16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History

Khalid Elhassan - September 5, 2018

By their very nature, assassinations are not only dramatic events, but ones also capable of shaping history or altering its trajectory in an instant. Would World War I had been fought if Archduke Franz Ferdinand not been killed in 1914? Would Robert F. Kennedy have gone on to defeat Nixon in 1968 had he lived? Would America have gotten mired in Vietnam if RFK’s older brother had not been assassinated in 1963?

Following are sixteen of history’s most dramatic and impactful assassinations.

1. French Collaborator Francois Darlan Was Done in by a Patsy or a Delusional Nut

Admiral Francois Darlan (1881-1942) was commander in chief of the French Navy at the start of WWII. After France’s defeat in 1940, he served in the collaborationist Vichy regime, rising to become its deputy leader. When the Allies invaded French North Africa in 1942, they cut a deal with Darlan that got him to order forces under his command to lay down their arms. In exchange, they allowed him to govern French North Africa and West Africa under Vichy’s policies.

However, the agreement became a diplomatic and public relations embarrassment because it set up Darlan, with his pro Nazi record, as a rival of the Free French under Charles de Gaulle, who had never stopped fighting the Nazis. The embarrassment was finally lifted when Darlan was assassinated on Christmas Eve, 1942 by Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle.

La Chapelle joined the resistance when the Allies landed in North Africa on November 8th, 1942. His group loathed Darlan and resented his continued hold on power, so they decided to assassinate him. They drew lots and La Chapelle “won”, so he secured a pistol, received absolution from a priest, and went looking for Darlan on December 24th. He waited in the hallways of the Summer Palace in Algiers, and when Darlan showed up, La Chapelle shot him twice. He was tried by a French military court the following day, and sentenced to death.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Darlan, with Herman Goering and Marshal Petain. WW2 Gravestones

La Chapelle was confident that he would get a stay of execution, or at worst, that there would be a sham “execution” in which the firing squad would be issued blanks instead of real bullets. As it turned out, La Chapelle did end up getting pardoned and rehabilitated by an appellate court, which ruled that his assassination of Darlan had been justifiable because it was done “in the interest of the liberation of France“.

However, that ruling was handed down in December of 1945, three years too late for La Chapelle, who was executed by a firing squad that used real bullets on December 26th, 1942, one day after he was sentenced to death. Ever since, there has been plenty of speculation that Darlan’s assassination had been engineered by Allied intelligence, who got a dupe to pull the trigger, promising him a pardon, then swiftly executed him to silence him for good.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Concept art for Shaka Zulu. Ancient Origins

2. Shaka Zulu Was Assassinated by His Own Brother

Shaka Zulu (circa 1787-1828) was a Zulu warrior who rose to become chief of his tribe, then launched a ruthless campaign of conquest against other Southern African tribes. A military visionary, he revolutionized tribal warfare in the region, bringing it to a hitherto unprecedented pitch of destructiveness. By the time he was done, he had established a Zulu Empire.

When Shaka came to power, tribal warfare in Southern Africa was a low intensity affair, dominated by rituals and display, with relatively little actual fighting, and thus few fatalities. Shaka was of a bloody minded bent, and he set about changing that. He introduced fighting formations, organized his men into regiments known as impis, and transformed the Zulus into a disciplined army.

Shaka abandoned the throwing spears used in the region for centuries. Instead, he trained his men to use short stabbing spears, emphasizing shock tactics and decisive close combat. Zulu tactics and training made them unstoppable, triggering a catastrophe known as the Mfecane, meaning the “crushing” or “forced migration”. Tribes forced to flee Shaka’s onslaught were forced to encroach upon their neighbors, who were then forced to fight or become refugees, encroaching upon their neighbors in turn, in a cascade of violence that claimed the lives of millions.

Shaka’s reign finally came to an end in 1828. That year, he sent a regiment raiding up to the borders of the Cape Colony, but when it returned, rather than allow it the customary rest, he ordered it on yet another raid. That and increasingly megalomaniacal behavior led to widespread grumbling. Taking advantage of that, Shaka’s half brother Dingane organized a plot, and at a signal one day at camp, he and his coconspirators fell upon Shaka and stabbed him to death.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Islamic Jihad extremists during the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Rare Historical Photos

3. Signing a Peace Treaty With Israel Cost an Egyptian President His Life

Ever since 1973, October 6th has been a day of national commemoration in Egypt, to celebrate the successful crossing of the Suez Canal at the start of the Yom Kippur War. Although the war ended in an Egyptian defeat, it had been a tough fight that cost their Israeli opponents dearly, and marked the first time that the Egyptian military had put up a credible effort, so it was worth celebrating.

