Throughout history, many have gained from the deaths of specific people. Which is why assassins have always had jobs. Some of these assassinations have changed the course of history. Some others went largely unexplained. The thing to note is, these are not your everyday homicides. They were planned and executed by people who needed certain people to die to further their own cause.
Here are some of the most infamous assassinations in history and the stories behind them.
1. Julius Caesar (100 BC-44 BC) – Killed by his own senators
As far as political assassinations go, Julius Caesar’s death at the hands of conspirators in the senate, will always be right up there. After Caesar declared himself ‘dictator for life’ following the deaths of Crassus and Pompey (the three of them formed the First Triumvirate), the senators feared that they would lose their power. Led by Cassius and Brutus (who was a close friend of Caesar), the conspirators took turns stabbing him right on the senate floor. It is said he was stabbed about 23 times.
2. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106 BC-48 BC) – Killed on the orders of a Pharaoh wanting to impress Caesar
Pompey and Caesar found themselves on opposing sides of a civil war which Caesar, against all odds, won. This made Pompey seek asylum in Egypt. But while he was waiting at the shore for a welcoming party from the young Egyptian king Ptolemy XIII, he was stabbed to death by his own men Achillas, Septmius and Salvius, who had received secret instructions from the Egyptians. When Caesar followed Pompey to Egypt where he was presented with Pompey’s severed head, he took it as an insult and had Achillas and Pothinus (Ptolemy XIII’s adviser who arranged the assassination) put to death.
3. Zhang Fei (168 AD-221 AD) – Beheaded by his own subordinates
Zhang Fei was a military general who served under Liu Bei, one of the major players during the Three Kingdoms period. One of Liu Bei’s major allies was Sun Quan, another warlord who later broke off the alliance and captured the Jing province. Zhang Fei was then tasked with seizing it back but during the campaign, he was ambushed and beheaded by his own subordinates, Fan Qiang and Zhang Da, who were actually Sun Quan’s agents.
4. Shaka Zulu (1787-1828) – Killed by his own half-brothers
While Shaka Zulu was one of the most influential monarchs from the Zulu kingdom and a military genius, he was also infamous for his brutal reign. A dark period of his rule was right after his mother passed away. To cope with the grief, Shaka ordered that no crops should be planted during the following year, no milk (the basis of the Zulu diet at the time) was to be used, and any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people who were deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken were executed, although the killing was not restricted to humans: cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what losing a mother felt like. Sometime around September 1828, he sent most of his troops north on an expedition which left his own home almost without any security. His two half-brothers, Dingane and Mhalangana stabbed him in his home and hid his body in a grain pit.
5. Radama II (1829-1863) – Killed because he almost plunged his kingdom into anarchy
Radama II was the ruler of the Kingdom of Madagascar from 1861 to 1863. His rule came to an end because of a very stupid decision he took. Radama decreed that any public disagreement in his kingdom could be solved by a duel to the death (Game of Thrones much?). The prime minister and his brother realized that this could push the society into anarchy so they decided to do away with the monarch. They attacked Radama’s compound, threw the traditional Madagascar garment lamba over his head and then apparently strangled him using a silk sash. I say ‘apparently’ because there’s another theory that he wasn’t really killed but simply rendered unconscious.
6. Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) – Killed with an ice-pick
I’ll not drag you too much into the back story here but long story short, Joseph Stalin hated Marxist leader and founder of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky’s guts. So much so that he tried to get him “taken care of” more than once. In 1940, when Trotsky was living in exile in Mexico, he was attacked in his home by undercover NKVD (these guys did all the dirty work for Stalin) agent, Ramon Mercader, who used a mountaineer’s ice-pick to hit Trotsky on the head. But the blow wasn’t hard enough to kill Trotsky immediately, who actually managed to spit on his assassin before the guards came into the room. Trotsky was taken to the hospital, operated on but he died from his wound the next day.
7. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) – First American president to be assassinated
Yes, we’ve all heard this story but this does not make it any less shocking. John Wilkes Booth, the assassin, was an actor and a Confederate sympathizer. He shot Lincoln not only when he was watching a play, but he did it right when the actor on stage said something funny, hoping the roaring laughter of the crowd would drown out the gunshot. Lincoln was laughing when he was shot on April 14th, 1865. He died the next day.
8. Jorg Jenatsch (1596-1639) – Killed by someone in a Bear costume
Swiss preacher turned political hot-shot Jorg Jenatsch had many enemies. Which is not surprising considering he was labeled a traitor. But this didn’t stop him from hosting a costume party slash carnival. He didn’t even suspect anything when one of his enemies (who was never identified) came to his private booth dressed in a bear costume carrying an axe and hiding a gun. Jenatsch even shook hands with him. And that’s when he was shot in the gut by an axe-wielding bear. Other conspirators joined in soon after.
9. Dan Mitrione (1920-1970) – Torture expert who met a quick death
In the 60’s, if you were in the FBI or the CIA, you were basically cracking down on left-wing organizations, doesn’t matter how big or small. Dan Mitrione was a cop, an FBI agent and then a CIA operative who was posted in South America for the better part of the 60’s, where he taught local law enforcement how to torture people without killing them. Electric shocks were his thing, so much so that, he even had a basement in his house in Uruguay where the local police would come for regular sessions. They would experiment on poor, homeless people or petty convicts and then kill them. Around that time, a left-wing guerrilla group called the Tupamaros, was also active in the region ( Jose Mujica , the current president of Uruguay, was a member). They managed to kidnap Mitrione and tried using him to negotiate the release of 150 comrades. When the Uruguayan government did not relent, Mitrione was found dead in a car with two gunshot wounds on the back of his head, with no other signs of maltreatment.
10. Georgi Markov (1929-1978) – Victim of the ‘Umbrella Murder’
Georgi Markov was a Bulgarian dissident writer who defected to the west in 1969, where he worked with Radio Free Europe. The Bulgarian secret police had already tried to silence him in the past but in 1978, it is said they got the KGB to help out. While Markov was on his way to office, he felt a sharp prick on his leg. When he turned around, he saw a man pick up an umbrella right next to him, rush to board a cab and ride away. He reached office and saw a red pimple-like growth on his leg. He passed away four days later. Why? The umbrella tip was modified to inject a ricin pellet.
11. Ruth First (1925-1982) – Killed by a letter bomb
Apartheid was practiced in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. During its peak in the 60’s, anyone who spoke against it publicly was either arrested, exiled or even worse, killed. Ruth First was a white Jewish woman who opposed it and was subsequently exiled. On August 17th, 1982, while she was pursuing a research training programme in Mozambique, she was killed when she opened a letter bomb addressed to her. The order to kill her came from Craig Williamson, an officer in the South African police, who later received amnesty for the murder.
12. Inejiro Asanuma (1898-1960) – Killed by a 17-year old on TV
Politician and leader of the Japanese Socialist Party, Inejiro Asanuma was speaking on stage in Tokyo’s Hibiya Hall in a televised political debate. Mid-speech, 17-year old Otoya Yamaguchi, a militant nationalist, rushed towards Asanuma and ran his wakizashi through his abdomen, killing him. And yes, the footage of the incident does exist online.
13. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) – A man of non-violence meeting a violent death
Not everyone was happy with the partition of India and the formation of Pakistan. Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, believed that the partition favoured Muslims and was skewed against Hindus. On January 30th, 1948, when Gandhi was about to attend a prayer meeting in the then Birla House (now Gandhi Smriti), Nathuram Godse approached him and shot three bullets from his Beretta 9mm pistol into Gandhi’s chest, killing him. Godse and his co-conspirators were tried and executed in 1949.
