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Historical Examples Of Famous Assassinations

Updated on June 20, 2018
Colleen Swan profile image

Colleen is an attorney in the United States, and a solicitor on the roll in England and Wales.


What constitutes an assassination?

Until recently, I felt certain I knew: assassination was defined as the deliberate killing of a political figure by one or more of those opposed to his/her policies and power to have them crystallized into law.

Then, during research, I read of the assassination of former Beatle John Lennon. This made me pause and think for some moments. True, in December of 1980, I was startled and gutted by hearing of John Lennon’s killing via a gunshot. Indeed, Lennon was the first person I had not even come close to meeting who evoked my tears. This emotion was clearly shared by a large number of broadcasters. I could hear their tight-throated voices striving to maintain self-control in reading out each detail.

The word “assassination”, I thought, was reserved for such exalted figures as Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. Where then is the line of demarcation beyond which the killing of someone controversial will be passed down in history as having reached the level of assassination? Had King Louis the 16th of France and his wife Marie Antoinette been killed during their reign, their deaths would have been deemed assassinations. Instead, during the French Revolution, they were deposed in 1792, put on trial and guillotined in 1793. The same is true of Russian Tsar Nicholas II who having abdicated was executed in 1918 along with his wife Alexandra Feodorovna and their children.

Listed in historical order, I believe the ten assassinations I have covered here will give a sense of the variety of motives, and methods.

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great)
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) | Source

1. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great). Died September 29th 48 BC

The name Caesar has taken on such eminence as to make it easy to forget it began as a family name, first made famous by Julius. From Caesar, both the words “Kaiser” and “Tsar were derived. Still, as with every leader, competitors abound, erasure of the closest rival becoming a primary goal.

In Caesar’s case, this opponent was Pompey the Great. Born on September 29th 106 BC, Pompey grew up in relative wealth, his father a respected military commander who brought Pompey onto the battlefield at an early age. Conversely, Caesar was raised in one of the shoddily built tenements of his time, where only those with no other choices were forced to subsist. Perhaps this difference spurred Caesar to strive just that small fraction harder in order to succeed as Rome’s leader.

At some point during the 60s BC, Julius Caesar, Pompey and a third aristocrat, Crassus, formed a “Troika” committing to symbiotic help in each other’s endeavors. In order to solidify this bond, Pompey married Caesar’s daughter Julia, for whom he seems to have felt a genuine love. Then, when Julia died in childbirth, the familial bond ended, and so did any pretense of friendship between Pompey and Caesar.

In time, a civil war erupted between Caesar and Pompey. Defeated in the pivotal battle of Pharsalus, Pompey realized his sole option was to flee Rome. Hence, he chose Egypt as a refuge, sailing there with his new wife and small child. Sadly for Pompey, Egyptian authorities rightly suspected Caesar planned to bring armies to subdue Egypt in the fairly near future. Thus, in hopes of gaining his good-will, assassins waited to prevent Pompey’s landing. As his boat approached their port, in a bogus effort to help him disembark, on September 29th 48 BC, they stabbed and killed him while his wife and child had no choice but to witness his murder.

In the end, this savagery seemed to have had a negligible impact upon Caesar’s treatment of the Egyptians after his take-over. In all likelihood, his leniency stemmed from his liaison with the young Cleopatra. After his departure, she bore his son who she named Caesarion.

Emperor Claudius
Emperor Claudius | Source

2. Roman Emperor Claudius. Died October 13th 54 AD

Claudius, the 5th of the 6 Caesars was born on August 1st 10 BC. Following the assassination of Roman Emperor Caligula on January 24th 41 AD, the senate appointed the somewhat reluctant Claudius to replace him on the same day, his 13 year reign lasting until October 13th 54 AD. During his rule, he continued to expand Roman territories, largely creating what would be called Roman Britain. Though fairly successful in the administration of the empire Claudius’ major struggles seem to have been in the matrimonial sphere. Of his four wives, the final two, Messalina and Agrippina, proved as lethal as any foe on the battlefield.

The wildly promiscuous Messalina plotted with her lover Gaius Silius to overthrow Claudius. Sure of their success they were married in a public ceremony while Claudius was away, but Claudius returned and had them executed. Messalina had born two children during her marriage with Claudius, a daughter Claudia Octavia and a son Britannicus. When Claudius married his fourth wife, Agrippina, he made her son Nero joint heir with his own son, Britannicus.

Perhaps Agrippina began to fear Britannicus coming to manhood at age fourteen triggering his ascendancy to Emperor. At any rate, to ensure her son Nero would become Emperor she decided to dispense with the 63-year-old Claudius by poisoning one of his favorite foods, mushrooms. When he began to choke, Agrippina pushed a feather down his throat, supposedly to help him. This feather, however, had been saturated with poison. His death left Rome with the last of the Caesar dynasty, the notorious Emperor Nero. Shortly after, Britannicus was murdered the day before his 14th birthday which removed the danger of a counterclaim for the Emperorship.

Richard the Lionheart on his deathbed
Richard the Lionheart on his deathbed | Source

3. Richard 1 of England (Richard the Lionheart). Died April 6th 1199

Son of King Henry 11, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard 1 was crowned king of England on September 3rd 1189. Richard showed aptitude for leadership and military zeal, taking army command in his early teens for both military and religious crusades. While his heart may have been leonine during such combats, it seems to have had little space for spousal affection. His ongoing journeys among men have been interpreted by some historians as indicating a male gender preference. Still, impelled by his duty and quest for dynastic expansion, on May 12th 1991, he married Berengaria of Navarre. The marriage was childless.

The remainder of Richard’s life consisted for the most part, in military campaigns and warfare. In fact, this was the cause of his death. On March 25th 1199, having besieged a castle at the town of Chalus in France, he was sauntering about the castle walls without wearing his chainmail armor when he was shot and wounded in the shoulder with an arrow from a crossbow. Removing the arrow proved difficult and the wound soon became gangrenous. Before his death on the April 6th 1199 Richard had the assassin a 16 year old boy brought before him. The boy claimed to have acted out of revenge for the killing of his father and brothers and he fully expected to be tortured and hanged for his crime.

Despite the thousands of people Richard’s armies had killed, Richard applied mercy in a gesture of benevolent Christianity and forgave his assassin, gifted him with money and set him free. However shortly after Richard died his chief of mercenaries “Mercadier” had the boy rearrested; skinned alive and then hanged.

Jean-Paul Marat
Jean-Paul Marat | Source

4. Jean-Paul Marat. Died July 13th 1793

As frequently happens after revolutions, those who succeed in gaining control soon become equally or even more power-hungry and blood-thirsty than the regime overthrown. An outstanding example occurred after the 1789 French Revolution, resulting in what has come to be called the reign of terror.

Physician and scientist Jean-Paul Marat was one of the few to risk evoking the wrath of those in authority. Despite his prestige and wealth in 1788 the dawn of the French revolution he resigned his positions and entered the political arena as a vociferous critic of the right wing factions of the new order whilst espousing the rights of the populace. Marat’s political writings began to be feared in that they strove for neutrality, explaining the rights and claims of the king as well as those of the rebels who had dethroned him. On January 21st 1793, King Louis XVI was guillotined,

Charlotte Corday, born on July 27th 1768 into a minor branch of the aristocracy, felt the king’s execution had been unjust. She was a supporter of political factions that Marat had suppressed and she had become obsessed with the belief that Marat’s political influence would lead to civil war. Therefore, she convinced herself it was essential for her to kill him, justifying it by later stating she had killed one man in order to save the lives of 100,000

Consumed by her zeal, on July 13th 1793, she gained access to him by appearing at his home around noontime, telling his wife she had information which could only be delivered to Marat himself. Suspicious, his wife turned her away. Towards evening, she returned, and this time Marat allowed her to enter. Relaxing in a medicinal bath, due to a skin condition, he proved all too vulnerable to the secretly knife-wielding Corday who stabbed him in the heart. On July 17th 1793, 4 days after her assassination of Marat, Charlotte Corday was guillotined.

Joseph Smith founder of Mormonism
Joseph Smith founder of Mormonism | Source

5. Joseph Smith. Died June 27th 1844

Born on December 23 1805, Joseph Smith was brought up in a home where religion, while part of the overall framework, was not specific. Given his observations, Smith found himself bewildered by the plethora of conflicting beliefs held in the community. This resulted in his intensive attempt, via prayer, to ascertain the true teachings of God and Jesus Christ.

In time, Smith felt convinced God had informed him that none of these faiths were authentic. A new religion, God seemed to say, was needed in order to save humankind; he, Joseph Smith was to be its leader. Hence, in a vision, Smith was told the required Gospels were written on golden plates buried beneath the ground, and his first task lay in unearthing them. As they were written in Judeo-Christian language, he also received the ability to translate and transcribe them.

To summarize, the golden plates were said to continue where the Christian Bible ended. After Christ’s resurrection, he was believed to have visited the Americas, where he imparted further wisdom and seeded the roots of a Mormon Church. This material was now contained on these golden plates.

During his years of exploration, Smith had drawn a number of adherents and followers. Having found the plates, he allowed only a few of his most trusted allies to help with their transcription, and later to view them before an angel returned them to heaven. Hence, Smith’s interpretation of the material on these plates was published on March 26th 1830 as The Book of Mormon. Its public openness allowed Smith and those who shared his beliefs to establish a church.

Meanwhile, on an emotional level, he and a young woman named Emma Hale had fallen in love and married on January 18th 1827. Later, Emma would be distressed by Smith’s decision that bigamy, dubbed “plural marriage” was accepted in the church and even encouraged. Still, she remained loyal to him.

As his congregation grew, Smith and his supporters began to assume ever-greater control over their community claiming autonomy and the power to create rules and laws. Smith’s ambitions created rifts within the church, the populace and enraged opposing factions. Ultimately Smith was to stand trial for inciting a riot, but on June 27th 1844, an angry mob stormed the prison where he was held. When he tried to flee through his cell window, his assailants’ shot him several times. Once he had fallen from that window, defenseless on the ground, in an ultimate act of cowardice, a few attackers’ shot further bullets into his dying body. Still, the body of Joseph Smith’s work did not die. His Church Of Latter Day Saints continues to enjoy a global following.

James Abram Garfield
James Abram Garfield | Source

6. President Garfield. Died September 19th 1881

Doubtless the saddest fact about James A. Garfield lies in historical unawareness of his existence. This is not surprising in that his presidency lasted for less than 4 months. Born on November 19th 1831, he became the U.S. 20th president. He died on September 19th 1881 at age 49, due to his being shot by Charles J. Guiteau.

Unlike the modest, intellectual Garfield, Guiteau was a grandiose buffoon, whose self-proclaimed diplomatic abilities, among other talents, were in no way supported by fact. According to the book “Assassination Vacation” by Sarah Vowell, Guiteau’s pretensions were such that he viewed anyone fortunate in having made his acquaintance. Having campaigned, to some degree, for Garfield’s presidency, Guiteau felt justified in asking the newly-elected President to appoint him ambassador to Paris. When Garfield refused, Guiteau decided to kill him believing the Republican Party would benefit by a succession of president and he would be rewarded for having instigated the process.

For this reason, Guiteau began stalking Garfield. Having learned of his schedule, he shot him at a New Jersey railroad station on July 2nd 1881, once in the arm, and then in his back, in order to ensure he would die. However he did not die until September 19th 1881.

In a tragic sense, it would have been far less painful if Garfield had succumbed to his wounds. Instead, taken to a nearby hospital, he was treated by doctors who did not accept the importance of clean hands and sterile equipment. There must have been suspicion of laxity in that at his trial, Guiteau put forth the defense that Garfield’s physicians had killed him via negligence, rather than his own two bullets. On June 30th 1882, Guiteau was hanged, still insisting on his status as a misunderstood martyr

Jesse Woodson James
Jesse Woodson James | Source

7. Jesse James. Died April 3rd 1882

U.S. President Harry S. Truman described Jesse James as a modern-day Robin Hood, stealing from banks, trains etc., in order to enrich the lives of the poor. In fact, none of the money he and his cohorts stole was known to have been shared with anyone who had not earned it by participating in the immediate crime.

Born in Missouri on September 5th 1847, Jesse James’ association with crime began during his service in the American Civil War. Defending the rights of southerners to own slaves, Jesse James and his brother Frank were accused of engaging in post-war guerilla warfare, massacring boys and young men who were unarmed and prepared to surrender.

However James’ name did not gain notoriety in the press until December 7th 1869 when during a bank robbery he deliberately killed the cashier, mistakenly believing him to have been the man who slew one of James’ Civil War heroes. Escaping arrest James wrote a series of letters published in the Kansas City Times both claiming his innocence and urging the southern states to return to their Civil War goal of withdrawing from The United States. Jesse’s growing influence in the political arena combined with his public popularity prompted Thomas T. Crittenden, Governor of Missouri, to arrange a reward for his arrest. He also made a secret pact with James’ accomplices Charles and Robert Ford to put an end to his crimes by whatever means feasible.

By then, the Fords had become the sole people James, aware of his jeopardy, felt he could trust. Indeed, this trust extended to his urging them to move into his home. Once ensconced there, both Fords pretended to support James’ criminal endeavors. Thus, on the morning of April 3rd 1882, seemingly about to embark on yet another robbery with him, Bob Ford killed Jesse James by shooting him in the back, while James stood on a chair in order to dust a picture.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria
Empress Elisabeth of Austria | Source

8. Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Died September 10th 1898

Empress Elisabeth seems to have wished to die for some years-perhaps decades even. According to her brilliant biographer Brigitte Hamann, when told of any pregnancy or childbirth, Elisabeth was saddened by the thought that yet another being would need to endure what she herself viewed as the misery of human existence. What was the source of this cave of despair in this lovely, imperial woman? At first, her future seemed joyous and bountiful. In 1853, at age 15, she accompanied her mother and older sister Helene to Austria to meet Helene’s Prospective bridegroom, the 23-year-old Emperor Franz Josef. So entranced did Franz Joseph become by Elisabeth that his plans to propose to Helene were discarded. Less than a year later he married the sixteen year old Elisabeth.

Although an Empress with a loving husband Elisabeth suffered with depression and mental disorders. She was also obsessed with retaining her beauty and lithe physique. One of these disorders may well have been bulimia. Pathologically concerned with slimness, Elisabeth had a private staircase built from her chamber to the royal kitchen.

As years passed, Elisabeth found her only cure from despair was to travel. Her insistence upon independence and privacy, to some degree, eased her assassin’s access. On the 10th September 1898, having refused the surveillance and security afforded such a royal personage, she was walking along the waterfront in Geneva Switzerland, with her Lady in Waiting to board a ship to Montreux, when the 25-year-old self-proclaimed anarchist Luigi Lucheni stumbled close to Elisabeth and discretely stabbed her in the chest with a needle file. Initially she collapsed, was revived and boarded the ship, as intended. It was not until her clothing was loosened to help her breath that blood was noticed and it became apparent that she had been stabbed.

As to Luigi Lucheni, his original intended victim had been the French Prince Philippe, Duke of Orléans. When a change in the Dukes travel plans flouted this hope, Lucheni settled for Empress Elisabeth.

According to later statements, his only goal was to become immortalized as a martyr to the anarchist cause. Denied his triumph, he was not sentenced to death, but instead imprisoned for life. Eventually, he took his own life, after a prison guard destroyed the unfinished manuscript of his memoirs.

Lee Harvey Oswald
Lee Harvey Oswald | Source

9. Lee Harvey Oswald. Died November 24th 1963

Researching this article, I was shocked to find this man’s name among those whose killings were viewed in this context. Still, arrested as the main suspect in the assassination of America’s 35th President John F. Kennedy, Oswald’s place in this framework soon became clear.

Born on October 18 1939, Oswald died two days after the president’s killing. Oswald’s assassin, Jack Ruby, ostensibly shot Oswald due to outrage at his alleged crime. Still, there are skeptics. How did Jack Ruby know the time during which Oswald was to be transferred from Dallas police headquarters to the county jail? In addition, Ruby’s aim was amazingly accurate, in that Oswald was handcuffed to a police officer who was untouched by the bullets which proved lethal to Oswald.

Shortly thereafter, then President Lyndon B. Johnson launched what came to be called The Warren Commission, due to its being headed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Though meant to be thorough, the results were found to be far from conclusive. As of this writing, there are classified documents which will not be released to the public until 2029, when their possible impact on public outrage will be minimized.

Martin Luther King Jr
Martin Luther King Jr | Source

10. Martin Luther King, Jr. Died April 4th 1968

The facts surrounding the assassination of this magnificent man have been recounted so often as to render discussion here needless. Its aftermath, however, affected each individual in his or her own way. In an act of benevolence reflecting her husband’s beliefs, the widowed Coretta Scott King said she did not wish the assassin to be killed in retaliation. Her husband had been a man of peace, to whom revenge would have been alien.

African-American writer Maya Angelou writes of her initial inability to absorb such a travesty; she began to speak incoherently until a friend held and, to some small degree, calmed her. Feeling a frantic need to get out, hoping mingling with others might ease the hurt a little, she raced from her apartment without purse or keys, failing to check her oven or lights, or even tell her friend where she was heading. Her destination, like so many others at that time, was Harlem.

As teenaged girls in a sheltered New England Boarding school, my friends and I, hearing the news report, were saddened and horror-stricken. School chapel service was held every week-day morning. On the morning after the killing, we were all asked to stand and offer a moment of silence. While the service always ended with our filing out as a hymn was played on the chapel’s organ, on this day, the organist played what had become the anthem of the time, as we all sang “We shall overcome one day”. As I write this, decades later, I believe it to have been the most moving moment on my path towards adulthood.

I hope you enjoyed reading about these ten assassinations and I look forward to your comments


© 2015 Colleen Swan


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