The Pazzi family in Florence launched their unsuccessful plot to overthrow the Medici family with an assassination attempt against the brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici.

The Pazzis had been a powerful and influential family since the 13th century. Yet by the early 1400s their successful banking network, and the status that came with it, had been overshadowed by that of the Medici family who had grown to dominate Florentine political and economic life. The Pazzi Conspiracy saw family members conspire with other opponents of the Medicis including the Pope’s nephew, Girolamo Riario, and the archbishop of Pisa, Francesco Salviati. Although Pope Sixtus IV lent his support to the plot, he was very careful not to sanction killing.

The assassins struck during High Mass on the morning of 26 April 1478. Having gathered with a crowd of up to 10,000 other worshippers at the Duomo, Bernardo Bandini dei Baroncelli and Francesco de’ Pazzi stabbed Giuliano de’ Medici 19 times. His brother Lorenzo was wounded but managed to escape with the help of his friend Angelo Poliziano.

Over the next few months the people of Florence pursued the conspirators and killed at least 80 people associated with the plot by 20 October. Francesco de’ Pazzi and Salviati were hanged from the windows of the Palazzo della Signoria while other plotters were thrown from windows to be set upon by the angry crowds below.

The failure of the conspiracy resulted in the opposite situation to what had been intended. Lorenzo de’ Medici was able to strengthen his hold on Florentine politics despite Pope Sixtus IV placing the city under interdict, while the Pazzi family were banished and their lands and property confiscated.

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 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 2nd January 1981, serial killer Peter Sutcliffe – otherwise known as the Yorkshire Ripper – was arrested by police. Found guilty of murdering 13 women over a six-year period, and of attempting to murder a further seven, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in May 1981. In 2010 the High Court issued him with a whole life tariff which means that he is likely to stay in jail until his death.

Although Sutcliffe first assaulted a woman in 1969, his famous series of attacks began in 1975. Many theories exist regarding his motive, with some focusing on a hatred of prostitutes after he was conned out of money by one. Despite the connection between Sutcliffe and prostitutes, not all his victims were sex workers. However, it was after police stopped him with a prostitute in his car on the 2nd January 1981 that he was finally arrested. He was taken into custody as his car had false number plates, but while in Dewsbury Police Station the similarities between him and the Yorkshire Ripper’s profile led him to be questioned about the case.

Sutcliffe admitted to being the Ripper two days later, on the 4th January, and while in custody claimed that he heard the voice of God commanding him to kill prostitutes. The prosecution wanted to accept his plea of diminished responsibility after four expert psychiatrists diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. However, the judge rejected the plea and therefore the case went to full trial. Since he had already admitted guilt as part of his plea, the jury were asked to determine his mental state rather than his guilt.

On the 13th December 1937, the Nanking Massacre began at the end of the Battle of Nanking – part of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Troops from the Imperial Japanese Army captured the city, which at the time was the capital of the Republic of China, and began a six-week long series of atrocities against the city’s residents. A highly contentious historical event, estimates of the number of victims vary from 40,000 to over 300,000 dead.

Japanese troops arrived at the city on the 9th December, and despite attempts by a group of foreigners in the city to negotiate a peaceful handover of the city, Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek ordered that the city be defended “to the last man”. Meanwhile, Japanese troops were ordered to “kill all captives”.

The Chinese defence collapsed on the 12th, and the victorious Japanese army entered the following day. According to eyewitness accounts, the following six weeks saw them engage in numerous war crimes including rape, murder, theft and arson. Captured Chinese troops were the victims of extrajudicial killings by machine gun or by being used for live bayonet practice. Meanwhile children, the elderly, and approximately 20,000 other women of the city were raped with many killed immediately afterwards.

Japanese General Iwane Matsui expressed his regret at the behaviour of his troops just a few days after taking control of the city, but atrocities didn’t end until the start of February 1938. At the end of the Second World War, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East convicted only two people for their role in the massacre.

On the 29th November 1781, the crew of the slave ship Zong threw the first of at least 132 African slaves overboard in a massacre intended to allow them to cash in their insurance policy. When the insurers refused to pay, the ensuing court cases found that the killing of slaves was legal in some cases. At the time the massacre and the subsequent legal rulers had little impact, but within just a few years it became a central example of the horrors of the Middle Passage and stimulated the abolitionist movement that expanded in the years following.

The Zong was originally a Dutch slave ship that was captured by a British gunship in February 1781. Having been sold to a syndicate of Liverpool merchants, it departed from Accra in modern day Ghana on the 18th August. 442 slaves were on board the ship at this point – more than twice the number that it was capable of safely transporting.

By the third week of November drinkable water was running low, but the problem was not identified until after a navigational error meant the ship had sailed 300 miles past its destination of Jamaica. With death from thirst a high likelihood, the ship’s crew voted purposefully drown some of the slaves in order to ensure the survival of the ones remaining on board.

