The History of Assassination

Written by Brian McConnell

‘Assassination…is the sudden, surprising, treacherous killing of a public figure, who has responsibilities to the public, by someone who kills in the belief that he is acting in his own private or the public interest.’

The subject was especially pertinent in 1969, when Daily Mirror journalist Brian McConnell published his first book, in which he gave this definition.

Assassination affects countries and peoples, even if some countries like England may rank it no higher than murder. Yet the difference between mere murder and assassination is the fame, or notoriety, of the victim. When a President is killed, the whole world grieves; when someone who has voted for that President is shot down trying to prevent a robbery, his name is a brief news story one day and chip paper the next.

In a brilliant study which finishes with the shootings of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Brian O’Connell uses his expertise as a crime reporter to bring to life the infamous shootings to give support to his definition.

The word ‘assassin’ is of Arabic origin, relating to ‘hashish eaters’ in Persia, a people led by Hassan-i-Sabbah who spread terror in the region for decades in the Middle Ages with golden daggers. Before them, of course, came the death of Julius Caesar, which is placed in the context of his great rule in a manner seen throughout the book. The reader can enjoy short biographies of the great figures, lying within which is evidence of why they were targeted by assassins.

O’Connell describes the lives and painful deaths of Thomas à Becket (‘assassination par excellence’) and Marat. He refers to Russia as ‘assassination’s adopted home’, with Rasputin, Trotsky and (he surmises) Stalin as high-profile victims of Russian people’s desire for rapid change and revolution.

While he has no room for Mafiosi, he does illustrate the history of Italian assassinations, and those of Latin America, including that of Pancho Villa, himself an assassin bent on revolution, in Mexico.

O’Connell also writes about Ireland and France, and of the politically-motivated killers who shot powerful men, and details the six attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria, the twelve on Hitler (including the plot led by von Stauffenberg) and the scores on Abraham Lincoln.

The assassination of British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in the House of Commons in 1812 was a shocking event; his assassin, John Bellingham, was hanged within a week of the crime.

Recent history when O’Connell was writing, he raises suspicions over the deaths of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjoeld and Sikorski, Prime Minister of Poland, who both died in plane crashes.

He studies the fateful assassinations which led to the First World War, including that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, as well as the wretched deaths of Mahatma Gandhi and Count Bernadotte. America, with four of its Presidents assassinated in a century, has a chapter for itself, while at the time the book was published there was still much angst in countries which had declared independence from European nations, which fomented many attempts on the lives of the powerful.

Brian McConnell (1928- 2004) joined the Daily Mirror, specialised in crime reporting, before he began writing books. His titles include The History of Assassination, and The Rise And Fall Of The Brothers Kray. In 1974 he stepped in front of and was shot by an armed kidnapper who was attempting to abduct Princess Anne.

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