Political murder of the day
July 19, 1992: An anti-Mafia judge and five police bodyguards were killed in a car bombing in the Sicilian capital of Palermo in Italy in what has come to be known as the Massacre of Via D’Amelio.
Magistrate Paolo Borsellino had become famous for successful investigations and prosecutions against the Mafia. He became part of the “Antimafia pool,” a group of investigating magistrates who worked together sharing information on Mafia members.
On July 19, 1992, Borsellino and five members of his police escort were heading to an apartment building in Palermo so Borsellino could visit his mother. The car bomb exploded as the judge and the police officers were heading toward the building’s entrance.
Borsellino was one of at least three magistrates killed in car bombings. His death followed by two months the killing of his good friend and equally strong anti-mafia judge, Magistrate Giovanni Falcone, who was killed by the Mafia on May 23, 1992, along with his wife and three bodyguards. Magistrate Rocco Chinnici had been killed by the Mafia 10 years earlier.
Borsellino’s bombing was blamed on the Mafia in Sicily, but there has been an investigation into the possible involvement of Italy’s civil intelligence service. In 2009, Salvatore “Toto” Riina, a former Mafia boss serving a life sentence for dozens of killings, indicated that the state had been involved in Borsellino’s murder.
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July 18, 1924: The U.S. vice consul in Iran was beaten to death by a mob in Tehran led by members of the Muslim clergy and many members of the Iranian Army.
Robert W. Imbrie was a career diplomat who had served in U.S. diplomatic posts in the Soviet Union, Finland, and Turkey. He was assigned to Iran in part to represent American oil interests.
On July 18, 1924, Imbrie, along with a bodyguard, Melvin Seymour, went to what locals called a miraculous watering hole in central Tehran.
The legend was that a member of the Bahá’í faith had been struck blind after drinking at the shrine but refused to make an offering in the name of Shia holy men. The story went that, after the Bahá’í repented and made a donation, his sight miraculously returned.
Imbrie took a camera to take pictures at the shrine for the National Geographic Society. The Iranian government later said it was the camera that provoked the attack.
After Imbrie took some photos, a young mullah accused the two men of being Bahá’ís and of poisoning the water. The mob attacked, but Seymour was able to hold them off with a blackjack, and the two Americans rode away in their carriage.
The mob caught up with them at a police checkpoint, and the crowd pulled both men from the carriage as the police looked on, even though the site was across from a police station. Iranian soldiers also joined the mob, which by this time numbered about 2,000 people.
The police finally rescued the two men and brought them to a hospital. Imbrie was attacked a third time by the mob as he lay in a hospital bed. Seymour survived only because they crowd apparently thought he looked dead already. Imbrie’s attending physician described the attack as “the most brutal assault that I have ever known.”
The attack also solidified the power of Prime Minister Reza Khan, an Iranian colonel who had led a coup a few years earlier. Under pressure from the United States, 20 people were prosecuted for Imbrie’s murder, although their sentences were later commuted.
Imbrie’s murder and its implications are described in an academic article, Blood, Power, and Hypocrisy: The Murder of Robert Imbrie and American Relations with Pehlavi Iran, 1924, by Michael P. Zirinsky.
July 17, 2014: All 283 passengers and 15 crew members were killed when a passenger jet was shot down in Ukraine by a Russian-based military unit.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when a missile shot down the jet in Ukrainian airspace, causing it to crash near the town of Hrabove, about 30 miles from the Russian border. The plane crashed during ongoing battles between Russian-backed insurgents and Ukrainian forces.
Western intelligence sources immediately identified the cause of the crash as a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile. A post appeared on a Russian social media network claiming responsibility for the downed jet. The post was attributed to Russian Col. Igor Girkin, leader of a Russia-supporting separatist group.
But the post was removed when rebels learned that the crash involved a civilian passenger jet. At that point, the Russian government blamed Ukraine, claiming it must have been Ukraine that shot down the jet, as it was over Ukrainian territory.
The victims of the downed aircraft came from 17 countries. But 196 of the people who were killed were Dutch, so the Netherlands decided that any prosecution for the missile strike would occur in that country.
