Political murder of the day

The scene in Pretoria after the rush-hour car bombing.

May 20, 1983: In what became known as the Church Street bombing, 19 people were killed and more than 200 were injured when a car bomb exploded in South Africa’s administrative capital city of Pretoria in evening rush-hour traffic.

The bomb, made up of 40 kilograms of explosives, was set off outside the Nedbank Square building on Church Street in downtown Pretoria. Injuries were so great that 20 ambulances were used to transport the injured to area hospitals. Most of the injured were civilians.

Police and the South African government immediately blamed the then-outlawed African National Congress, which was in a fight to end the government policy of apartheid and white minority rule.

In retaliation, four days after the car bombing, the South African government bombed ANC bases in Maputo, Mozambique. South Africa did not lift restrictions on the ANC until February 1990, the same month it released ANC leader Nelson Mandela from prison.

In 1997 and 1998, in submissions to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the ANC finally admitted that the Church Street bombing had been carried out by Umkhonto we Sizwe, or MK, the ANC’s military arm, and led by Oliver Tambo.

The intended target was the South African Air Force headquarters. Seven SAAF members were killed, and 84 were injured. The bomb, however, went off 10 minutes earlier than planned, also killing two of the perpetrators, Freddie Shangwe and Ezekial Maseko.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted amnesty to the remaining MK operatives responsible for the bombing.


Miss a murder? Here are past ones

Father Giuseppe Diana

May 19, 1994: An Italian parish priest who fought organized crime was shot and killed while preparing to celebrate Mass in his church in Casal di Principe.

The Rev. Giuseppe Diana, also known as Father Peppino, spent much time at his church, the Church of San Nicola di Bari, trying to turn people away from the Camorra, an Italian crime syndicate similar to the Mafia. In the 1980s, Diana set up a welcome center for African immigrants to stop them from being recruited by the Camorra, which reportedly was one of the group’s usual business practices.

In 1991, Diana published and widely disseminated a letter asking his parishioners to turn away from the group and asked the church to resist the Camorra’s influence. He also denounced the business practices of a local group, the Casalesi clan. His letter described “extortion that has left our region with no potential for development; kickbacks of 20 percent on construction projects; illegal drug trafficking, which has created gangs of marginalized youth and unskilled workers at the beck and call of criminal organizations.”

In 1994, Diana testified in an official investigation of ties linking the Camorra, politicians, and businessmen. He threatened to stop administering sacraments to Camorristi and to refuse to perform their weddings. He also sided with the town’s new left-wing mayor, who was trying to prevent firms connected to the Camorra from bidding on public contracts.

On May 19, 1994, as he was preparing the host to celebrate Mass for the feast of San Guiseppe, he was shot in the head twice. Rival Casalesi clans vowed to find Diana’s killers, but no one was ever charged in his murder. Diana’s murder was discussed in a book on organized crime in Naples called Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano, which was made into a Grand Prix-winning film at the Cannes Film Festival.

In 2014, Pope Francis gave a speech urging members of the Mafia to change their ways and repent. After the speech, Francis donned a ceremonial garment once owned by Diana.


The Bath Consolidated School after it was blown up.

May 18, 1927: In what became known as the Bath School Disaster, a disgruntled school board treasurer who was angry about a tax hike and a recent electoral loss killed 45 people, including 38 children, in a massive explosion at a school in Bath Township, Mich. It was the deadliest mass murder to take place in a school in U.S. history.

Andrew Kehoe was a local landowner described by neighbors as a “dynamite farmer,” continually setting off small blasts on his property. He reportedly despised paying taxes, and, according to a recounting of the crime afterward in The New York Times, in his role on the school board, Kehoe “appeared to have a tax mania and fought the expenditure of money for the most necessary equipment.”

The district opened the Bath Consolidated School in 1922, which brought all of the area’s students under one roof. This new building was considered superior to the country school that preceded it but was funded by an increase in property taxes, which apparently rankled Kehoe to no end.

