When a famous celebrity, politician, religious figure, or royal is murdered, it’s called an assassination. If you don’t have a title like that, your death is simply called “unfortunate,” if it’s remembered at all.
When it comes to assassinations there is always a motive, be it jealousy, idealism, political, revenge, etc. In committing an assassination, the murderer hopes to kill off the idea or ideal their victim stands for. Rarely does an assassination succeed on that level.
Below is a list of nine of the most famous assassinations in history.
April 14, 1865: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was assassinated just one month after his second inaugural address. In fact, his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, stood behind Lincoln as he gave his address.
On April 14, 1865, Booth shot Abraham Lincoln at the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C. He was an actor who performed at the same theater, a Confederate sympathizer, and fanatically pro-slavery.
He loathed Lincoln, as is evidenced by him shooting the man, and decried the president’s attack on “Southern rights and institutions.”
There were actually supposed to be three assassinations that night. But as history shows, only one took place. One member of Booth’s posse, Lewis Powell, faced too much resistance at he tried to kill Secretary of State William Seward at his home. George Atzerodt, who was tasked with assassinating Vice President Andrew Jackson, lost his nerve and got drink.
Booth, however, followed through with his plans. He opened the door to Lincoln’s private balcony suite, and fired a single shot into the back of the President’s head. He died the following morning at 7:22 a.m.
After shooting Lincoln, Booth escaped by jumping over the balcony. Unfortunately, he got his spurs caught on the box’s bunting and landed hard, breaking his leg. Booth stood up, yelled “Sic semper tyrannis” (Latin for “Thus always to tyrants”), and hobbled away.
Booth managed to avoid capture for 12 days. He was tracked down to a tobacco farm and refused to surrender. Soldiers set the farm on fire and, as he moved around in the burning barn, was shot in the neck by a soldier. He was dragged from the burning barn to the porch of the farmhouse, and died three hours later, aged 26.
June 28, 1914: The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Archduke Franz Ferdinand might be an obscure royal, but his assassination is widely considered to be the catalyst to World War I.
In June 1914, Ferdinand traveled to Sarajevo, a territory of Austria, to inspect the imperial armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia was annexed by the Austrian-Hungary Empire in 1908; much to the fury of Serbia.
Ferdinand was the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but was actually against the annexation. That didn’t matter. He arrived to visit the city on June 28, an important date historically for Serbian nationalists. The fact that Austrian royalty was there flexing its imperial muscles did little to fan the flames of discontent.
While riding in an open-top car, Serbian nationalist Nedjelko Cabrinovic tossed a bomb at their car, it exploded underneath the wheel of the next car, wounding an officer and a dozen bystanders. Later that day, as they went to visit the injured officer, the lead vehicle in the six-car motorcade took a wrong turn.
It was there that one of Cabrinovic’s political cohorts, Gavrilo Princip, 19, was sitting in a café across the street. He seized the opportunity, and ran over to the procession. As the car backed up, Princip pulled out a pistol, and shot Ferdinand and his wife Sophie at point blank range.
Princip was tackled by an angry mob, and eventually arrested. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie lay in the limousine, mortally wounded. They both died within the hour. Ferdinand was 50, Sophie, 46.
The assassination started the political dominoes falling. World War I started two months after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and all its allies for the assassination of their heir. The complex web of alliances mean that Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary; Germany declared war on Russia; and France and Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary.
January 30, 1941: The Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi
When it comes to peaceful resistance, no one comes close to the legacy of Mohandas Gandhi, better known to his followers as Mahatma (the great-souled one).
Gandhi began his activism as an Indian immigrant in South Africa in the early 1900s after experiencing extreme prejudice. Following World War I, he became a leading figure in India’s efforts to gain independence from Great Britain.
Trained as a lawyer, Gandhi grew up worshiping the Hindu god Vishnu, and followed Jainism, an ancient Indian religion that embraced non-violence, fasting, meditation, and vegetarianism.
Gandhi founded an ashram in Ahmedabad, India, open to all castes, in 1915. He wore a loincloth and shawl, and lived a simple life devoted to prayer, fasting, and meditation.
