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Better To Die Than Be Killed / Real Life

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  • Cato the Younger (not the one who constantly said "Carthago Delenda Est"; that was Cato the Elder), who was well-known for his moral rectitude, died of suicide after being defeated by Caesar. He and another prominent Optimate, Metellus Scipio, had broken away from Pompey after he was defeated at Pharsalus and fled to Africa. Cato didn't command this army; he left it to Scipio. When he learned of Caesar's victory, he died of suicide not only because he didn't want to live in a world with Caesar in power but he also refused to give Caesar the power to pardon him.
  • On April 30, 1945, with the Soviets rampaging through Berlin, Adolf Hitler felt that the German people had failed him and, hoping that they would be utterly destroyed, shot himself in the head with a pistol and left them to their fate. His new bride, Eva Braun, also poisoned herself at his side. The next day, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda poisoned their six children and then shot themselves. Hours later, Hitler's secretary Martin Bormann tried to flee the bunker, but was unable to get through the Soviet advance and took cyanide. Afterward, many others in the bunker killed themselves, including Generals Hans Krebs and Wilhelm Burgdorf. Tens of thousands of German civilians followed suit, especially in the Eastern "colonies”, where, having committed atrocities against the peoples living there, the Russians were retaliating with war crimes of their own. Many men and especially women (who would be raped in addition to being killed) chose to take their own lives, often alongside their entire families. Numerous generals, admirals, and Nazi Party officials also died of suicide rather than being captured, tried, and executed. Josef Terboven, the brutal governor of Nazi-occupied Norway, blew himself up with dynamite. After being arrested by British troops and identified, former SS chief Heinrich Himmler bit into a cyanide capsule. German Labour Front leader Robert Ley hanged himself before he could be tried at the Nuremberg Trial, and former Reich Marshall and Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring did the same the night before he could be hanged after being condemned there, as an act of defiance against his captors. Suicide on such a mass scale was utterly uncommon in the West, with its Judeo-Christian and Rationalist Enlightenment values, but was encouraged by the fanatical, occultist, neo-paganist cult of Nazism. Ironically, many Nazis killed themselves with capsules of potassium cyanide, the same poison used to kill millions of their victims in the death camps.
    • After the July 20, 1944, coup attempt against Hitler failed, some of the conspirators died of suicide rather than face execution by the Nazis. Ludwig Beck, for example, convinced his captors to give him a pistol and shot himself, while Henning von Tresckow blew himself up with a grenade held under his chin.
  • Decebalus of Dacia, to avoid being captured and humiliated by the Romans.
  • Likewise, Hannibal Barca. His last words were particularly pointed at the Romans.
    "Let us relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man's death."
  • During the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, people on his hit list often got notified that they probably wanted to commit suicide or he'd make them wish they had. Given how sadistically Nero had some people executed, it should be no surprise that many who received such notes took their advice. Among those that did were his former tutor the philosopher Seneca and Petronius, author of the Satyricon.
    • Nero died of suicide when he was declared as an enemy of the state after the burning of Rome. Sure, it was completely normal back then, but nonetheless, it's a great example of poetic justice.
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  • The Roman religion did not see suicide as a sin, and in fact held up suicide as a noble form of death second only to death in battle. Free men and women who had been convicted or who were likely to be convicted of capital crimes were allowed to kill themselves before they could be executed; under Roman law before Nero, this meant their heirs would then be allowed to inherit their property rather than having it confiscated by the state. Nero's main innovation was that if the accused died of suicide, Nero would take his property but let the accused's family live. If he refused to commit suicide, Nero would order the execution of the entire family, including children. Even worse, because the law prohibited execution of a female virgin, any daughters in the family (even infants) would be raped by the executioner before being strangled and thrown off the Tarpeian Rock. Nero also executed men solely to get their estates, manufacturing charges that no jury would disagree with lest they become his next victims.
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  • Cassius and Brutus, the leaders of the conspiracy against Julius Caesar, died of suicide after losing the Battle of Philippi (there were actually two clashes-Cassius ordered his freedman to kill him after the first, Brutus killed himself after the second).
  • Western outlaw, Harry Tracy, when cornered by the authorities, chose to blow his brains out rather than be re-captured.
  • Subverted by J.K. Paasikivi, President of Finland: Kuoleman pelosta ei kannata tehdä itsemurhaa (it is no use committing suicide because of fear of death.)
  • Seppuku could be used by samurai to avoid falling into enemy hands. Jigai was a less messy version that women could use to the same ends.
  • During World War II, Japanese propaganda was used to convince Japanese soldiers and the natives of the islands they occupied that the Americans were savages who would rape and torture them if they ever captured them. This often led to mass suicides among Japanese soldiers and native civilians whenever the Americans landed on an island. Perhaps the most notable instance of this occurred on the island of Saipan in July 1944. Some 10,000 Japanese civilians took their own lives rather than be captured by the Americans, many doing so by jumping off cliffs now nicknamed "Banzai Cliff" and "Suicide Cliff."
  • Serial killer/torturer/rapist Leonard Lake got arrested for illegal possession of a firearm. When it was clear that the police wouldn't let him go without some investigation, which would undoubtedly lead the police to discover his crimes, he left a note to his wife and ingested a cyanide capsule that killed him in order to avoid having to face legal proceedings and a certain death sentence.
  • Mathematician and father of the modern computer Alan Turing was convicted of homosexuality and offered the choice between a series of chemical injections that would amount to chemical castration, or a long stay in prison, where he was unlikely to get the best of treatment. He chose the injections, but about a year later, he was found dead of cyanide poisoning, presumably from an apple impregnated with cyanide. It is disputed whether he deliberately poisoned himself with the apple, or accidentally inhaled it while working with potassium cyanide.
  • Mathematician Felix Hausdorff died of suicide with his wife and wife's sister in order to avoid going to a concentration camp.
    "By the time you receive these lines, we three will have solved the problem in another way - in the way which you have continually attempted to dissuade us."
  • In 73 CE, after the failure of the Jewish Rebellion against the Roman Empire, virtually the entire population that had taken refuge in the fortress of Masada, soldiers and civilians alike, died of mass suicide rather than face slavery or crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Two women and their five children were the only ones not to take their own lives. The survivors were, in fact, treated with honor by the Romans. This event was quite unusual and the first recorded instance of mass suicide among Jews, as normally their religion forbade suicide.
  • Twelve centuries later the Jews of York who had taken shelter in the castle during a pogrom followed their ancestors' example and died of mass suicide.
  • Also happened in Numantia, Spain (then, Hispania), in 143 BD. After the long siege from the Romans and its chief Scipius Emilianus, lots of Numantians chose to die rather than surrender.
  • The Roman general Varus and many other Roman officers did this in the final moments of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, both out of shame (three Roman legions were completely annihilated), and out of fear for what the Germanic tribesmen would do to them (many of the captured Roman soldiers were tortured, then had their head nailed to a tree while they were still alive; other Romans were burned alive in wicker cages as sacrifices to the German gods).
  • This was the motivation behind the Peoples Temple mass suicide at Jonestown in 1978, though in this case only a small fraction of those dead would have faced criminal charges. It's also unclear how many people were actually willing participants in the suicide and how many were tricked/forced into it.
  • World War I:
    • Gavrilo Princip, the man who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and set off World War I, attempted to do this, but the cyanide was too old and his gun was wrenched out of his hands.
    • The same went for another of his co-conspirators, Nedeljko Čabrinović. The man behind the first assassination attempt, a grenade tossed at Franz Ferdinand's car, swallowed a cyanide pill from the same batch as Princip, and jumped in the nearby river to ensure he died. Unfortunately, his cyanide also failed to kill him, and the water was only five inches deep. He was then dragged out and beaten almost to death by an angry mob.
  • Dr. Bruce Ivins, the prime suspect in the 2002 anthrax poisonings in the U.S., died of suicide in 2008, shortly ahead of being indicted for murder in the attacks.
