18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of

D.G. Hewitt - September 7, 2018

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
James Garfield is just one of four American Presidents to have been assassinated. Wikipedia.

14. President James Garfield might have survived the assassin’s bullets had his physician washed his hands before treating him

Four Presidents of the United States have been assassinated while in office. But, while most people have a good knowledge of the deaths of JFK and Abraham Lincoln, the violent end of James A. Garfield’s presidency remains largely overlooked. This is despite the fact that, in many ways, Garfield epitomized the American Dream. He rose from humble beginnings to get involved in first local and then national politics, ultimately making it all the way to the top. However, he’s often missed out on the regular lists ranking U.S. Presidents – quite simply, the assassin’s bullet meant that he spent more time fighting for life in a hospital bed than he did actually running the country.

Garfield was born in Ohio in 1831. Despite being raised by his widowed mother in poverty, he supported himself through school then college and, upon graduation, entered politics as a Republican. He served with distinction as an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War and, when peace returned, was elected to Congress. Then, in 1880, when the Republican Party couldn’t choose between Ulysses S. Grant or James G. Blaine for their presidential candidate, Garfield was selected as a compromise candidate. He won the election and assumed office in March 1881.

Just four months later, tragedy struck. Garfield was shot while waiting at a railway station in Washington DC. The assailant, Charles J. Guiteau, was a struggling lawyer with a grudge against the government. Famously, the bullet didn’t kill the President. Instead, it’s believed that his doctor killed Garfield. By not washing his hands before treating his patient, Garfield’s wound became infected. Garfield struggled with ill health for almost two more months, and even managed to do some work. However, on the evening of September 18, 1831, he passed away.

Even though it was medical malpractice and then infection which ultimately killed the President, Guiteau was still charged with Garfield’s murder. The following summer, he was executed by hanging. Garfield was succeeded by Chester A. Arthur and remains better-known for his death than his accomplishments in life.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
The story of a Swiss diplomat killed by a man dressed as a bear became famous across Europe. Wikipedia.

15. Jörg Jenatsch, the Swiss diplomat who was assassinated at a party by a bear wielding his own axe

Prominent Swiss nationals are rather lacking in European history. But Jörg Jenatsch was both Swiss and a very influential individual indeed. He played a key role in shaping European politics during the Thirty Years’ War. While he was a skilled and wily diplomat, Jentasch was also not afraid to use violence. Indeed, he was guilty of a brutal, politically motivated murder himself. Which makes his demise, in one of the most infamous assassinations in all of Medieval history, all the more compelling.

Jentash was originally a man of the church. He started his career as a Protestant pastor in a small town in Switzerland in 1617. But before long, he threw himself into politics. This was a time when tensions between Protestants, backed by the power base of Vienna, and Catholics, backed by the Spanish. Jentash was a prominent voice in the Protestant camp. But in 1621, he did more than just argue and debate: he took an axe and killed his rival, Pompeius von Planta, in his own castle.

By the 1630s, Jentash had switched sides. He converted to Catholicism and headed a small, private army. In January 1639, he was celebrated Carnival in his home town of Chur. A group of men joined the party, all in costume, as was – and remains – the tradition. Suddenly, one of the group, dressed as a bear, took an axe and attacked Jentash. He had no chance. The assassins were never caught. However, it’s widely believed that the assassin was Rudolf von Planta, the son of the man Jentash had murdered 18 years before. What’s more, some accounts add that von Planta used the same axe that killed his father (and that Jentash left embedded in the floor of the castle) to exact his bloody revenge.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
Leo Ryan was shot and killed before hundreds of people committed mass suicide at Jonestown. Calisphere.

16. Congressman Leo Ryan was assassinated whilst trying to rescue hundreds of people from a doomsday cult

Leo Joseph Ryan Jr. was the second sitting member of the US House of Representatives to be assassinated while in office. But still, his 1978 murder has been largely overshadowed by the events surrounding it. And understandably so. Ryan was killed in the build-up to the so-called Jonestown Massacre, when more than 900 people lost their lives in a suicide pact directed by infamous cult leader Jim Jones.

Prior to his trip to Jonestown, Ryan had a long history of trying to use his position for good. At the start of the 1970s, for example, he was a prominent campaigner for prison reform in California. He also campaigned against cruel seal hunting and was not afraid of criticizing the CIA. So it was hardly surprising that, when he learned that a large number of people, including children, were being held against their will by a cult holed-up in a temple in a South American jungle, Ryan set off to help.