The massacre began on the 29th November and continued for two more days. Due to deaths from disease and malnutrition, in addition to the wilful mass murder, the ship arrived at Jamaica with only 208 of its original 442 enslaved people on board.

On the 31st August 1888, Mary Ann Nichols – commonly known as Polly – became the first confirmed victim of Jack the Ripper in the Whitechapel area of London. Not only had her throat been cut, but her body had been mutilated. Her corpse was left next to a gate in Buck’s Row, which is now known as Durward Street, and was discovered by a cart driver. It was three weeks before the inquest was concluded, by which time a second murder with a similar modus operandi had been committed. On studying the body of Annie Chapman, the coroner noted that “The similarity of the injuries in the two cases is considerable.”

Nichols was 43 years old when she was murdered, having found herself forced to live in boarding houses and workhouses after her alcoholism led her husband to leave her. She turned to prostitution as a way to earn money and, in the early hours of the night she was murdered, had gone out to make enough money to pay for her bed in a boarding house at 18 Thrawl Street.

An hour before her murder, her friend and roommate Nelly Holland spoke to her as she walked the streets. Nichols had already spent her night’s earnings on drink, and so continued to search for customers. Holland was the last person to see her alive before her body was found by Charles Cross at 3.40am.

Nichols’ killer was never found, and debate continues to rage about the identity of the Whitechapel murderer who was given the nickname ‘Jack the Ripper’.

In the early hours of the 17th July 1918 the Russian Imperial Romanov family were shot dead in the basement of the Ipatiev House in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg. Their death took place during the ongoing Russian Civil War, at a time when White Russian forces were approaching the house where the family were held captive. The execution was led by Yakov Yurovsky, a member of the Bolshevik secret police known as the Checka, and commandant of the house which had become known as The House of Special Purpose.

The Romanov family – Nicholas and his wife, and their four daughters and son, had first arrived in Ekaterinburg at intervals from the 30th April onwards. They were accompanied by a small number of servants. Their time inside the house was heavily regulated by the guards, who blocked all contact with the outside world.

As the White Army advanced on Ekaterinburg, the Bolsheviks became concerned that the royal family might fall into their hands and act as a rallying point for the White cause. Similarly, their release could encourage other European nations to view them as the legitimate rulers of Russia, and thus undermine the revolutionary Bolshevik government.

Shortly after midnight on the 17th July therefore, the family were woken and led to a small basement room in the house. A group of Bolshevik secret police then entered the room and read out the order for the deaths. All were shot or stabbed by bayonets, their bodies taken away in a truck and disposed of in a forest 12 miles north of the city.

American outlaw Billy the Kid was shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Billy the Kid was born Henry McCarty and spent his early life in New York. By 1873 he had moved west to New Mexico as a result of his mother remarrying after the death of his father, but within a year she died and the 15 year old McCarty moved into a boarding house where he was soon caught stealing food.

Within four years McCarty, who by now had adopted the name William H. Bonney, had moved to Lincoln County in New Mexico. He began working for John Tunstall, a rancher involved in a struggle for power in the county. After Tunstall was shot and killed by Sheriff William Brady’s posse in what became known as the Lincoln County War, Bonney committed revenge killings including that of the Sheriff.

Bonney was charged with murder but managed to evade capture and soon became the most wanted outlaw in the West. Almost a year later he agreed to provide a statement against the numerous people involved in the ongoing Lincoln County War in return for his own freedom. Despite providing his testimony as promised, he was placed in a jail from which he later escaped and became an outlaw once again.

By the end of 1880, New Mexico Governor Lew Wallis had posted a bounty of $500 on Bonney, and the search was taken up by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Garrett’s posse captured Bonney and his gang on 23 December. Bonney was sentenced to death for the murder of Sheriff Brady but escaped jail two weeks before his scheduled execution. A number of months later Garrett mounted another posse and found Bonney at the Maxwell Ranch in Fort Sumner where he killed him, since the bounty permitted his capture alive or dead.

On the 13th July 1793, the radical French journalist Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday.

Marat, the second of nine children, had left home at sixteen in search of opportunities to pursue his interest in medicine. Having decided to move to northern England in 1770, he settled in Newcastle upon Tyne where he gained a reputation as a highly effective doctor, but also developed an increasing suspicion of the established political order.

Marat moved back to France six years later where his medical skills earned him the patronage of various members of the aristocracy. He used the wealth he earned from this position to establish a scientific laboratory where he engaged in research regarding fire, heat, electricity and light. Although he was visited by the American polymath Benjamin Franklin, the French Academy of Sciences was sceptical of his conclusions, and relations between Marat and the powerful Academy quickly broke down.