In 1926, Kehoe ran for town clerk on an anti-tax platform but was defeated. That electoral loss, plus the fact that his farm was facing foreclosure, is seen as the catalyst for the bombing plot.

Over several months, Kehoe gained access to the Bath Consolidated School, placing dynamite all over the school and wiring it together. The wiring apparently was done so expertly that authorities afterward had a hard time believing that Kehoe acted alone.

The morning of the explosion on May 18, 1927, Kehoe first killed his wife, Nellie Kehoe, who was ill with tuberculosis, and left her body in a wheelbarrow. He then blew up his entire farm with firebombs. He drove to the school in a truck full of explosives.

School started at 8:30 a.m., and he set off the school explosion at 8:45, having earlier set alarm clocks near the dynamite with triggering mechanisms. While conferring with the school superintendent outside the school after the explosion, he set off his truck bomb, killing himself, Superintendent Emory E. Huyck, and several others. More than 50 people were injured in the explosions.

Authorities later found that one of Kehoe’s wires had short-circuited, and there were 500 pounds of dynamite and several sacks of gunpowder in a section of the building that still remained standing. Had that detonated, the entire downtown area of Bath might have blown up, and the death toll would have been even higher.

Kehoe’s neighbor, Monty J. Ellsworth, wrote an account of the incident called The Bath School Disaster. Amid the ruins of Kehoe’s farm, authorities found a sign attached to a fence, reading: “Criminals are made, not born.”


This memorial to the victims of the bombings has names on the front and back.

May 17, 1974: At least 33 people were killed and nearly 300 were injured as car bombs exploded in evening rush hour traffic in Dublin and Monaghan, Ireland, just south of the border with Northern Ireland.

The bombings were the deadliest attack of the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, the ongoing fighting between Catholic and Protestant, and nationalist and loyalist forces. Most of the victims of the bombings were women, and the ages of the dead ranged from 5 months to 80 years.

The day after the explosions, both the Protestant loyalist Ulster Defense Association and the Catholic nationalist Irish Republican Army denied responsibility for the bombings. But police later found that all four cars involved in the attack had Ulster registration plates, and two had been reported stolen in Protestant areas of Belfast.

In 1993, a TV documentary, Hidden Hand: The Forgotten Massacre, claimed that the bombings had been carried out by the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force with help from British security force personnel. The UVF finally admitted to planting the bombs, but despite subsequent investigations, no one was ever convicted of the bombings.

In 2014, families of the victims announced they were filing a civil lawsuit against the British government. A memorial to the victims of the bombings, engraved with all of the victims’ names (pictured above), is on Talbot Street in Dublin, scene of one of the bombings.


Jews being forcibly removed from the Warsaw ghetto.

May 16, 1943: After 28 days of fighting, Nazi troops finally overpowered the last of the resisters in the uprising in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, Poland. Nearly 7,000 Jews were massacred in retaliation for the uprising, and 42,000 were captured and taken to concentration camps.

At least 500,000 Jews had been forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto — an area of about one square mile — since 1940. Many were systematically moved to the Treblinka concentration camp. Several Jewish underground organizations in Warsaw created armed defense units.

The uprising began April 19, 1943, on the eve of Passover, when SS, police, and Wehrmacht units came to the ghetto to take Jews to trains bound for Treblinka. But they were met by Jewish forces using homemade bombs, rifles, small guns, and, in one case, a light machine gun.

When the uprising started, fewer than 60,000 Jews were left in the ghetto, and there were battles between Nazis and Jews every day and night. Nazi troops attacked with artillery, flame throwers, explosives, and incendiary bombs. The purpose was to set fire to and destroy every building. Some of the Jewish militants were able to escape by crawling through sewer pipes.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising was the largest, symbolically most important Jewish uprising, and the first urban uprising, in German-occupied Europe. The resistance in Warsaw inspired other uprisings in ghettos and concentration camps. When Soviet troops liberated Warsaw on Jan. 17, 1945, there were only about 200 Jews left.

An operational report of the Nazi attacks on the ghetto by the local SS commander, Brigadier Juergen Stroop, said, “The Jewish quarter in Warsaw no longer exists.” The report was used in Stroop’s trial at Nuremburg; he was sentenced to death and sent to Poland for execution.


Jackson State victims James Green and Phillip Gibbs

May 15, 1970: It was never as famous as Kent State. But in what became known as the Jackson State shooting, two students were shot and killed and 12 were injured as police opened fire on student protesters in Jackson, Miss.

A demonstration of about 100 students at the predominantly African-American school of Jackson State College, now Jackson State University, started the night of May 14 to protest the Vietnam War, the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, and the shooting 10 days earlier of four students at Kent State University in Ohio. Tensions rose when a rumor spread around campus that Charles Evers — a local politician, civil rights leader, and the brother of slain activist Medgar Evers — and his wife had been killed.

By 9:30 p.m., students had started fires and were throwing rocks. Seventy-five police units from the city of Jackson and the Mississippi Highway Patrol responded, moving to disperse the crowd, which gathered in front of Alexander Hall, a women’s dormitory.

Police started firing at the dormitory shortly after midnight, shooting out all of the windows in the dorm facing them. Later they claimed that a sniper was in the dorm, but the FBI never found evidence of a sniper. Killed were Jackson State student Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and high school student James Earl Green, who had been walking home from work at a nearby grocery store.

The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest investigated the incident and concluded that the shooting by police was “an unreasonable, unjustified overreaction.” A U.S. Senate probe also concluded that injured students who lay bleeding on the ground were not transported to a campus hospital until police had picked up their shell casings. There were no convictions or arrests in the incident.

The bullet holes from the shooting can still be seen in the dormitory. A plaza on campus commemorates the victims of the shooting. All Jackson State students learn about the shooting in a mandatory orientation class.


Pope John XII

May 14, 965: Pope John XII was murdered in Rome by a jealous husband while the pope reportedly was enjoying what is described as “an adulterous sexual encounter.” Or as the result of apoplexy. But the first is a better story.

Some 31 popes have been declared martyrs. Six popes definitely were murdered for non-religious reasons, and 14 others might have been murdered, although the claims are sketchy. Of the six popes who have been murdered:

Stephen VI (murdered August, 897). Best remembered for putting his predecessor, Pope Formosus, on “trial.” Formosus’ rotting remains were exhumed and put on trial in the so-called Cadaver Synod. The corpse was propped up on a throne, and a deacon answered for the deceased pontiff. The corpse was found guilty and unworthy of being a pontiff, stripped of vestments, and eventually thrown into the Tiber River. The uproar over the trial caused Stephen to be imprisoned, where he was strangled.

Stephen VIII (murdered October 942): Accused of being a German and being elected pope because of political and family connections (like that was out of the ordinary in those days?). Opposed the Roman prince Alberic II, who reportedly ordered him to be maimed and disfigured, then killed.

John XII (murdered May 14, 965): See first entry. Also, he was charged with being paid for ordaining bishops, committing adultery with several women, killing a cardinal subdeacon, and “toasting the devil with wine.”

Benedict VI (murdered June 974): Seen as a puppet of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. When Otto died, Benedict got on the wrong side of Roman nobility, and he was imprisoned. A new pope, Boniface VII, was proclaimed (he’s also referred to as Antipope Boniface VII, as occasionally, different political factions appointed different popes). When Otto II objected to Benedict’s imprisonment, Boniface sent a priest to murder Benedict, and he was strangled.

John XIV (murdered August 20, 984): Imprisoned by Boniface VII, who had fled Rome but returned a decade later and reclaimed the papacy. John died either of poisoning or starvation.

Gregory V (murdered February 18, 999): The first German pope. Died suddenly by “suspicion of foul play.”


Major Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol

May 13, 2010: The military leader of Thailand’s anti-government protest movement was shot in the head in the middle of a New York Times interview on a Bangkok street corner. He died three days later.