By the time the eighth anniversary rolled around in 1981, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who had been in office in 1973 and enjoyed a huge bump in popularity and prestige as a result, was becoming quite unpopular. In addition to an economic downturn, Sadat had entered what was viewed by many Egyptians as a controversial rapprochement with Israel.

The thaw culminated in a 1979 peace treaty, the Camp David Accords. It won him a Nobel Prize and applause in the West, but many of his fellow countrymen and Arab neighbors saw it as a sellout. Their numbers included Omar Abdel Rahman, the “Blind Sheik” later convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, who issued a fatwa against Sadat.

On October 6th, 1981, Sadat, surrounded by high ranking officials and dignitaries, took his place at a reviewing stand to watch what by then had become an annual military parade. Things started well, and as TV cameras transmitted the event live, an overflight of jets zoomed overhead, while army trucks towing artillery paraded by. One of them contained a lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, who had arrived that morning with some substitute soldiers for ones whom he claimed had fallen ill.

Islambouli was a secret member of Islamic Jihad, radicals whose ranks included Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s future second in command. Islambouli and his men had live ammunition for their weapons, and when their truck passed by Sadat, he disembarked and approached the review stand. Sadat thought it was part of the parade, and saluted Islambouli, who responded by quickly lobbing three grenades at the president. Only one grenade exploded, but as it went off, Islambouli’s accomplices rushed the review stand and opened fire, killing Sadat and several others nearby.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Lincoln assassination. History Channel

4. A Star Actor Killed Abraham Lincoln

No American president has ever faced as many challenges as did Abraham Lincoln. The main one was the US Civil War, which killed about 700,000 to 900,000 Americans. Prorated to current population, that would be the equivalent of about 9 million deaths today. He navigated his way through that bloodbath without the extensive support staff and bureaucracy that modern presidents can lean on to ease and streamline their workload. In so doing, he weathered setback after setback, and bumbling and incompetence by generals who piled up humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat.

In addition to armed rebellion in the South, he had to contend with treason in the North; vicious attacks from opposition Democrats and from his own Republican party; accusations of incompetence and treason and tyranny; disloyalty inside his own cabinet; plots and schemes and terrorism; plus a threat of foreign war against Britain and France. In the middle of all that, his favorite son caught a fever and died, aged 11. And he had to cope with all the preceding while also coping with a crazy wife, who literally suffered frequent bouts of insanity.

Lincoln handled all those challenges with nearly superhuman poise, grace, dignity and determination. After going through hell on earth, he finally prevailed, and the rebellion was crushed. Less than a week after the main Southern army surrendered, when he could finally try and relax, he went to see a play at Ford’s Theater, only to be shot in the head by a Southern sympathizer.

John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor, was a Confederate sympathizer. During the war, he lacked the courage of his convictions to take up arms and join the Confederate armies in the field. When it was all over and the Confederates had been defeated, he found enough courage – or at least bitterness – to finally do something. He hatched a plot to assassinate the president and leading cabinet members, and on the night of April 14th, 1865, the conspirators fanned out across Washington, DC.

Booth’s coconspirators failed to carry out their parts of the plot, but Booth managed to get into Ford’s Theater, snuck into the president’s private box, and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He then made a dramatic escape, and went on the run for 12 days before a massive manhunt finally tracked him to a barn in Virginia, where Booth was killed during a shootout with his pursuers.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
John F. Kennedy in Dallas, minutes before his assassination. Mint Press News

5. History’s Most Controversial Assassination continues to provide conspiracy theories

Few events in history have given rise to as many conspiracy theories as did the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Decades of investigations, hearings, books, documents, records, and interviews, have failed to come up with a definitive answer to the question: did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Recently, an author tallied 42 groups, 82 assassins, and 214 people accused by conspiracy theorists of having been involved in the assassination.