Over the years, Gandhi spent time in jail for his pursuit of non-cooperation and embarked on many hunger strikes to protest oppression of India’s poorest classes.
Not everyone though liked what Gandhi said or stood for.
On the evening of January 30, 1948, Ghandi was out for a walk on the ground of the Birla Bhavan, in New Delhi, on his way to a prayer meeting. Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist, stepped out in front of Gandhi from behind a crowd, knelt before him, then pulled out a semiautomatic pistol and shot Gandhi in the chest three times, at point-blank-range.
Godse and his co-conspirator were executed by hanging on November 15, 1949.
November 22, 1963: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States, serving from January 20, 1961 until his assassination on November 22, 1963. Despite his short term in the White House, Kennedy oversaw the American civil rights movement, Cuban Missile Crisis, space race, beginning of the Vietnam War, and building of the Berlin Wall.
Despite the fact that hundreds of people actually watched as Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, there remains a lot of confusion about his assassination. To this day, it is one of the most debated and talked about assassinations in history.
Here’s what we do know. Just before 12:30 p.m. on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, Kennedy and his motorcade drove through Dallas in his open-top limousine. Three shots rang out from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.
Kennedy died a little while later in hospital.
After shooting Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald fled the building, fatally shooting Patrolman J.D. Tippit. When finally captured, Oswald famously said, “I’m just a patsy.” We’ll never know if that’s true.
On November 24, Oswald was murdered by local strip-club owner Jack Ruby as he was being escorted to a car in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters. The entire incident was broadcast live on national television.
Those who view the Warren Commission with a critical eye believe other elements were at play. Was Oswald working for the Russians or Cubans? Was the U.S. government involved? Did Lyndon B. Johnson, the Mob, or the CIA have Kennedy killed? And why did Ruby shoot Oswald; out of loyalty or did he know something?
Despite movies, documentaries, and thousands of books on the subject, Kennedy’s assassination remains a mystery.
February 21, 1965: Assassination of Malcolm X
Born on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm Little went on to become an outspoken critic of the Black Muslim faith. But, unlike fellow human rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X was opposed to the nonviolent pursuit championed by King. Instead, he said followers should defend themselves against white aggression “by any means necessary.” Like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X has been called one of the most influential black Americans in history.
Malcolm Little had a tough childhood; his father was a Baptist preacher who allegedly committed suicide when Malcom was six. This theory has been challenged, since his head was crushed and almost severed from his body. His mother then suffered a nervous breakdown, and Malcolm was placed in a foster home.
Like many others, Malcolm Little did not thrive in foster care; he dropped out of school after the eighth grade and took up a life of crime. In 1946, when he was just 20, Malcolm was sentenced to 10 years in prison for larceny, and breaking and entering. It was there that he encountered the teaching of Elijah Muhammad, and became a member of the Nation of Islam. He also changed his name to Malcolm X, saying, Little was the name “the white slavemaster” imposed on him and his forbearers.
After being paroled in 1952, Malcolm X rose to become one of its most influential leaders. Thanks to Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam grew from just 400 members when he was released from prison, to 40,000 by 1960.
By the early ’60s, Malcolm X emerged as a leading voice of the civil rights movement; but his approach was much different than Martin Luther King Jr’s. Where King sought a peaceful resolution to racial integration, Malcolm X preached about black nationalism. Charismatic and eloquent, Malcolm X said that to be free and equal, black Americans needed to establish their own state separate from white Americans.
In 1964, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam after becoming disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad. He found out that Elijah Muhammad violated many of his own teachings, including have extramarital affairs and fathering several children.
That same year, Malcom X went travelling though North Africa and the Middle East. During this time, he traveled to Mecca and embraced Sunni Islam. He also changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
After his epiphany and conversion in the Middle East, Malcolm X returned to the U.S. He was still convinced that only blacks could free themselves, but was more optimistic about a peaceful resolution to America’s growing race problems. “America is the first country … that can actually have a bloodless revolution.”
Sadly, Malcolm X never had time to fully realize his ideological transformation. After publicly leaving the Nation of Islam in March 1964, tensions grew, with both sides denouncing the other.
