking and robbing a county courthouse in Missouri. It was a crime for which John Reno was eventually convicted and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment.
A vigilante group was formed to hunt down the Reno Gang, so they fled to Iowa in early 1868. There, they attacked and robbed two-county treasuries on successive days. They were arrested, but broke out of jail and escaped to Indiana. There, they resumed train robberies, one of which netted them $96,000, a princely sum that gained the Reno Gang worldwide fame. Pinkerton Agency detectives learned of Frank Reno’s plans to rob another train, so they staged an ambush. Soon as the gang boarded the train on July 9th, 1868, the Pinkertons opened fire. Most of the gang escaped, but a captured member identified two others, who were arrested the following day. All three met a terrible fate.
The train taking them to jail in Seymour, Indiana, was stopped by masked vigilantes, who lynched the three prisoners. Three more gang members were captured soon thereafter. The train taking them to the Seymour jail was again stopped by masked vigilantes, who hung the prisoners from the same tree. Frank fled to Canada but was captured in Ontario and extradited to the US. He was held with three other Reno Gang members in the Floyd County jail in New Albany, Indiana. On the night of December 11th, 1868, scores of masked vigilantes marched on the jail and forced the jailer to surrender the keys. Frank Reno was dragged from his cell and lynched, followed soon thereafter by the remaining gang members.
The Sicarii were a militant faction of the Zealots, a first century AD Judean political movement that agitated to spark a rebellion in order to free the Holy Lands from the Roman yoke. The result was the Jewish Revolt of 66 to 73 AD, whose course and consequences were terrible to all involved. While the Zealots were radical, their Sicarii splinter went to extremes that made them history’s earliest identifiable terrorists, with methods that meet modern definitions of the term.
The Sicarii, meaning “dagger men” in Latin, earned their name from the knives known as sicae that they used to kill their victims. Their goal was to cleanse the Holy Lands of Romans and their Jewish collaborators, and their standard tactic was to blend into crowds at public gatherings. They would wait for an opportune moment, and when it presented itself, would suddenly charge their target, stab him, and escape during the resulting confusion and panic by blending into the crowd.
10. These Ancient Terrorists Pioneered Modern Methods of Provoking the Authorities Into Indiscriminate Retaliations
The Sicarii focused their wrath on the pro-Roman Jewish aristocracy, whom they targeted for killing. They also burned their estates and eventually turned to kidnap and take them hostage for ransom. Their prominent victims included a High Priest of the Jewish Temple, after whose killing the Sicarii went on an assassination spree that terrorized Judea’s Jewish and Roman elites. Their victims, particularly imperial officials, were targeted in a deliberate attempt to provoke the Romans. The Romans, who needed little provocation, responded with terrible massacres and collective punishment of the Hebrew population.
That heavy-handed response kept the embers of discontent smoldering. It also lit new flames of resentment, while providing a steady and steadily growing stream of new recruits and sympathizers from the families and friends of the Romans’ victims. Adopting a strategy common among terrorists today, the Sicarii engaged in sabotage to worsen the populace’s living conditions and keep them disgruntled. Faced with an occupier ready to resort to indiscriminate violence, the Sicarii committed atrocities that guaranteed massive Roman retaliation.
9. History’s First Terrorists Presented the Populace With Terrible Choices
By provoking the Romans into massive and indiscriminate retaliation, the Sicarii forced many Jewish fence-sitters to pick from terrible choices. They could do nothing, and probably end up massacred or enslaved by angry Romans in no mood to distinguish “good” locals from bad. Or they could join the resistance in the hopes of gaining freedom, or at least the dignity of dying while fighting. That strategy was in evidence during the run-up to the Jewish Revolt. It began in 66 AD when the Roman governor responded to tax protests by arresting prominent Jews and looting Jerusalem’s Temple.
The protests escalated into a full-blown revolt that forced the Romans and their puppet king to flee Judea. While that was going on, the Sicarii attacked and seized the fortress of Masada near the Dead Sea. They then fell upon nearby Roman enclaves, and slaughtered over 700 Romans, most of them women and children. That ensured that there could be no turning back and thus solidified the Sicarii ranks. It also confronted other Judeans with the prospect of massive retaliation and collective punishment of the innocent and guilty alike if the Romans won.