The bare facts are relatively straightforward. Lee Harvey Oswald, a former US Marine, became a communist, and was so enamored of communism that he defected to the Soviet Union in 1959. He lived there for a few years, during which he met and married a Soviet woman. However, life behind the Iron Curtain was not what he had imagined it would be, so he returned to the US in 1962. Oswald settled in Dallas, but found it difficult to keep a job, quitting one after three months, and getting fired from another after six months.

In March of 1963, Oswald used an alias to make a mail order purchase of an Italian rifle with a scope for $29.95, with which he tried to assassinate a retired ultra right general. That September, he travelled to Mexico City, seeking to emigrate to Cuba, but was denied a visa. He returned to Dallas in October, and got a job in the Texas School Book Depository.

A month later, newspapers announced that JFK would visit Dallas on November 22nd, and published his motorcade’s route. It would pass by the Oswald’s workplace. That day, he set up a sniper nest by a 6th floor window of the Book Depository. When the president’s open limousine drove by around 12:30PM, Oswald fired three shots, killing JFK and seriously wounding Texas governor John Connally. 45 minutes later, he shot and killed a Dallas cop, and was arrested soon thereafter for that crime.

Oswald was later charged with killing Kennedy, but he denied it, claiming that he was a “patsy”. Two days later, he was shot and killed on live TV in the Dallas Police HQ by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner. Oswald’s murder before he could tell his story lent plausibility to the theory that the aim had been to silence him. Then Ruby died in jail of cancer a few years later. That supercharged the theory that those behind the assassination had neatly silenced Oswald, using a dying man who had nothing to lose, who did the deed in exchange for some unknown favor or to pay off a past debt.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Death of Tiberius Gracchus. Germaelde und Grafik

6. Roman Senators Assassinate a Popular Politician Accused of Tyranny, a Century Before Julius Caesar

Tiberius Gracchus (circa 164 – 133 BC) was a Roman tribune of the plebs and a populares politician – a faction that sided with plebeians against the conservative aristocratic patricians. He advocated land reforms to help small independent farmers, a class being driven into extinction by the concentration of public lands into illegal giant estates controlled by senatorial aristocrats.

Rome’s legions were drawn from those who could afford to arm and equip themselves, mostly independent farmers. However, the class of independent farmers had been shrinking, as public lands were illegally seized and consolidated into vast estates controlled by patricians. Aside from the illegality, it reduced military manpower: independent farmers driven off their land fell into poverty, shrinking the pool of potential legionaries.

Tiberius Gracchus proposed reforms to break the giant estates, and redistribute the land to lower class Romans. He was vehemently opposed by the senatorial class, and when he pushed through legislation to redistribute the land anyhow, the senators set out to assassinate him. During an election in 132 BC, a senatorial mob rushed the tribune and his followers while they were assembled to vote, and Tiberius Gracchus was beaten to death.

It was the Roman Republic’s first act of organized political violence, and it broke a double taboo: against political violence in general, and against visiting violence upon a tribune of the plebs, whose persons had been deemed inviolate for centuries. Violence begat violence, and Tiberius Gracchus’ political murder ushered in nearly a century of mounting turmoil as the Roman Republic tore itself apart in bouts of civil wars and bloody political purges. The toll fell disproportionately upon and virtually wiped out the very patrician and senatorial class whose interests Tiberius Gracchus’ assassins had sought to protect.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Assassination of Imam Ali. Lubpak

7. A Seventh Century Assassination Whose Legacy Endures to This Day

The death of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad was followed by a bitter succession dispute. On the one hand were those who believed that leadership of the Islamic community should be confined to Muhammad’s family and bloodline. On the other, were those who thought leadership should be open to whomever the Muslim community chose. The former, a minority, coalesced around Muhammad’s cousin and son in law Ali, and became known as the Shiites, or faction, of Ali. The latter, the majority, became known as the Sunnis.

Muslims elected the first three Caliphs, or successors of the Prophet, from outside Muhammad’s family, bypassing Ali each time. Finally, following the murder of the third Caliph, Ali was elected. However, his predecessor’s relatives accused Ali of being implicated in the murder, and engineered the election of a rival Caliph, Muawiyah I. The competing Caliphs went to war, but before the issue was settled in battle, Ali accepted arbitration.