A week before he was assassinated, Malcolm’s house, which was owned by the Nation of Islam (and was trying to evict him) was firebombed. On February 19, 1965, Malcolm X told an interviewer that the Nation of Islam was trying to assassinate him.
Two days later, on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated at a rally he organized at The Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. He was shot once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun, two other gunman fired semi-automatic handguns.
Malcolm X was rushed to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital but died shortly after and was pronounced dead at 3:30 p.m. The autopsy found that he was shot 21 times in the chest, left shoulder, arms, and legs.
One shooter, Talmadge Hayer, a member of the Nation of Islam, was beaten by those in attendance before police arrived. Witnesses pointed to Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson as the two other shooters; they maintained they were innocent.
Malcolm X was not remembered fondly in the press. Time magazine called him “a pimp, a cocaine addict and a thief” and “an unashamed demagogue.”
In March 1966, the three men were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Hayer confessed to his part in the assassination but said Butler and Johnson were not the other shooters. He refused to say who was.
In the decades since Malcolm X was assassinated, declassified government documents have cast a shadow over the guilt of at least two of the three men sent to prison, suggesting conclusions drawn by police were self-serving.
Moreover, irregularities on how investigators and prosecutors handled the case have been called, at best, grossly negligent, and at worst, sinister.
April 4, 1968: The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a massive blow to the American civil rights movement. During a time of violence and strife, King was seen as a voice of reason who, not unlike Gandhi, used nonviolent peaceful protests to criticize racial and economic inequity, and, in later years, the Vietnam War.
As a social activist and Baptist Minister, King played a key role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, which helped usher in landmark legislation including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But while King was trying to usher in equality and peace, others were looking for ways to cut Martin Luther King down.
On April 4, 1968, King was in Memphis, Tennessee to support a sanitation worker’s strike. That evening, at 6:01 p.m., as King stood on the second floor balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel, he was fatally shot in the neck. One hour later, Martin Luther King, aged 39, was dead.
Following his assassination, there were riots in more than 60 major cities across the country. Johnson declared a national day of mourning.
Assassin James Earl Ray was captured two months later. Ray went on to recant his confession, and alleged that a man he met in Montreal who went by the name “Raoul” was the mastermind behind the assassination.
The courts didn’t believe his Raoul story. Ray was sentenced to 99 years in jail and died on April 23, 1998 at the age of 70.
Just like the Kennedy assassination, Raoul spawned numerous conspiracy theories.
June 6, 1969: Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy
Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy was the younger brother of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and older brother of Ted Kennedy. He was Attorney General during JFK’s presidency, and later served as a U.S. Senator. Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 6, 1969 in Los Angeles during his run for the presidency.
He was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on November 20, 1925; his father Joseph, was a wealthy businessman, while his mother, Rose, was the daughter of the mayor of Boston. Raised a devout Roman Catholic, Robert and his seven siblings were surrounded by wealth and privilege.
Smart, charismatic, and handsome, Kennedy graduated from law school at the University of Virginia in 1951, and passed the Massachusetts bar exam. In 1960, Robert Kennedy managed his brother John’s presidential campaign.
When JFK was elected, Robert was made U.S. Attorney General. In this position, he fought organized crime and was a key supporter of the civil rights movement.
After JFK was assassinated, Robert was elected to the U.S. Senate representing the state of New York. There, he continued to fight for the underrepresented; advocating for the poor and racial minorities. RFK was also an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.
RFJ also set his sights on becoming U.S. President.
On March 16, 1968, RFK announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. Two weeks later, President Johnson announced he would not seek reelection; Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the man to beat.
RFK was hot on Humphrey’s tail, and on June 4, 1968, won a major victory in the California primary. His victory was short-lived.
After delivering a speech to celebrate his victory in the California primary in a ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, RFK left the stage and walked through the kitchen hotel because, he was told, it was a short cut to a press room.
In the crowded kitchen, RFK was shot three times with a .22 caliber revolver by 24-year-old Palestinian Sirhan Bishara Sirhan. RFK was hit three times; five others were wounded.
RFK died on June 6. He was just 42 years old.
The father of 11 children, RFK was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, not far from his brother, JFK.
RFK’s assassination led to presidential candidates having Secret Service protection.
Like his brother JFK, numerous conspiracy theories surfaced around RFKs assassination. Some believe there was a second gunman; Sirhan fired eight rounds, but 14 were found around the kitchen and in victims.
Others contend the CIA was involved. Several CIA officers were identified in photos and footage taken that night. Robert Walton, the former attorney of CIA operative David Morales, quoted Morales as saying, “I was in Dallas when we got the son of a b***h and I was in Los Angeles when we got the little bastard.”
The CIA refused to comment.
November 27, 1978: The Assassination of Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay Americans to hold an elected office after winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. Despite his short tenure in office, Milk was a crusader for gay rights, and is remembered an icon in the San Francisco gay community. Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were gunned down on November 27, 1978 by Dan White, another city supervisor.
Harvey Milk was born on May 22, 1930 in the New York City suburb of Woodmere, but grew up in Long Island. He said he knew he was gay in high school, but kept it a secret. After graduating from Bay Shore High School in 1947, he went to the State University of New York in Albany, majoring in mathematics.
Milk then spent four years in the U.S. Navy, and served on a submarine during the Korean War. He was honorably discharged in 1955, but later said he was dishonorably discharged because he was gay.
In the 1960s, Milk worked on Wall Street, and while he had boyfriends, kept his relationships from family, friends, and coworkers, who were all fairly conservative. By the late 1960s though, Milk began to come to terms with his homosexuality. He wasn’t quite so sold on working in finance though.
In 1972, Milk moved to San Francisco and, along with his boyfriend Scott Smith, opened a camera store, Castro Cameras, on Castro Street, the center of gay culture. It was during his time on Castro Street that Milk unofficially cut his teeth on politics, advocating for the rights of gays and small business owners.
Emboldened by his growing popularity on Castro Street and in the broader gay community, Milk ran for public office several times (1973 and 1975), eventually winning for city supervisor in 1977.
Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the United States. Not only that, he was proud of being gay and wanted to set an example for the gay community, and urge them not to be ashamed about who they are.
Of his win, Milk said, “It’s not my victory, it’s yours and yours and yours. If a gay can win, it means there is hope that the system can work for all minorities if we fight. We’ve given them hope.”
This made Milk more than a few enemies. He received a number of death threats during his political career, and in 1977, recorded a will to be read if he was assassinated, “If a bullet should enter my brain,” he said, “let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
Milk entered office on January 9, 1978 and soon after sponsored a bill banning anti-gay discrimination. He also fought against Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, which would have resulted in the firing of every public school teacher who was homosexual.
Who knows what Milk could have accomplished? His life was cut tragically short by Dan White, a fellow city politician. Where Milk was openly gay, flamboyant, and charismatic, White was a Vietnam veteran and firefighter, and a lot more conservative.
The two were friendly toward each other, but that changed when Milk opposed a zoning bill White was trying to push though. On top of that, White was the only supervisor to vote against Milk’s anti-gay ordinance.
While Milk’s star was rising, White’s was tumbling, and he slipped into depression.
On November 10, 1978, White resigned his seat, conveniently saying he didn’t make enough as a supervisor to support his family.
San Francisco Mayor George Moscone told White he would consider reappointing him if he ever wanted to return. White pondered this for a few days and reconsidered. But by then, Milk asked Moscone (who was progressive, championed gay rights, and appointed several gay and lesbians to high-profile positions in San Francisco) to stop his reappointment. Instead, Moscone was convinced to appoint someone who reflected the growing diversity of White’s district.
Dan White was enraged at both Milk and Moscone.
Moscone was set to announce White’s replacement on November 27, 1978. White snuck into City Hall to avoid a weapons search. He found his way to Moscone’s office, where they started to argue; the mayor refused to reappoint White.
White shot Moscone twice in the chest and twice in the head.
White then walked down the hall to Milk’s office.
“Harvey, can I see you a minute?” he asked.
Milk followed White into his former office where he shot Milk five times: Three times to the chest, and twice in the head.
