10 Bizarre Assassination Attempts From History

Humans are a fractious bunch. When reasoned debate fails often times it is the bang of a gun which quiets dissenters. Here are ten times in history when assassins turned to more unusual weapons to silence their opponents.

10. Quintus Antyllius: Stabbed with Styluses

For Quintus Antyllius the pen really was mightier than the sword.

The Gracchi brothers were Roman politicians and demagogues of the 2nd century BCE. Their land reforms caused turmoil in the Roman state and brought them the hatred of the patricians in the Senate. The Consul Lucius Opimius worked to repeal Gaius Gracchus’ laws. On the day appointed rival mobs supporting Gracchus and the Senate formed. One of Opimius’ lictors, his personal guard, called Quintus Antyllius pushed his way through the crowd saying “Make way, scum, for good Romans.” This proved to be a mistake. The “scum” used their styluses, the long metal implements for writing on wax tablets, to stab him to death.

The death of Agrippina as Nero looks on from a 15th century manuscript by Giovanni Boccaccio, courtesy of the British Library

9. Agrippina: Collapsible Boat

Agrippina the Younger was mother of the notorious emperor Nero. Having helped her son to the Imperial Throne by dispatching her husband and uncle Claudius with a dish of poisoned mushrooms she knew a thing or two about assassinations.

Agrippina retired from Rome to the seaside retreat of Misenum. Nero decided to be rid of his annoyingly powerful mother by inviting her to dinner in his mansion across the bay. Nero commanded, as a loving gesture, that she take his own boat back to her home.

Once on the water the boat collapsed, as it was designed to do, and began to sink. Agrippina swam to shore. There she was met by another assassin and stabbed, telling them to strike the womb that had born such an unnatural son.

Godfrey the Hunchback in the Principes Hollandie et Zelandie, Domi Frisiae

8. Edmund Ironside and Godfrey the Hunchback: On the Toilet

Edmund Ironside was king of England from April to November 1016. Called Ironside for his stout resistance to Cnut’s invasion, he might well have preferred an Iron Bottom. Some accounts have Edmund meeting his end while answering the call of nature, either being stabbed or shot with a crossbow.

Godfrey the Hunchback, Duke of Lower Lorraine, suffered a similar fate. While sitting on the toilet Godfrey was stabbed in the behind by an assassin, presumably hidden below, dying several days of his wounds.

The murder of Thomas of Woodstock in the Chroniques

7. Thomas of Woodstock: Smothered by a Mattress

When his nephew Richard II became king, Thomas of Woodstock found some of the young monarch’s close advisors repugnant. Forming a league of powerful nobles called the Lords Appellant Thomas led a successful rebellion against Richard. The king’s favourites were dismissed or executed and the Lords Appellant ruled the kingdom.

The King reasserted his rights and in 1397 he had his revenge against the over-mighty Lords Appellant. Thomas of Woodstock was held in Calais while he awaited trial for treason. There, presumably on the king’s orders, Thomas was murdered in his cell. Accounts differ, but some say he was throttled with a cloak, while others have him suffocated under a mattress.

Jörg Jenatsch’s assassination. Courtesy of the Rätisches Museum

6. Jörg Jenatsch: Killed by an Axe Wielding Bear

Jörg Jenatsch was a Swiss leader during the early 17th century and not a pleasant man. He participated in the torturing of a priest to death and was present as Pompeius von Planta was bloodily murdered with an axe.

It was possibly in retaliation for Planta’s death that Jenatsch was assassinated. At Carnival time when everyone was wearing masks a person approached Jenatsch wearing a full bear costume. A bear carrying an axe. Jenatsch invited the bear to join him in the revels. When he shook the bear’s hand the bear shot him with a hidden gun. The axe was merely a prop. The assassin was never identified.

The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David (1793)

5. Jean-Paul Marat: Killed in the Bathtub

Jean-Paul Marat was a doctor, scientist, and influential journalist of the French Revolution who served in the National Convention. Marat fought with the Girondists, who were against the violence of the revolution.