Ryan travelled to Jonestown on November 1, 1978. He was accompanied by a news crew, journalists and embassy officials. At first, the cult members were cooperative but then things started turning ugly. Fearing for their safety, the visitors made a break for the airstrip. While they made it to the runway, cult members opened fire on the group. Ryan was killed, along with four others. Congresswoman Jackie Speer was seriously wounded and had to wait almost 24 hours for help to arrive.

For his actions that day, Ryan was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. A cult member, Larry Layton, was convicted of conspiracy to murder and served 18 years in a California prison. On the same evening that Ryan was killed, Jones ordered his group to drink a concoction laced with cyanide. In all, 918 people, including 276 children, died.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
President McKinley’s assassin hoped the killing would spark an anarchist revolution. Wikimedia Commons.

17. President William McKinley looked like he might survive his assassination attempt but passed away from blood poisoning

Prior to JFK, the previous American President to have been assassinated was William McKinley. Unsurprisingly, it’s JFK’s death that most people remember. And it’s not just McKinley’s death that has been overshadowed by the next man. Indeed, his accomplishments while in office were almost immediately put into the shade by those of his successor, Theodore Roosevelt. But still, his legacy is largely positive, mainly dud to his shrewd economic policies as well as his humble background, his Civil War record and general work ethic.

McKinley, who became President in March of 1897, was the last Commander-in-Chief to have served in the American Civil War. What’s more, he served with distinction, entering the Union Army as an enlisted soldier and leaving as a commissioned officer. Just as his military career was characterized by a rapid rise in fortunes, so too was his political career, as well as the economy during his Presidency. Under him, the United States adopted the Gold Standard, plus the economy was given a major boost by victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Given his accomplishments, McKinley was a largely-popular President. He liked meeting crowds of supporters, despite his bodyguards’ repeated warnings. This was to prove his downfall. On September 6 1901, McKinley was addressing a crowd in Buffalo, New York, when a Polish-American anarchist shot him twice in the chest. Remarkably, McKinley survived the initial attack. In the following days, he even appeared to be getting better. However, gangrene set in and he died of blood poisoning on September 13.

McKinley’s assassin, a man by the name of Leon Czplgosz, was found guilty and executed by electric chair. The killing sent shockwaves throughout America. In the following years and decades, Mckinley became known for his work ethic, honesty and economic prudence, though more recently, historians have debated the wisdom of his expansionist foreign policies.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
KKK gunmen lay in wait to kill Senator Stephens of North Carolina. Wikipedia.

18. John W. Stephens, the Senator whose popularity with black voters led the Ku Klux Klan to assassinate him

In 1860s North Carolina, Senator Bedford Brown enjoyed strong support among the white population. So, when John W. Stephens stood for the office in the 1868 election, backed by the region’s black population, tensions ran high. And when Stephens won the popular vote and assumed the role of Senator, they boiled over. The local branch of the Ku Klux Klan was particularly incensed by developments and held a mock trial: they convinced Stephens of treason and sentenced him to death. In May of 1870, the sentence was carried out.

Stephens had entered politics on the back of commendable service in the Civil War. A North Carolina native, he had helped source horses and recruit men for the Confederate Army. He then farmed tobacco before aligning himself with the Republican Party. His policies made him many enemies, and when he won the Senate seat, Stephens realized that his life was at risk. He was always heavily armed when leaving the house, but that didn’t save him from the Klan’s assassins.

On May 21 1870, Stephens was ambushed as he attended a courthouse in the town of Yanceyville. It’s believed as many as 12 men, all affiliated with the KKK, lay in wait in a backroom. When Stephens entered the room, they gunned him down mercilessly. The local black population, who undoubtedly admired the Senator, were devastated, while white nationalists celebrated his passing.

Scholars who have told the story of Stephens’ life all agree that he was no saint. It’s probably accurate to say that, as a politician, he was an opportunist rather than an idealist. He put his political ambitions above all else. But still, Stephens was assassinated by the Klan for his close links with marginalized communities, and this is how he is remembered by most in North Carolina.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“6 Lesser-Known U.S. Political Assassinations.” History.com

“U.S. presidential assassinations and attempts.” The Los Angeles Times.

“History of Spencer Perceval.” Gov.UK.

“Johnstown Massacre: What You Should Know About the Cult Murder-Suicide.” Rolling Stone Magazine.

“On this day in AD192, the Roman emperor Commodus was murdered.” Nottingham University.

“The Weird reason Roman Emperors Were Assassinated.” Live Science.

“Philip II of Macedonia.” Livius.org.

“Swedish police may finally solve murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme.” The Daily Mail.

“Charlie Chaplin was nearly assassinated in Japan in 1932.” The Vintage News.