Despite Marat’s wealth and privilege, he maintained his passion for social justice throughout the years preceding the French Revolution. As Louis XVI struggled to secure his rule in the late 1780s, Marat put his scientific and medical career on hold, and instead dedicated his time to writing arguments in favour of political, economic and social reform. In the wake of the Storming of the Bastille on the 14th July 1789, he established his own radical newspaper which soon adopted the name L’Ami du peuple (“The People’s friend”).

Marat’s writings were vicious in their attacks on all those he perceived as being enemies of the people, by whom he meant the lower classes of the Third Estate. His newspaper often called for violence against the upper class and members of the government, even resulting in him fleeing to London for a few months in early 1790. On his return to Paris he continued his fierce criticism of the government, and even began to target less radical revolutionaries with his call for their execution as enemies of the people. He continued to have to go into hiding on occasion, and began to utilise Paris’ extensive sewer network, where it is believed he developed the debilitating skin condition that later saw him confined to a medicinal bath for hours on end.

Despite his reputation as a radical agitator, Marat was elected to the National Convention in September 1792 where he was a passionate supporter of the decision to declare France a Republic. He soon turned his anger on the members of the Girondin component of the National Convention who opposed the execution of the King. Within six months these moderates had been ousted from the government, and Marat turned to working from home due to his worsening skin condition.

On the 13th July 1793 Marat granted an audience to a young woman from Normandy while he soaked in his medicinal bath. The 24-year old Charlotte Corday claimed to have information about Girondin deputies who had escaped Paris, and presented Marat with a list of names of supposed traitors. Corday, however, was actually a Girondin sympathiser. After Marat told her that he would arrange for the execution of the Norman Girondins, she pulled out a five-inch kitchen knife and stabbed him once in the chest, severing a major artery and causing him to die almost immediately of massive blood loss.

Corday was placed on trial and was guillotined in Paris just four days after killing Marat. She claimed in her trial to be a supporter of Republicanism, but described Marat as a ‘monster’. She explained that she had ‘killed one man to save 100,000’, but the assassination contributed to the growing fear of counter-revolution that fuelled the subsequent Terror – in which thousands of moderate and conservative Frenchmen and women were guillotined on charges of treason.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Marat was virtually deified by the revolutionaries. At his funeral, the Marquis de Sade – the infamous sexual predator who had joined with the most radical elements of the National Convention after being freed from prison – gave the eulogy. Marat’s bathtub, and the knife that he was killed with, were later bought by the Musée Grévin in Paris and are now on display as part of a waxwork scene depicting the assassination.

Interestingly, Madame Tussaud’s waxwork museum had also offered to buy the bathtub – but their letter got lost in the post and arrived after a sale had already been agreed. Madame Tussaud’s in London does, however, own the guillotine blade that beheaded the former queen Marie Antoinette on October 16th 1793. The founder of the museum, Marie Tussaud, was a famed wax sculptor before the revolution, and had even had her hair cut in preparation for execution during the Terror due to her connections to the aristocracy. However, it was decided that her talents could better serve the Revolution, and so she was spared in order to create death masks of the guillotine’s many famous victims.

The guillotine is, of course, synonymous with the worst violence of the French Revolution, but the machine was actually created to represent equality. In France prior to 1789, beheading as a form of execution had been reserved for the nobility.  Commoners were usually subjected to longer and more painful deaths through hanging, or worse. To end the privilege of the nobility, and to bring about equality in death as well as life, the new revolutionary National Assembly therefore made decapitation the only legal form of execution.

It was recognised that manual beheading was, however, still a gruesome way to carry out the death sentence.  Mary Queen of Scots, who I mentioned earlier as someone who visited the town of Buxton where we are recording this episode of HistoryPod, was only beheaded after three blows of the executioner’s axe. The Yorkshire town of Halifax had tried to improve the precision of beheadings with the creation of the Halifax Gibbet – a guillotine-like machine in which an axe head was fitted to the base of a heavy wooden block that ran in grooves between two tall uprights – a whole two centuries before the French invention. However, this device didn’t make it out of Yorkshire. In the face of continued manual beheadings therefore, on 10th October 1789 French physician Joseph Guillotin argued that the new government of France should ensure that every execution was both swift and mechanical. The National Assembly agreed, acknowledging that capital punishment should simply end life, not purposefully cause pain as well.

Another physician, Antoine Louis, was appointed to lead a committee to develop a quick and efficient decapitation machine.  Although Guillotin was a member of this committee, it is actually therefore Antoine Louis who should be credited with the device’s invention, even though it carries Guillotin’s name.

The first execution using the device was conducted on 25th April 1792.  Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a French highwayman found guilty of killing a man during one of his robberies, had the dubious honour of being the guillotine’s first victim. Contemporary accounts reveal that the execution went smoothly – much to the disappointment of the crowd who expected better ‘entertainment’.  Excited to see the new machine in action, they were disappointed at its speed and efficiency…although this was, of course, the whole point.