That led some of Ali’s supporters, known thereafter as the Khawarij, or “Outsiders”, to abandon him because they opposed arbitration. Viewing the Caliphate as the collective property of the Muslim community, they reasoned that Ali lacked the authority to make any decision regarding who gets to be Caliph. Election by the community was the sole legitimate process for bestowing the Caliphate, argued the Khawarij, and the Muslim community had already elected Ali. By accepting arbitration to decide who would be Caliph, Ali was overstepping his boundaries and usurping a power of decision that was never his.

Ali went ahead with the arbitration, but it turned into a fiasco without settling the dispute or producing a result other than weakening him politically. The Khawarij soured on Ali, whom they now viewed as much of a usurper as his rival. So they decided to get rid of both, and hatched a plot to kill the rival Caliphs on the same day during Friday prayers.

Ali’s assassins succeeded in stabbing him to death in the Great Mosque in Kufa, Iraq, but those sent after his rival only wounded him. Muawiyah emerged as sole Caliph, and went on to found the Umayyad Dynasty. The Khawarij rose in rebellion against Muawiyah, who eventually crushed them. Embers remained, however, and the Khawarij became the anarchists of Islam’s first centuries. Rejecting the Caliph’s authority, they engaged in a campaign of terror and assassinations, combined with a low level insurgency that would flare up every generation or two into a major rebellion. They became the model for modern Islamist terrorists, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
‘Death of Caesar’ by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1805. Wikimedia

8. “Et tu, Brute?”

Marcus Junius Brutus (85 – 42 BC) is perhaps best known as the addressee of Julius Caesar’s final words and lines, “Et tu, Brute?” from Shakespeare’s play. Brutus was the Roman dictator’s friend, the son of his longtime mistress, and the most famous of his assassins. Incongruously, Brutus’ father had been betrayed and murdered by Caesar’s rival, Pompey the Great, yet ended up fighting Caesar under Pompey’s command.

Brutus was raised by his maternal uncle Cato the Younger, a conservative reactionary and Caesar’s avowed enemy. Brutus had initially supported Caesar, but turned against him when he started viewing him as a would-be king. When Caesar marched into Italy in 49 BC, Brutus went against him and joined the ranks of his enemies, fighting under Pompey.

However, Cesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Brutus surrendered, was pardoned and restored to favor, but continued to resent Caesar. When a faction of Roman Senators, styling themselves “The Liberators”, formed to do Caesar in, Brutus eagerly accepted the invitation to join their secret group. He was a great symbolic catch, because he was a descendant of Lucius Licinius Brutus, the Roman Republic’s founder who had chased the last king out of Rome.

On the Ides of March in 44 BC, dozens of Senators suddenly fell upon Caesar during a meeting of the Senate. Brutus stabbed the dictator in the groin, which contemporaries interpreted as a statement against his mother’s former lover, as well as against the rumors that Caesar might have actually been Brutus’ biological father. The assassins were pardoned by the Senate, but a riot soon thereafter forced them to flee Rome. The following year, Mark Antony and Caesar’s nephew and heir, Octavius, got that amnesty revoked, and had the Senate declare the dictator’s assassins murderers. Civil war erupted again, and ended with the assassins defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, after which Brutus committed suicide rather than fall into Octavius’ clutches.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Assassination of Nizam al Mulk. Quora

9. The Assassins Cult Kicked Off Their Reign of Terror With Seljuk Grand Vizier Nizam al Mulk

The Order of Assassins, formally known as the Nizari Ismailis, was a medieval Islamic cult that terrorized the Middle East for a century and a half. They used suicide hitmen who, unlike modern suicide bombers, were carefully selected and well trained. Aside from the requisite physical fitness, they had to be quick thinking, well read, intelligent, patient, calculating, and cold. They also had to possess no small degree of charisma in order to infiltrate their opponents’ defenses, and gain access to and come within striking distance of their targets.

