On the 4th April 1968, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 39. The previous day he had delivered his final public speech, known as the “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” address, in which he made direct reference the many threats against his life.
King was standing on the balcony outside his room at the Lorrain Motel in Memphis when he was hit by a single bullet that shattered his jaw and several vertebrae. Despite being rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital where doctors worked to keep him alive, he was pronounced dead at 7.05pm.
Two months after the assassination an escaped convict called James Earl Ray was arrested at Heathrow Airport in the UK and extradited back to America for trial. Ray confessed to the assassination and was sentenced to 99 years imprisonment, but withdrew his confession a few days later. His attempts to withdraw his guilty plea have fuelled allegations of a conspiracy that used James Earl Ray as a scapegoat.
King’s death was met with riots across America that lasted for two days, reflecting anger that King’s non-violent approach had only been met with violence. However, all was calm at his funeral on April 9th, in which a recording of his last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church was played at his own request. He didn’t want people to remember him for his awards and honors, but for trying to “feed the hungry”, “clothe the naked”, “be right on the [Vietnam] war question”, and “love and serve humanity”.
On the 3rd April 1882, the American outlaw Jesse James was shot dead by fellow gang-member Robert Ford. His death became a national sensation – James had been a famous Confederate guerrilla fighter during the Civil War, and had become America’s most wanted criminal in the years since.
As a train robber, James and his gang rarely robbed passengers. This may have led to their popular association with the legend of Robin Hood – stealing from the rich to give to the poor. However, there is no evidence that the James gang actually shared their loot with anyone but themselves.
Despite their early success, by 1881 the gang was falling apart. Many members had fled, or been killed or arrested, and so Jesse James was forced to ally with new gang members. In January 1882 one of his new associates, Robert Ford, met with Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden and agreed to kill James in return for a full pardon for his own crimes and a $10,000 reward.
On the morning of April 3rd, shortly before leaving their safe house to rob the Platte City bank, James noticed a dusty picture on the mantelpiece. As he stood on a chair and turned to clean it, Robert Ford shot him in the back of the head. He presented himself to the police where, on the same day, he was charged with murder, pled guilty, sentenced to death by hanging, and then granted a full pardon by Governor Crittenden.
On the 15th March 44BCE, Roman dictator Julius Caesar was stabbed to death near to the Theatre of Pompey in Rome. His death, coming shortly after he had been declared dictator for life by the Senate, was intended to stop his attempt to seize more power and restore the Roman Republic. However, it instead resulted in a period of instability and civil wars that culminated in the ascendancy of his adopted son Octavian who became Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.
Julius Caesar was a respected military general, whose return to Rome saw him quickly gain respect from many ordinary citizens due a sweeping series of political, social and economic reforms. While these won support from some, however, others became concerned as he received numerous honours that began to propel him to a position akin to a king. Caesar’s apparent arrogance through accepting such honours, combined with his reluctance to stand out of respect when approached by members of the Senate, further fuelled a conspiracy against him.
On the 15th March, amidst rumours of a conspiracy and despite warnings from his doctors and his wife, Caesar attended the Senate on the urging of Decimus. Having taken his seat, Caesar was then approached by Cimba who pulled back Caesar’s robes. He was quickly surrounded by the other conspirators who, according to Eutropius, formed a crowd of up to 60 men. Casca dealt the first blow, a stab wound to his neck, but Caesar suffered a total of 23 stab wounds in the attack. The earliest-known postmortem report in history later stated that he died of blood loss.
On the 13th March 1881, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated in a St Petersburg street by a member of the People’s Will revolutionary movement. Despite introducing a number of reforms such as the 1861 emancipation of the serfs and the abolition of capital punishment, Alexander’s government remained autocratic and after an assassination attempt in 1866 began to brutally repress those who sought political change.
Despite this, by the 1870s the government was coming under increasing pressure from liberals and radicals to introduce further reforms. Land and Liberty, a group of reformers who sought land reform, soon gave rise to the People’s Will which favoured terrorism as a way to achieve their aims. The Tsar became the focus for a number of attacks from 1879 onwards, but finally succumbed on the 13th March 1881.
