Top 10 Most Important Assassinations That Changed the World

Assassinations have the power to change the world. Throughout history, world leaders, political activists and cultural icons have all been targeted by the likes of terrorist organisations, opportunist killers, lone gunmen and even government bodies. Although most assassinations are carried out in an effort to change the balance of power or to further a cause (or indeed push one backwards), others are seemingly random acts of violence without real motivation or purpose.

10. Inejiro Asanuma (1898 – 1960)

Inejiro Asanuma
photo: Yasushi Nagao

Although his name is not as recognisable as others on this list, the assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, the leader of the Japan Socialist Party, was one of the most shocking to ever be caught on film. While speaking at a televised political debate, Asanuma was attacked on stage by Otoya Yamaguchi, a 17-year-old militant right wing activist. Yamaguchi ran at Asanuma with a samurai sword and shoved it through his abdomen. The footage shows the forceful impact in shocking detail and Yamaguchi manages to quickly stab Asanuma again through the heart before a crowd swarms the stage and drags the assassin the ground. Three weeks later, Yamaguchi wrote “Seven lives for my country. Ten thousand for his Imperial Majesty” in toothpaste on the wall of his juvenile prison cell before hanging himself with a knotted bed sheet.

9. Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900 – 1979)

Lord Louis Mountbatten

From the late 1960s to 1998, The Troubles in Northern Ireland were an enduring, inescapable political conflict. Republican paramilitary groups clashed with Loyalist groups and the British Army in a conflict which lasted for more than three decades. Both sides seemed locked into a stalemate of violence and many lives were lost during this period, but one of the most notable attacks was the assassination of the Queen’s cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten was vacationing at his summer home in County Sligo situated in the north west of Ireland in August 1979. Despite warnings that the nearby area was known to be used as a border refuge by IRA members, Mountbatten went out fishing on his boat on August 27th. While sailing offshore by only a few hundred yards, the boat exploded and was completely destroyed by a radio-controlled bomb. The device was planted by an IRA member the night before when the boat was docked, and the force of the explosion almost completely blew Mountbatten’s legs off. He was pulled to the shore alive by nearby fisherman but died shortly afterwards from his severe injuries. Three other passengers were also killed by the explosion. On the same day of the assassination, eighteen British Army soldiers were killed by roadside bombs in Northern Ireland. Known as the ‘Warrenpoint ambush’, the incident was the deadliest attack on the British Army during The Troubles.


8. Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was the first President of the United States to be assassinated and his tragic death changed the country forever. While attending a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. on April 14th 1865, John Wilkes Booth gained access to the presidential box and shot Lincoln once in the back of the head. Booth, a well-regarded stage actor who was working as a conspirator in a Confederate plot, managed to escape the theatre and was pursued for nearly two weeks before he was cornered in a barn in Virginia and shot to death on April 26th. Eight other conspirators were rounded up and put on trial in the following months. Four were executed (one, Mary Surratt, was the first woman to be executed by the United States government), one died in prison and three were pardoned. It has been speculated that in the days before his death Lincoln had eerie premonitions about his assassination. Three days before he went to Ford’s Theatre Lincoln told his friend and biographer Ward Hill Lamon about a dream he had where he was killed by an assassin. Lincoln’s bodyguard, William H. Crook, also said that the president had been having recurring dreams about an assassination during the week before his death.

7. Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968)

Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King was one of the most prominent figures in the American Civil Rights Movement. King believed in the use of nonviolent protest to address the issue of Civil Rights for African-Americans, and he worked tirelessly in the face of crushing, violent opposition to further the cause. While staying at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th 1968, King was shot in the face as he stood out on the balcony of his motel room. The bullet travelled down his spinal cord and lodged in his shoulder. King was rushed to hospital and had emergency chest surgery, but he died a short time afterwards. Race riots erupted across America in the wake of King’s death and an FBI investigation to find his killer was launched. A sniper rifle and a pair of binoculars were found in a rooming house adjacent to the Lorraine Hotel and the fingerprints were matched to those of a petty escaped convict called James Earl Ray. A worldwide manhunt was launched and Ray was arrested two months later at Heathrow Airport in London as he attempted to book a flight to Angola or South Africa while using a forged Canadian passport. Ray was extradited to the United States where he plead guilty to King’s murder. In 1982, The Lorraine Hotel was bought privately and underwent an $8.8 million renovation to become The National Civil Rights Museum in King’s honour.

