5. Richard Nixon started as one of the brightest political minds and ended up being forever synonymous with corruption.
Arguably no American President has been so vilified as Richard Milhouse Nixon. The 27th President of the United States may have been a fine political strategist and might even have carried out one of the most remarkable political comebacks of all time, but he will forever be remembered for his fall from grace. Indeed, though his presidency coincided with the Moon Landings and the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War, all of these accomplishments are often overshadowed by the Watergate scandal.
While serving his second term, journalists learned that Nixon himself was personally involved in a plot to bug political opponents. The scandal broke in the summer of 1973 and, on August 9, 1974, Nixon went live on national television to resign from office. His resignation almost certainly saved him from a humiliating impeachment. Though Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, issued him with a presidential pardon, the damage was done. From being Vice-President at 40 and then one of America’s brightest political minds, his name had become forever associated with intrigue and corruption. It was a truly monumental fall from grace for such a proud and ambitious man.
However, some historians disagree that Watergate marked a real ‘fall from grace’ for Nixon. Indeed, it’s often argued that, even if he did make it to the Oval Office, he had a poor reputation long before his final undoing. Notably, he had earned the nickname ‘Tricky Dicky’ more than 20 years prior to the Watergate Crisis – so was it such a fall after all?
6. Socrates’ great mind could not save him from a tragic demise brought about by political rivalry.
In around 370 BC, Socrates would have been something of a celebrity in ancient Athens. Philosophers were the rock stars of the day, and none was more famous than he. The wisest minds of the time joined him for his famous ‘dialogues’, while his philosophy school attracted the best young thinkers, including many who would go on to become intellectual titans themselves. However, his political views would be his downfall: in the end, Socrates endured a huge fall, with the people of Athens turning against him and effectively causing him to take his own life.
Plato, the most famous student who was schooled by Socrates, noted that his mentor was “the best, wisest and most upright man of any that I have ever known.” But however upright he might have been, his views on democracy were not popular. And Socrates himself became increasingly unpopular, especially given that two of his own students, Alcibiades and Critias had, in attempting to overthrow the democratic government, caused a wave of repression. Many citizens ended up losing their land and possessions, and many were sent into exile. Socrates was blamed for all of this.
In the end, the once-great man of Athens was hauled before a court and given a humiliating decision: either he could go into exile and never return, or he could drink a cup of poison. A proud man, Socrates chose the hemlock. Locked up in a prison cell, he died alone and by his own hand – a sad fall from grace for one of the greatest minds that ever lived.
7. King Edward VIII fell from the throne and became a Nazi supporter.
As a young man, the future King Edward VIII of England served with relative distinction in the British Army. He was also groomed to take over the throne from an early age. He undertook several royal tours, first in the company of his father, George V, but then on his own, in the place of the King. As Prince of Wales, he enjoyed significant popularity, especially among veterans who respected his own service in the trenches. Edward was also popular with the ladies too: his good looks, wealth and future prospects made him not just a major celebrity but Europe’s most eligible bachelor. What’s more, by visiting working-class and poverty-stricken parts of Britain, Edward made himself even more popular among those people who would usually have been opposed to the monarchy.
So, when George V died, and Edward VIII was crowned King, everything looked set for a long and happy reign. Within a matter of months, however, he had provoked a constitutional crisis. Edward planned to marry Wallis Simpson, an American woman who was not only a commoner but a divorcee. The scandal not only lost Edward the support of many members of the elite, including politicians but of the public in general, especially the more conservative and traditionalist members of society.
Edward felt he had no choice but to abdicate the throne. But his fall from grace didn’t end there. As a private man, he and Mrs. Wallis not only toured Nazi Germany, they even spoke out in favor of the regime. To keep him out of harm’s way, Edward was appointed Governor of the Bahamas, a thankless, insignificant role. After the war was over, he moved to the south of France to live in a state of retirement until his death in 1972.
8. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was once the second most powerful man in England but suffered the fate of a commoner.
For a short period of time at the beginning of the 16th century, Thomas Wolsey was quite probably the second-most powerful man in all of England, only behind King Henry VIII. In many ways, he was the king’s right-hand man. And he might have continued to be had it not been for the small matter of Henry’s quest for a male heir. Nothing was going to stand in the monarch’s way of having a son – not his wife, not the pope and certainly not a butcher’s son from Ipswich.