14. John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) – Whose death is still mired in controversy
On November 22nd, 1963, while US President John F. Kennedy was traveling in a motorcade in his open-top limousine, he was shot three times in his throat and his head. The accused, ex-Marine Lee Harvey Oswald claimed innocence but then he was killed by another man, Jack Ruby right before the trial. Oswald’s claims of innocence until his death led to many believing that Kennedy’s death was part of a bigger conspiracy.
15. Nur Muhammad Taraki (1917-1979) – Suffocated by a pillow
Afghan President Nur Muhammad Taraki and his political rival Hafizullah Amin were vying for power. Amin, who had already survived many assassination attempts, was summoned to the People’s Palace and he came prepared. Amin lost many allies in the shootout that followed but he managed to escape, only to return with other troops who arrested Taraki and put him in a cell. Later, Amin contacted Leonid Brezhnev (the leader of USSR during that time) to ask him what he should do with Taraki. Brezhnev replied – “do as you please”. Amin then had Taraki killed by suffocating him with a pillow.
16. Luis Carrero-Blanco (1904-1973) – Killed in a deadly explosion
Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, the Prime Minister of Spain, was a hated figure, especially by people from the Basque region. A commando unit of Basque liberation group ETA ( Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) rented a basement flat at Calle Claudio Coello 104, Madrid, an area through which Blanco regularly drove to attend mass. They told the landlord that they were students studying to be sculptors. For five months, they dug a tunnel under the road through which Blanco was to pass. On December 20th, 1973, three ETA members, pretending to be electricians detonated an explosive right when Blanco’s car passed. The explosion was so powerful, the car rose 66 ft in the air and crashed on the second floor balcony of a Jesuit college after being sent over a five-storey building. Blanco’s driver and bodyguard died immediately while he passed away soon after.
17. Harvey Milk (1930-1978) – Killed by a jealous co-worker
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay American politician to be elected to public office. On November 27, 1978, he along with Mayor George Moscone were shot dead by Dan White, another city supervisor, who had recently quit but wanted his job back. White was never fond of Harvey Milk but it’s difficult to say whether his motive for killing was homophobia, professional rivalry or a combination of both.
18. Theo Van Gogh (1957-2004) – Killed because he made a film
Dutch filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh, collaborated with activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali to produce a short film called Submission which talked about the exploitation of women in Islam. On November 2nd, 2004, while Van Gogh was riding his bicycle to work, he was shot several times by 26-year-old Mohammed Bouyeri, who then also tried to decapitate him. He then stabbed Van Gogh through the chest and then pinned a letter to it where he threatened Ayaan Hirsi Ali and spewed hate against ‘the west and the Jews’.
19. Grigoris Lambrakis (1912-1963) – Clubbed to death
Grigoris Lambrakis was a Greek left-wing politician and a vocal opponent of the fascist ruling party, police and military in Greece in the early 60’s. Now wonder they wanted him “gone”. But owing to Lambrakis’ popularity among the masses, they had to do it carefully. Ironically, they chose the stupidest plan possible. Two assassins working for the right wing forces parked themselves in one of three wheeled car/scooters and when Lambrakis was surrounded by a horde of supporters, they slowly drove up to him and clubbed his head with a baton. As Lambrakis fell dead, they realized the main flaw in their plan. Even though the police backed off, the supporters caught them and handed them over. With so many people present, the police was forced to arrest the men. Costa Gavras’ movie “Z” was based on this incident.
20. Judge John Wood (1916-1979) – Killed by Woody Harrelson’s dad
John Wood Jr., was a judge in the state of Texas and was notorious for his harsh sentencing of drug traffickers. Jamiel Chagra, one of the most prolific marijuana traffickers ever, was arrested on drug charges and was awaiting trial. His people contacted Charles Harrelson (actor Woody Harrelson’s estranged father), who at that time, was a contract killer. Harrelson shot Wood dead in front of his home and was sentenced for life . In 2003, he recanted his earlier statement and claimed somebody else had shot Wood. Then his son, Woody Harrelson, tried to get the case re-opened. But he could not do so. Harrelson died of cancer in 2008.