In 2016, a Dutch investigation of the crash confirmed the initial findings — that the plane was shot down by pro-Russian rebels firing a Buk missile, and that it was launched from a village in territory controlled by Russian-backed insurgents. The report also says many planes were warned to stay out of airspace over the battle waging below, but apparently Malaysia Airlines didn’t heed warnings issued by other countries.
The incident dramatically heightened fears about the possibility of other airliners being shot down, leading to a number of airlines saying they would avoid flying over conflict zones.
In 2018, a joint investigation by the Netherlands and Australia confirmed that the missile that took down the aircraft came from a Russian-based military unit. The governments said they would formally hold Russia accountable for the downing of the aircraft.
Russia continued to deny any involvement, calling all investigations and accusations “politically biased.”
July 16, 1926: An Ohio newspaper editor who went after organized crime figures in Canton, Ohio, was gunned down in his garage. The murder was one of the most publicized crimes of the 1920s.
Don Mellett led the Canton Daily News in an anti-corruption campaign, often taking aim at the ties between local police and bootleggers. At the time of his death, Mellett had been investigating the murder of a local underworld figure and whistleblower, Paul Kitzig, and printed stories accusing mobster Ben Rudner of the crime.
Mellett started receiving death threats. For a while he employed a bodyguard, but he dismissed the guard days before he was killed.
Early investigations of Mellett’s murder turned up nothing, but an out-of-area detective was able to tie Rudner and some local police to Mellett’s killing. Rudner and a local police chief were convicted, although the police chief was later acquitted.
A year after Mellett’s death, the Canton Daily News was given the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, and Mellett received the award posthumously.
The story of Mellett’s death is told in Murder of a Journalist: The True Story of the Death of Donald Ring Mellett, by Thomas Crowl.
July 15, 1970: A prominent Missouri civil rights leader and politician was shot and killed in a gangland-style slaying outside a tavern he owned in Kansas City.
Missouri State Rep. Leon Jordan, a former policeman, was considered the state’s most powerful black politician. He was involved in the Freedom Inc. political movement that sponsored African-American candidates to run for office. He was opposed by the North End faction of Kansas City politics, which allegedly had support from organized crime and had controlled black voting blocs until Jordan’s organization got involved.
In the early morning hours of July 15, 1970, Jordan left his Green Duck Tavern and started walking toward his car. According to witnesses, three black men drove up and fired at Jordan, hitting him in the leg. As Jordan lay on the ground, the assailants got out of the car and fired two more shots at point-blank range. They jumped back into the car and sped off.
Police later recovered the car and gun, with partial fingerprints. Despite all of that evidence, there were never any arrests in the case.
In 2010, reporters with the Kansas City Star investigated the 40-year-old assassination, Kansas City’s oldest cold murder case, and police opened a new investigation. They found that the killing might have been a paid hit or political revenge killing by members of Kansas City’s “Black Mafia” because of Jordan’s political work.
A police report said some local mob bosses were likely responsible, but no indictments were issued, as all involved were already dead.
July 14, 1930: A Hollywood banker who counted actors, directors, and producers among his friends and was the brother of a U.S. senator was shot and killed in a Los Angeles courtroom by a man who had become bankrupt because of the banker’s financial schemes.
Banker Motley Flint, now called the “Bernie Madoff of the 1920s,” was testifying at a civil trial between film producer David O. Selznick and a Los Angeles bank. Flint and a group of oilmen were behind what became known as the Julian Petroleum Scandal. It included a Ponzi scheme, illegal investment pools, bribery, and counterfeit oil stock of the Julian Petroleum Corp. Some 40,000 investors lost $150 million.
Flint and some of his partners were indicted, but most of the charges against Flint were dropped. Flint was indicted five times over the financial schemes, and charges were dropped in all but the last case, which was set to go to trial shortly after Flint’s death. Among those affected in the scheme was Inglewood, Calif., real estate broker Frank Keaton, who lost his life savings in the crooked deal.
On July 14, 1930, after Flint, who was a bank trustee as well as a high-profile friend of many in Hollywood, testified about Selznick’s shares in the bank, he started to walk back to his seat in the courtroom. Keaton pulled a gun out of his Panama hat and shot him. Keaton dropped his gun and cried, “Oh, my God, why did I do it?”