6. Leon Trotsky (1879 – 1940)

Leon Trotski

Leon Trotsky was one of the leading figures in the Russian Civil War and he held significant influence and power when the Bolshevik army came to power in 1920. However, he was increasingly ostracised from the party as Joseph Stalin rose to power in the years following Lenin’s death in 1924, and by 1929 he had been expelled from the Communist Party and deported out of the Soviet Union. Trotsky’s exile eventually took him as far away as Mexico, but he still remained a fierce, vocal opponent of Stalin. Stalin attempted an assassination attempt in May 1940 when Trotsky’s residence was attacked by local gunmen who were organised and armed by the Soviets. Although his grandson was injured and one of his bodyguard’s abducted, Trotsky survived the attack unscathed. However, in August of the same year Trotsky was struck in the back of the head with a mountaineering pick axe. The assassin was Ramón Mercader, a Communist soldier who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and befriended Trotsky when he moved to Mexico. Trotsky had let his guard down around the man who pretended to be sympathetic to his cause (at the time, Mercader was known as Frank Jacson; a Canadian citizen who had also fought in the Spanish Civil War) but it is believed that Mercader had been operating as an agent of Stalin for years. Trotsky actually survived the initial blow and struggled with Mercader until his bodyguards burst into the room and started to beat the assailant. Trotsky stopped his bodyguards from killing Mercader so he could question him later, but Trotsky died from the attack a day later following an unsuccessful operation in hospital. Mercader served 20 years in a Mexican prison and, unlike most assassins, was glorified in Russia and even bestowed with the decoration ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’.

5. John Lennon (1940 – 1980)

John Lennon
Roy Kerwood

The assassination of John Lennon rocked the music industry and shocked the world. On the night of 8th December 1980, Lennon was returning home to his apartment in the Dakota in New York City when he was shot in the back four times at the entrance to the building. The assassin, Mark Graham Chapman, stayed at the scene reading ‘A Catcher in the Rye’ until the police arrived and arrested him. Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital. Chapman was said to be obsessed with the book and likened himself to the novel’s protagonist Holden Caulfield. Chapman remarked that, like Caulfield, he was dedicated to ‘anti-phoniness’, but he also said at his subsequent trial that he was carrying out the will of God (a born again Christian, it is believed that Chapman took umbrage at Lennon’s remarks about religion). Chapman approached Lennon for his autograph six hours before the assassination took place and there is even a chilling photograph which shows Lennon signing a copy of his album Double Fantasy as Chapman looks on, smiling. This wasn’t the only time a former Beatle was targeted with violence. In 1997, George Harrison was stabbed more than 40 times by an intruder in his home, but he made a full recovery from the attack.

4. Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC)

julius cesar

Few assassinations have been dramatized and commemorated in legend as much as the killing of Julius Caesar. Following his conquest in Egypt and Gaul, Caesar was ordered to return to Rome as his appointed term as governor had passed. His rival Pompey, who was leading the Senate, ordered Caesar to disband his armies or else be branded an enemy of the state. In defiance of this edict, Caesar marched on Pompey in Italy, igniting a civil war. Caesar was victorious and declared himself a dictator upon returning to Rome, but his actions and subsequent decrees and reforms created tension with the Senate. Conspirators launched a plot to kill the leader and, on the Ides of March (15 March), Caesar was set upon while in session at the senate chamber. More than 60 senators surrounded Caesar and plunged him with daggers, stabbing him more than 20 times. The men left the body on the Senate floor as they marched on the Capitol declaring “People of Rome, we are once again free!”.

3. Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863 – 1914)

Franz Ferdinand

Although all political assassinations have huge repercussions, none were as severe as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. In June 1914, the archduke travelled to inspect the imperial troops stationed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This angered many Serbian nationalists who believed that the territories should still belong to Serbia, and not Austria-Hungary. While visiting Sarajevo on 28th June 1914, Ferdinand’s motorcade was attacked by a group of seven young men and a bomb was thrown at Ferdinand and his wife. The royal couple escaped uninjured and, after a brief respite at the Governor’s residence, they decided to head back out despite the apparent danger. However, Ferdinand’s driver was unaware that the itinerary had changed and he stopped the car in a side street so he could rejoin the correct route. Unfortunately, the car was passing by Gavrilo Princip, one of the conspirators behind the bomb attack, and he seized the opportunity by firing at the royal couple point blank range, killing them both. It emerged that the conspirators had been armed by the Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist group, and within a month Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia and sparked the First World War.

2. Grigori Rasputin (1869 – 1916)

Grigori Rasputin

The circumstances of Russia’s ‘mad monk’ Grigori Rasputin and the supposed beguiling power he held over the country’s royal family is one of the strangest stories in modern history. The Romanovs first turned to Rasputin in 1907 when they invited the faith healer to see to tsarevich Alexei who suffered from haemophilia. He maintained a significant presence in the royal household over the years but when Tsar Nicolas II travelled to the war front in August 1915, rumours about the monk’s power and influence began to increase. Members of the Russian aristocracy and ruling class launched a plot to get rid of Rasputin, but they weren’t taking any chances. Rasputin had already survived an assassination attempt in 1914 when he was stabbed in the stomach and made a full recovery despite being severely injured. The conspirators invited Rasputin to the Yusupov palace for dinner and they led him to a specially built soundproof room in the basement. The men tried to feed Rasputin desserts which they had laced with cyanide but he refused to eat anything (reports of the event differ and some say Rasputin actually did eat the pastries but he wasn’t affected by the poison). Hours passed and the anxious conspirators decided to act more swiftly so they shot Rasputin twice in the back. However, when the men later returned to the body to dispose of it Rasputin lunged at them and tried to escape. He was shot two more times in the courtyard and then clubbed repeatedly. His body was tied with rope and thrown into a nearby river and, despite popular legend that he had freed his arms from the bindings before drowning, a post-mortem examination revealed that Rasputin was definitely dead before he hit the water.

1. John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917 – 1963)

John F. Kennedy

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is without a doubt the most famous assassination in modern history. Obviously, the assassination of any world leader (especially a US President) is a world-shaking event, but Kennedy’s assassination has been linked to numerous conspiracy theories which are still being disputed and argued over to this day. On November 22nd 1963, Kennedy was travelling in a presidential motorcade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas. As Kennedy’s uncovered limousine passed by the Texas School Book Depository, witnesses heard three shots ring out. Kennedy was shot twice, once in the throat and once in the head, and Governor John Connally (who was riding in the same car as Kennedy) was struck in the chest but survived. Reports vary on whether the first shot missed the limousine (as stated by the Warren Commission) or whether this was the one that struck Kennedy in the throat (as claimed by the FBI). The infamous ‘single bullet theory’ from the Warren Commission stated that the second bullet hit both Kennedy and Connally while the third hit Kennedy in the head. The assassination was captured by private citizen Abraham Zapruder and his film was a pivotal piece of evidence in subsequent investigations into the assassination (and many conspiracy theories). The assassin behind the attack was revealed to be Lee Harvey Oswald; a former US Marine who defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 before returning to the United States in 1962. Oswald was arrested shortly after the shooting while hiding out at a nearby theatre, but he denied shooting Kennedy (as well as a police officer, JD Tippit, who was shot 45 minutes after the assassination when he approached a man who matched a description of the shooter as seen in the window of the book depository). Oswald was assassinated two days later on November 24th by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner, as he was being led out of Dallas Police HQ on his way to being transferred to a county jail. Many conspiracy theories maintain that Oswald was a patsy who had been set up for the crime and that there were multiple shooters, but no concrete evidence has ever emerged to prove or disprove this theory.