18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of

D.G. Hewitt - September 7, 2018

Some assassinations have become seared on our collective consciousness: the killing of JFK in Dallas in 1963, or the murder of Martin Luther King soon afterwards. And anyone with even the most cursory interest in history will know all about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln or, going even further back in history, the slaying of Julius Caesar.

But what of those assassinations that made shockwaves at the time, but have been largely forgotten? There are countless examples where prominent individuals have been killed for political purposes but who don’t really appear in our history books. So, from Presidents to Prime Ministers, Senators to medieval diplomats, here we present 18 assassinations you might never have heard of:

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
Anton Cermak welcomes FDR to Chicago, where an assassin was lying in wait. Wikimedia Commons.

1. Anton Cermak: The Chicago Mayor who took an assassin’s bullet for FDR

It was in his capacity as Mayor that Anton Cermak welcomed President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt to Chicago on February 15, 1933. At the very moment the two men were shaking hands, Guiseppe Zangara pushed his way through the crowds with a gun in his hand. He took aim and pulled the trigger. At the exact moment he went to fire his pistol, a lady in the crowd by the name of Lilian Cross, saw the danger. She used her purse to hit Zangara on the arm. His shot went wide. The bullet hit Cermak instead of Roosevelt.

The Mayor was rushed to hospital, fighting for his life. Roosevelt came to visit him on his deathbed. According to the legend, Cermak told FDR: “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” To this day, historians debate whether he actually muttered those words (the general consensus is that he did not). But still, they are engraved on Cermak’s tombstone and the man is widely remembered as the man who took a bullet for one of America’s great leaders.

Some scholars, however, have argued that Cermak was indeed the real target that day. The assassin Zangara claimed after the event that his only real motivation was his hatred for the rich and powerful. However, given Cermak’s campaign against organized crime in the city, it’s reasonable to assume he had made his fair share of enemies in the Chicago underworld. Above all, Cermak’s efforts to enforce prohibition not only made him unpopular with many ordinary Chicago folk, it also made him an enemy of Al Capone.

Whether or not he was the intended target or if he did indeed save FDR’s life that winter’s day, Cermak has largely been forgotten, at least outside of Chicago. Zangara was executed by electric chair the following month, while Roosevelt would, of course, go on to serve an historic four terms of President, leading the United States through the Great Depression and then through the Second World War.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
Goebel lasted just four days as Governor before dying of his bullet wounds. Kentucky for Kentucky.

2. William Goebel was gunned down before he could be sworn in as Governor

Most history fans can easily name all the American Presidents to have been assassinated. Few, however, would be able to name the only state governor to have been assassinated while in office. That sad honor goes to William Justus Goebel. He served as governor of the State of Kentucky at the very start of the 20th century. But his time in office was short-lived. Very short-lived, in fact; he lasted just four days before succumbing to bullet wounds.

Goebel was born to a family of German immigrants in Pennsylvania in 1856. Following the Civil War, his father moved the family down to Kentucky, where he went to school and then into a career in law. In 1887, Goebel became lieutenant governor. During his time in office, his abrasive nature made him many political enemies. So much so, in fact, he even shot and killed a rival in a duel. However, his policies, most notably his fight on the side of the common man and against the railroad lobby, earned him popular support.

The 1899 Kentucky gubernatorial election was fiercely-contested, but Goebel – controversially – came out on top. He headed to the Old State Capitol to be sworn in. Rumors of a plot to assassinate him ensured he travelled with two bodyguards, but they could do nothing to stop the assassin. Six shots were fired from the nearby State Building. Goebel was hit full-on in the chest. He was taken to hospital and was lucid enough to be sworn-in there the following day. Just four days later, however, he died. According to legend, Goebel’s last words were: “Tell my friends to be brave, fearless, and loyal to the common people.”

Goebel’s only act as Governor was to dissolve a militia formed by the Republican William S. Taylor in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Taylor himself was implicated in the assassination, as were several of his key staff. Only one, however, was jailed, and even he was eventually paroled and then pardoned. Despite a wealth of research into the event, historians generally agree that the man who pulled the trigger and assassinated William Goebel, sitting Governor of Kentucky, will never be identified.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
The shocking assassination of Sweden’s Olof Palme remains unsolved. Swedish Press.

3. Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme felt safe walking through Stockholm without a bodyguard – a fatal mistake

The assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme on the streets of Stockholm in 1986 shocked a nation. Up until that point, political violence had been virtually unheard of in Sweden. In fact, no ruler had been attacked since 1792, the year King Gustav III was murdered. What’s more, not only did Palme’s cold killing change Swedish society for good, it also remains one of the great mysteries of modern European history. To this day, both the identity of the gunman and, perhaps more importantly, the reason for the murder, remain unknown.

Palme was born in 1927 and showed an interest in politics from an early age. As a young man, he rose rapidly through the ranks of the Social Democratic Party, eventually becoming its leader. Palme served two terms as Prime Minister, firstly from 1969 until 1976 and then again from 1982. His second term was cut short, however. One evening, when walking through the streets of Stockholm with his wife and without any bodyguards, a gunman shot at the couple from close range. Palme died, though his wife survived with minor injuries.

A 33-year-old man, known to authorities for his extreme views, was soon arrested but then released. Then, in 1988, Christer Pettersen was arrested. He was a drug addict with a history of crime, including manslaughter. Palme’s wife even identified him as the assassin. Pettersen was convicted of the crime but soon released on appeal. Above all, he had no real motive for the killing, plus the murder weapon – a distinctive, large-calibre revolver – was never found.

Ever since then, Palme’s death has remained a mystery. Unsurprisingly, numerous theories have been put forward, including many infamous conspiracy theories. Throughout his political career, Palme was outspoken in his condemnation of many authoritarian regimes and dictators, including the USSR. As well as the Soviets, Kurdish activists, Chilean fascists, the CIA and even a rogue faction within the Swedish police force have all been named as the culprits. As well as history books, the Palme assassination has also been used as inspiration for numerous works of fiction, especially in Scandinavia. And, of course, no Swedish Prime Minister walks around without a bodyguard anymore.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
Phillip II was killed by his own bodyguard and the murder would have huge repercussions. Wikipedia.

4. Philip II of Macedonia’s assassination paved the way for Alexander to conquer the world

Alexander the Great is widely-recognized as one of the greatest military minds of all time. However, he may never have got the chance to make history had it not been for the assassination of his father, Philip II of Macedonia, in 336BC. Indeed, it was Phillip who was responsible for establishing the fearsome Macedonian Army. He also devised the Macedonian phalanx, the strategy Alexander was to use to such great effect when conquering lands near and far. However, while Alexander is widely-remembered and even has major Hollywood movies dedicated to his colorful life, Phillip is relatively unknown, thanks in no small part to his premature death at the hands of an assassin.

Phillip was attending his daughter’s wedding when he was struck down. As he was entering the temple, alone and unguarded, one of his own bodyguards, a man by the name of Pausanias, cut him down with his sword. Pausanias himself was then killed before he could reveal who had put him up to the killing or, far less likely, if he was acting alone. According to Aristotle, who provided us with the only contemporary account of the assassination, it might have been due to the fact that Pausanias had been offended by the uncle of Philip’s wife. While this may sound tenuous, such slights often had fatal consequences in ancient Macedon.

Some later historians have speculated that perhaps Alexander himself was, if not involved in the plot directly, knew about it and did nothing to stop it. Certainly, the assassination of Philip II in 336BC had huge historical implications. Had Philip still been on the throne, for instance, he might have been more restrained in the war against Persia. As it is, the young Alexander was far more ambitious and set his sights on nothing less than conquering all of the known world.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
Inukai Tsuyoshi angered Japan’s military chiefs and paid the ultimate price. Wikipedia.

5. Inukai Tsuyoshi’s assassination meant that the military took charge of Japan – with huge consequences for world peace

The so-called May 15 Incident was a pivotal moment in modern Japanese history. Before that infamous day in 1932, civilians had been in control of the country, with Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi at the helm. Then, with his assassination, the military took the reins of power. Though the Emperor was still the figurehead of Japan, generals were really in control of events, and it was the militaristic government that saw Imperial Japan embark on a series of colonial endeavors, ultimately resulting in the country becoming embroiled in the Second World War.

Born into a prominent Samurai family in 1855, Inukai. After graduating from university, he pursued a career in journalism and then entered politics. He was a classic liberal, opposing the old dominant classes and keen to see Japan follow Britain’s example and become a constitutional monarchy with a fully-democratic parliament. When his political opponents failed to keep the economy under control, Inukai’s chance had come: in late-1932 he was invited to form a government and serve as Prime Minister.

As Prime Minister, he faced an impossible task. While his supporters were keen to see him rein in the growing power of the military, the army and navy charged him with not being patriotic due to his lack of support for their imperial adventures. At the beginning of March 1932, the Japanese Army proclaimed the state of Manchukuo in occupied China. Inukai refused to recognize it diplomatically. In doing so, he had signed his own death warrant. On May 15, he was assassinated in his official residence in Tokyo. His killers were junior naval officers. They also planned to kill Charlie Chaplin, who was a guest of the Prime Minister at the time. However, he was away watching a sumo wrestling match so their hopes of sparking a war with the United States through the murder of the comic actor were thwarted.

Inukai’s assassins were apprehended but only received very light sentences. From then on, the Imperial Japanese Army took control of the country. Its policies became more and more aggressive. Only the two atomic bombs dropped by America in 1945 brought their rule to an end and saw Japan return to being led by a civilian government.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
Walter Rathenau was a moderate liberal but fell victim to extremist politics. Wikipedia.

6. In Germany, Walter Rathenau’s murder was first lamented but then celebrated by the Nazis

The period between the end of the First World War and the rise of the Nazi regime was a tumultuous one for Germany. The Weimar Republic might have been a golden age of culture, but it was also a political hotbed. Several prominent men and women on both sides of the political spectrum were subject to violence, with several of them assassinated. Among those who died was Walter Rathenau, the Foreign Minister of the fledgling Republic.

Born in Berlin in 1867, Rathenau’s father was a prominent Jewish businessman who ensured his son worked hard at school. As a young man, he worked as an engineer and then a journalist. Then, when the First World War broke out, Rathenau served his country in an office, taking charge of logistics. When peace returned, he embarked on a career in liberal politics. After a spell as Minister of reconstruction, he became Foreign Minister in 1922 – a position that attracted the ire of the regime’s enemies.

Under Rathenau, Germany signed the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union, making trade between the two countries easier. To his critics, this was a bold move to ally Germany with the Communists. Rathenau was called a revolutionary and the right-wing press called for his head (almost literally). On the morning of 24 June, 1922, Rathenau was assassinated. A trio of activists (all of whom would later join the Nazis) gunned him down in the street as he walked to work. The assassins hoped to ignite a Civil War between the right and left, but they failed.

Far from attacking one another, most German citizens united to show their disgust at the rising tide of political violence. Rathenau was seen as a hero of German democracy, and even a martyr against extremism. However, when the Nazis came to power, they made an effort to erase him from the history books. Not only were Rathenau’s politics ‘undesirable’, his Jewish heritage also meant that it was his assassins who were celebrated as the heroes. Only with the end of the Nazi regime in 1945 was Rathenau’s reputation as a liberal, moderate politician resurrected.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
When the CIA lost its Athens station chief, a law was passed to protect covert assets. Wikipedia.

7. Richard Welch: The CIA station chief gunned down on the street of Athens by revolutionaries

It was like something out of a Hollywood movie: a CIA station chief stationed in Europe is identified and then assassinated. Indeed, the killing of Richard Welch has featured in several novels, while also inspiring the plot lines of many more. But this was a real assassination, and one that, though it caused shockwaves at the time, has largely been forgotten.

Welch, a Connecticut native who was born in 1929, went straight into the CIA fresh from Harvard University. Since he studied classics, he had an excellent working knowledge of Greek. So, in 1952, he was sent to Athens. After a few years finding his feet as a spy, he was moved to Cyprus, the Central America and then onto Peru. In the summer of 1975, he moved back to Greece. His return coincided with the end of a military dictatorship in the country. Tensions were high, with activists on both sides of the political spectrum having turned to violence.

It was when Welch was returning from an office Christmas party, on the evening of December 23, 1975, that the assassins struck. A man and a woman held his wife and driver up, while a third shot him at point-blank range. He was the first CIA officer to be assassinated in a targeted attack. The crime went unsolved for more than 20 years. Then, in 2002, a hospital porter admitted he was one of the three assassins. He also named his accomplices. Due to the Statute of Limitations in Greece, just one of the three culprits faced justice, and even he was sent to prison for other atrocities.

Welch’s assassination led had an impact both at home and abroad. An investigation found that he had been named as a CIA agent, and his Athens address had even been made publicly available. After his death, the US government passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, making it a crime to name or identify an undercover agent of the United States.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
McCook’s Civil War service meant nothing to his political enemies. Pinterest.

8. Edwin Stanton McCook was a Civil War hero, but an assassin’s bullet brought his political ambitions to an abrupt end

The “Fighting McCooks” rose to prominence during the American Civil War. The soldiers of the Union Army respected and admired the brothers, while the men of the Confederacy feared them. In all, they numbered 15: Daniel McCook and his brother John, as well as 13 of their sons. Of these Edwin Stanton McCook was one of the most talented. Indeed, he looked set to enjoy a notable career in politics to follow on from his decorated career in the military. However, an assassin’s bullet ensured that this would never happen.

McCook was born in Carrollton, Ohio, in 1837. After graduating from the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, he was well-placed to join the Civil War as an officer. He took charge of the 31st Illinois Infantry and then got promoted to lead the division. He fought with distinction at the Siege of Vickburg, winning the approval of Ulysses S. Grant and then President Andrew Jackson. His star was high and so, when he left the army at the end of the Civil War, McCook looked destined for great things.

In order to further his career, McCook moved west, to the Dakota Territory. Here, he was named acting governor in 1872. Since he had been appointed to replace the crooked John A. Burbank, hopes were high that the new man could finally bring stability and then prosperity to the region. Indeed, had he been able to do so, McCook could have established himself as one of America’s brightest political prospects, while his connections in Washington DC and stellar Civil War reputation would have also helped him rise to the top. But that wasn’t to be. On September 11, 1873. Tempers flared during a public meeting on railroad expansion. held in a saloon. McCook was shot and killed by a political rival. Rather than going on to become President, McCook is now largely forgotten, though McCook County in South Dakota is named in his honour.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
Emperor Vitellius lost his support almost overnight, and then he was killed like a criminal. Wikipedia.

9. Was Roman Emperor Vitellius assassinated just because there hadn’t been enough rain?

While he may not be the most famous of all Roman emperors – in fact, he probably wouldn’t even make a ‘top 20′ – Vitellius is something of a favorite among historians researching ancient Rome. Though he enjoyed significant popularity with his people and, more importantly, with his army, he was ultimately assassinated. Moreover, this fall from grace was as rapid as it was fatal. Could the assassination of Vitellius in AD69 tell us more about imperial Roman politics and why so many of its rulers were killed while in power?

Vitellius was named Emperor in April of AD69. This was a particularly turbulent time in the empire, not least at the very top of the political pyramid. Almost from the start, he had challengers claiming that they should be the ‘Caesar’. Luckily for Vitellius, he had the backing of enough soldiers to ensure that any challenge would be repelled. Within a few months, however, his reputation had deteriorated considerably. That December, just eight months after being crowned to much acclaim, Vitellius was dragged through the streets of Rome. Troops loyal to Vespasian led him to the infamous Gemonian stairs, the site of many an execution. There, he was brutally murdered. With no respect for his status, his body was thrown into the River Tiber.

According to some scholars, the assassination of Vitellius serves as the perfect example of just how vulnerable Roman emperors really were. Far from being all-powerful, they were at the mercy of the whims of the crowd. More pertinently, they were at the mercy of their soldiers – and perhaps even the weather too. Research has found that the summer of 69AD was especially hot and dry across much of the Roman Empire. Could it be that a lack of rain, with the poor harvest that resulted from this, was the reason why the once mighty Vitellius ended up dying the brutal death of a common criminal?

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
The central Madrid street where Carrero-Blanco’s car was blown up by assassins. El Pais.

10. Luis Carrero-Blanco: In 1970s Spain, the Dictator’s appointed heir was blown sky-high by assassins’ explosives

In 1973, Francisco Franco, who had ruled Spain with an iron fist since the end of the Civil War in 1939, was close to death. Supporters of his regime regarded Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco as his natural successor as head of the Spanish state. The devoutly-Catholic politician, therefore, became the number one target for the regime’s enemies, above all for ETA, the Basque separatist group who were willing to use extreme violence to further their aims.

For five months, a small team of ETA activists prepared for the attack. Posing as art students, they rented a basement flat on the street Carrero Blanco regularly drove down on his way to morning Mass. They dug a tunnel under the road and placed explosives in it. Then, on December 20 1973, they sprung their trap. The explosion occurred at exactly the right moment. The official car was launched 20 meters into the air, over a five-story building. Though his driver and bodyguard were killed outright, Carrero Blanco miraculously survived the blast, though he succumbed to his injuries shortly afterwards.

A few weeks later, ETA claimed responsibility for the assassination. Notably, the Spanish government-in-exile did not condemn the attack, and even today some people argue that, for all their atrocities and inexcusable violence ever since, ETA played a big part in ensuring democracy returned to Spain. Indeed, following the assassination, Torcuato Fernandez Miranda was proclaimed Prime Minister. Rather than imposing a state of emergency and cracking down ruthlessly on political factions opposed to the Franco regime, he instead called or calm.

Within less than 18 months, Franco was dead. With no natural successor in place, the King returned to Spain and the slow process of transforming the country back into a parliamentary democracy would begin. ETA, meanwhile, continued their campaign of violence against the Spanish state for a further three decades.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
Commodus was a vain, greedy emperor whose end was suitably brutal. Wikimedia Commons.

11. Commodus pushed even his allies to the limit, leading to the Roman Emperor’s ultimate violent death

In the Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator, the Emperor Commodus is portrayed as a power-mad, crazy man-child of a tyrant. The fictional version is infatuated with his sister, sees conspirators everywhere and likes to show off his virility by fighting gladiators in the Colosseum. Ultimately, he is killed by the hero of the movie. In some ways, the big-screen version of Commodus is truthful. But his imagined ending is not. Rather, the tyrannical Emperor was assassinated by those closest to him and not killed by a gladiator in the arena.

Commodus ruled alongside his father, the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, from 177 until 180 AD. Following his father’s death, he ruled on his own for 12 years. His reign was relatively peaceful, with Rome engaged in fewer battles with outside enemies and fewer wars of conquest. However, at home, Rome under Commodus was a hotbed of corruption, decadence and intrigue. Commodus increasingly assumed a God-like status, attempting to start a personality cult around himself. He was also renowned for his greed, lust and laziness.

Commodus was also regarded as a coward. He would fight in gladiatorial battles to counter this reputation, though the contests were always rigged in his favor. He saw threats everywhere and had countless Roman citizens executed for conspiracies real and imagined. Inevitably, he made many enemies. Even his sister Lucilla, his senior by a decade, conspired against him in the year 182. When he learned of the plot, Commodus had her co-conspirators executed and Livia exiled to Capri, where she too was later killed.

By the year 192, the elite of Roman society had had enough. The final straw came with the Plebian Games that November. Here, Commodus killed hundreds of wild animals and also fought in numerous fixed gladiatorial fights. On the final day of the year, his enemies acted. At first, they tried to poison his food, but he vomited this up. Finally, they persuaded, Narcissus, a famous wrestler who sparred with Commodus, to strangle the Emperor while he took a bath. This time, the plot was successful. The disastrous reign of Commodus had finally come to a violent end.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
John Milton Elliott’s death was big news at the time, but is now largely forgotten. Our Family Tree.

12. John Milton Elliott was gunned down by a fellow judge outside his own Kentucky courthouse

According to the New York Times, this assassination was a crime that “could scarcely have taken place in any region calling itself civilized except Kentucky or some other Southern state”. It was 1879, and so the Civil War was still fresh in the minds of the New York journalists. However, it’s likely that the killing of John Elliot Milton could have happened anywhere in the United States. After all, the causes of the crime: courtroom drama, a family grudge and insanity were hardly restricted to the State of Kentucky alone.

Elliot was a well-respected lawyer who represented Kentucky in the House of Representatives from 1853 until 1857. After serving in the First Confederate Congress during the Civil War, he moved to Bath County and used his expertise to work on the Kentucky Court of Appeals. Unsurprisingly, his work made him enemies, even if the abuse he got was largely verbal rather than physical. All this changed in the spring of 1879, however. On March 26, he came across the brother of a lady who Elliot had ruled against. That family blamed him for her woes and they wanted revenge.

The assassin, a man by the name of Colonel Thomas Buford, was a judge himself. He was also a Civil War veteran and no stranger to violence. Which is why he didn’t hesitate when he saw Elliot leave the courthouse that day. He shot him at point-blank range with a shotgun. Elliot had no chance. A statue was erected in his honor and Elliot County, Kentucky, is reputedly named in honor of the judge who was killed for serving justice.

At his trial, Colonel Buford revealed that his sister had been ordered to pay off a $20,000 debt. Unable to do so, she lost the family property and died a broken woman. Buford swore to her on her deathbed that he would kill the judge that ruled against her. He also claimed that he was clinically insane when he assassinated Elliot. The jury agreed – albeit narrowly. Buford would die on a Kentucky asylum five years later.

18 Assassinations You Might Not Have Heard Of
Spencer Perceval’s assassin was cold, calculated – and possibly insane. Look and Learn.

13. Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated was shot in front of his shocked peers

Spencer Perceval is one of Britain’s lesser-known Prime Ministers. Not many people know much about his politics, policies or background. Indeed, by far the best-known thing about Perceval is that he holds the dubious honor of being the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated while in office. By all accounts, he was cut down in his prime, before he could make a real mark on political history.

Perceval was the epitome of a 19th century English politician. Born in London in 1762 to an aristocratic family, he gained the best education money could buy at the prestigious Harrow school before graduating from the elite Cambridge University. A career in law kept Perceval occupied for some years, but then he entered politics as a Conservative when he was in his 30s. He wisely aligned himself with Pitt the Younger and rose rapidly. By 1807, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and in 1809 he got the top job.

It was the morning of May 11, 1812, and the 49 year old Perceval was in the Houses of Parliament, about to enter the main chamber. All of a sudden, a man in a large coat calmly walked up to him, pulled out a pistol and shot the Prime Minister once in the chest. Reportedly, Perceval screamed in horror “I am murdered”. His colleagues carried him to a small room for treatment, but within a few minutes, he was dead. His assassin, meanwhile, had surrendered without a fight.

It turned out that Peceval’s assassin, a man named John Bellingham, was a British businessman who had been falsely imprisoned in Russia. Despite his please, the British government had not intervened to free him, and he was only able to return home after serving his sentence for his alleged debts. Upon returning his home country, he tried to win compensation from the government, but had no luck. Frustrated and angry, he plotted the ultimate symbolic revenge.

Bellingham pleaded not guilty of murder, claiming he was actually insane. His appeal was dismissed. The only man to kill a standing British Prime Minister was hanged on May 18, 1812, just two days after Perceval’s adoring wife and 12 children buried his victim.

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.