The Worst Bosses in History

(Image credit: Luc Melanson)

Yours doesn't even come close.

The devil may wear Prada. But the devil also wears bowler hats, togas, and codpieces. In other words, history is overflowing with horrible bosses, many of whom would make Miranda Priestly look like a softy.

Let's start with the Control Freak Boss. First prize goes to 19th-century railroad baron George Pullman, whose company manufactured sleeping cars. He built an Orwellian town for his workers to live in, complete with schools and a church, but no fun stuff (like taverns or nonsanctioned newspapers). His inspectors would march into homes to make sure they’d been properly cleaned. Pullman even replaced American currency with Pullman money, so he could control the prices of food, rent, and supplies. As one unhappy worker put it, “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.” When workers staged a strike in 1894, Pullman refused to negotiate, and the crisis spiraled, leading to gunfire and the death of several workers.

Then there's the Sadistic Boss. Consider Caligula. According to Roman historian Suetonius, the emperor (who ruled from 37 to 41 CE) sawed his subordinates in half, tossed them to the beasts, threw them in cages, branded them, flogged them, disemboweled them, and condemned them to work in the mines; sometimes the punishments were simply for criticizing his gladiator shows. That’s not to mention daily humiliations his staff endured. According to Suetonius’s book The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Caligula’s highest-ranking senators were forced to “run in their togas for several miles beside his chariot and to wait on him at table, standing napkin in hand.”

The Machine Age produced loads of sadistic bosses. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the Triangle Waist Company in New York, paid terrible wages to immigrant women and girls. To quell a strike, they hired female prostitutes to beat up the mostly female workforce on the picket line. In 1911, they reached a new level of villainy. A fire broke out in the factory, but the women couldn’t escape because the doors had been locked. The fire killed 146 workers. The families of the deceased sued and were awarded $75 per person. Meanwhile, Blanck and Harris earned $400 per person from their insurance company.



Other sadists: The bosses of the “radium girls.” In the early 1920s, hundreds of young women spent their days in a factory painting watch dials with glow-in-the-dark paint. They were even urged to sharpen paintbrush hairs between their lips. The paint was so radioactive that they suffered a host of ills, like bone fractures, eroded jaws, and anemia. The bosses of the U.S. Radium Corporation tried to cover this up, accusing the women of having syphilis, but a group of them sued, and eventually won $10,000 each.

Not nearly as horrible but but still infuriating is the Credit Hog Boss. A prime example: scientist Jonas Salk (yes, the man who helped develop the polio vaccine). In 1955, Salk gave a press conference that was both historic (a terrible disease had been cured) and notorious (he failed to mention his many collaborators). According to Wharton professor Adam Grant’s book Give and Take, Salk’s team left the conference in tears. He’d failed to give credit to his peers, and one of his scientists, Julius Younger, blasted Salk for doing “the most uncollegial thing that you can imagine.”

The Frisky Boss has been a cliché since the dawn of reproduction. If you believe the Bible, King David was severely lacking in impulse control. The ancient monarch fell in lust with a woman named Bathsheba after spotting her taking a bath. Being the king, he bedded her and got her pregnant. The glitch? She was already married to one of King David’s soldiers, Uriah. So King David sent Uriah on a fatal mission.

Let's wrap it up with some Ungrateful Bosses. Louis XIV liked his butt kissed—but only to a point. His finance minister Nicolas Fouquet threw a lavish party in the king’s honor. Annoyed by the huge amount of money his employee had spent, Louis had him imprisoned the next day for embezzling. Fouquet spent the rest of his life in solitary confinement.

Then there’s Ivan the Terrible. In Russian, his nickname is actually closer to “Ivan the Formidable.” But rest assured, he did lots of awful things to his employees, including throwing an insubordinate aristocrat to a pack of dogs—when he was 13 years old! And that’s not to mention his demand for a piping-hot latte on his desk every day when he arrived (with two raw sugars and almond milk).

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The article above, by A. J. Jacobs, appeared in the October 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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