In Keaton’s pockets were ten cents and a brochure titled “Julian Thieves.” In Flint’s pocket were $63,000 in cash and checks and a diamond-studded cigarette case.
Keaton was found guilty of Flint’s murder in September, and he was sentenced to hang. Flint’s brother, Republican Sen. Frank Flint of California, did not run for re-election.
The tale of the financial scheme is told in The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oil, Stocks, and Scandal During the Roaring Twenties, by Jules Tygiel.
July 13, 1793: One of the leaders of the French Revolution was stabbed to death in his bathtub at his flat in Paris.
Jean-Paul Marat, a physician, radical journalist, and politician, was known for his fiery stands during the 1789 revolution and became an extreme radical voice in his essays and speeches. During the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, Marat advocated that 500 or 600 heads should be cut off to eliminate everyone related to King Louis XVI. His extremist views are said to be responsible for the massacres of 1792.
Marat was a leader of the Jacobin group during the revolution and was elected as its president in 1793. The group also was known as the Montagnards, and they were opposed by the less radical Girondin faction. The National Convention voted to eliminate the Girondins from government, which made Marat even more popular but attracted the enmity of the Girondins.
Marat was stabbed by Girondin sympathizer Charlotte Corday while he was soaking in his bath for a debilitating skin condition. Corday was guillotined later in July for the murder.
The French Republic gave Marat a grandiose funeral. His tombstone is engraved with the words, “Here sleeps Marat, the friend of the people who was killed by the enemies of the people on July 13th, 1793.”
A painting showing Marat’s death in his tub, La Mort de Marat or Marat Assassiné, became one of the most famous images of the French Revolution. It was done by French artist Jacques-Louis David, who also was a member of the Montagnards that Marat led. The painting now hangs in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.
July 12, 1964: An African-American porter and handyman disappeared, was presumed murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, and was never seen again after he was stopped by an unmarked police car near Vidalia, La.
Joseph Edwards, who worked as a porter for the Shamrock Hotel in Vidalia, was on his way to work at the motel, which had a reputation for housing prostitutes. According to an eyewitness, Edwards’ car was surrounded by a group of white men.
The Shamrock had become the meeting place for the Silver Dollar Group, a group of Ku Klux Klansmen that included several members of law enforcement. They believed the original KKK wasn’t being aggressive enough in stopping the civil rights movement.
According to a 1967 FBI investigation and a later “cold-case” investigation in 2009, there were allegations that Edwards tried to kiss a white female desk clerk at the motel, and that action might have triggered an attack.
The FBI found several suspects, including some members of the Vidalia Police Dept., but no one was ever charged in Edwards’ disappearance and murder.
July 11, 1804: Vice President Aaron Burr shot and mortally wounded his longtime political foe, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel held in Weehawken, N.J. Hamilton died the next day. And as the famous musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda says, “The world would never be the same.”
Hamilton was the first U.S. secretary of the Treasury and the chief architect of America’s political economy. The political rivalry between the two men probably started in 1790, when Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law in the race to be the senator from New York.
In the 1796 presidential election, when Burr was running alongside Thomas Jefferson on the Democratic-Republican ticket, Hamilton, a Federalist, launched a series of attacks against Burr, whom he considered a dangerous opportunist. “I feel it is a religious duty to oppose his career,” Hamilton said of Burr. John Adams won that race.
In the presidential election of 1800, Jefferson and Burr ran again on the Democratic-Republican ticket. Burr helped his ticket by publishing a confidential document that Hamilton had written criticizing his fellow Federalist, President John Adams. This caused a rift in the Federalists and helped Jefferson and Burr win an equal number of electoral votes — 73 each.
At that time, president and vice president were not elected separately; the candidate who received the most votes was elected president, and the second in line, vice president. The vote went to the House of Representatives. But Federalists in the lame-duck Congress threw their support behind Burr.
After 35 tie votes, a small group of Federalists changed sides and voted in Jefferson’s favor. Hamilton, who had supported Jefferson as the lesser of two evils, was instrumental in breaking the deadlock, and Burr never forgave him.