Assassin killer squads studied the routines of targeted leaders, then typically lay in wait for them during heavily attended public events such as festivals or Friday prayers at the mosque. At an opportune moment, they would spring into action to stab and slash their victim, while shouting the name of their cult’s leader and whatever offense the victim had given. Stories also abound of Assassin sleepers who spent years diligently working their way up the ranks and into the inner circle of a given court, where they would patiently await instructions that might take decades to arrive, if ever. In some instances, a victim would discover during the final moments of his life that one or more of his bodyguard were Assassin cultists.

The cult sometimes resorted to intimidation instead of murder, such as with the Seljuk sultan Sanjar, who had rebuffed their emissaries. He changed his mind after waking up one morning to find a note pinned by a dagger near his bed, informing him that had the Assassins wished him ill, the dagger could have easily been thrust into his breast instead. Peace reigned between Seljuks and Assassins for decades thereafter, during which their leader was paid protection money, face-savingly described as a “pension”, and he was permitted to collect tolls from travelers passing near his fortresses.

The Assassins’ first victim of note was Nizam al Mulk, a Grand Vizier who had held absolute power in the Seljuk Empire for over twenty years before the Assassins got him. On October 14th, 1092, he was being carried in his litter near Nahavand, in today’s Iran, when he was approached by a dervish – Sufi ascetics, known for their extreme piety and poverty. As it turned out, this dervish was actually an Assassin in disguise, and he stabbed the Grand Vizier to death with a dagger as soon as he got close enough.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Rasputin. Smithsonian Magazine

10. History’s Toughest Assassination in the form of a mystic with the Tsarina’s ear

Grigory Rasputin (1872 – 1916) was an illiterate Siberian peasant, lecher, mystic, and charlatan faith healer, whose ability to soothe the suffering of the young hemophiliac heir to the Russian throne won him the favor of his parents, the Russian Tsar and Tsarina. That favor made him an incongruously powerful and influential figure in the Russian Empire’s final years.

Rasputin was introduced to Tsarina Alexandria, whose son suffered from hemophilia, and was inexplicably able to soothe the child’s suffering. That earned him the mother’s fierce loyalty. She convinced herself that Rasputin was guided by God, and started soliciting his advice on matters of state and government. Soon, high officials were being appointed and dismissed based on Rasputin’s opinion. Those seeking advancement flocked to offer him lavish bribes, or sent their wives and daughters to seduce him into putting in a good word for them with the Tsar and Tsarina.

That scandalous state of affairs made the Tsarist government a laughingstock and brought it into low repute, but the Tsarina remained fiercely protective of Rasputin. So a group of aristocrats, led by a Prince Feliks Yusupov, decided to assassinate Rasputin in order to rid Russia of his malign influence. His death was to prove as dramatic as his life had been.

Rasputin was lured to Yusupov’s palace on the night of December 30th, 1916, on the pretext of meeting Yusupov’s wife, who was interested in “knowing” him. While waiting for Yusupov’s wife to “freshen up”, Rasputin was offered cakes and tea laced with cyanide. He ate and drank with no ill effects. He was then offered wine, also poisoned. He quaffed it down without a problem, asked for another glass, then one more after that, again, with no ill effects. Exasperated, Yusupov retrieved a pistol and shot Rasputin in the chest.

Believing him dead, the conspirators went about covering their tracks, only for Rasputin to rise hours later and attack Yusupov, who managed to free himself and flee up the stairs. Rasputin then left via the palace court yard, where the panicked conspirators caught up with him and shot him again. They then wrapped his body in a rug, cut a hole in a frozen river’s surface, and shoved beneath the ice. When his body was eventually recovered, it was reported that it had not been the bullets or poison that had killed him, but drowning – he was presumably still alive when thrown into the river.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Elagabalus. Wikimedia

11. Elagabalus Discovers the Limits of Shocking Roman Sensibilities

One of Rome’s weirdest rulers, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, better known to history as Elagabalus (203 – 222), was emperor from 218 until his assassination four years later. His religious practices, which would have weirded out contemporary Romans if performed by a private citizen, were outright bizarre and shocking when carried out by an emperor.

He had been a priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus, and after ascending the throne as a teenager, he took the god’s name as his own and brought his worship to Rome. There, he built Elagabalus a lavish temple, whose inauguration astonished everybody. Senators, high ranking officials, and the public, were flabbergasted on opening day to witness the unprecedented sight of a Roman emperor dancing around the deity’s altar, to the accompaniment of cymbals and drums.

The new emperor further offended sensibilities by attempting to incorporate his religion into the Roman pantheon. He made Elagabalus as supreme god, above Jupiter, and transferred the most sacred relics of the Roman religion to his new temple. He also ordered that other religions, including Jews and the nascent Christians, transfer their rites to Elagabalus’ temple.

Elagabalus might also have been the most flamboyantly homosexual ruler in history. He openly went about in women’s clothing, and publicly fawned upon male lovers, whom he elevated to high positions. They included an athlete who was given a powerful position at court, and a charioteer whom he sought to declare as Caesar. He also reportedly prostituted himself in the imperial palace. Respected emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian had male sexual partners, and Hadrian had even created a religious cult for a youthful lover who had accidentally drowned. However, Elagabalus was the passive, or receptive partner in homosexual acts: a Roman emperor who was a top was acceptable, but a bottom was not.

On March 11th, 222, soldiers in a military parade showed their contempt by cheering Elagabalus’ cousin, while ignoring the emperor. He ordered the arrest and execution of the insubordinate soldiers, but instead, his bodyguards turned around and attacked him and his mother, hacking them to pieces. Their heads were chopped off, and Elagabalus’ corpse was dragged around Rome, before it was unceremoniously tossed into the Tiber river.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Health is in You

12. Alexander II Celebrated His Escape From Assassination a Moment Too Soon

19th century Russia was marked by great discontent and political turmoil, as reformers ran into the oppressive instincts of Russia’s imperial government. Without political freedom, and with free expression severely restricted, many reformers grew disgusted with the system, and turned into revolutionaries dedicated to its overthrow. One such group formed a secret organization, Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), which sought to overthrow the autocratic government by acts of violent propaganda calculated to spark a mass revolt. A terrorist organization, in short.

People’s Will saw terrorism as a proactive tool for overthrowing the regime. It called for violence, announced an ambitious program of terrorism and assassination to break the government, and decreed a death sentence against Emperor Alexander II, who was to be executed as an enemy of the people. They established clandestine cells in major cities and within the Russian military, and began publishing underground revolutionary newspapers and leaflets targeted at industrial workers.

People’s Will tried to kill the Emperor in December of 1879 with explosives on a railway, but missed his train. They tried again two months later, by planting a bomb in his palace. However, Alexander II was not in the room when the explosives went off. A frightened Emperor declared a state of emergency, and set up a commission to repress the terrorists. Within a week, a People’s Will assassin attempted to kill the commission’s head. The repression mounted, and People’s Will activists caught distributing illegal leaflets were hanged. Undaunted, the group doggedly persisted in its relentless efforts to kill Alexander.

They finally succeeded on March 1st, 1881. A People’s Will assassin waited in ambush along a route taken by the Emperor every week, and threw a bomb under his carriage when it passed by. The explosion killed a guard and wounded others, but the carriage was armored, and Alexander was unhurt. A shaken Emperor emerged from the carriage, and crossed himself as he surveyed the damage. His relief was premature, as there was a second assassin concealed in the gathering crowd. Shouting at Alexander “it is too early to thank God!“, the second assassin threw another bomb, which landed and went off directly beneath the Emperor’s feet. Mangled by the explosion, Alexander died soon thereafter.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Caligula. The Telegraph

13. Caligula Discovered it Was Unwise to Insult His Bodyguards

Caligula (12 – 41 AD) was raised by his uncle, the Roman emperor Tiberius, a paranoiac who spent much of his reign as a recluse in a pedophilic pleasure palace in the island of Capri. He surfaced on occasion to order the execution of relatives accused of treason, including Caligula’s mother and two brothers, and had probably poisoned Caligula’s father as well.

Caligula survived the bitter Tiberius, who named him heir, quipping “I am rearing a viper for the Roman people“. The years of repressed living left their mark, and once freed of his homicidal and paranoid uncle, Caligula cut loose. He went into an orgy of lavish spending and hedonistic living, as the combination of sudden freedom and sudden unlimited power went to his head.