Wolsey was born into a relatively modest family in 1475. After graduating from Oxford University, he went into the church and his rise was swift. He rose to become chaplain to Henry VII and, upon his death, assumed the same role for Henry VIII. From 1515 to 1529, he was the king’s go-to man for advice. Above all, Wolsey, by that point a Cardinal, was trusted with taking care of foreign policy matters, and it was he who organized the famous meeting in the Field of the Cloth of Gold between Henry and Francis I of France. Unsurprisingly, Wolsey enjoyed all the trappings of power. He had a palace of his own and also enjoyed a life of luxury, despite being a man of the church.
Henry’s decision to split with Catherine of Aragon and take a wife who would give him a male heir promoted Wolsey’s downfall. Despite his position in the church, he could not convince the pope to annul the marriage. As a result, he was a dead man walking. In November 1530, he was arrested for treason and stripped of all his wealth and privileges. However, he didn’t live to stand trial as he died of natural causes while traveling back to London to face the king’s justice.
9. Bobby Fischer began life as America’s chess prodigy but ended it in reclusion under scrutiny from the government.
Robert James Fischer is widely regarded as one of the greatest – or even the greatest chess players of all time. After finding fame as a child prodigy, he went on to dominate the game in the 1960s. For a while, it looked like he had the world at his feet. Surely, such a prodigious talent should have earned him a fortune, as well as popular acclaim and universal adoration in his native United States? Sadly for Fisher, this was not the case. Indeed, he ended up a self-imposed exile, dying many miles from home in Iceland.
Fisher was born in Chicago in 1943. His talent was obvious from an early age and, at just 13, he won the so-called ‘Game of the Century’ against Donald Byrne, 13 years his senior. He was grandmaster at 15 and then, at 20, he won 11 wins out of 11 matches to take the 1963-64 US Championship. The highlight of his career was arguably still to come: in 1972, he won the World Chess Championship, beating the Russian titan Boris Spassky. The match was steeped in Cold War rhetoric and Fisher’s victory was a huge boost for the Americans. However, instead of becoming a national darling, he became a recluse instead.
For years after his famous victory, he hid from the public eye. Fisher got in frequent trouble with the US government, mainly for breaking sanctions imposed on countries behind the Iron Curtain. As an émigré, he made numerous controversial statements, including anti-American and anti-Israeli outbursts. Finally, in 2004, he settled in Iceland and died, still a recluse, four years later.
10. David Lloyd George, one of the greatest British political figures, ended up on the Nazi side of history.
David Lloyd George was undoubtedly one of the greatest British political figures of the 20th century. However, while many of his peers bowed out at the top, his career ended with a whimper. Indeed, Lloyd George largely faded away from the frontline, becoming increasingly marginalized and irrelevant. By the end, he didn’t even have the support or the trust of his own party.
Born in 1863, Lloyd George joined the Liberal Party as a young man and, by 1890, had been elected a Member of Parliament. His rise was meteoric by the standard of those days and, in 1908, he was appointed to Chancellor of the Exchequer, the second most powerful position in the land. In office for seven years, he laid the foundations for the modern welfare state. Then, in 1916, he took charge of the Wartime Coalition Government, leading the country through the First World War. Lloyd George was a national hero. But, soon he was out of the frontline, never to return.
Throughout the 1920s, Lloyd George tried to return to government but never succeeded. Notably, from 1923 onwards, he was vocal in his support of Germany. Indeed, he stated that Hitler was “the George Washington of Germany” and ridiculed fears that the Nazi regime posed a threat to Britain. He lived long enough to see the folly of his views, dying in March 1945 at the age of 82. Despite this fall from favor in later years, he is still regarded as a political great and is routinely named as the second-greatest modern British politician, behind only Winston Churchill.
11. Galileo Galilei’s discovery of a heliocentric universe landed him in hot water with the Catholic Church.
Galileo Galilei – more commonly known by just his first name – was one of the finest scientific minds, not just of his time, but also of all time. The polymath was well known and respected in his native Italy and was widely regarded as a key critical thinker of the day. But still, he ended up living under house arrest, his theories and life’s work largely even ridiculed, and with the Catholic Church warns that he was destined for eternal damnation.
Born in 1564 in Pisa, Galileo enrolled at the University of Pisa at the age of just 16. Though he initially studied medicine, he soon expanded his learning, investigating physics and natural philosophy too. Before long, he was making a name for himself as a genuine polymath. By 1589, he was the Chair of Mathematics at the university, though three years later he moved to the University of Padua. By that point, he was undoubtedly one of Italy’s finest thinkers and enjoyed the respect of his peers, as well as enjoying the trappings of wealth that came with such academic prestige.