When Jefferson and Burr grew apart, Burr ran for governor of New York, but Hamilton attacked Burr in the campaign. To restore his reputation, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel.
On the morning of the duel on July 11, 1804, Hamilton’s “second” said Hamilton had decided that the duel was morally wrong. He later claimed that Hamilton fired in the air. But Burr’s second said Hamilton fired at Burr and missed.
Burr, however, did not miss. He shot Hamilton in the stomach.
The nation was outraged at Hamilton’s killing. Burr was charged with murder but never faced trial. He finished his term as vice president, but his political career was essentially over.
A few years later, Burr was charged with treason when he tried to establish a new country in U.S. territory near Mexico. He was acquitted.
July 10, 1584: Prince William of Orange of the Netherlands is believed to be the first head of state to be assassinated by a handgun. He was shot and killed in his home in Delft Holland by a Catholic Frenchman who was counting on a reward for the killing.
William, also widely known as William the Silent, was the main leader of the Dutch revolt against Spain that started the Eighty Years’ War. That eventually produced the independence of the United Provinces in 1648.
William was a Calvinist who led many battles during the war and eventually became the stadtholder, or ruler, of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, and Friesland. His assassin, Balthasar Gerard, was a supporter of Spain’s King Philip II, who had declared William an outlaw and promised a reward for his assassination.
Gerard presented himself to William as a French nobleman and shot him while William was at dinner. Gerard tried to flee to collect his reward, but was captured and imprisoned.
According to historical records, Gerard’s execution was particularly gruesome: His right hand was burned off with a red-hot iron, his flesh was torn from his bones in six different places, he was quartered and disemboweled alive, and his head was cut off.
A statue of William of Orange is located on the quadrangle of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. The statue was donated by Dr. Fenton B. Turck and placed in 1928 to commemorate the university’s Dutch heritage — Rutgers was founded by Dutch Reformed clergymen of New York and New Jersey. The statue is affectionately nicknamed Willie T. Silent and is often used as the site of formal convocations and pep rallies as well as less formal student meet-ups.
July 9, 1856: The leader of a band of Mormon pirates died after being attacked by four of his followers on an island off the coast of Michigan.
James Jesse Strang was known as the “King of Beaver Island.” He ran a strict Mormon colony that also apparently practiced piracy in Lake Michigan.
Strang had been shot and pistol-whipped by four of his Mormon followers in June. He was taken to Voree, Mich., where he died on July 9.
In 1844, Strang had vied for leadership of the Church of Latter Day Saints after the assassination of LDS founder Joseph Smith. But Strang lost out to Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon, and he was ousted from Nauvoo, Ill., where Mormons had been led by Smith.
Strang formed his own offshoot, the Strangites, with nearly 12,000 adherents, rivaling Young’s LDS organization in Utah. He established his own Mormon colony on Beaver Island, the largest island in Lake Michigan. He claimed to be not only the spiritual head of the church but also its king.
Strang became a strong proponent of polygamy, marrying five wives and fathering 14 children, and served in the Michigan Legislature. According to newspaper accounts of the day, the Strangites also practiced piracy on Lake Michigan and were called “the Mormon Pirates of Beaver Island.”
By 1856, some of Strang’s followers had fallen away. Those responsible for his attack were said to be former Mormon followers, including Thomas Bedford, who had been flogged for adultery; Dr. H.D. McCulloch, who had been excommunicated for drunkenness; Dr. J. Atkyn, who had attempted to blackmail Strang into paying off his bad debts; and Alexander Wentworth.
The attack was done on a harbor dock in full view of a U.S. Navy vessel in the harbor, including the captain, and Bedford and Wentworth sought refuge on the ship. After refusing to deliver Bedford and Wentworth to the local sheriff, the captain transported them to Mackinac Island, where they were given a mock trial, fined $1.25, released, and then feted by the locals. None of the attackers was ever punished for his crimes.
It also seems that Michiganders had had enough of the Strangites. On July 5, 1856, four days before Strang finally died, on what one Michigan historian called “the most disgraceful day in Michigan history,” a drunken mob descended upon the island and forcibly evicted every Strangite from it.