His craziness included once cackling uncontrollably at a party, and when asked why, replied that it was hilarious that he could order anybody present beheaded on the spot. On another occasion, displeased by an unruly crowd at the Circus Maximus, he pointed out a section to his guards, and ordered them to execute everybody “from baldhead to baldhead”, gesturing at two bald people. Another time, when told that there were no more criminals to throw to the beasts, he ordered a section of the crowd thrown to the wild animals.

Among the sexual depravities attributed to him, incest with his sisters was the least of it. At dinner parties, he would frequently “request” that a guest’s wife accompany him to his bedroom, and after bedding her, return to the party to rate her performance, berating the cuckolded husband if she was lacking. He also turned the imperial palace into a brothel, in which he forced the wives of leading Romans to serve as prostitutes.

He declared himself a god, and had the heads removed from the statues of various deities, replacing them with his own. He also once declared war on the sea god Neptune, marched his legions to the sea, and had them collect seashells to show the deity who was boss. However, it was not the preceding craziness that did him in, but his grievous error in offending his own bodyguards.

The commander of his security detail, a man named Chaerea, had a high pitched voice, and Caligula got a kick out of mocking him as effeminate. He thought it hilarious to come up with derogatory daily passwords that had to do with homosexuality, and whenever Chaerea was due to kiss the imperial ring, Caligula made sure it was on his middle finger, which he would waggle obscenely. In 41 AD, Chaerea finally had enough, hatched a plot with other Praetorian Guards, and hacked Caligula to death.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
A painting depicting the phases of the de Witt murders, by Pieter Frits. Wikimedia

14. Johan de Witt Had an Extremely Bad Last Day

Bad as tempers have gotten in American politics – and one need only look at the news for the latest examples – things have usually, if not always, stayed within reasonable and civilized bounds. Every now and then, tempers might have gotten high enough in the United States for political violence to erupt. Even on a massive scale, such as that time in the 19th century when Americans killed each other by the hundreds of thousands during the Civil War.

Still, bad as tempers have gotten in America, they never got so bad that American soldiers killed the head of government in the street, after which a frenzied mob seized the carcass, mutilated it, then proceeded to cook and eat it. On that, the Dutch have us beat. Notwithstanding the Dutch reputation for orderliness and politeness, there was a time in 1672 when a Dutch mob went wild on their prime minister.

Johan de Witt (1625 – 1672) was a Dutch politician whose main program was to decentralize and shift power from the national government to local ones. He focused so much on his decentralization agenda, however, that he ended up neglecting the Dutch army and navy. When the Third Anglo-Dutch War erupted, the result was a series of military disasters in 1672, so bad that 1672 is known to this day in Dutch history as rampjaar – “the disaster year”.

On August 20th of that year, Johan de Witt, who by then had dominated Dutch politics for twenty years, went to visit his brother Cornelis, who had recently been sentenced to exile. Out of the blue, the brothers were attacked by members of the Hague city militia, who shot them and left them on the street to the tender mercies of a Dutch mob. The mob was neither tender nor merciful. If the de Witts had not already been dead from the soldiers’ bullets, they were quite dead by the time the mob was done stabbing and beating them. The mob then strung up the corpses upside down from a gibbet, disemboweled them, ripped off their genitalia, and roasted and ate chunks of them in a cannibalistic frenzy.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
South Vietnamese soldiers posing with the corpse of former president Diem. Pintrest

15. Ngo Dinh Diem’s Contempt for His Country’s Dominant Religion Backfires

South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem (1901 – 1963) came to power in 1955 after a heavily rigged referendum with which he deposed Vietnam’s emperor Bao Dai, and established the Republic of Vietnam with himself as president. A staunch Catholic, he pursued discriminatory policies that favored Catholics for public service and military positions, land distribution, tax concessions, and business arrangements.

Some Catholic priests even ran private armed militias, which they put to use demolishing Buddhist pagodas and forcing people to convert – activities to which the government turned a blind eye. Since Catholics were a distinct minority, and about 90% of South Vietnamese were Buddhists, Diem’s pro-Catholic tilt did not sit well with most of his countrymen.

By 1963, South Vietnam was seething with discontent and a steadily intensifying insurgency, fueled by widespread governmental corruption, nepotism, and the president’s pro Catholic policies. Protests erupted in May, when Diem’s government banned the flying of Buddhist flags – only days after it had encouraged Catholics to fly Vatican flags at a celebration of Diem’s elder brother, a Catholic archbishop. Government troops opened fire on Buddhist protesters, killing and wounding dozens, triggering yet more protests.