After the year 1600, however, his research started to make waves – in the wrong way. Galileo’s idea of heliocentrism – that is, that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around – was seen as heretical. In 1615, a special Roman Catholic Inquisition was held. Galileo was hauled before it and accused of heresy. He was forced to recant his ideas, which he did. Despite this, Pope Urban VIII sentenced him to house arrest. From 1615 right up until his death in 1642, Galileo was a prisoner in his own home. He was regarded as a heretic by staunch Catholics and a sell-out by some members of the scientific community. However, his fall from grace was to be short-lived and, with the Enlightenment, he would become regarded as a scientific genius and one of the most important thinkers of all time.
12. O.J. Simpson left stardom behind for infamy and speculation.
Orenthal James (O.J.) Simpson was an all-American superstar. Not only was he a football legend, by the 1980s he was also enjoying a successful career as an actor and broadcaster. What’s more, he was making lots of money in advertisements as brands attempted to cash in on his popularity. Then, overnight, he experienced one of the greatest falls from grace of modern times.
Simpson first made a name for himself as a college football star. Playing for the University of Southern California, he won the 1968 Heisman Trophy, an award given for not just sporting excellence but also – ironically enough – for personal integrity. After graduation, he played professional NFL football for 11 seasons. Simpson became one of the game’s biggest stars, breaking a series of records. Even when he retired from football in 1973, his star didn’t wane. Instead, he went on to enjoy success in Hollywood and on the small screen as a football pundit.
On June 12, 1994, however, it all came crashing down for Simpson. His ex-wife and her partner were found brutally murdered in their LA home. Simpson was identified as a person of interest. Instead of handing himself in to the police, he led them on a televised car chase. When he finally went on trial, the nation was gripped. To the amazement of most of the American public, Simpson was found not guilty.
Almost overnight, Simpson went from an all-American hero to a symbol of domestic violence and also of corruption within the American legal system. If anything, his reputation has continued to plummet. He has had several run-ins with the law ever since the famous trial and ever served time in prison for armed robbery.
13. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, silent film star, fizzled out after a rape-murder case involving actress.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the undisputed stars of silent cinema. Born in 1887, he found fame at an early age, making a name for himself as a boy singer in California. By 1904, he was a member of a touring theater and, by 1909, he was making his first movies. In 1913, he moved to Universal Pictures and was making his way to the top. Though he started out as an extra, his large size and comedic face helped him become a true leading man. Indeed, he became such a big star that, in 1918, Paramount Pictures offered him a three-year contract worth $49 million in today’s money.
In 1921, however, Arbuckle suffered a serious fall from grace. In November of that year, the Hollywood star went on trial. He was accused of the rape and manslaughter of the actress Virginia Rappe. She had been found dead in a San Francisco hotel following a party hosted by Arbuckle. The first trial resulted in a hung jury. A second trial delivered the same verdict. Finally, a third trial saw Arbuckle acquitted. He even received a formal written apology from the jury for his troubles.
Despite his acquittal, Arbuckle’s star had fallen so low he could no longer get any work. The offers dried up, and even films he had already made weren’t shown. For the next few years, he picked up small parts as and when he could and even tried moving into directing. In 1932, it looked like things were starting to look up. However, just when it looked like Arbuckle might be set to return to the big street, he died of a heart attack. He was just 46.
14. Napoleon Bonaparte, widely regarded as one of the most prominent leaders of all time, died in exile in the middle of the Atlantic.
Napoleon Bonaparte has gone down in history as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. The Frenchman was also a savvy politician and statesman. He rode the momentum of the French Revolution and then capitalized on his successes in the French Revolutionary Wars to rise to the position of Emperor of France. From 1804 to 1814, he was arguably the most powerful person in all of Europe. He then ruled again for 100 days in 1815. After that, however, he fell from power – and fell hard.
The ‘Little Emperor’s’ second period of power ended with defeat to the combined armies of Britain and Prussia. Realizing his time was up, he demanded asylum from the British. They granted it, but on the proviso that he lives on Santa Helena, an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, some 1,160 miles off the coast of Africa. Considering the life he had enjoyed previously, his time in exile was not just uncomfortable, but humiliating too.