8. These Radicals Were as Terrible as an Ancient ISIS
After seizing the Masada fortress and slaughtering hundreds of Romans, the Sicarii joined the Zealots and other rebels to attack and capture Jerusalem in 66 AD. Once in control of the city, the Sicarii went on a terrible rampage. They began killing known and suspected collaborators en masse, as well as any opponents, suspected opponents, and those who failed to express sufficient enthusiasm for the Sicarii cause. That extremism led to a backlash and uprising by the city’s population, and a falling out with the other rebels. It culminated in Sicarii defeat, the capture, torture, and execution of their leader, and the group’s expulsion from Jerusalem.
The surviving Sicarii retreated to the fortress of Masada, and contented themselves with plundering the surrounding countryside. In the meantime, the Zealots and other radicals managed to crush a popular backlash, and retained control of Jerusalem until it was besieged, conquered, and razed by the Romans in 70 AD. The Romans then began mopping up operations, and eventually reached the final holdouts, the Sicarii in Masada, whom they besieged. Realizing that all was lost and that their fate would be terrible if they were captured, the Sicarii committed mass suicide, killing their families and then themselves.
7. This Terrible Pirate Was a Terror on Sea and Land
Jean-David Nau, better known as Francois L’Olonnais (1630 – 1669), was one of history’s most ruthless and feared pirates. He earned a terrible reputation for brutality that stood out even in an age and within a profession where brutality was the norm. Born in dire poverty in France, L’Olonnais’s family sold him into indentured servitude as a child. In that capacity, he arrived in the Caribbean when he was fifteen-years-old, and spent the next ten years of his life toiling on Spanish plantations.
The young indentured servant performed back-breaking menial work in horrible conditions. He endured such mistreatment and sundry humiliations that, by the end of his term of indentured servitude in 1660, he had developed a burning hatred of Spain and all things Spanish. The result was a lifelong vendetta. For the remainder of his days, L’Olonnais had a bone to pick with the Spanish, and his relentless pursuit of that vendetta earned him the nickname “The Flail of Spain”.
6. Francois L’Olonnais Once Escaped With a Gory Trick Straight Out of The Walking Dead
When his indentured servitude ended, Jean-David Nau changed his name to Francois L’Olonnais and moved to Tortuga, a French island north of Haiti. At the time, Tortuga was a nest of piracy and lawlessness, and L’Olonnais wasted no time in joining its buccaneers. He showed so much zeal that within a short time Tortuga’s French governor gave L’Olonnais his own ship, and a letter of marque authorizing him to prey on Spanish shipping as a privateer. He instantly set himself apart with a terrible reputation for viciousness and ferocious cruelty in the treatment of prisoners, particularly Spanish ones.
An expert torturer, L’Olonnais enjoyed tormenting his victims in a variety of fiendishly gruesome ways that were gory enough for a slasher film. Early in his career, he was shipwrecked off Yucatan. While most of the crew survived to reach shore, most were killed soon thereafter when Spanish soldiers found and attacked them. L’Olonnais survived by covering himself in blood and viscera, and hiding among the dead. Later, he snuck into a nearby town that was celebrating the killing of the pirates, and arranged for an escape back to Tortuga.
Once he got back to Tortuga, Francois L’Olonnais resumed his depredations against Spain. In 1666, he assembled a fleet of 8 ships and 440 pirates to attack Maracaibo in modern Venezuela. En route, he came across and looted a Spanish treasure ship, which yielded 260,000 Spanish dollars, in addition to gemstones and cocoa beans. When he reached Maracaibo, he discovered that the citizens had fled. He tracked them down in the surrounding jungles, captured them, brought them back, and tortured them into revealing where they had hidden their valuables.
For the next two months, the people of Maracaibo were subjected to terrible depravities by L’Olonnais and his men, who murdered, pillaged, and violated both women and men. The pirates finally put the town to the torch and tore down its fortifications before leaving. The following year, L’Olonnais led an even bigger pirate expedition against Central America, but they stumbled into an ambush in Honduras and were massacred. L’Olonnais was one of the few survivors who managed to escape back to a ship, but it ran aground off the coast of Panama. Disembarking, he led his men inland in search of food, only to get captured, killed, and eaten by an indigenous tribe.