Alexander was travelling close to the Catherine Canal when a bomb was thrown at his closed carriage by a member of the People’s Will. The blast killed one of the accompanying Cossacks and injured many others, but the Tsar was unharmed. Emerging shaken from his armoured carriage, however, another assassin threw his bomb which landed at Alexander’s feet.
Suffering from severe bleeding, the Tsar was taken to the Winter Palace where he died from his wounds. Somewhat ironically, Alexander had just that morning signed the Loris-Melikov constitution which would have established an elected parliament known as a Duma. However, this was rejected by his son and heir, Alexander III who instead further suppressed civil liberties through the Okhrana. Alexander II’s death therefore arguably slowed down, rather than sped up, the move to a parliamentary democracy.
On the 24th January 41 CE, Caligula became the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated. Killed by a small group of Praetorian guardsmen in a cryptoporticus (underground corridor) beneath his palace on the Palatine Hill, he was succeeded by his uncle Claudius.
Caligula had come to power in March 37 following the death of his great uncle and adoptive grandfather Emperor Tiberius. The early stages of his reign saw him lauded by the people as “our baby” and “our star” while he built support through granting bonuses to the Praetorian Guard and other soldiers and providing the people of Rome with games and circuses.
However, following a severe illness in October, it is reported his behaviour slowly became more tyrannical to the point of megalomania. Only two sources exist from his rule – those of Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger – but both demonstrate acts of enormous cruelty and, to some extent, insanity. He banished or executed his rivals, including his own father-in-law and brother-in-law, cousin and adopted son. He was accused of numerous sexual transgressions including incest with his sisters and of turning the palace into a brothel. Furthermore, in 40 CE he began to style himself as a living god and introduced religious policies that required people to worship him as such. However, perhaps most famously he is alleged to have wanted to make his favourite horse a consul.
Such actions led to three failed conspiracies attempts against him, but on the 24th January 41 three Praetorian Guards led by Cassius Chaerea cornered him in a corridor and stabbed him to death.
On the 29th December 1170, Thomas Becket – the Archbishop of Canterbury – was murdered in front of the altar of Canterbury Cathedral. He had been appointed by Henry II to the most important religious position in England in 1162, but was slain after some of the king’s men interpreted one of their ruler’s angry outbursts as the desire to have Becket killed.
Thomas Becket was appointed Chancellor by Henry in 1155. In this job he proved himself to be a loyal member of the king’s court and so when Theobald, the existing Archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry saw his chance to dominate the church by appointing Becket to succeed him.
Having a loyal friend in the most senior religious position in England made sense to Henry. However, as Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket’s allegiance quickly switched to siding with the church. This frustrated Henry, who asked Becket to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon in 1164 to extend the king’s authority over the clergy. Becket refused, and shortly after being summoned to the king to explain his actions fled to France.
Becket returned in 1170 but, after excommunicating members of the clergy for supporting Henry, found himself the target of an angry outburst by the king – which almost certainly wasn’t “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Whatever Henry did say, however, it was enough to encourage four knights to travel to Canterbury and kill him inside the Cathedral. It is said that the fatal blow split his skull. Becket was canonised by the Pope barely two years after the murder, and in 1174 the king himself walked barefoot to Canterbury in penance.
On the 5th November 1605, the Gunpowder Plot was foiled when Guy or Guido Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder that had been placed in an undercroft below the House of Lords in London. The failure of the plot and execution of the conspirators has since been commemorated in Britain on what is known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, where effigies of Guy Fawkes are traditionally burned on a bonfire amidst large firework displays.
The Gunpowder Plot was conceived at a time of significant religious tension in the British Isles. Less than a century had passed since Henry VIII broke from Rome, and Catholics continued to be persecuted when James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England. Led by Robert Catesby, a group of thirteen Catholics conspired to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament, when James would be inside the building. Having killed the king, they would then initiate a revolt that would bring James’ young daughter Elizabeth to the throne as a puppet queen. However, the plot was revealed in an anonymous letter and the search of the undercroft was conducted late in the evening of the 4th November.
