Not related to anything in the news, we’ve been wondering: assassinations — why don’t those happen much anymore? One reason might be that in 1976, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order (later affirmed and modified by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan) banning “political assassinations” by the American government. Clearly that worked. But semantics aside, they are a decent way to take out a political enemy, if that’s your thing. “A single assassin,” as the Indian scholar Kautilya put it in his ancient text on statecraft, Arthashastra, “can achieve, with weapons, fire or poison more than a fully organized army.” Not bad.
Many of the well-known recent assassinations involved left-leaning leaders dying, American intelligence agencies, or both. But the CIA hasn’t always had a monopoly on targeted political killings. Assassinations have been, at various times, somewhat more democratic. Anyone could do them, and they were quite effective in shaping history, for better or worse. Here are some of the standouts.
Gaius, that’s his birth name, tends to get some love historically for his populist policies. He made a calendar and, per the World History Encyclopedia, had some charming neuroses (“very self-conscious about his balding head”). The man was also a dictator. He was stabbed 23 times by a group of rogue Senators, including his brother-in-law Marcus Brutus, on the Ides of March. You may have heard his last words in a play.
Judith, an all-timer babe, has been written out of the Protestant Old Testament and Torah, on account of her story possibly being apocryphal. But those raised in the Catholic, Greek, or Eastern Orthodox traditions get to read over the Book of Judith, which details recon of the titular widow and, as the International Conference on the Deuterocanonical Books put it in 2009, “pious seductress.”
At the time, an Assyrian king had dispatched the general Holofernes to sac and conquer Israel, for refusing military assistance in a war; the latter invaded the city of Bethulia, which may have been another name for a real city, or an allegory for Jerusalem itself. Judith, whose husband died from heat stroke, demanded a meeting with Holofernes, plied him with liquor, and cut off his head in two strokes to the neck. Her maid carried it out in a food bag. She later spread the word like this: “The Lord struck him down by the hand of a female!” To me, that’s swag.
Defenestrations of Prague
Let’s not get bogged down by specifics here, but there were three incidents in the Middle Ages of Bohemia, in which prominent leaders around Prague were taken out by way of window. Taken out the window, so to speak. These occurred multiple decades apart, in 1419, 1483, and 1618. You have to admire the respect for precedent.
Daniel Parke Jr.
There are not many in-depth historical accounts of Parke’s life before he was killed by a mob of his Antiguan constituents in 1710, but the ones available paint the picture of a thorough asshole — or as one of his peers put it, “a complete sparkish gentleman” prone to “quick resentment of every least thing that looks like an affront or injury.” The son of a wealthy artiscrat in the States, Parke married young in order to inherit his father’s money and slaves, had two children with his wife, took a mistress and had a son by her as well, and ditched them all by taking a post in England. The Queen then appointed him the governor of the Leeward Islands, a hub of sugar cane plantations and especially brutal slavery.
Even among his loathsome colleagues, Parke stood out as a particularly cruel loser. He often got into fights (he once horsewhipped another governor in a duel), carried on multiple affairs with married women, abandoned them to the punishments meted out to 18th-century adulterous women, and all the while managed to further limit the rights of the islands’ residents. After surviving two attempts on his life, Parke was captured by a group of rebels and tortured to death — making him the only governor of colonial British America to have been assassinated. His last words were: “Gentlemen, you have no sense of honor left, pray have some humanity.” A peer called his farewell “pious ejaculations.”
A radical journalist during the French Revolution, Jean-Paul ran “L’Ami du peuple,” a Montagnard-linked outlet that argued, among other things, for some of the more extreme solutions to monarchic inequality. Unfortunately, this involved some massacres. Charlotte Corday, another Jacobin-affiliate from the rival Girondin faction, thought he’d taken things too far. Specifically, she opposed his involvement in the September Massacres, which killed some thousand prisoners. Marat had a debilitating skin condition and spent many of his waking hours in a bathtub, which happens to be where Corday stabbed him in the chest. You may have seen him in Jacques-Louis David’s subdued if propagandistic painting, The Death of Marat.
Lord Louis Mountbatten
Queen Liz’s second cousin, known to commoners as “Lord Mountbatten, Admiral of the Fleet Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten,” and to family as “Uncle Dickie,” was taken out by the IRA in 1979. According to the Independent, he was something of a mentor to Prince Charles, recommending he “sow some wild oats,” before settling down in the corn pasture of marriage. He oversaw the extremely fraught partition of India and Pakistan in the 1940s; years later, he was killed on a lobster fishing expedition by a bomb placed on his boat.
The IRA’s statement taking credit for the killing was published in the New York Times, among others. It cited the British Army’s continued “occupation of our country,” “oppression of our people,” and “torture of our comrades,” as well as their proposed solution: “Well, for this we will tear out their sentimental imperialist hearts.”
Heydrich ranked among the most powerful members of the SS and played a central, even architectural role, in executing the Holocaust. Hitler called him “the man with the iron heart;” a 2002 documentary about his calculated butchery called him “the face of evil.” His nickname was “the Hangman.” In 1942, Heydrich — then acting as the governor of the annexed Czech lands called the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia — got jumped in an assassination effort codenamed “Operation Anthropoid.”
The operation was led by Czechoslovak intelligence, with a British Special Ops collab, but the two primary actors were named Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis. They flew from exile in the U.K., parachuted outside Prague, and bombarded Heydrich, mid-drive to Prague Castle in a Mercedes 320 Cabriolet B, top-down. The assailants did not stick the landing. One of the machine guns jammed; and the grenade they threw missed the car interior, exploding by the rear. But the car crashed; Heydrich was driven to the hospital in a baker’s van, where he died days later.
George Lincoln Rockwell
To give you a sense for how this mid-century Neo-Nazi, nicknamed “the American Hitler,” operated: during the Freedom Rides across the south, he bought a Volkswagen van, painted it in racist slogans (“We do hate race mixing”), and drove it around to KKK rallies — calling it “the Hate Bus.” The American Nazi Party founder was so cruel and transparently pathetic that even the FBI roasted him in a report on his movement: “George Lincoln Rockwell is an egocentric and a chronic failure who created the shabby, small-time enterprise which he named the American Nazi Party in order to abate his tormenting ambitions to achieve fame.”
Rockwell also alienated members of his own group. In March of 1967, he kicked out the party magazine’s cartoonist, John Patler (born “Patsalos,” he reportedly changed his name so it sounded more like “Hitler”), for “Bolshevik leanings.” Five months later, Patler shot Rockwell outside a self-service laundromat.
Guzmán numbered among the closest advisors to Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator who mounted an American-backed military coup against the country’s democratically elected left-leaning government in 1973, and proceeded to execute thousands of political opponents, inter tens of thousands more, and make regular use of torture.
A constitutional law scholar, Guzmán was tasked with drafting a new Chilean constitution. The resulting draft heavily favored right-wing electoral outcomes and, borrowing Carl Schmitt’s concept of “states of exception,” laid some of the ideological groundwork for Pinochet’s more extreme infringements on civil liberties. The Journal of Latin American Studies called him “a cold-blooded politician with a will of iron who found himself able to avert his gaze from the reality of state coercion.” He was killed in 1991, when two members of the Marxist-Leninist guerilla group, Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front, shot him outside his university.
Ghislaine Maxwell’s dad — publisher, probable spy, and embezzler of pension funds — was found drowned in 1991, having fallen off his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislaine. The cause of death was disputed; three independent autopsies disagreed (one claimed heart attack, another claimed the heart attack caused him to drown, a third went with just drowning). But shortly before his death, reports emerged that Maxwell had been a long-time agent for Israeli intelligence. At the time, Maxwell called the allegations “ludicrous.” Were they? He is dead now. Someone could ask Ghislaine, but she may be worried about getting the same treatment.
These ones didn’t count for various reasons but deserve to be included.
This gentleman — a 16th-century Japanese renegade — doesn’t quite meet the terms of this project, in that Goemon was the assassin, not the assassinated, and strictly speaking, his attempt was unsuccessful, resulting in the public execution of both him and his son via being boiled alive. But consider that he was a Robin Hood figure, whose parents were, according to some accounts, killed by the ruling shogunate, leading him to train in ninjutsu and form a squad of bandits that would loot wealthy aristocrats and redistribute the bounties among peasants.
The crux of it is that he tried to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the 16th century daimyo who had a bad habit of repeatedly invading Korea. The take-out rationale isn’t clear — it may have been for Hideyoshi’s authoritarian tendencies, vengeance for killing Goemon’s wife, or something else; nor are the particulars known of how Goeman got caught, which may have involved detection by a bell or, to cite sources likely derived from Wikipedia, a “mystical incense burner.” We would have rooted for him though. Here’s a site that explains how to buy a caldron like the one he was boiled in.
I’m glad the O.C. killed her off.