Tuesday 13 December 2022

History of Assassination: my North London talk in January

I'm honoured to have been invited to speak again at the Crouch End & District u3a in North London, this time on the history of assassination.

Drawing on my book Assassins' Deeds. A History of Assassination from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day (Reaktion), I'll be talking about murder by poisoned umbrella or booby-trapped toy or killer disguised as a bear.

The most notorious assassinations will, of course, be there - Julius Caesar, Good King Wenceslaus, Thomas Becket, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, JFK, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Kim Jong-nam, as well as the ones that got away: Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hitler, Stalin, Queen Victoria. How might history have been different if their would-be killers had succeeded?

Because dynastic ambition was so often the motive, perpetrators were often spouses, parents, children or siblings. One Turkish sultan had 19 of his brothers strangled. The powerful have always tried to protect themselves, but that can misfire as a dozen or so Roman emperors were murdered by their guards. On the other hand, many victims seem to have been surprisingly careless. Abraham Lincoln had let his bodyguard go for a drink. 

I'll also be examining the thorny question of whether assassination works.

The talk is on 19 January at 1030. https://cedu3a.org.uk/monthly-meetings/


Saturday 10 December 2022

The mysterious and terrifying Assassins sect: new article draws on my book

An interesting article on the history of the Assassins sect, who murdered their way through the Middle East from the late 11th to the 13th century, quotes my book
Assassins' Deeds. A History of Assassination from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day (Reaktion).

A breakaway sect of a breakway Muslim sect, the Assassins killed many prominent Muslims, sometimes in cahoots with the Crusaders then trying to establish a Christian kingdom in the region. Even the great Saladin was afraid of them.

But they also murdered Crusaders such as Conrad of Montferrat, who had just been elected king of Jerusalem. The Assassins later apologised to Conrad's successor for their deed, and, to make up for it, offered to murder any enemy he chose to nominate. The order was eventually destroyed by the terrifying Mongol hordes led by the descendants of Genghis Khan. 

Marco Polo, without any first-hand knowledge, told racy tales of how young men were recruited to the order in a valley like paradise inhabited by the world's 'most beautiful damsels' whose favours could be enjoyed by those prepared to commit murders when ordered. He also said they did their killings under the influence of hashish, a story which led to them being dubbed 'hashishin' which morphed into 'assassin'. There's not much sign that any of this was true, and, if anything, the Assassins' regime was probably rather puritanical. 

You can find the article here: https://history.howstuffworks.com/world-history/order-of-assassins.htm

Sunday 4 December 2022

I'm out in Chinese! With the strange tale of the assassin who cut off his own hand

The Chinese translation of my history of assassination, Assassins’ Deeds (Reaktion Books) is out. So Chinese readers can now marvel at the astonishing story of the assassin who cut off his own hand.

About two and a half thousand years ago, Helu, ruler of the Chinese kingdom of Wu, decided to book an assassin to kill off a rival who wanted to steal his throne. He was surprised when a trusted adviser recommended Yao Li, who was barely four feet tall, but the king was assured that anything the assassin lacked in stature he would more than make up for in commitment.

And that seemed to be confirmed when Yao’s first demand was that the king should cut off his hand and kill his entire family. The assassin argued that this would convince Helu’s rival that Yao Li was the king’s sworn enemy. And sure enough, the now one-handed assassin was able to worm his way into the rival’s confidence and, once there, use his surviving hand to plunge a spear into his back as he tried to mount his bid for the throne.

The story goes that the victim was so impressed, he congratulated Yao on his daring and with his dying breath, ordered his soldiers not to punish the killer, but Yao was overcome with remorse at what he had done to his own family, and threw himself into the Yangtse River never to be seen again.

Or if Chinese readers prefer, there is the giant assassin who learned the skills of haute cuisine to open up a path to his target, but that is another story.