Most people know that Guy Fawkes, along with the other surviving conspirators, was sentenced to execution by being hung, drawn and quartered. However, what is less widely known is that he managed to leap from the gallows and break his neck. Fawkes was therefore already dead by the time the executioner began to carry out the more gruesome parts of his sentence.
On the 6th October 1981 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that was enraged by the peace treaty he had negotiated with Israel. His assassins were arrested, put on trial and executed, while the death of the President led to Vice President Hosni Mubarak becoming the premier just eight days after the assassination. He went on to rule for almost 30 years before he stepped down during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
Three years before his assassination, Sadat had signed the Camp David Accords and jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The Accords led to Egypt signing the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, which marked the first time that an Arab nation had formally recognised Israel. Although the treaty ended 40 years of almost continuous war between the two nations, it was met with hostility by some people in Egypt who felt that Sadat had betrayed the Palestinian cause and the honour or Egypt.
With hostility to his rule growing at home, Sadat was surrounded by security as he observed the 6th October parade that marked the Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal at the start of the Yom Kippur War. The assassins were in the procession on board an artillery truck that stopped directly in front of Sadat and allowed them to approach the President. Believing that this was part of the proceedings, Sadat stood to salute them but was killed in a hail of grenades and indiscriminate firing of AK-47s. He died in hospital two hours later.
On the 30th August 1918, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – better known as Lenin – was the victim of a failed assassination plot. Fanya Kaplan, a member of the anti-Bolshevik faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, believed that Lenin was a ‘traitor to the revolution’ for dissolving the Constituent Assembly and banning other left-wing political parties. She fired three shots at him as he left the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow, of which one hit his arm and lodged in his shoulder while the other went through his neck and is reported to have punctured part of his left lung.
Made unconscious by the attack, Lenin was taken to his living quarters in the Kremlin from where he refused to move in case other would-be assassins attacked him. Without the medical facilities of a hospital, his doctors were unable to remove the bullets and, although Lenin did survive, the injuries he sustained may have contributed towards the strokes that led to his death in 1924.
In retaliation for the attack on Lenin barely two weeks after the successful assassination of Moisei Uritsky, the head of the Cheka in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks issued a decree beginning the Red Terror. Designed to crush counter-revolutionary action against the Bolsheviks, the Red Terror is generally accepted to have lasted throughout the period of the Civil War until 1922. Meanwhile, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda used the attack as a propaganda tool to promote Lenin.
Kaplan was executed on the 3rd September, but over the next four years tens if not hundreds of thousands of Bolsheviks opponents were killed.
On the 23rd July 1914, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia specifically designed to be rejected and lead to war between the two countries. The ultimatum was delivered at 6pm by the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Belgrade, with a deadline of 48 hours within which the Serbian government had to respond. They accepted all but one of the numerous demands, which led Austria-Hungary to declare war three days later on 28th July.
Austria-Hungary had been concerned about the growing power of Serbia, and was keen to find a way to weaken the government and stop it taking over the Southern Slavic populations of the northern Balkans, and especially Bosnia, under the banner of pan-Slavism. To the government officials who favoured war, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on the 28th June was the perfect excuse.
Following the assassination, Germany had given Austria-Hungary assurances that it would support military action against Serbia, in what is known as the ‘Blank Cheque’ of 5th July. Acting with the knowledge that the strongest army in Europe was on their side, the Austro-Hungarian Crown Council began to discuss how best to justify a war against Serbia. They decided that an ultimatum containing unacceptable demands would be the best course of action, and finally agreed the wording on the 19th.
After Serbia’s refusal of the sixth point in the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary declared war. Although it was intended to remain localised, the network of European alliances that had developed from the late 19th Century soon saw the conflict develop into the First World War.