Rufus Buck (1877 – 1896) was born in the Indian Territory in today’s Oklahoma to a Creek Indian father and an African American mother. In his teens, he formed a multiethnic gang of underage delinquents – all Indians, African Americans, or mixed race. Buck was a zealot with nebulous ideas of triggering a Native American uprising. He led his gang on a terrible rampage of robbery, assault, and murder, that terrorized white settlers, Indians, and African Americans alike. The teenagers started stockpiling weapons in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and on July 28th, 1895, began their rampage by shooting and killing a deputy US Marshal.
On the way back, Buck and his gang violated a middle-aged widow. They then robbed a man of his horse, and killed him when he resisted. A few days later, they robbed a salesman, stripped him naked, and offered him a chance to escape. When he unexpectedly succeeded in escaping, they killed his assistant in frustration. They then violated and murdered two women and a fourteen-year-old girl. On August 4th, they violated a woman in front of her husband, whom they held at bay with rifles. At least two of their female victims died of their injuries.
The Buck Gang’s terrible depravities led to the formation of posses of Indian Police and white settlers to kill or capture them. However, while the posses combed the countryside, the teenaged outlaws brazenly rode into Okmulgee and robbed three stores. Whenever they encountered somebody riding a horse they liked, they offered to trade, and shot the rider if he declined. On the outskirts of Eufala, they came across a black child, and shot him just to see him twitch as he expired.
On August 10th, 1895, US Marshals came across the gang in a hideout near Muskogee. After a furious firefight, the teenagers were forced to surrender when they ran out of ammunition. Taken into Muskogee, the gang barely escaped a lynching by a Creek mob. They dispersed only after a tribal chief pleaded with them, and the US Marshals vowed to shoot the first man who tried to seize their prisoners. Taken to Fort Smith for trial, the gang were found guilty of a long list of violent offenses, and were sentenced to death by “hanging judge” Isaac Parker. After appeals were exhausted, they were hanged on July 1st, 1896.
2. The Delusional Napoleon Fanboy Who Appointed Himself Emperor of the Central African Republic
Jean-Bedel Bokassa (1921 – 1996) of the Central African Republic was a captain in the French colonial army when the country gained its independence. The new country’s president, a distant cousin, appointed Bokassa to head its armed forces. Bokassa showed his gratitude by staging a coup in 1966, and ousting his cousin from power. He appointed himself president and ruled as dictator until 1979. Bokassa was a huge fan of Napoleon Bonaparte. Erratic and prone to delusions of grandeur, he emulated his idol by declaring his small landlocked country an empire and anointed himself Bokassa I, Emperor of the Central African Empire.
He then bankrupted his impoverished country with a lavish coronation that cost about 80 million dollars, and featured a diamond-encrusted crown worth 20 million. Bokassa’s rule was marked by a terrible reign of terror, during which he personally oversaw judicial beatings of criminal suspects. He also decreed that thieves were to lose an ear for the first two offenses, and a hand for the third. Additionally, Bokassa supervised the torture of suspected political opponents, then fed their corpses to lions and crocodiles kept in a private menagerie. He was also into cannibalism, as shown in a Paris-Match magazine expose, which ran photos of a deep freezer in Bokassa’s palace that contained the bodies of children.
1. This Tyrant Might Have Been a Clown, But He Was Also a Terrible Monster
Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s rule featured many terrible atrocities. The best known was the arrest of hundreds of schoolchildren in 1979 for refusing to buy school uniforms from a company owned by one of his wives. Bokassa personally oversaw the murder of more than 100 children by his imperial guard. That caused an uproar, and soon thereafter, the self-styled Emperor Bokassa I was deposed by French paratroopers. He had a soft landing, however, and went into a comfortable exile in France, financed by millions of dollars embezzled and stashed in Swiss bank accounts.
Bokassa’s exile did not stay comfortable for long: he blew through his millions within a few years, and was reduced to poverty. Things got so bad that he made a brief reappearance in international news in the 1980s, when one of his children was arrested for shoplifting food. Bokassa returned to Central Africa in 1986, where he was tried and convicted of murder and treason, and sentenced to death. However, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he was released in 1993. He lived another three years, before dying in 1996.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading