Political murder of the day
March 23, 1801: The “mad tsar” of Russia was murdered in his bedroom in Mikhailovsky Palace in St. Petersburg by a disgruntled group of Russian aristocrats.
Russian Emperor Paul I was the son of Catherine the Great and Peter III, whom Catherine is suspected of having put to death. Paul’s five-year reign after Catherine’s death was marked by many reversals of Catherine’s actions, both on the domestic and foreign front.
Paul established some rights for Russian peasants, but few were actually carried out. He also reduced the power and the privileges of the Russian aristocracy, greatly angering the nobility. Paul wanted to keep the ideas of the French Revolution from spreading in Russia, so he outlawed foreign books and foreign travel.
Rumors also began to spread that Paul was mentally unstable. Some of his edicts included banning round hats, shoelaces, and waltzes. He came to be known as the “mad tsar.”
Apparently the aristocracy finally decided that they had had enough. Under a plot hatched by some Russian counts, a group of generals charged into Paul’s bedroom, where he was hiding behind some drapes. He was stabbed with swords, strangled, and trampled to death.
According to reports, one of the assassins, Gen. Nikolay Zubov, went to Paul’s son, Alexander I, to announce that he was now tsar. The general reportedly shouted: “Time to grow up! Go and rule!”
Miss a murder? Here are past ones.
March 22, 1990: A Canadian inventor who built heavy weaponry for multiple countries and who was inventing a “supergun” for Iraq was shot and killed outside his apartment in Brussels, Belgium, allegedly by Israeli Mossad agents or Iranian intelligence officials.
Gerald Bull was seen as the world’s greatest artillery expert. An aeronautical engineer by training, he had early success building a supersonic wind tunnel but quickly turned to weaponry. He worked on anti-ballistic missiles for the Canadian government, but the project ran out of money, and he started working with the U.S. government.
Bull also built a weapons lab on his farm in Quebec with support from British and U.S. officials. Soon he was working on gun-launched rockets and developed more powerful weapons, which were sold to and used by Israel and South Africa.
Changes in attitudes and laws meant he faced charges in arms dealing, so Bull moved to Brussels to work for a European company on weapons design. He soon gained new clients in China and Iraq, convincing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that Iraq needed a “supergun” that could be launched from space and could shoot over 500 miles, called “Project Babylon.”
As Bull worked on the supergun project, he started receiving threats. His apartment was broken into several times. He was finally killed by two bullets fired into the back of his head at point-blank range on March 22, 1990, most likely a professional hit with a silencer, and no one was ever charged in his killing.
Besides the rumors about Israelis and Iranians, other reports blamed a range of suspects, including the American CIA, British MI6, or a variety of other foreign governments due to his arms deals with rival countries.
His story has been told in a 1994 HBO documentary, Doomsday Gun, and a book, The Assassination and Life of Supergun Inventor Gerald Bull, by James Adams. A fictionalized version of what might have happened to Bull and his supergun is told in the mystery The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec.
March 21, 1556: One of the leaders of the English Protestant Reformation and author of many of the writings that make up the basis of the Anglican Church was burned at the stake in Oxford, England.
The Rev. Thomas Cranmer served as the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury for Henry VIII, Edward VI, and (for a short time, until she ordered him burned) Mary I, or “Bloody Mary,” as she came to be known.
Cranmer helped build the case for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon to make way for his marriage to Anne Boleyn. As archbishop, Cranmer established the first doctrinal and liturgical structures of the Church of England. His legacy survives in the Book of Common Prayer.
After the Roman Catholic Mary became queen, she put Cranmer on trial for treason and heresy. He was imprisoned for two years and, no doubt under torture, recanted his Protestantism, signing several statements to that effect.
But on the day of his execution, he renounced the pope in a public sermon before a massive crowd that had come to watch him burn. Cranmer told the crowd that his greatest sin of all had been denial of the Protestant gospel.
Because he had signed the recantation statements, he put his hand first into the fire, insisting that the hand that was guilty of so shameful a sin must burn first. “As my hand offended,” he reportedly said, “writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall be first punished.”
Cranmer figures prominently in the Book of Martyrs, also called Actes and Monuments, by John Foxe, an account of the sufferings of Protestants in England and Scotland. During Mary’s five-year reign, she executed 274 Protestants.
March 20, 1995: In what came to be known as the Subway Sarin Incident, five two-men teams, members of the religious movement Aum Shinrikyo, released sarin gas into several lines of the Tokyo subway system in Japan during the morning rush hour, causing deaths and serious injuries throughout the Japanese capital.
Thirteen people were killed, 50 were severely injured, and at least 1,000 people suffered temporary vision problems. Many suffered permanent damage to eyes and lungs. More than 5,000 people received hospital treatment, some in a comatose state.
The domestic terrorism incident was the most serious attack in Japan since World War II. It targeted subway lines heading to areas that are home to the Japanese government.
Ten men were responsible for the attack. Five men, wearing surgical masks, carried bags of liquid sarin hidden in newspapers, put the bags on the floors of subway cars, and punctured them with umbrella tips, letting the sarin quickly evaporate as a toxic gas. They all swallowed sarin antidotes.
Five other men serving as getaway drivers waited at subway stops at street level. The attackers escaped while commuters, blinded and gasping for air, rushed to the exits.
Police raided Aum Shinrikyo’s headquarters and arrested the group’s blind founder, Shoko Asahara, and hundreds of other members. Asahara and 12 others eventually were convicted and sentenced to death or long prison sentences; some perpetrators did not surrender to police under 2011 and 2012.
Initially, Japanese police reported the attack as the cult’s way of hastening an apocalypse. The group had incorporated Christian apocalyptic prophecy into its religious philosophy, which also included Buddhism and yoga.
At the trials, the prosecution charged that the attack was an attempt to bring down the government and install Asahara as the “emperor” of Japan. Asahara’s defense team claimed that certain senior members of the group independently planned the attack, but their motives were never explained. Police discovered that Aum Shinrikyo had been stockpiling chemical weapons since the early 1990s and found a large cache at one of its main compounds.
The subway attack was not the first. In June 1994, some Aum Shinrikyo members drove a car modified to release sarin gas in Matsumoto near homes of Japanese judges who were overseeing a lawsuit about a real estate deal involving the cult. In that attack, seven people died and 500 were injured.
In 2000, the group, which now calls itself Aleph, issued an apology for the sarin attack. In July 2018, Asahara and six of his accomplices finally were executed by Japan. Their initial death sentences were finalized in 2006.
March 19, 2013: The head of the Colorado Dept. of Corrections was gunned down at his home in Monument, Colo., by a white supremacist ex-convict.
Corrections official Tom Clements was killed when he answered his front door and was shot by a man wearing a Domino’s pizza delivery uniform. The gunman, Evan Spencer Ebel, was shot and killed two days later by Texas police in a high-speed car chase after he shot at police during a routine traffic stop.
Tests showed that a gun found in Ebel’s car was used to kill both Clements on March 19 and a pizza delivery man on March 17. Ebel apparently stole the Domino’s pizza delivery uniform to gain entry to Clements’ home on March 19.
Because Ebel was dead, investigators were not able to determine whether Clements’ killing was an ordered hit by a prison white supremacist gang called the 211 Crew or the work of a lone gunman. There is speculation that Ebel shot Clements as payback to the 211 Crew for protecting him from a rival gang while Ebel was in prison.
Also found in Ebel’s car was a “hit list” of nearly two dozen officials presumably targeted for future killings.
March 18, 2015: Twenty-one people, mostly European tourists from cruise ships, were killed and at least 50 others were injured when three gunmen opened fire at the entrance to a museum in the Tunisian capital of Tunis. It was one of the worst terrorist attacks in the North African country, which depends heavily on tourism.
About 200 tourists had left their cruise ships in the nearby Port of La Goulette to visit the National Bardo Museum in central Tunis near the country’s parliament. At about 12:30 p.m., three men with assault rifles started firing at tourists as they climbed out of buses in front of the museum. The regular security guards for both the museum and the parliament building were away on coffee breaks.