  • Marvin Heemeyer built a tank and then proceeded to wreck numerous buildings and vehicles in his town causing over $7 million in damages, before getting his tank stuck in a basement - at which point he shot himself in the head. It's suspected he had intended for his rampage to be a final act, as once sealed from within the tank had no way for the occupant to get out of it - or for others to enter - without demolishing parts of it.
  • An entire French military unit (possibly company-sized) was imprisoned during the Haitian Revolution for suspected treason. They died of mass suicide by strangulation rather than face torture or, more likely, starvation.
  • King Mithridates VI of Pontus attempted this when about to be killed by the Romans. Unfortunately, the attempt was done using a poison he had built up an immunity to. Accounts vary on whether he got a lackey to run him through with a sword or the Romans got at him first.
  • The Norwegian warrior king Olaf Tryggvason, after losing a Last Stand at sea against all contemporary Scandinavian powers, ultimately losing only when engaged by other Norwegians. The king then threw himself into the sea without bothering to take off his mail, which most likely pulled him to the bottom of the Baltic Sea. However, he did sometimes do this for sport prior to the battle, and therefore some believed he managed to save himself after all. The event is most famously told in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla.
  • During the purges of the 1930s, several Soviet politicians died of suicide rather than go to the gulag.
  • Xiang Yu, a Chinese general who ended up losing out to his ally-turned-rival Liu Bang, attempted to escape to friendly territory when Bang put a price on his head. However, his would-be assassins caught up and, after losing all the men who were still loyal to him, Yu slit his own throat. According to some accounts, he saw an old friend among the group hunting him and offered his head (and the reward) to the man.
  • Strictly speaking, in jurisdictions where the death sentence is in force, criminals who commit murder may die of suicide afterward to prevent arrest and sentencing. Likewise, if a criminal committing a crime punishable by death is about to be arrested and has no means of escape, they may take their own lives to also prevent arrest and a trip to death row. However, many criminal suicides fall under a lesser heading of "better to die than go to jail."
  • R. Budd Dwyer, treasurer of Pennsylvania, Ate His Gun during a televised news conference rather than face sentencing the next day for charges stemming from a bribe scandal.
  • Ancient British rebel leader Boudica, Queen of the Iceni tribe, took this option when her host was routed by the Romans.
  • The Austrian author Egon Friedell jumped out of his window while the SA was arguing with his maid downstairs. Considering that he was a highly educated, outspoken Jew in Nazi Germany this probably saved him from a Fate Worse than Death.
  • During the September 11th attacks of 2001:
    • When the first plane hit the North Tower, it cut through all three staircases in the building, leaving anyone above the point of impact without an escape route, and though one staircase in the South Tower remained partially intact and passable, fire and smoke scared many away from trying it. A number of the trapped people decided to throw themselves out of the towers to their deaths below. This was discussed in the documentary 9/11:
      Firefighter Joe Casaliggi: How bad is it up there that jumping is the better option?
      • Notably, the Medical Examiner's office recorded all jumper deaths as homicides, rather than the normal suicide.
    • The passengers of one of the hijacked planes attacked the hijackers to regain control of the cockpit. They stopped the terrorists from reaching their (probable) destination of Washington D.C., instead causing it to crash near Shankville, Pennsylvania.
  • 90 years before 9/11, there was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. In this case, many of the workers could have escaped, but one of the two stairways was blocked by fire, and the other had been locked as an anti-theft measure. Some workers escaped by climbing to the roof, and others escaped on the freight elevators note , but soon, the elevators were inoperable and the staircase that had gotten some workers to the roof was completely inaccessible. The single fire escape had collapsed early on in the tragedy, and the fire department ladders were too short to reach the critical floors. With no way to escape, and facing the prospect of a horrific death by burning, 62 workers jumped to their deaths from the windows.
  • There is some speculation that Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar died of suicide before the police could shoot him. Since he was shot multiple times and from far range, there is no way to prove or disprove this. However, Escobar's brothers Roberto Escobar and Fernando Sánchez Arellano believe he shot himself. "He committed suicide, he did not get killed. During all the years they went after him, he would say to me every day that if he was really cornered without a way out, he would shoot himself through the ears."
  • Eric Harris of the Columbine High shooting, when realizing that none of his and Dylan Klebold's bombs had gone off, that they couldn't bring themselves to kill some people they were close to, and that a police sniper had already found them and was ready to shoot, shot himself to make sure that he'd never be brought in for questioning. Klebold doesn't quite match this trope, as he had been fantasizing about and wanting to commit suicide for months and the shooting was primarily a vehicle to make him do it finally, as he regretted killing other people (this can be seen in the way he ascends the cafeteria stairs one last time in the security footage).
  • Mark O. Barton killed his wife, children and eight people at his workplace, triggering a manhunt for him. Police eventually tracked him to a gas station. Surrounded with no place to escape, Barton ducked behind his van and shot himself dead to avoid going to jail.
  • At least one suicide has been linked to the supposed 2012 apocalypse.
  • Ex-LAPD officer and spree killer Christopher Dorner shot himself in the head to spare himself the agony of burning alive when his former comrades set his hideout on fire (whether accidentally or on purpose is unclear).
  • Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII famously killed themselves rather than be taken alive by Octavian. If they had been, he would have taken them back to Rome to parade before the people before dying humiliating deaths.
  • Under US law, when a prisoner is sentenced to death he or she must die in the time, place and manner described in the execution order. This is why death row inmates, particularly those on or coming up to their last day are very closely monitored, because a desperate prisoner with nothing to lose and a life expectancy literally measured in hours may decide to simply kill themselves and keep the state from getting the satisfaction.
  • Larry Phillips Jr, one of the perpetrators of the North Hollywood shootout, killed himself to avoid capture by police after being cornered and wounded.
  • Seung-hui Cho, the 2007 Virginia Tech mass murderer killed himself after his killing of 32 people. He did so when police closed in on the building in which most of the shooting had taken place.
  • There was a MASSIVE discussion on whether Chilean President Salvador Allende Gossens took his life or was murdered during the bloody Chilean coup that would kickstart Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. It was finally determined through autopsies that he had shot himself in order to not fall into the hands of the military; considering the "forced disappearances", repression and torture that took place against the opposition to Pinochet, he had quite the point. Similarly, some of his aidés also killed themselves before the military could take hold of them.
  • Reportedly, a few people attempted suicide on the night of October 30, 1938 (the night of the Mercury Theatre's The War of the Worlds broadcast), rather than be killed by the Martians' death machines. However, these reports remain unsubstantiated, and the consensus among historians is that the "mass panic" supposedly caused by the broadcast never happened.
  • The Russian bylina tales tell of Chuds committing mass suicides in front of advancing Russian conquerors when they saw their situation hopeless. The Chuds were a Finnic people living at northwestern Russia. They were described to have dug underground complexes where they took all their valuables, their children and family members, and then collapsed them, burying both themselves and the Russian conquerors alive. Such collapsed tombs have actually been found.
  • A modern medicine take on this trope is present for those that support "Right to die" laws, which permit those with terminal ailments to commit physician-assisted suicide rather than succumb to the ailment that afflicts them. Suffice to say, it's a rather contentious topic.
  • During the Thermidorian Reaction phase of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre and other leading Jacobins were denounced as tyrants and declared outlaws. After being cornered in a hotel the next day, they had this idea, but it didn’t go smoothly. Philippe-François-Joseph Le Bas shot himself in the head and died, something none of the others managed to accomplish. Robespierre also shot himself, but only succeeding in shattering his jaws. His brother Augustin jumped out a window and broke both of his legs. François Hanriot also went out a window and the crippled Georges Couthon fell down a flight of stairs, but whether these were intentional suicide attempts is unknown. All of the survivors were guillotined the next day.
    • Also, earlier into the Reign of Terror, one of the accused stabbed himself to death in court after learning he would be guillotined. They guillotined him anyway.
  • Downplayed by Richard Nixon, who, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, chose to resign from the presidency note  once it became clear that Congressional Republicans supported his impeachment and forcible removal from office.


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