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Abraham Lincoln

8 infamous assassinations from recent history

Image: Abraham Lincoln | Public Domain

Assassinations are murder by another name. Sometimes they are carried out by government entities employing agents such as the CIA or the KGB. But the distant past has witnessed assassinations carried out by lone wolves in a bid to change the political landscape of a country or even start wars.

Here we list some of the most infamous assassinations of the past 200 years.

1. Abraham Lincoln – US President

Elected to the US House of Representatives in 1846, Abraham Lincoln introduced a bill that gradually emancipated slaves in Columbia. It managed to alienate the abolitionists as well as the slave owners. In 1856, he joined the newly formed Republican party and became President five years later as conflict between the Union and Confederacy over slavery resulted in civil war.

Actor John Wilkes Booth was a Southern sympathiser and racist who hated Lincoln. By January 1865, Booth gathered fellow conspirators to kill the president. On 14 April, President Lincoln attended Ford’s Theatre to watch a performance of Our American Cousin with his wife.

During the performance, Booth made his way to Lincoln’s unguarded box and shot him in the back of the head. Booth broke his leg while jumping over the balustrade and onto the stage but managed to escape. Lincoln passed away the following morning.

Booth returned to his boarding house owned by co-conspirator Mary Surratt, before fleeing with an accomplice by horse to Virginia. On 26th April, as the assassins were resting at a farmhouse barn, Union Cavalrymen caught up. The soldiers set fire to the barn and Booth was shot. Three of his accomplices, including Surratt, were hanged on 7th July 1865.

2. Archduke Franz Ferdinand – Heir to the Austrian Crown

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo sparked World War I.

On 28th June 1914, Franz and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, paid a formal visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. Having arrived by train they continued their itinerary in an open-topped car. The motorcade passed the city police station when a young Bosnian conspirator threw a grenade. The bomb detonated behind them, hitting another car and prompting the royal couple to visit the injured people at the local hospital.

It was this unplanned change that led to the fateful encounter with 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, a member of the 'Black Hand' secret military society. Princip was sitting at a café eating a sandwich when the driver of the royal vehicle, now lost, slowed down. The youth seized the opportunity to walk into the street and fire at close range.

The first bullet hit the pregnant Sophie in the stomach and she died within minutes. The Archduke, while trying to rouse her was shot in the neck. He also died in minutes. Princip was arrested after an aborted attempt to commit suicide with cyanide. He was tried and sent to prison for 20 years having escaped execution due to his young age.

3. Michael Collins - Irish Revolutionary and Politician

During the Irish War of Independence, revolutionary Michael Collins negotiated a treaty establishing an Irish Free State that created a partition of Ireland.

A leading executive of the Irish political party Sinn Fein amidst a climate of violence, Collins directed a guerrilla war against the British. After a brief ceasefire and two months of negotiations, Collins signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6th December 1921. He conceded he was signing his own death warrant as some of his compatriots condemned the treaty because it didn’t secure full Irish independence.

On 22nd August 1922, Collins went to Cork to propose a truce between the British and IRA. He was spotted on the road in his open-top car by an anti-Treaty group. An ambush was laid and when Collins returned via the same route he was fatally shot in the head by a sniper.

4. Martin Luther King Jr. - Civil Rights Activist and Pastor

The night before Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder he made a speech to a packed congregation at the Mason Temple in Memphis Tennessee reaffirming he was not afraid to die.

After receiving a Doctorate from Boston University, King became a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama. He vociferously opposed the racial segregation laws of the southern states and steered a boycott of the buses in Montgomery due to its policy of segregation. In 1963, King organised the now famous march for civil rights in Washington and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial made his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize but soon made fresh enemies due to his opposition to the Vietnam War.

At 6pm on 4th April 1968, King was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Memphis when a lone gunman in the bushes shot at him. King died an hour later. Two months after the murder, an escaped convict called James Earl Ray was arrested in Britain travelling under a forged Canadian passport and extradited to the US to face murder charges. He confessed and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Despite Ray’s confession, King’s family believed that CIA agents were involved in a conspiracy framing Ray for a murder.