Major Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol was the military leader of Thailand’s UDD Party, standing for United for Democracy against Dictatorship — a party that claimed to represent the rural poor and disenfranchised and was commonly known as the Red Shirts. He was popularly known as Seh Daeng, or Red Commander.

Sawasdipol was described as a “colorful” character who always wore a floppy hat decorated with grenade pins, and he never shied away from publicity. He claimed to have helped the American CIA in the Vietnam War and compared himself to William Wallace, the Scottish warrior played by Mel Gibson in Braveheart.

Sawasdipol had been suspended by the Thai Army for defying orders to stay out of political movements. At the time of his shooting, the Red Shirts were camped out in the center of Bangkok, protesting what they called the illegitimate government supported by the military.

Sawasdipol was shot in the head, most likely by government snipers, as he stood on a street corner giving an interview to a reporter from The New York Times. As he was in the middle of a media interview, with lots of media around, his shooting and the bloody aftermath were captured on camera.

King Radama II

May 12, 1863: After passing a controversial law allowing disputes to be settled by duel, King Radama II of Madagascar was captured by military officers and killed by strangulation. Or was he?

Radama opened up the island kingdom to European powers, reversing the isolationist policies of his mother, Queen Ranavalona I. This progressive approach greatly angered many in the military and Ramada’s main opposition, Prime Minister Rainivoninahitriniony. After Radama passed the new dueling law, the prime minister refused to declare the law publicly.

The head of the army, Rainilaiarivony, who was the prime minister’s brother, assembled several thousand troops to lay siege to the Rova Palace compound, where Radama, the royal family, and his followers known as the menamaso were hiding out. In the standoff, Radama agreed to turn over members of the menamaso on condition that their lives be spared, but they were speared to death.

Finally, a group of soldiers captured Radama and strangled him with a silk sash, upholding the custom of avoiding spilling royal blood. But, according to rumor, as his body was being moved to a royal tomb, Radama revived. Those carrying him became frightened and fled, telling people they had put him in the tomb. A French historian later claimed to have evidence that Radama lived to old age on a remote part of the island.

The prime minister announced that Radama had committed suicide. He married Radama’s widow (or wife, if he were still alive), Rabodo, with whom he shared power. Indeed, Rainivoninahitriniony married three separate queens to keep himself in power.


This drawing of the assassination of Spencer Perceval ran in the Daily Mail.

May 11, 1812: The only British prime minister ever to be assassinated was shot and killed in the lobby of the House of Commons by a bankrupt businessman.

Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was entering the lobby when John Bellingham approached him, drew a pistol, and shot him. Perceval was known as a self-righteous and straight-laced government leader who had drawn the ire of powerful business interests because of certain government economic policies.

Bellingham had been accused of fraud and was imprisoned in Russia, losing a fortune in the process. He wanted compensation from the British government, but Perceval refused to hear Bellingham’s petitions.

After the shooting, Bellingham was arrested immediately. There was a quick trial, and Bellingham was convicted and hanged, only one week after the assassination.

Great Britain was in the midst of a deep recession and credit crunch; Perceval’s murder reportedly was greeted with joy all over London in the hopes of reversing his economic policies. When the new minister, Lord Liverpool, took over, the economy began to recover.

A 2012 book, Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister, by Andro Linklater, offers another theory: Although Bellingham acted alone, he was supported financially by two businessmen whose fortunes were in peril if Perceval remained as prime minister and his economic policies continued. Bellingham had publicly said he would kill Perceval if his petitions were rejected.

The book posits that London merchant Thomas Wilson and U.S. businessman Elisha Peck supported Bellingham financially until he could carry out his threat. But we’ll never know for sure, will we?

A memorial plaque in St. Stephen’s Hall, near the spot where Perceval was killed, was dedicated to the assassinated prime minister in 2014. The dedication ceremony for the memorial plaque was attended by several members of Parliament, including Henry Bellingham, who was a descendant of the assassin.

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