The British sent a whole garrison of troops to watch over Napoleon. While he was given a relatively large house, it was damp and cold, while the island, in general, was barren and windswept. The former emperor wasn’t even allowed to receive any gifts that might hint at his former power or influence. What’s more, he didn’t even have access to most books or newspapers. For a man who prided himself on being well-read, that was the final insult. Napoleon died in May 1821, and it wasn’t until 1840 that his body was returned to his native France.
15. Aaron Burr’s political career was cut short by a duel that killed Alexander Hamilton.
Over the centuries, many a promising political career has been cut short by an offhand comment, a case of corruption or a serious error in personal judgment. But very few have come to a premature end due to shooting a political rival. Aaron Burr did just this. And though the shooting was the result of a pre-arranged duel, and though that rival initially survived, Burr’s career never did. Indeed, he went from being one of his country’s most powerful individuals to being a virtual nobody.
Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey in February 1756. As a young man, he served with distinction as an officer in the American Revolutionary War and then went on to pursue a career in law. Possessing a fine mind, Burr soon made a name for himself and used this reputation to embark on a career in politics. He served as the New York State Attorney General and then, in 1801, he was named the third Vice President of the United States, serving under Thomas Jefferson.
In the final year of his term in the White House, Burr’s political rivalry with Alexander Hamilton got out of control. The two men agreed to a duel. On July 11, 1804, the two men met. Hamilton was mortally wounded. While Burr was not charged with his death, he was forced to leave Washington and politics for good. He spent almost a decade in self-imposed exile in Europe before returning to his homeland. Settling in New York City, he lived out his days as a lawyer in relative obscurity.
16. Phil Spector pioneered the music industry, but will spend the rest of his life behind bars as a murderer.
While most surviving rock and roll pioneers are happy spending their autumn years as show business royalty, the man credited with inventing the role of producer is spending his remaining years behind bars. Phil Spector, the man behind the ‘Wall of Sound’ production technique that defined a generation, is set to be remembered for his fall from grace just as much as he is for his musical genius.
Spector, who was born in 1939, started making a name for himself as an auteur in the late-1950s. After a brief spell as a guitarist, he switched to writing and producing. In the 1960s, he worked for some of the world’s biggest acts, including the Beatles, the Righteous Brothers and the Ronettes. He carried on working throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s and even had a few hits in the 2000s. However, in 2003, it all came crashing down.
On the night of February 3, 2003, police were called to Spector’s Los Angeles mansion. There, a part-time actress lay dead from a gunshot wound to the head. The music guru claimed that it was an accident. However, at the subsequent trial, the jury heard that Spector had form in threatening women with guns. After a first trial ended in a hung jury, a second trial ended with Spector being convicted of murder in the second degree. These days, the man who created the sound of a generation is serving 19 years to life in the California state prison system. His police mugshot from the night of the killing now defines him just as much – if not more – than the pictures of him in the music producer’s booth making magic in the 60s.
17. King Charles I reached too high for power and ended up losing his head for it.
When he ascended to the throne, King Charles I expected to be all-powerful. As the head of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, he believed he had a God-given right to rule how he wished. Indeed, while some of Europe’s monarchies were starting to accept the power of their respective parliaments, for Charles, the divine right of kings was absolute; he was determined to rule according to his conscience alone. And for a while, he succeeded in doing so. In the end, however, his fall from power was brutal and similarly absolute.
King Charles I was crowned in March 1625. From the very start of his reign, he vehemently opposed Parliament’s attempts to impose checks and balances on his power. Moreover, since he was married to a Roman Catholic, many nobles also worried he was too pro-Catholic and against the Anglican Church. The animosity grew and grew and finally led to the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. The bloody conflict between Royalists and Parliamentarians lasted three years and ended with the King’s defeat. For a while, he was imprisoned but then, in late 1648, Oliver Cromwell order Charles to be put on trial.
Charles was convicted of high treason in January 1649. On Tuesday, January 30, 1649, he was executed in the heart of London, just a stone’s throw from Parliament. By all accounts, Charles did what he could to make the experience as dignified as possible. For instance, he famously wore two shirts so that his shivering in the cold would not be mistaken for fear. The executioner held up his severed head for the baying crowd to see, though Charles was at least given the dignity of being buried at Windsor Castle, alongside Henry VIII.