5. Robert Kennedy - US President nominee

The younger brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy was running for the Democratic nomination to become President of the United States.

Kennedy had already made enemies by his devoted attack on organised crime and the mobsters behind racketeering in the country. He also put an end to racial segregation in all forms of interstate travel.

At the time, the Vietnam War, which Kennedy opposed, had accelerated with US troops attacked and the US Embassy in Saigon under siege. Kennedy announced his intention to run for the presidency on 16th March 1968. On 5th June he went to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to address his campaign workers. While cutting through the kitchen to speak to supporters he was suddenly confronted by 24-year-old Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan carrying a 2.2 revolver. Sirhan fired three times hitting Kennedy in the head. Despite his injuries, Kennedy was still talking as he was taken to hospital but died the following day. Sirhan believed Kennedy was an avid supporter of Israel.

6. Indira Gandhi – Prime Minister of India

In June 1984, the Indian army had been sent to Punjab to remove militant Sikh Jamail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed followers from the Golden Temple, a spiritual site of Sikhism. Over 500 were killed in the operation. Indira Gandhi, who had been Prime Minister of India for four years, was accused of using the attack for political ends.

On 31st October, Indira prepared for a television interview with actor Peter Ustinov at her office in New Delhi. She set off down the garden path that connected her home to her office with aides beside her. At the end of the path Indira saw her bodyguard, Beant Singh. He was a Sikh from Punjab who had been one of her security guards since 1980. With him was Constable Satwant Singh who gripped a Sten submachine gun. As Indira greeted Beant he responded by pulling out his revolver and aiming at her.

She was hit in the stomach as she raised her right hand to protect her face. Beant fired four more shots at point-blank range. Satwant shot 25 bullets into Indira’s body before the killers dropped their weapons and surrendered. Indira was taken to the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences and pronounced dead a few hours later.

The killer militant guards, who supported the demand for greater autonomy for the Sikh-majority state, blamed Indira Gandhi for the attack on the Golden Temple. Beant was shot dead shortly after his arrest and Satwant was hanged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.

7. Benazir Bhutto – Prime Minister of Pakistan

Daughter of the former President of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto took over the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) after her father’s death. A liberal with Western democracy-leaning views, Bhutto went into voluntary exile in Britain in 1984 but returned to Pakistan to lead the PPP to victory in the 1988 election. She was the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim nation.

On 18th October 2007, Bhutto survived a bomb attack after addressing supporters in Karachi. On 27th December, she attended a rally in Rawalpindi in front of an adoring crowd. She left in a bulletproof vehicle but poked her head out of the window to wave to the people. A gunman ran up to her car and opened automatic fire.

Bhutto died almost instantly after being hit in the head and neck before the assassin detonated a bomb. 20 others lost their lives. Various claims about the assassin include that he was a teenage boy recruited by the Pakistani Taliban and that the government was behind the assassination.

8. Jo Cox - British MP for the Labour Party

Jo Cox’s shock killing in 2016 was the first murder of an MP since the assassination of Ian Gow, Conservative MP for Eastbourne.

Cox was shortlisted to fight the safe Labour seat of Batley and Spen at the 2015 by-election. As a passionate supporter to remain in Europe during the 2016 Referendum, she was a target of abuse by ‘Leave’ campaigners. During the run-up to the EU referendum, Cox was getting out of a car to meet constituents in Birstall when she was confronted by 52-year-old Thomas Mair. Yelling ‘This is for Britain! Keep Britain independent and first’, he shot her twice in the head and once in the chest with a hunting rifle. Mair also kicked the dying Cox and stabbed her 15 times before attacking a man who tried to intervene.

Described by the police as a loner, Mair was found to have kept Nazi regalia and far-right books at the house he shared with his grandmother. Asked in court what his name was he replied, ‘Death to traitors’. He was convicted of Cox’s murder, as well as grievous bodily harm to his second victim, and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.