On June 10th, 1963, correspondents were tipped that “something important” would happen the following day near the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. On the 11th, photographer Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press captured two Buddhist monks dousing an elderly comrade with gasoline, as he sat, lotus style. The monk, Thich Quang Duc, then struck a match and dropped it on himself, and maintained his serenity while flames engulfed him. Browne’s iconic photo of the event captivated the world.

Vietnam entered America’s national conversation after the Burning Buddhist’s photo appeared on the front page of newspapers across the US. As president Kennedy put it: “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one“. People questioned America’s support for Diem’s government, and Kennedy did not oppose a coup that overthrew it a few months later.

On the night of November 1-2, units of the South Vietnamese army attacked the presidential palace, and captured it after a bloody siege. President Diem and his advisor and younger brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, surrendered after they were promised a safe exile, and were placed in the back of an armored personnel carrier that was to take them to a military airbase. Instead, they were assassinated by South Vietnamese officers en route.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Contemporary painting depicting the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Smithsonian Magazine

16. History’s Most Impactful Assassination

Serbia’s Black Hand was an irredentist group that used terrorism as a tool to free Serbs from Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman rule, and unify them into a Greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary was the Black Hand’s main target, and assassins trained and supplied by the group would murder the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914.

The Black Hand trained guerrillas, saboteurs, propagandists, and assassins, and sent them into Austria-Hungary to destabilize it and stir up nationalist resentment among its Serbs. The group was primarily led by high ranking Serbian officials, including the crown prince. The Serbian government was well informed of the group’s terrorist activities, making Serbia its day’s greatest state sponsor of terrorism.

On June 28th, 1914, Black Hand assassins struck in Sarajevo. They started off inauspiciously, with a comedy of errors in which various assassins tried but failed to kill Franz Ferdinand. It included a would-be assassin who threw a bomb that didn’t kill its target, then attempted to kill himself by swallowing expired cyanide and drowning himself in a river that was only inches deep.

Then, fate intervened. After the remaining assassins gave up on the whole thing as a fiasco, the Archduke’s convertible took a wrong turn that brought it within a few feet of Gavrilo Princep, an assassin who had given up on the affair and gone to grab a bite. Princep stepped up to the open vehicle, and fired two shots that killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife.

Austria declared war on Serbia, which dragged in Russia, Serbia’s protector. That in turn dragged in Germany, Austria’s ally, which brought in France, Russia’s ally against Germany, which prompted Germany to invade France via Belgium. The German advance through Belgium brought in Britain, one of the signatories to treaty guaranteeing Belgian sovereignty.

Over 70 million men were mobilized and 10 million were killed in the ensuing war. Four empires vanished, and the global center of power shifted from the Old World to the New. A staid age of aristocracy and traditional forms of government came to an end, and a new fervent and fast paced era of democracies, radical ideologies, and totalitarianism, emerged in its place. The world was forever changed because of that assassination in Sarajevo.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Association For Diplomatic Studies and Training – The Assassination of Anwar Sadat

CNN, November 18th, 2013 – One JFK Conspiracy Theory That Could be True

Encyclopedia Britannica – Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Encyclopedia Britannica – Elagabalus, Roman Emperor

Encyclopedia Britannica – Johan de Witt, Dutch Statesman

History Net – The Assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum – November 22, 1963: Death of the President

Medium, January 24th, 2017 – Tsar Alexander II: Tsar Liberator and Rise of Terrorism in Russia

Penn State University – The Death of Tiberius Gracchus

Smithsonian Magazine, December 27th, 2016 – The Murder of Rasputin, 100 Years Later

South African History Online – Shaka Zulu

Spectator, The, December 18th, 2012 – An Assassination at Christmas

Suetonius – The Twelve Caesars (2013)

Telegraph, The, June 27th, 2014 – First World War Centenary: Franz Ferdinand’s Final Journey

Tuchman, Barbara – The Guns of August (1962)

Wikipedia – Assassins

Wikipedia – Assassination of Ali

Wikipedia – Caligula