Famous Assassins in History
History is the study of civilizations and societies and the way they have evolved over time. Much of the time, historians concentrate on large-scale trends, and how they shape the actions and decisions of individuals. But sometimes, the actions of individuals are so significant and profound they can shape societal and cultural evolution in ways that transcend even these larger trends. Or, the actions of individuals can be so important that they can actually play a role in creating new long-term trends. These significant actors can be politicians, inventors, businessmen, social activists or even entertainers. On some occasions, however, these individuals can be something quite different. Under certain circumstances, even seemingly ordinary people can perform acts that change history. It is out of the ranks of these ordinary people that most famous assassins have emerged.
Marcus Junius Brutus
The one exception to this general rule is the assassination that arises from political intrigue. Political assassination has been a preferred tactic for gaining power since time immemorial, and the first assassin on our list was probably the modern prototype for the assassination motivated by political ambition.
Marcus Junius Brutus was a Roman Senator during the reign of Julius Caesar. When Brutus had supported Caesar’s rival Pompey during the Roman civil war of 49 B.C., Caesar offered Brutus a chance for atonement if he would surrender. Brutus, apparently converted by Caesar’s generosity, accepted the offer, was named governor of Gaul by his former adversary, and became one of Caesar’s most trusted allies – or so everyone believed.
After Caesar had declared himself dictator for life, Roman Senators fearful of his power conspired to assassinate him. On March 15, 44 B.C., this group of conspirators attacked and murdered Caesar en masse. Among this group was Brutus, whose presence was immortalized by Shakespeare in his play, Julius Caesar. When Shakespeare’s version of Caesar saw his trusted ally and friend among his killers, he uttered a phrase that has since become synonymous with backstabbing and betrayal: “Et tu Brute?”
John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth was an American actor in the mid 19th century who involved himself in the fight to preserve slavery, a fight which eventually led the United States into a bloody Civil War that took the lives of over 600,000 people. A lover of intrigue who loved the spotlight, Booth worked as a Confederate spy during the War, and eventually became involved in a plan to kidnap President Lincoln. When the South was defeated, Booth became so enraged that he changed his kidnapping plot to murder.
After sneaking up behind the President and shooting him in the head while he sat watching a play, Booth leaped spectacularly to the stage of the Ford Theatre below, no doubt planning to take a bow for the great deed he believed be had performed. After fleeing into the countryside with a companion, David Herodl, Booth was chased down and killed on a Virginia farm by pursuing troops. Several of his cohorts were eventually arrested, and later tried and convicted for their part in Booth’s plan to avenge the South. Booth’s act certainly impacted subsequent history, as Lincoln was followed in office by a long succession of Presidents who lacked his vision and leadership abilities, much to the detriment of a nation in desperate need of healing and rebuilding.
Princip was a Bosnian Serb nationalist active with groups that opposed Serbia’s absorption into the Austro-Hungarian Empire that ruled much of central Europe in the early 20th century. Princip, who apparently carried a lifelong chip on his shoulder because of his small size, became part of a plan to assassinate the future emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in June of 1914. Through a stroke of fate, Princip was able to pull off this heinous act when the Archduke’s car got lost in the streets of Yugoslavia’s capital Sarajevo and stopped literally right in front of Princip, allowing him to shoot and kill the Archduke and his wife.
Europe at this time was a tinderbox waiting to explode, and the investigations that followed the assassination led to an Austro-Hungarian political ultimatum to the Serbian government that was inevitably rejected as being far too draconian. Within a month of the assassination, Germany and Austro-Hungary had declared war on Serbia, and soon all of Europe was engulfed in World War I, a conflagration that was destined to take the lives of tens of millions.
The name may not be familiar, but the name of the person he shot and killed certainly is – Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian statesman who was also the most famous spiritual leader of the 20th century. Godse was a Hindu nationalist newspaper editor who along with other extremists blamed Gandhi for agreeing to Muslim demands for the creation of the separate state of Pakistan in 1947. During his trial, Godse put everyone to sleep by spending five hours reading a 90 page filled with petty, small-minded rationalizations to explain why he did what he did. Gandhi’s vision of peace and brotherhood was apparently ahead of its time, as it unfortunately would likely be ahead of its time still today.
Mark David Chapman
A drifter with mental problems and an obsession with the book The Catcher in the Rye, Chapman eventually developed a fixation on John Lennon. For reasons that remain murky – even to Chapman himself apparently, based on statements he has made over the years – Chapman gunned down the former Beatle on the streets of New York City on December 8, 1980. The Catcher in the Rye is about an idealistic teenager who becomes disillusioned with the world, and ends up wandering the streets of New York looking for meaning. Why Chapman thought meaning could be found killing a cultural and musical icon is a question that will probably never be answered.
In an era plagued by political assassinations, Ruby has the distinction of being the first assassin to ever assassinate another alleged assassin, which probably makes him the first truly post-modern killer. Of course, the 1960s saw the murders of several great political and social leaders – among them, John Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King. What sets Ruby apart from the three men accused of those crimes – Sirhan Sirhan, James Earl Ray, and Ruby’s victim Lee Harvey Oswald – is that in Ruby’s case there is no doubt that he actually did it. Ruby operated in a nexus where the Mafia, crooked police officers, anti-Castro Cubans and the occasional intelligence agent all came together, and for reasons Ruby never revealed, it apparently fell upon him to eliminate Oswald before he had a chance to start talking. No one really knows for sure what exactly was going on during that time period but whatever secrets Ruby knew he took to the grave with him after dying in prison of cancer.
The End of an Era?
Assassination for reasons of ideology, politics, or just the attempt to gain attention remains an unpredictable element in cultural and social relations around the world. It is curious, however, that following the attempted assassination of President Reagan by John Hinckley in 1981, the era of attempted political assassination in the United States basically ended, with the recent shooting of Congresswoman Giffords being the obvious exception.
Perhaps it is a sign of our media-soaked age that violent, crazy and desperate people no longer find it necessary to kill somebody famous to get attention or get their insane point across, which is perhaps why the random killing spree has become the new norm for high-profile murder in American society. Tragically, whatever it is that lurks in the hearts of human beings that drives them to do such things remains a mystery, and it is a mystery that even Sherlock Holmes would not have been able to solve.