How 12 Heads Of State Who Died In Office Actually Went Out
Vote up the leaders with the most interesting ends.
Leading a country is a dangerous business. Many a king was taken out before his time, but the era of elected leaders hasn’t been all that much safer for those at the top.
The Grim Reaper has cut down eight US presidents while still in office (four by illness, four by assassination), which makes for a current mortality rate of 17% - far higher than any other dangerous occupation in the country. Across the world, most nations have similar tales of leaders who met their makers a little sooner than expected.
This collection looks at how international heads of state didn’t live to see the end of their terms; for the purposes of this list, we're limiting items to one per country.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain136 VOTES
In office: 1922-43 (as Prime Minister), 1943-45 (as Il Duce)
Cause: Executed by firing squad (age 61)
Benito Mussolini certainly wasn’t the only world leader to perish in the last weeks of WWII, but his demise was the most appropriate. He met his end just a few days before Adolf Hitler did, but unlike his wartime ally, the Italian dictator didn’t have the option to take the coward’s way out. By that point of the conflict, Mussolini was little more than a figurehead of a puppet state established by Germany.
With the war’s end imminent, Mussolini and his mistress attempted to escape to neutral Switzerland. The instantly recognizable Il Duce tried to pull a fast one by disguising himself as a Luftwaffe officer, but the Italian partisans weren’t fooled by the farce. He and his mistress were driven to a small village near the edge of Lake Como and taken out by a firing squad. His remains were then hung in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto, the same public square where the bodies of 15 Italian partisans had been displayed by the SS in 1943.
One bereaved mother shot Mussolini’s body five more times - once for each lost son, and other grieving family members attacked the battered remains of Il Duce until the US Army had them taken down.
When he learned of his former ally’s ignoble end, Hitler resolved not to be taken alive and shot himself two days later in his Berlin bunker.
- Photo: U.S. Signal Corps / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain229 VOTES
Nation: Soviet Union
In office: 1924-53
Cause: Cerebral hemorrhage (age 74)
After succeeding Vladimir Lenin in 1924, Joseph Stalin ruthlessly consolidated his grip on power and ruled the Soviet Union with an iron grip for almost 30 years. His health declined considerably in the immediate post-war years, and when advised by his doctor to take it easy in 1951, he responded in a characteristically paranoid way: he had the doctor arrested on charges of spying for the British. Vladimir Bekhterev, a world-renowned psychiatrist, was then summoned to examine Stalin and diagnosed the Soviet Premier as paranoid. Bekhterev perished in mysterious circumstances soon after.
Those episodes ignited plans for another Stalinist purge, this time against the mostly (seven out of nine named) Jewish physicians accused of sabotaging Soviet leadership. Stalin planned a series of show trials and executions for the condemned members of the so-called “doctor’s plot.” Perhaps fittingly, it was just around this time he suffered a medical emergency that may well have been averted by a more timely response.
Lonely and suspicious in his later years, he spent his evenings with his inner circle of four top Soviet officials. On the night of February 28, 1953, he bade farewell to his closest comrades at his residence, but wasn’t heard from the following day. None were brave enough to dare disturb Stalin until well after 10 pm the following day.
At some point in the night, he’d apparently risen to get water, suffered a stroke, and lay unconscious for hours. Because of his earlier treatment of doctors and the plans for the trials, it took several hours for a physician to attend to him. He was severely affected by the stroke and passed on March 5, 1953.
It’s been suggested that those in Stalin's inner circle, hoping to succeed him, might not have been overly concerned with saving his life. Others have suggested he was poisoned by someone lacing his wine with warfarin, a blood thinner that would be difficult to detect, but a study of his autopsy report has dismissed this theory.
- Photo: Department of Defense / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain321 VOTES
Nation: South Vietnam
In Office: 1955-63
Cause: Assassinated following a coup (age 62)
The October 1963 overthrow of Ngô Đình Diệm's government was a turning point in the Vietnam War. His heavy-handed response to the Buddhist Crisis alienated much of the country and saw him lose the support of American diplomats. While officially denying any knowledge of the coup that removed Diệm from power, officials had both met and encouraged the Vietnamese military to go through with the plan.
Diệm and his brother Nhu escaped the initial coup, but were rounded up and terminated in the back of an armored personnel carrier a day later. After US President John F. Kennedy was eliminated just a few weeks later, American involvement in Vietnam escalated greatly.
- Photo: After Henry Warren / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain415 VOTES
Nation: United Kingdom
In office: 1809-12
Cause: Assassination (age 49)
Assassination is something of an occupational hazard for world leaders, but Britain’s Spencer Perceval has the unwanted distinction of being the only one of the country’s prime ministers to have their tenure cut short by an assassin.
According to archival papers from the incident, Perceval was ambushed in the House of Commons lobby by John Bellingham, a merchant from Liverpool with a major grudge against the government. Bellingham had been held captive in Russia for five years; his appeals for aid went unheeded by parliament, as did his petitions for compensation upon his 1809 release.
Consumed by a desire for vengeance, he resolved to take out his grievances on the prime minister. A little after 5 pm on May 11, 1812, Bellingham shot Perceval at close range. The small, slight man staggered back and cried out, “Oh murder! Murder!” before succumbing to his wounds.
Bellingham made no attempt to run away and was promptly tried and executed a week later.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain517 VOTES
In office: 1939-41 (second term)
Cause: Suicide (shot, age 61)
Interwar Europe was a particularly hazardous time for the minor nations of central and eastern Europe. As tensions mounted, the nonaligned countries found it increasingly difficult to stay out of the inevitable conflict. Hungary was one such state. Prime Minister Pál Teleki, an academic from a privileged background, was an expert in geography and knew only too well the great challenges his nation faced in 1939.
He steadfastly refused to lend any kind of assistance to the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. Polish troops and Jewish refugees who fled across the border were officially detained, but little effort was made to stop them from fleeing to France. By 1940, Hungary was under increasing pressure to lend aid to the Germans and joined the Tripartite Pact in November. When one of the fellow signatories, Yugoslavia, reneged on the deal after a coup, the Axis powers prepared to invade in retaliation.
Teleki’s government faced an impossible choice: support the incursion and go to war with the Allies, or resist and go to war with the Axis. In the end, the decision was made for him by an insubordinate general who allowed the German troops to pass through Hungary. When Teleki learned of the news, he was overcome with grief and took his own life with a pistol on the morning of April 3, 1941.
A little more than two weeks later, Greek Prime Minister Alexandros Koryzis succumbed to the same fate as Italian forces invaded Greece.
- Photo: Witold Pikiel / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain615 VOTES
In office: 1926-35 (as de facto leader)
Cause: Liver cancer (age 67)
One of the most important figures in Polish history, Józef Piłsudski guided the Polish Second Republic through its difficult formative years following its creation by the Treaty of Versailles. After six wars, including a Soviet incursion in 1919, he saw out his term as Chief of State and went into retirement in 1923. Worried by the direction the country was headed in his absence, Piłsudski returned to power as head of the Sanation movement (a moral/healing movement) in a May 1926 coup. Although he was not officially head of state, there was little doubt over who Poland’s leader truly was in the interwar period.
It wasn’t always pretty, but Piłsudski held a fractured country caught between two hostile powers together for the last decade of his life. He dedicated his last years to preserving Polish independence, leaving internal matters to his deputies.
He knew only too well his life was nearing its end, as his health was failing him. He secured non-aggression pacts with both the Soviet Union and Germany, though had little faith either would last. Rather ominously, he predicted in early 1935 that the peace with Germany would hold for another four years. He succumbed to liver cancer in May 1935.