18. Valerian, a once-proud Roman emperor died in humiliation as a prisoner of war.
Roman emperors liked to be seen as strong and powerful. Or, more accurately, they needed to be seen as strong and powerful, for any sign of weakness could place not only their own position in jeopardy but the stability of the whole Roman Empire at risk, too. All of which makes Valerian’s downfall all the more dramatic. This was a man who went from being the most powerful individual in the known world to being humiliated and then killed by his enemies.
Also known as Valerian the Elder, he was born around 193 AD. He was named Emperor in the autumn of 253 and was immediately faced with numerous challenges, both at home and abroad. His two most pressing concerns were the rise of Christianity throughout the Empire and the threat posed by the Sassanian Emperor, Shapur I. It was to tackle the latter that Valerian led Rome’s armies into combat at the Battle of Edessa in the year 260. Rome was defeated, and Valerian was captured. He was the first Roman emperor to be taken as a prisoner of war.
According to some accounts, Valerian was routinely humiliated whilst being held prisoner. Some writers even claim that Shapur I used him as a footstool, while the emperor was also subjected to a constant stream of verbal abuse. Even if he wasn’t treated so badly, just being a prisoner was humiliation enough for the leader of Rome and caused a massive rise in insecurity right across the empire.
Valerian died in captivity in the year 264. Some accounts note that he was flayed alive by Shapur. But the most popular account tells how Valerian tried to buy his freedom. He offered his enemy a huge sum of gold in return for being let go. In response, Shapur poured molten gold down Roman’s throat, a brutal act designed to show Rome that not everyone can be bought.
19. Liu He was so hated, that he was only Emperor of China for 27 days, dethroned and then died at the young age of 33.
Born into wealth and royalty, Liu He had everything going for him. And, indeed, his future looked bright when, in 74 BC, his uncle, the Emperor and ruler of the Han Dynasty died without an heir. Senior minister Huo Guang installed Liu He as the new Emperor. However, his was not to be a long and glorious reign. Quite the opposite, in fact. Liu’s fall was hard, swift and humiliating.
In all, Liu He reigned for just 27 days. And it’s actually surprising that he lasted this long. From the start, he offended influential figures in the royal court. For starters, it was believed that Liu did not correctly observe the period of mourning for his uncle. Indeed, instead of showing respect for the recently-deceased Emperor, Liu spent the first few days of his reign partying day and night. Despite his advisors cautioning him to show some restraint, Liu carried on with his playboy ways and, after some parties, would appoint friends or favored relatives to government positions, regardless of how qualified they were.
After a few weeks, senior ministers had had enough. They went to the Empress Dowager Shagguan and asked her to depose her wayward nephew. Citing his “licentious and arrogant behavior,” she readily agreed. What’s more, she calculated that Liu had committed a massive 1,127 different offenses during his 27 days on the throne. Liu was forced out of power and made the Marquis of a small, inconsequential province. He died there, humiliated and alone in 59 BC, aged just 33. In recent years, however, his reputation has been restored somewhat as archaeologists have come to regard his tomb as a veritable treasure trove of valuable historic objects and artifacts.
20. Peter Abelard, one of the greatest theologians of all time, fell for a student and was then castrated by his lover’s uncle’s assassins.
In early-Medieval Europe, Peter Abelard was something of a celebrity thinker. The Frenchman was not only a preeminent philosopher, he was also the leading theologian of his time. The rich and the powerful, including the most powerful figures in the Church, would seek out his advice or opinion, and he had countless intellectual disciples. At the height of his powers, however, Abelard was brought down by one of the biggest scandals of the Middle Ages. Like a modern-day politician, an illicit love affair brought his career to a premature end and ruined his reputation.
Born in 1079, Abelard started making a name for himself as a thinker at the University of Paris from 1100 onwards. According to his biographers, he was the “keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th century”. Above all, he achieved fame as a theologian, interpreting the books of the Bible. His lectures would become huge events, and parents would pay handsomely for Abelard to tutor their children. It was one such arrangement that led to his fall from grace.
Heloise d’Argenteuil was a young lady who lived with her uncle in Paris. She had a passion for the Classics and was one of Abelard’s star pupils. However, the pair soon became lovers, keeping their romance a secret. Heloise fell pregnant and her uncle found out. The couple married in secret but when the uncle announced the news in public, his niece denied it. Heloise was sent to live as a nun in a convent. Then, the uncle paid some men to break into Abelard’s house and castrate him. Though he was able to carry on his career as a theologian, his reputation was forever tarnished.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: