Political murder of the day
Sept. 22 or 23, 1241: An Icelandic historian, poet, politician, and chieftain who may be best known in popular culture as a clue in crossword puzzles was assassinated at his home in Reykholt.
Snorri Sturluson was the author of the Prose Edda, or Snorra Edda, one of the great literary works of Iceland. The piece tells the story of Norse mythology (if you’re a crossword puzzle fan, that’s how the clue is usually framed; answer: EDDA). Snorri also wrote the Heimskringla, or Sagas of the Norwegian Kings, which tells the stories of Norwegian history and its kings.
Snorri spent part of his early life in Norway, where he befriended a teenage King Haakon IV. Upon his return to Iceland, Snorri became chieftain of his family and other families, growing in influence and power. Snorri was elected lawspeaker (a sort of ruler/judge, or president) of the Althing, the national parliament in Iceland.
Haakon, looking to expand Norway’s influence and facing a possible civil war, wanted to annex Iceland, but he realized Snorri was against him in this plan. Haakon sent a letter to Iceland asking Gissur Porvaldsson, one of Snorri’s enemies and a supporter of Haakon, to kill Snorri.
Gissur led 70 men on a raid to Snorri’s house, where Snorri was killed. Haakon got his wish — all chieftains in Iceland swore an oath of loyalty to Norway. Iceland finally became a fully independent country in 1944.
Among the many statues of Snorri in Iceland and Norway is the one above in his hometown of Reykholt.
Miss a murder? Here are past ones
Sept. 22, 1828: Shaka, king of the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa, was killed by his two half-brothers after Shaka’s mental illness threatened to destroy the enormous Zulu tribe he had built up.
Shaka established one of the most dominant Sub-Saharan African kingdoms in history. He became Zulu chief in 1816 and led the Zulu in conquering neighboring tribes, eventually holding all of the territory of present-day Natal — more than 2 million square miles. He increased the number of people in his kingdom from 1,500 to 250,000.
Shaka is viewed as a military innovator for the time. He changed the military tactics of intertribal battle, designing new shields and spears, and attacking the other side directly rather than keep up an exchange of spear-throwing, as was the war custom.
Shaka’s conquests caused much destabilization in the area, which caused large migrations by uprooted tribes. His reign is still said to have a cultural influence in South Africa, although historians debate whether he was a unifier or a brutal dictator.
In 1827, Shaka’s mother, Nanti, died, and the grief-stricken Shaka reportedly went mad. He outlawed planting crops and the use of milk for a year. He massacred thousands of his subjects so that others could join him in mourning. He had all pregnant women and their husbands killed.
Lesser Zulu chiefs rebelled, and to keep the kingdom together, Shaka’s brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana, killed him. Dingane took over as Zulu chief.
Sept. 21, 1976: A former Chilean government official, economist, and activist and his American assistant were killed in a car bomb explosion in a traffic circle in Washington, D.C., less than a mile from the White House.
Killed were Orlando Letelier and his assistant, Ronni Moffitt. Moffit’s husband, Michael, was injured in the explosion.
Letelier had served in the administration of Chilean President Salvador Allende. He was Chile’s ambassador to the U.S., minister of foreign affairs, minister of the interior, and minister of defense.
After the CIA-led coup in Chile in 1973, Letelier was captured by the forces of dictator Augusto Pinochet, imprisoned, and reportedly tortured. Letelier’s many friends abroad, including U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, convinced Pinochet’s forces to release him.
Letelier moved to Washington to work for the Institute of Policy Studies and lobbied the U.S. and European government against the Pinochet regime. In July 1976, he convinced Congress to cut off financial aid to Chile.
Letelier received anonymous death threats, and Pinochet stripped him of his Chilean citizenship. The Chilean secret police, or DINA, under the leadership of Director Manuel Contreras, enlisted Michael Townley, a U.S. expatriate who was working for Pinochet, to kill Letelier.
Townley hired five Cuban right-wing militants to help him plant a plastic, remote-controlled bomb underneath Letelier’s car. Townley set it off as Letelier drove through Sheridan Circle near Embassy Row in northwest Washington through morning rush-hour traffic.
Although the U.S. had been ignoring the growing number of reports of murders, torture, and disappearances from Chile, Letelier’s murder in the nation’s capital prompted an investigation. The probe brought to light the U.S. role in Operation Condor in the 1970s, in which the U.S. cooperated with several South American countries supposedly to work against communism but also ordering assassinations, rooting out — and often killing — rebels and dissidents, and bringing down elected governments.
Townley and three of the Cuban-Americans were extradited from Chile. Townley was convicted of heading up the plot to plant the bomb, but gave evidence against the men he had hired and went into the U.S. witness protection program. The three Cuban-Americans, Guillermo Novo Sampoli; his brother, Ignacio Nolo Sampoli; and Alvin Ross Diaz, were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Contreras and another DINA official, Pedro Espinoza Bravo, were convicted in Chile in 1993, although Contreras claimed that the CIA planned the hit on Letelier. Declassified CIA documents later showed that Pinochet was aware of the Letelier plot, but he was never charged, and he died in 2006.
A memorial plaque to Letelier and Moffitt is on display at Sheridan Circle in Washington.
Sept. 20, 1984: A suicide bomber attacked the U.S. Embassy near Beirut, Lebanon, killing at least 20 people and injuring dozens more.
The suicide bomber drove a truck containing more than 1,000 pounds of explosives into the building. The group Islamic Jihad, which had ties to Iran, claimed responsibility for the bombing.
The embassy had been relocated to a building in Awkar, north of Beirut. The old U.S. Embassy had been destroyed in a suicide bombing in April 1983, which killed 61 people.
The U.S. later closed its embassy in Beirut in 1989 due to security concerns, and all American personnel were evacuated. It reopened in 1990.
A memorial at the current U.S. Embassy in Beirut honors those who lost their lives in the two embassy bombings, the 241 service members killed in the October 1983 explosion at the Marine barracks, and several other incidents.
Sept. 19, 1881: President James A. Garfield died of an infection from an assassin’s gunshot wound, but it was negligent treatment from his physicians that really killed him.
Garfield, the 20th president of the U.S., served only 200 days in office. He was a brigadier general in the Union Army in the Civil War, commanding a brigade at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. He also served nine terms in Congress, representing Ohio’s 19th Congressional District.
Garfield was shot by a failed and disgruntled office seeker, Charles A. Guiteau, on July 2 in the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. Guiteau, who had run in and lost elections for various offices, was a failed lawyer and newspaper man. He had been stalking Garfield since June, following him around Washington.
Guiteau had written a speech in support of Garfield during the 1880 election and thought he deserved an appointment as an ambassador to France, even though he had no qualifications. He made personal requests to Garfield and various cabinet officials, as was the practice in the day, but was finally told never to return to the White House.
Garfield was shot twice, once in the arm and once in the back. Although neither shot was fatal, the shot in Garfield’s back apparently lodged near his pancreas, and 12 doctors on the scene at the railroad station probed the wound with bare fingers as Garfield lay on the dirty floor of the station, introducing many germs and infecting the wound.
Once infection set in, Garfield was treated for 80 days at the White House. His doctors turned a three-inch gunshot wound into a 20-inch gash stretching from his ribs to his groin as they kept probing for the bullet. After Garfield’s death, the use of antiseptics was finally accepted by American doctors.
One person at the train station during the shooting was Garfield’s secretary of war, Robert Todd Lincoln. He was present at the death of his father, President Abraham Lincoln, in 1865, and he also witnessed the murder of President William McKinley in 1900.
Guiteau was arrested immediately after the shooting and was convicted. His trial was one of the first high-profile cases in which the insanity defense was considered. His antics during his trial became a media sensation, as he cursed, insulted the judge, and dictated an autobiography to the New York Herald.
Guiteau said he was even planning to run for president himself after a release from prison. He was hanged instead.
Sept. 18, 1961: The secretary general of the United Nations was among 15 people killed in a plane that crashed under suspicious circumstances in what was then the northern part of Rhodesia, now Zambia. But new evidence means the mystery might finally have been solved.
Dag Hammarskjöld was on his way to attend peace talks after clashes broke out between UN peacekeeping forces and military forces trying to declare an independent state in the Congolese province of Katanga. He was trying to prevent a civil war in the newly independent Congo.
The UN was under orders to fly at night and to change course frequently because of the risk that the plane would be shot down by Katangan jet fighters. According to the one survivor from the crash, shortly before the plane was to land in Ndola, Hammarskjöld ordered the plane to change direction and fly to a new destination, and there were several explosions on board, causing the plane to crash.
It has never been definitively determined if the crash were an accident or if the plane were shot down deliberately. But more than 50 years later, new evidence arose that the plane was shot down by a Belgian-born mercenary pilot, Jan van Risseghem, who had served in the British Royal Air Force and Belgian Resistance in World War II.
Before he died, Risseghem reportedly told friends that he had been ordered to shoot down the plane, although he didn’t know the reason. The same information is reported to have been in a U.S. diplomatic cable.
The evidence was presented in a book by academic Susan Williams, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa, and in a documentary, Cold Case Hammarskjöld.
Hammarskjöld had been a Swedish diplomat, economist, and author. He served as UN secretary general for eight years and is the only person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously.
Sept. 17, 1982: In what became known as the Sabra and Shatila massacre, up to possibly 3,500 Palestinian refugees were killed in a 24-hour rampage in two refugee camps in Beirut, Lebanon, in retaliation for an assassination the Palestinians didn’t commit.
The Palestinians, including whole families with infants, were attacked by a Lebanese Christian Phalange militia group, aided by Israeli Army forces, in the Sabra neighborhood of Beirut and the nearby Shatila refugee camp.
The attack was in apparent retaliation for the assassination three days earlier of the Christian Lebanese president-elect, Bashir Gemayel, and 25 others, when a bomb exploded at Christian Phalange party headquarters. At least 100 people were injured in that blast.
After Gemayel’s assassination, Israeli military forces moved into the area and, according to an Israeli judicial inquiry in 1983, helped take part in the killing of the Palestinian refugees. Estimates of the number of dead ranged from 800 to 3,500.
But the attack was launched under mistaken circumstances; Palestinians were not the ones responsible for the bombing of the Christian Phalangists. The bomb had been planted the day before by Habib Tanious Shartouni, a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist party and a Maronite Christian.
The United Nations General Assembly condemned the massacre, calling it a form of genocide.
Sept. 16, 1920: At least 40 people were killed and 200 were injured by what was believed to be the first use of a real car bomb — in this case, a bomb in a horse-drawn wagon.
The bomb was believed to be planted by Italian anarchist Mario Buda, who allegedly timed the bomb in the wagon to go off outside the headquarters of the J.P. Morgan Company in New York City’s financial district.
Shortly after noon on Sept. 16, the wagon pulled up outside the J.P. Morgan Company headquarters at 23 Wall Street. The wagon contained 100 pounds of dynamite, which detonated via a timer. The explosion gutted the building, causing $2 million in property damages overall as well as the casualties.
Historians speculate that Buda hoped to kill Morgan, but the financier was out of town. Instead of Morgan, most of those killed were young people who worked as messengers, stenographers, clerks, and brokers.
Buda, who was neither arrested nor questioned by police, left the U.S. in November 1920 and returned to Italy.
Sept. 15, 1963: Four African-American girls were killed when a bomb thrown by members of the Ku Klux Klan exploded at a church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were getting ready for church services when a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing all four. At least 14 other people also were injured in the bombing.
The church had been a center for the civil rights movement and marches in the city.
The same day, two other Black teens were killed. Virgil Lamar Ware, a 13-year-old who was riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bike, was shot and killed by white teenagers who had attended a segregationist rally in the aftermath of the church bombing. As riots broke out because of the explosion, 16-year-old Johnny Robinson was shot by a police officer after having been attacked by a group of white teenagers in a car draped with a Confederate flag.
In 1965, several suspects of the church bombing emerged, but many witnesses were reluctant to testify, and no charges were filed. Finally, in 1977, Robert Chambliss, a retired auto mechanic and former KKK member, was convicted of first-degree murder in the bombing and was sentenced to life in prison; he died in 1985.
The FBI reopened the case in 1997, and two men and former KKK members, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, were both found guilty and sentenced to four life terms. The case was prosecuted by Alabama U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. Those prosecutions fueled a successful run for the U.S. Senate in a special election in 2017, fueled in large part by African-American voters.
The Birmingham church bombing is seen as a turning point in the civil rights movement, when people all across the U.S. saw pictures of the murdered children causing some (obviously not all) to turn against the white supremacy movement. In 2006, the church was declared a national historic landmark.
In 2013, 50 years after the bombing, all four girls were awarded Congressional Gold Medals, and a bronze and steel statue of the girls was unveiled near the church.