Forty-five minutes later, White walked into the police station where he once worked and surrendered. Meanwhile, Dianne Feinstein, president of the Board of Supervisors, announced the deaths on the steps of City Hall.
That night, 40,000 people walked through the streets and held candlelight vigils. Folk singer Joan Baez sang to mourners, and President Carter expressed “outrage and sadness at the senseless killings.”
White faced the death penalty in the two killings, but things didn’t go as expected.
White’s attorney’s presented to the jury what has become known as the “Twinkie defense.” They noted that White shunned his normally healthy diet and instead, started to eat junk food in the weeks leading up to the murders, including Twinkies and Coke.
Somehow, the jury was sympathetic and, instead of murder, convicted White of voluntary manslaughter. He only spent six years in prison. In 1985, one year after being released, a despondent White committed suicide.
December 8, 1980: Assassination of John Lennon
John Lennon, one of the founding members of the Beatles, was shot and killed outside his apartment building on the West Side of New York City on December 8, 1980. He was rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital, but was declared dead on arrival. Famously, Lennon signed a copy of his latest album, Double Fantasy, just hours before in the same spot, for his assassin, Mark David Chapman.
While there may be some argument, John Lennon was the most iconic of the Beatles. He was the band’s hardest rocker, social conscience, and is remembered for his sly, verbal wit. He was also the driving force behind dozens of the Beatles’ greatest songs; making him one of the greatest voices in rock’n’roll.
In his post-Beatles solo work, Lennon continued to preach about peace and social activism, and was a voice of a generation.
Lennon was born on October 9, 1940 into a working-class family in Liverpool. He went to Dovedale Primary School in Liverpool and later, the Quarry Bank High School. In the summer of 1956, Lennon met Paul McCartney, and the two began writing songs together and forming groups. The last one was the Beatles.
The rest, is history. The Beatles became the biggest selling rock band in the world. In the U.K., during 1962 -1970, the Beatles released 12 studio albums, 13 EPs, and 22 singles; 17 of those singles hit No. 1. In the U.S., 21 of their singles topped the Billboard 100; the most of any band. In total, the Beatles sold more than 600 million albums worldwide.
After the Beatles broke up, Lennon moved to New York City with Yoko Ono. As a solo artist, Lennon released 11 studio albums and two live albums.
On October 9, 1975, Lennon’s 35th birthday, Yoko Ono gave birth to their son, Sean Ono Lennon. For the next five years, Lennon lived a quiet life taking care of Sean while Ono ran the couple’s finances.
In November 1980, Lennon and Ono released Double Fantasy. “(Just Like) Starting Over” hit No. 1, and there was talk of a world tour. It would never take place.
On December 8, 1980, Lennon and Ono were returning to their apartment, the famous Dakota, on New York City’s Upper West Side. He was shot seven times by Mark David Chapman, 25; Lennon signed Chapman’s copy of Double Fantasy just a few hours earlier.
Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival at New York City’s Roosevelt Hospital; he was just 40 years old.
While millions learned of Lennon’s death while listening to their radio’s that night, many found out while watching Monday Night Football, when announcer Howard Cosell broke regular commentary to announce that “An unspeakable tragedy, confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City…shot twice in the back, rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival.”
An outpouring of grief followed Lennon’s assassination. And culminated when 100,000 people took part in a 10-minute silent vigil on December 14 New York’s Central Park. Tens of thousands participated in other cities around the world.
Dave Chapman pleaded guilty to murdering Lennon, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He became eligible for release in 2000, but has been denied parole ever since.
It was later revealed that Chapman actually had a hit list that included David Bowie, Johnny Carson, Marlon Brando, Walter Cronkite, Elizabeth Taylor, George C. Scott, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
At the time of the murder, David Bowie was starring on Broadway in The Elephant Man. Detectives later told Bowie he was second on Chapman’s hit list.
According to David Bowie, “Chapman had a front-row ticket to The Elephant Man the next night. John and Yoko were supposed to sit front-row for that show too. So the night after John was killed there were three empty seats in the front row. I can’t tell you how difficult that was to go on. I almost didn’t make it through the performance.”
Lennon’s remains were cremated in Hartsdale, New York.