Out today. My new book Assassins’ Deeds. A history of assassination from Ancient Egypt to the present day. It does what it says on the cover.
Assassins’ Deeds identifies the earliest assassination in history so far as I can tell. An Egyptian pharaoh murdered about 4,300 years ago by his bodyguards. Then there is Britain’s first assassination in 293 AD – of Marcus Carausius, the self-styled ‘Emperor of Britain’, who was hired by the Romans to protect the south-east coast of England from Saxon raids, but was more interested in grabbing loot from the raiders than protecting the local residents.
I analysed 266 assassinations from ancient Egypt to the present day, and discovered the ace sniper of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal is a rarity. Most assassinations are up close and personal, with only 19 performed at a distance. Until the nineteenth century, stabbing was the favourite method, but even when firearms took over, it was usually the handgun at close quarters rather than the sniper’s rifle.
The book covers some of history’s weirdest assassinations – the king of Scotland killed by a booby-trapped statuette, the Swiss military leader hacked to death by a man disguised as a bear, and the Austrian empress murdered with a customised needle so fine the victim did not even realise she had been stabbed. She could count herself particularly unlucky as her assassin, an Italian anarchist, had been hoping to murder someone else, and she was a late substitute.
Fate moved in mysterious ways for some assassins too. An Italian nationalist was sentenced to the guillotine for a failed assassination attempt on the French emperor Napoleon III, but the emperor had a lot of sympathy for the would-be assassin’s cause of unifying Italy, and reprieved him at the last minute. He was sent to Devil’s Island for life, but escaped to the United States and went on to fight in and survive Custer’s Last Stand.
Then there is the story of King Zog of Albania, probably the only monarch to survive an assassination attempt by opening fire on the men who attacked him (as he was leaving the opera in Vienna).
Assassins Deeds’ also tells the story of history’s most famous assassinations – Julius Caesar, Thomas Becket, the French revolutionary Marat, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, etc., coming right up to the present day with the murder of Kim Jong-nam, renegade brother of the North Korean dictator, whose killers thought they were taking part in a reality tv show.
Assassins’ Deeds. A History of Assassination from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day by John Withington is published by Reaktion Books, price £18.