Dozens of visitors sprinted toward the museum for safety. The gunmen followed them and held the tourists hostage for three hours. Tunisian police finally entered the building and shot and killed two of the gunmen. One policeman was killed in the rescue operation, and another injured tourist died 10 days later. The victims were from nine different countries.
The terrorist group the Islamic State claimed credit for the attack, but Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid also blamed a local al Qaeda splinter group called the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade. Later in March, Tunisian police raided a terrorist training cell in the southern Gafsa region of Tunisia and killed nine men believed to be involved in planning the Bardo attack.
The Bardo Museum, one of the largest museums in Africa, had a ceremonial reopening one week after the attack, and thousands of Tunisians marched through Tunis chanting, “Tunisia is free, terrorism out.”
March 17, 1792: The king of Sweden was shot and mortally wounded by a group of nobles at a masquerade ball at the Opera House in Stockholm.
King Gustav III strengthened the Swedish monarchy when he became king in 1771, taking power away from the Riksdag, or Parliament. Gustav introduced several reforms, abolishing torture, allowing religious freedom, and granting freedom of the press.
The country’s nobles, however, were dissatisfied with Gustav’s reforms, and the Riksdag rejected some of his proposed ideas. Gustav also expanded Sweden’s foreign entanglements, including a war with Russia, which further angered Swedish nobles.
The night of the ball, March 16, 1792, Gustav had dinner beforehand with a group of friends. A page arrived with an anonymous letter with a report of a conspiracy and the threat that the king would be assassinated during the ball. After dinner, Gustav watched the ball from an upper window.
After midnight, he apparently figured that the threat had passed, so he dressed in his costume of a cloak, three-pointed hat, and mask. On the floor of the ball, Gustav was surrounded by five men in black cloaks, one of whom shot him in the back.
The shooter was Jacob Johan Anckarström, a soldier and noble who had formed the conspiracy with several others. Gustav finally died on March 29.
Anckarström was flogged at several points around the city, then executed. His co-conspirators were spared execution but were imprisoned and then exiled.
March 16, 1968: In what became known as the My Lai Massacre, hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians were killed by U.S. troops in what has been called the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War. The total death toll was between 347 and 504, with ages ranging from 1 to 82 — a majority of the population of the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai.
The U.S. Army soldiers taking part in the attack were from Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd Infantry Division. They were given orders to attack two hamlets on the south central coast of the South China Sea because the area was an alleged Viet Cong stronghold. Company commanders told the soldiers that civilians would have left the hamlets to go to market, and that any people remaining were VC or VC sympathizers.
A group of about 100 soldiers arrived by helicopter at 7:30 a.m. to begin the brutal attack. Villagers were rounded up and shot; some were marched into ditches and shot.
According to later trial testimony, women tried to shield their children, saying “No VC.” After the women were shot and children tried to crawl out from their mothers’ bodies, the children were shot. Livestock were shot as well. The shooting lasted all day, with a soldiers’ break for lunch.
Helicopter pilots observing the action, including Warrant Officer One Hugh Thompson, were able to rescue some civilians who were still alive, essentially ending the massacre. He and others reported the killings to superiors.
At first, the attack at My Lai was praised, several officers received commendations, and the event was covered up for more than a year. But another soldier who came forward was Ron Ridenhour, who was part of the 11th Brigade but did not participate in the massacre. He started a letter-writing campaign to President Richard Nixon, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several members of Congress to report the massacre, all to no avail.
Ridenhour finally gave an interview to independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who broke the story of the massacre on Nov. 12, 1969. The true story of what happened became clearer visually after Army photographer Ron Haeberle, taking photos with his own camera of what he thought would be a battle between U.S. forces and Viet Cong, shared his photos with his hometown newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, later that month. The photos also were published in Life magazine.
Fourteen soldiers were charged, but only Lt. William Calley, a platoon leader in Company C, was convicted, of killing 22 villagers. He was sentenced to life in prison but served only three and a half years, some of that under house arrest.
For reporting the brutal attack, Thompson and his fellow helicopter pilots initially were shunned and branded as traitors; 30 years later, they were recognized and decorated, one posthumously.