Political murder of the day
June 20, 1810: A Swedish count, soldier, and diplomat who was the alleged lover of French Queen Marie Antoinette was killed by a lynch mob in Stockholm.
Count Hans Axel von Fersen, known as Fersen the Younger because he shared his name with his father, transferred to the French Army from the Swedish Army. He served under Count de Rochambeau to fight in the American Revolution.
When Fersen was Rochambeau’s aide-de-camp at the French court at Versailles, he became a close friend and confidante — and supposedly the lover — of Marie Antoinette. He returned to Sweden to join the diplomatic corps, only to return to France after the French Revolution.
Fersen tried to arrange the escape of Marie Antoinette and French King Louis XVI, even driving the coach in which they tried to flee Paris, but the escape was ultimately unsuccessful. He returned to Sweden and became marshal of the realm.
Fersen played no part in the 1809 revolution that unseated Swedish King Gustav IV, but he favored the king’s son against the popular Christian August as crown prince. When August died suddenly of apoplexy in 1810, rumors started that Fersen had poisoned the new leader. Fersen started receiving death threats, and citizens shouted insults and curses at his carriage when he rode by.
On June 20, 1810, the day of August’s funeral, Fersen rode at the head of the procession as marshal of the realm, the second-highest office below the king. A mob formed and started throwing things at his carriage, shouting curses and insults. The mob finally blocked the carriage, broke its windows, and unharnessed the horses. Members of the mob pulled Fersen from the carriage and beat him to death.
A few months later, Fersen and his family were cleared of any suspicion connected with August’s death. Fersen was given a state funeral.
Miss a murder? Here are past ones.
June 19, 1982: A Chinese American man died after being beaten with a baseball bat by two white Detroit-area autoworkers who were upset that so many American autoworkers were losing jobs because of growing sales of Japanese cars.
The attack was considered a hate crime but occurred before hate crime laws had been passed in the U.S. It also angered the Asian American community in Detroit and around the country, especially because the victim was Chinese and not Japanese, further playing into racial stereotypes.
On June 19, Vincent Chin was at his bachelor party at a strip club in Highland Park, Michigan, when he and his friends became the recipients of taunts from Ronald Ebens, a superintendent at a Chrysler plant, and his stepson, Michael Nitz, who had been laid off from his autoworker job. According to witnesses, Ebens said, “It’s because of you little mother****ers that we’re out of work!”
Both the Chin group and the Ebens group were thrown out of the club, but the taunts continued as the men separated. According to reports, Ebens and Nitz searched the neighborhood for Chin, finally finding him at a McDonald’s, where Nitz held him while Ebens beat him with a baseball bat — an act witnessed by two off-duty police officers. Chin died at a hospital on June 23.
Both Ebens and Nitz were convicted of manslaughter, but received only probation and a fine. Both were then tried on federal civil rights charges; Ebens was convicted, and Nitz was acquitted. Ebens’ conviction was later overturned. The Chin family won a civil suit against Ebens and Nitz but was never able to collect damages.
In 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed, meaning penalties to those convicted of a federal crime increase if the crime is ruled to be a hate crime. Forty-five states, including Michigan, and the District of Columbia have some sort of hate crime statute.
In 2009, President Obama signed a new hate crime law extending the law to apply to crimes motivated by a victim’s sexual identity or disability, and dropped the prerequisite that the victim be engaging in a federally protected activity.
June 18, 1982: The body of the man known as “God’s banker” because of his work with the Vatican Bank was found hanging underneath Blackfriars Bridge along the River Thames in London, his clothing stuffed with bricks and $15,000 in three different currencies.
Roberto Calvi was the chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, which went bankrupt in June 1982 in one of Italy’s biggest banking scandals. The bank’s main shareholder was the Vatican Bank, which owned 10 percent of Banco Ambrosiano and was forced to pay $224 million to creditors.
Others left holding debt were an illegal Masonic Lodge and the Sicilian Mafia. At the time of the bank’s collapse, the total debt was estimated at $700 million to $1.5 billion. In the months before his death, Calvi was accused of stealing millions being laundered on behalf of the Mafia.
On June 10, 1982, Calvi disappeared from Rome on a false passport. He shaved his mustache, first went to Venice, and finally ended up in London. His body was found underneath the bridge eight days later. He had been murdered in the early morning hours, most likely by members of the Italian Mafia.
There were two inquests into Calvi’s death. The first ruled it a suicide, but a second inquest a year later left the cause of death an open question. Calvi’s body was exhumed in 1998 at the request of his family, and a 2002 independent forensic report concluded that he had been murdered.
Meanwhile, a Mafia informer told Italian police in 1991 that Calvi had been killed, and he named several Mafia members living in London at the time of the death. The motivation reportedly was that the Mafia had lost money in the bank collapse.
In October 2005, four men and one woman went on trial in Italy for Calvi’s murder. All were acquitted in 2007, and two Italian appellate courts upheld the acquittals. In 2012, one of the men accused of killing Calvi, Francesco “Frankie the Strangler” Di Carlo, who had lived in England since the late 1970s, denied that he had killed Calvi but admitted that his Mafia superiors had asked him to do it.
The stories about Calvi, his banking escapades, and his death are told in God’s Banker: The Life and Death of Roberto Calvi, by Rupert Cornwell. Calvi also was the model for a banking character in The Godfather Part III.
June 17, 2015: Nine people, including the church’s senior pastor, were shot and killed at a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, when a white supremacist gunman opened fire during a prayer service in hopes of starting a race war. It was the largest mass shooting at an American house of worship up to that time.
Emanuel AME Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the United States, was often called “Mother Emanuel” church. It had long been the site of civil rights community organization.
On June 17, the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, joined the evening prayer service. He was at the church for an hour before he started shooting, shouting racial epithets as he shot his victims. According to testimony from survivors, Roof said, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
The entire shooting lasted for six minutes. Five people survived the shooting, some by playing dead. Roof then aimed the gun at his own head, but he was out of ammunition. He fled the scene but was captured the next morning at a traffic stop in Shelby, North Carolina. Authorities were quick to label the killings as a hate crime, and many called it an act of domestic terrorism.
Victims included the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina state senator; Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, a Bible study member; Susie Jackson, a Bible study and choir member; Ethel Lee Lance, the church sexton; the Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, a school administrator; Tywanza Sanders, a Bible study member and grandson of Susie Jackson; the Rev. Daniel Simmons, a pastor who also served at Greater Zion AME Church; the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a pastor and speech therapist; and Myra Thompson, a Bible study teacher.
Roof was indicted on 33 federal hate crime charges and charged with nine counts of murder. Roof was sentenced to death after a guilty verdict. He is the first federal hate-crime defendant to receive a death sentence, although he is now appealing that sentence.
Roof’s website included a manifesto on white supremacy and included several photos of him with a Confederate flag, which triggered debate on its display. The killings and Roof’s ties to white supremacy prompted South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to order it removed from state grounds.
Funerals for the victims were held throughout June and early July of 2015. On June 26, President Obama delivered the eulogy at Pinckney’s funeral, an oratory that has been described as one of his most stirring speeches and included a heartfelt rendering of “Amazing Grace.”
June 16, 1976: The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon was kidnapped, shot, and killed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a splinter Palestinian terrorist group.
Francis E. Meloy Jr. had recently been appointed ambassador by President Gerald Ford, and he previously had served as ambassador to Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. The day of his kidnapping, he was heading to present his diplomatic credentials to the new Lebanese president. Also killed in the attack on Meloy was Robert O. Waring, U.S. economic counselor, and their driver.
All three were killed as they were crossing the “Green Line,” the division between Beirut’s Christian and Muslim sectors. The men’s bodies were found a short time later on a beach in Beirut. Members of Palestinian and Lebanese groups were arrested and charged with the murders, but no one was ever convicted.
Meloy is one of eight U.S. ambassadors who died while on duty and one of seven who was assassinated.
June 15: 1943: In what became known as the Beaumont Race Riot, mobs of angry whites attacked African-Americans in the Black neighborhoods of Beaumont, Texas, burning Black-owned stores, restaurants, and homes. Reports of the number of people killed were as high as 21.
Beaumont was a shipbuilding center during World War II. To increase production, some 18,000 people, including many African-Americans, moved to Beaumont to find work in shipbuilding. The job competition between Blacks and whites drove racial tensions. To further the tensions, the Ku Klux Klan had scheduled a convention in Beaumont for June 29, 1943, and the Black community was getting ready for a Juneteenth celebration on June 19 to commemorate the freeing of American slaves.
At the same time, a white woman claimed that she had been raped by a Black man she had hired to work in her garden, but she was unable to identify her attacker from suspects police were holding in Beaumont City Jail. White residents, however, thought the correct suspect was being held and apparently decided to take action on their own.
On June 15, 1943, about 2,000 white shipyard workers were joined by another 2,000 white bystanders to march on City Hall. Sheriff Bill Richardson ordered them to disperse. The crowd broke up, but instead of going home, people armed with guns, axes, and hammers started to move into Beaumont’s Black neighborhoods, assaulting Black residents, breaking and looting Black-owned stores and restaurants, and burning buildings. About 100 homes of African-Americans were destroyed.
Beaumont Mayor George Gary called in the National Guard, and acting Gov. A.M. Aiken Jr. declared martial law in the city. The Texas Highway Patrol sealed off the town so that rural whites couldn’t join the mob.
Mayor Gary also closed all liquor stores, parks, and playgrounds so that crowds weren’t able to form. Bus lines were stopped, and African-American workers were barred from going to work.
Five days later, martial law was lifted. More than 200 people were arrested, but only 26 were charged with crimes, mostly assault and battery, unlawful assembly, and arson. There were no murder charges. Black and white workers returned to the shipyards, but production was slowed for months because of the unrest.
The summer of 1943 saw numerous race-related riots throughout the country. Days after the Beaumont riot, major race riots broke out in Detroit, killing 34 people.
June 14, 2014: A Ukrainian military plane was shot down by rebel separatists, killing all 49 passengers aboard.
A Ukrainian Ilyushin Il-76 military transport plane was approaching an airport in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk when it was shot out of the sky by insurgents using anti-aircraft machine guns. The attack was the worst in the battle that had been escalating between the Ukrainian government and Russian-supported separatists living in eastern Ukraine.
The standoff between Russia and Ukraine started in March 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and massed troops along the border. Western countries, led by the United States and other NATO countries, responded with economic sanctions against Russia, which have had a serious effect on the Russian economy.
June 13, 1886: King Ludwig II of Bavaria died under mysterious circumstances at Berg Castle on Lake Stamberg in Germany, possibly by suicide, possibly by murder.
Ludwig, often remembered as “Mad King Ludwig,” built multiple fairy-tale castles throughout Bavaria and was a strong patron of composer Richard Wagner. Ludwig had put his kingdom deeply into debt.
Several government ministers, as well as Ludwig’s uncle, Prince Luitpold, conspired to have Ludwig judged insane and be forced to abdicate the throne. A lengthy report, signed by four psychiatrists who never examined him, concluded that Ludwig suffered from paranoia (among other mental illnesses) and was unfit to rule. He was taken into custody.
Luitpold was named prince regent. Ludwig tried to escape, but he was captured at his castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria and taken to Berg Castle, south of Munich. Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, one of the psychiatrists who testified to Ludwig’s insanity, accompanied the deposed king.
On June 13, 1886, Ludwig invited von Gudden to join him on a walk near the lake. Their bodies were found in the lake late that night. The official verdict was that Ludwig died by suicide from drowning, but no water was found in his lungs. Von Gudden’s body showed signs of injury and strangulation — presumably inflicted by Ludwig in retaliation for the insanity finding.
Years later, a written report from a nearby fisherman said that Ludwig had been shot, although evidence of a gunshot was not found in the official autopsy. But then again, given the rumors that Ludwig’s enemies had killed him, they presumably would have kept such information out of an autopsy.
A 2014 psychiatric review of Ludwig’s case published in the History of Psychiatry found, unsurprisingly, that Ludwig was not insane. Also in 2014, a secret German independence movement called the Guglmanner also claimed it had evidence that Ludwig had been shot in the back.
June 12, 1963: Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot and killed by a KKK sniper at his home in Jackson.
Evers was a civil rights activist and field worker for the NAACP who was instrumental in trying to get poor African Americans to register to vote. He was the first Mississippi state field secretary of the NAACP and the state’s most prominent civil rights activist.
Evers also organized demonstrations and economic boycotts of companies that practiced discrimination. Evers was part of a group who helped to desegregate the University of Mississippi, forcing the school to accept student James Meredith in 1962.
All of Evers’ civil rights activities drew threats from the state’s segregationists. In May 1963, shortly before his assassination, the Evers home was firebombed.
In the early morning of June 12, 1963, Evers returned home after a meeting with NAACP lawyers. He was holding T-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go” when he was shot in the back in his driveway. Evers was taken to a local hospital that first refused to admit him because of his color. When family members explained who he was, the hospital relented, but Evers died 50 minutes later.
Ku Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith was tried twice for Evers’ murder, with plenty of evidence against him — a rifle registered to De La Beckwith was found near the murder scene, with his fingerprints on the scope, and several witnesses placed him in the area at the time of the shooting.
But in both trials, all-white juries reached a deadlock, and De La Beckwith was set free. De La Beckwith was finally convicted of the killing in 1994 and died in prison in 2001.
Evers was memorialized in several folk songs of the Civil Rights Era, including songs by Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, who wrote the “Ballad of Medgar Evers,” often sung by Matthew Jones and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers.
After his death, Evers’ wife, Myrlie Evers, became a noted activist, eventually serving as chairwoman of the NAACP. Evers’ brother, Charles Evers, carried on his slain brother’s civil rights work in Mississippi, first taking over as NAACP field secretary and eventually becoming a major political figure in the state.
In 2017, President Barack Obama designated Evers’ home as a national historic landmark.