10 of History's Most Notorious Traitors

When basketball star LeBron James played in Cleveland the first time after his defection to the Miami Heat, Cavaliers fans let him know how they really felt about him. When he eventually returned to the Cavs, all was forgiven.
© Damon Higgins/ZUMA Press/Corbis

When basketball player LeBron James called a 2010 press conference to announce he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, history came to life -- in the form of a long-held insult.

After making the surprise announcement that he would leave his hometown team, LeBron was likened to Benedict Arnold. In a move history buffs immediately understood as an age-old pun, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert lowered prices on life-size wall graphics depicting James to $17.41, the same year Arnold was born.


Arnold is so infamous for his traitorous behavior that his name has become synonymous with the act [source: Melok]. Whether a traitor betrays a country, principle, person or legion of sports fans, the act of betrayal isn't soon forgotten. And in some cases, the names of history's most notorious traitors remain on the tip of the tongue.

10: Cassius and Brutus

Allegorical engraving of the assassination of Julius Caesar by a group of nobles including Brutus and Cassius, on the Ides (15th) of March, 44 B.C.E.
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Think modern-day politics are a mess? Consider ancient Rome. Cassius, a Roman general who exceled at his job wasn't a big fan of fellow general and Roman senator Julius Caesar.

As Caesar rose to power on a populous wave and declared himself Rome's leader for life, Cassius began to get nervous about Caesar's widespread rule. Eventually, he convinced his friend and fellow Roman general Brutus to feel the same way. Although Brutus was Caesar's friend, too, he was guided by a sense of duty that made him vulnerable to Cassius' emotional manipulation.


After Cassius sent Brutus fake letters outlining the people's support for Caesar's death, Brutus decided to act on a misguided sense of honor. On the Ides of March (March 15), 44 B.C.E., Brutus led a group of senators to stab Caesar to death on the senate floor 23 times, making Cassius and Brutus one of history's first -- and most notorious -- traitorous pairs [source: Vernon].

9: Judas Iscariot

An illustration from a mid-19th century print showing Judas bestowing the betrayer's kiss on Jesus while Roman soldiers look on.
© Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver, and his name has been synonymous with greedy treachery ever since.

Judas was one of Jesus' 12 apostles and the account of Judas' traitorous act is recorded in the Bible's canonical gospels, which are Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Matthew 26:14-16 (KJV) reads, "Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests and said unto them, 'What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you?' And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of sliver."


Jesus was targeted by the chief priests, and Judas betrayed him with a kiss. The kiss wasn't a sign of affection; it was actually a signal to awaiting soldiers who immediately arrested Jesus and led him to the high priests. Jesus was accused of blasphemy, found guilty, bound and delivered to Pontius Pilate, the governor, who sentenced him to death. Soldiers stripped Jesus, placed a crown of thorns upon his head and crucified him by nailing him to a cross. Judas was so filled with remorse that he attempted to return the silver, but the priests wouldn't accept it. In the end, Judas hung himself.

Little else is known about Judas' life. Some historians believe Judas' last name, Iscariot, is closely linked to the Latin word for murderer -- sicarius -- and may not really be his family name at all [sources: Biography, Jesus Central]. In any case, "Judas" remains another word for "traitor" even today.

8: Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold persuades his British collaborator General John Andre to hide the West Point plans in his boot. Andre was caught and hanged. Arnold fled to fight for Britain.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

By the time Benedict Arnold reached adulthood, family financial constraints had forced him to withdraw from school; yellow fever had killed three of his siblings and he'd become responsible for his father, a frequently incarcerated alcoholic who squandered the family's fortune.

Arnold managed to become an international merchant whose financial success was stymied by British-imposed tax acts. He fought back by joining the military group, the Sons of Liberty, at times using his own money to train and equip troops. Successful battles against the British gained him the admiration of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but also a permanently injured leg. With civilian leaders stinting on supplies for the army and popular support for the American Revolution declining, a disillusioned Arnold began to think his country might be better off under British rule.


He was appointed to run West Point, a key military position during the Revolutionary War. Arnold betrayed America by offering to sell plans of the fort, including the location of its armament stores and other war secrets, to the British for an amount that would equal $3 million today.

When the treasonous plot was intercepted in 1780, Arnold went from hero to zero. He was convicted of treason, and his name was erased from military records. Arnold began fighting for England and eventually moved to London. He spent the rest of his life trying to ingratiate himself with British trading companies and the British military. He was unsuccessful at both pursuits and died in 1801 [sources: Biography, Creighton].

7: Robert Ford

A woodcut shows Robert Ford famously shooting Jesse James in the back while he hangs a picture in his house. Ford's brother Charles looks on.
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Jesse James may have been one of the United State's most infamous outlaws, but the man who shot him received the rancor of generations.

James led the James Gang on a robbery spree during the late 1800s that targeted everything from banks to trains to ordinary people. The robberies continued for about 16 years across the Midwest, coming to an abrupt end in 1876 when the gang murdered two people during a botched bank robbery. Several gang members were captured, but Jesse James managed to escape, robbing just one more train in 1880 -- the same year a Missouri governor put a price on his head.


Turns out, Robert Ford, a member of James' own gang, would become a traitor. On April 3, 1882, he killed James by shooting him in the back. Ford killed James not only for the $10,000 reward he planned to split with his brother Charles, but also because the Missouri governor had promised the brothers their crimes would be pardoned.

After Ford murdered James, he didn't receive a hero's welcome as he'd hoped, or even the entire reward. Instead, he was labeled a coward and became a drifter. Ironically, Ford met his end when a fellow outlaw shot him in the chest, seeking fame for killing the ultimate coward [sources: Lofty, History].

6: Mata Hari

Mata Hari in her exotic dancer days.
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Mata Hari may be one of history's most famous double agents, but she wasn't a good one. The "secrets" she gained from rival German and French sources were usually old news. Her real skills, it seems, were of a more personal persuasion.

Born Margaretha Zelle to a wealthy Dutch family that fell on hard times, she was parceled off to relatives, eventually married a stern man several years her senior and endured years of abuse. By the time she neared 30, she was divorced, living in Paris and calling herself Mata Hari, which means "eye of dawn" in Malaysian. She reinvented herself as a temple dancer from India.


From 1905 to 1912, Hari was credited with turning the striptease into a theatrical art form. However, as her age and weight increased, she moved from exotic dancer to courtesan. One of her wealthy French supporters recruited her to bed a German officer and find out his secrets in exchange for money. But the officer became suspicious and fed her old information. Meanwhile the French intercepted a message from Germany with Hari's code name, which made them believe she was also spying for Germany.

Hari was arrested and held in a French prison where a curious public queued into the streets to catch a glimpse of her during trial. She was sentenced to death for treason and led from her cell, head held high and refusing to wear a blindfold. Upon seeing a 12-man firing squad, she blew them a kiss before being shot and killed in 1917 [source: Noe].

5: Ezra Pound

A 1964 portrait of Ezra Pound in Italy.
© David Lees/CORBIS

Don't think a poetry prize can be controversial? The first Bollingen Prize in Poetry awarded by a congressionally appointed literary panel in 1949 is still making waves. And it's no wonder.

The recipient was Ezra Pound, an American expatriate who'd been indicted for treason against the U.S. during World War II. At the time of the award, Pound was confined to a Washington, D.C. hospital after being declared insane.


Born in Idaho, Pound became a poet and critic, and was arguably one of the most influential voices in 20th century English and American literature. As he lived and worked in London and Paris, Pound became incensed by the lives lost during World War I and the injustices he saw in the world. By 1924, he'd moved to Italy where the fascist leanings of Benito Mussolini captured his attention. Becoming increasingly radical during the 1930s and 1940s, Pound publicly supported Adolph Hitler.

As World War II broke out, the Italian government paid him to produce radio broadcasts that insulted the U.S. and supported fascism. After hundreds of these broadcasts, Pound was arrested in 1945 by Americans in Italy. He was charged with treason and spent months in a U.S. military camp writing one of his best-known works, "Pisan Cantos," before being hospitalized in the U.S.

Nine years after receiving the Bollingen Prize for "Pisan Cantos," he was released and returned to Italy, where he lived until his death in 1972 [source: Biography].

4: Tokyo Rose

Iva Toguri d’Aquino looks overwhelmed while being interviewed by journalists before her trial. She had told them she was Tokyo Rose in hopes of collecting an interview fee, little realizing this would lead to her arrest and imprisonment.

During World War II, the Japanese-American voice that emanated from the radio, attempting to demoralize American troops fighting in the Pacific, was referred to as Tokyo Rose.

And that's when things went terribly wrong for an American woman of Japanese descent. Iva Toguri d'Aquino lived in Tokyo, sent there by her family to care for an ailing relative, and was hired by a local radio station for a secretive propaganda plan -- one so secretive, she may not have known she was participating in it.


A British-born major and radio personality named Charles Hughes Cousens had been captured by the Japanese and ordered to produce a radio program that would undermine the Allies' morale. Instead Cousens designed a music-heavy show that would negate the propaganda campaign. D'Aquino and other women were recruited to participate. She took the broadcast name Orphan Ann (an homage to troops "orphaned" by their Allies in the Pacific). Many of her comments came across as humorous rather than ominous.

Despite intelligence reports that Tokyo Rose was not one person, journalists linked the woman known as Orphan Ann to Tokyo Rose. D'Aquino was taken into military custody. Even though the U.S. army found no evidence of her broadcasting secret military information, she was transported to the U.S., where she was tried for treason.

In 1949, a jury found her guilty on one of eight charges that alleged she broadcast news of American ships that were sunk. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison. She was pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1977 [source: Pierce].

3: Vidkun Quisling

Surrounded by soldiers, a pale-faced Vidkun Quisling begins the legal battle for his life in a crowded court room in Oslo. He lost and was executed by firing squad for treason.
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian army officer who was in cahoots with the Germans during their occupation of his home country during World War II.

Quisling joined the Norwegian Army in 1911, where his duties included humanitarian work in Russia and for the League of Nations. He later became minister of defense and was known for taking a strict stance on striking workers. He resigned in 1933 to pursue the formation of a National Union Party, which was an anti-union organization with fascist leanings.


In 1940, Quisling made a power grab. After meeting with Adolf Hitler, whom he encouraged to conquer Norway, he waited for the German occupation to become complete -- and then appointed himself Norway's leader. His reign lasted only a week before he was demoted by German forces to "minister president." That unfortunately, didn't stop him from sentencing almost 1,000 Jewish people to concentration camps [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

At the end of World War II in 1945, Quisling was found guilty of treason and executed. His name would forever live in infamy, as "quisling" became a synonym for traitor or collaborator [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

2: The Cambridge Five

Kim Philby jokes with newsmen at his mother's home during a 1955 press conference after being formally cleared of tipping off Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean that British intelligence was on to them. Philby later resigned from MI6, but agents interrogated him about this again in 1963. As they closed in, he escaped to Russia.
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A womanizer who married four times. A flamboyant gay man with a penchant for drunkenness. A famous art historian knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. It may sound like the lineup for a new HBO miniseries, but these men were real-life spies during World War II and beyond. Along with two fellow Cambridge University graduates, they penetrated British intelligence agencies and turned over secrets to the Soviets.

The Cambridge Five -- Harold "Kim" Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross -- were members of the British elite and so ensconced in their communist beliefs they refused payment for their spy work.


All were hired to work in key British intelligence positions and continually alerted Moscow about British and U.S. plans, including efforts to construct an atomic bomb in 1941 and Korean War strategy, causing the deaths of many. Things started unraveling when Americans deciphered a coded Soviet message that implicated Maclean. Philby warned him, and in 1951 Maclean and the flamboyant Burgess promptly defected to Russia -- a move that left the remaining spies under a low-hanging cloud of suspicion.

Philby and Cairncross were investigated by MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, but not charged. Nevertheless, both were forced to resign. Cairncross moved to France while Philby escaped to Russia in 1963. Blunt confessed and was granted immunity to remain in England. He was stripped of his knighthood when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher publicly revealed his espionage in 1979. Maclean, Philby (who had an affair with Maclean's wife) and Burgess all lived in Moscow until their deaths, nostalgic for England. None of the five were ever charged with any crimes [sources: Boghardt,Barnes].

1: Robert Hanssen

FBI file photo of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, church-going father of six and double agent for the Soviet Union.
© Reuters/CORBIS

Here's one that took the U.S. public by surprise. Robert Hanssen, a 25-year FBI agent and church-going family man, was also a long-time double agent for the Soviet Union.

Hanssen worked as a liaison between the FBI and the office responsible for tracking the identities of spies working in the U.S. By the early 2000s, investigators believed he had spent 20 years sharing state secrets. They suspected he'd revealed the identities of dozens of Soviet agents working for the U.S. and led to the killing of several.

And Hanssen didn't stop there. He fed the Soviet government U.S. plans, including the procedures for dealing with and retaliating against a Soviet nuclear attack. Although he was paid $1.4 million and some diamonds for his efforts, colleagues said he seemed to have been more motivated by playing the spy game than by greed.

Hanssen was caught when the FBI paid a former KGB agent to disclose the identity of the mole operating in the FBI. In 2002, Hanssen pled guilty to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy. He was sentenced to life in prison [sources: CNN, New York Times].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 of History's Most Notorious Traitors

I've always thought of espionage as something confined to the books my husband reads or a late-night James Bond movie marathon. Turns out, I couldn't have been more wrong. Spies played pivotal roles in some of history's greatest mysteries and still exist today. Makes you look at your neighbor a little differently, doesn't it?

Related Articles

  • Biography. "Benedict Arnold." (May 25, 2013) http://www.biography.com/people/benedict-arnold-9189320
  • Biography. "Ezra Pound." (May 25, 2013) http://www.biography.com/people/ezra-pound-9445428?page=1
  • Biography. "Judas Iscariot." (May 25, 2013) http://www.biography.com/people/judas-iscariot-9358799
  • CNN. "Ex-FBI Spy Hanssen Sentenced to Life, Apologizes." May 14, 2002. (May 25, 2013) http://archives.cnn.com/2002/LAW/05/10/hanssen.sentenced/
  • Creighton, Linda. "Benedict Arnold: A Traitor, but Once a Patriot." U.S. News and World Report. June 27, 2008. (May 25, 2013) http://www.usnews.com/news/national/articles/2008/06/27/benedict-arnold-a-traitor-but-once-a-patriot
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Vidkun Quisling." (May 25, 2013) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/487555/Vidkun-Quisling
  • Jesus Central. "Matthew's Biography of Jesus: Chapter 27." (May 25, 2013) http://www.jesuscentral.com/ji/life-of-jesus-ancient/biography-of-jesus-christ/who-is-Jesus-by-matthew/gospel-of-matthew-27.php?lgZ=en&ccZ=&vrZ=&vrZ=&scZ=&add=Read&show=Journals
  • History. "Jesse James Shot in the Back." (May 25, 2013) http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/jesse-james-shot-in-the-back
  • Lofty, Carrie. "Cowards: Robert Ford." Unusual Historicals. April 27, 2011. (May 28, 2013) http://unusualhistoricals.blogspot.com/2011/04/cowards-robert-ford.html"
  • Melok, Bobby. "Fathead, Company Owned by Dan Gilbert, Cuts LeBron James pics to $17.41, Benedict Arnold's Birthyear." New York Daily News. July 9, 2010. (May 25, 2013) http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/basketball/fathead-company-owned-dan-gilbert-cuts-lebron-james-pics-17-41-benedict-arnold-birthyear-article-1.465840
  • New York Times. "F.B.I. Paid $7 Million for File On American Spying for Russia." Oct, 18, 2002 (May 28, 2013). http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/18/us/fbi-paid-7-million-for-file-on-american-spying-for-russia.html
  • Noe, Denise. "Mata Hari." TruTv. (May 25, 2013) http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/terrorists_spies/spies/hari/1.html
  • Pierce, J. Kingston. "Tokyo Rose: They Called Her a Traitor." American History. October 2002. (May 25, 2013) http://www.historynet.com/tokyo-rose-they-called-her-a-traitor.htm
  • Spy Museum. "The Cambridge Five." (May 25, 2013) http://www.spymuseum.org/education-programs/spy-resources/background-briefings/the-cambridge-five/
  • Vernon, Jennifer. "Ides of March Marked Murder of Julius Caesar." National Geographic. March 12, 2004. (May 28, 2013) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/03/0311_040311_idesmarch.html