Marat had for many years suffered a skin condition so foul that it had forced his resignation from the National Convention. He spent much of his time in a bathtub filled with water laced with medicines, often working from his tub. Charlotte Corday, a Girondist sympathiser, was given an audience with Marat, while he was in his bath, by saying she had information about his Girondist foes. She pulled a knife concealed in her corset and stabbed Marat to death.

The Boulevard du Temple, one of the earliest photographs by Louis Daguerre. It was taken in 1838, three years after the assassination attempt

4. Louis-Philippe I: The ‘Infernal Machine’

French monarchs by 1836 should have been aware that an early death was always an option. Giuseppe Fieschi was the leader of a plot to assassinate King Louis-Philippe I and he wanted to make sure it succeeded. He built what would later in the press be called an ‘Infernal Machine’ – a wooden frame with 25 gun barrels loaded with buckshot which could be fired simultaneously. They hoped to cut down the whole royal family as they passed in the street below.

In the event 18 people were killed and 22 more were injured. The King received a slight wound on the forehead but continued with his business. The infernal machine had done more injury to Fieschi himself as four of the barrels exploded on firing.

Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro embrace during the Cuban leader’s state visit to the Soviet Union, 1963.

3. Fidel Castro: Everything

During the Cold War when the United States was suspicious of any Communist move there was one thing which they could not stand – a Communist nation only 100 miles from its coast.

The CIA attempted to dispose of Castro in a variety of almost cartoonish ploys. Using Castro’s love of cigars they tried to hand him exploding cigars or ones laced with toxins. Castro’s habit of scuba diving was also seen as a possible way to kill the Cuban leader. Plans were drawn up to poison his diving suit or plant a bomb in a conch that could be placed on the sea bed near his preferred diving sites. Hundreds of other plots were foiled. Castro died at age 90 in 2016.

2. Georgi Markov: Poison Umbrella

Georgi Markov defected from Communist Bulgaria in 1969. An author and playwright he lent his talents to the BBC World Service by the leaders of his homeland viciously. People with absolute power tend to have thin skin, and so Markov became a marked man.

As Markov crossed Waterloo Bridge in London he felt a sharp pain in his thigh. A man had walk up and jabbed the ferule of an umbrella into his leg. Markov saw the man, who simply hopped into a taxi and left the scene. Markov was taken to hospital where he died four days later from ricin poisoning, a pellet full of the poison being injected by the modified umbrella.

Tito inspects Royal Marines on the deck of the British cruiser HMS Liverpool in 1951, at the start of Yugoslavia’s split with the Soviet Union. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

1. Josip Broz Tito: Plague


Stalin’s hatred for Josip Broz Tito – his Yugoslav counterpart – went beyond being merely irritated by Yugoslavia’s increasingly independent line in the Communist world. He was younger than the ageing Soviet premier, charming where Stalin was awkward and brusque, popular where Stalin was feared, and unlike the other Eastern Block premiers, Tito owed the USSR a far smaller debt for booting the Nazis out of Yugoslavia during World War II and installing a Communist regime.

Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s brutal head of the Ministry of State Security (MGB, predecessor to the KGB), toyed with a variety of assassination attempts, ranging from an ornate jewlry box that would release poison gas when opened, to shooting the Yugoslav at close range with a gun cunningly engineered into a lighter, briefcase or cane. All pretty standard Soviet fare, but the most elaborate plot involved ‘Max’, the Soviet agent responsible for the brutal murder of Stalin’s rival, Leon Trostky.

Max, real name Iosif Grigulevich and posing as a Costa Rican diplomat called Teodoro B. Castro, had been appointed ambassador to Italy and Yugoslavia. According to a secret memo, Max was to get himself invited to a diplomatic reception where he would release a lethal plague bacteria:

“The death of Tito and every other person in the room would be guaranteed,” the memo said. “Max himself would not know anything about the nature of the substance. To save his life, Max would be immunised against plague beforehand.”

Luckily for Tito, and indeed anyone who might have been caught in the dispersal, Stalin’s death in March 1953 saw the hit called off and Grigulevich recalled to Moscow.

For more amazing stories from history, subscribe to All About History for as little as £26.