I have been feeling a bit run down lately, which I attributed first to the typical murky New England spring weather and secondly to the end-of-semester rush, or some combination thereof. Then I realized it wasn’t just fatigue but also a certain sadness, brought on by the fact that I have been lecturing about assassinations all week. Teaching takes its toll! By coincidence, I was covering eras of extreme violence in two of my courses: a survey of the Renaissance and the Reformation and an introduction to European history. In the former, we’re in the midst of the religious wars of the second half of the sixteenth century, while in the latter we’re in the later nineteenth-century Belle Époque, which wasn’t all that belle if you ask me. So in just the last week, I’ve referenced the assassinations of  William I of Orange, leader of the Protestant opposition in the Dutch Revolt against Spain (1584), the French kings Henri III (1589) and Henri IV (1610), as well as (jumping forward three centuries) Tsar Alexander II of Russia (1881), U.S. President James Garfield (1881), President Carnot of France (1894), Prime Minister Cánovas del Castillo of Spain (1897), Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary (1898), King Umberto I of Italy (1900) and President William McKinley of the United States (1901). And then I woke up this morning to realize that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on this day in 1865–the icing on the cake.

Assassination Lincoln 1865 LOC

A pretty somber week indeed, but also an opportunity to explore the comparative natures of early modern and modern assassinations. I know the earlier era so much better, so it is easier for me to comprehend the religious environment that created the motivations and rationales for violent acts. This was a civil holy war between Christianity, and both sides were absolutely certain of the rightness and urgency of their cause. Nevertheless, in an age of divine-right rule, these assassinations were still shocking, particularly that of William of Orange, the first leader to be killed by a handgun.

Assassination William the Silent

PicMonkey Collage

Assassination Henri IV German Broadside 1610 BM

An 18th century image of William of Silent’s assassination, and variant covers of Lisa Jardine’s 2005 book:  The Awful End of Prince William the Silent. The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun. German broadside illustration of the assassination of King Henri IV in 1610, British Museum.

As alarming as these murders were and are, it is the modern assassinations that I find even more chilling; even though they were targeting single individuals, they were seldom personal but rather acts of public relations–the propaganda of the deed.  Their frequency is equally chilling: in the last decade of the nineteenth century alone the leaders of nearly every western European nation were struck down, along with poor Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) of Austria, stabbed in the chest with a nail file while she was walking down a Geneva promenade accompanied only by her maid. Clearly no on was safe, and that was the central message that “organized” anarchism meant to convey.

Assassination Carnot 1894

Assassination Elizabeth

Aroused! Puck Magazine illustration with lady law and order preparing to slay the anarchist snake and President Carnot’s body lying in state, 1894; the front page of the San Francisco Call for September 11, 1898, reporting the assassination of Empress Elizabeth, both Library of Congress.

13 responses to “Assassins

  • julia fogg

    Have a break and put your feet up!

  • Brian Bixby

    My favorite assassin from the latter period is Yevno Azef (1869-1918), ostensibly the leader of the Socialist Revolutionary’s “Combat Organization,” who led the efforts by that group to assassinate Interior Minister (later Prime Minister) Pyotr Stolypin of Russia. However, Azef was really an agent of the Czarist secret police, the Okhrana . . . who were under the supervision of Stolypin!

    • daseger

      Umm–I think I understand why he died in 1918.

      • Brian Bixby

        As it turns out, politics was indeed the cause of his death, but only indirectly. By the end of his career, neither the Okhrana nor the Socialist Revolutionaries trusted him, so he fled to Germany, where he was imprisoned as an enemy alien. Prison conditions exacerbated the kidney condition that killed him.

  • jcmarckx2009

    Great, informative post. I love this kind of stuff.

  • cecilia

    Even reading this post does cast a pall, poor you, though every time I read about the classes you teach I wish – oh How I wish – i was one of your students, the learning and the reading is one thing but the discussion and exchange of ideas and theories in your halls must be just .. oh what is the word.. I want to say enlivening but that is the wrong word it is deeper than that endeepening? because it must feel like breath, but more than that it is so bloody important and so rich.. now i will go out and talk to my cow, she is rather an intellectual cow you know and will chew on an idea for hours! c

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I’ve always been somewhat amazed at the number of leaders who were assassinated by anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th century. It seems to me that there was no real organized effort as in modern terrorist movements, but simply a push among people who subscribed to the anarchist philosophy to attempt to kill as many leaders as possible. I can’t imagine it would have been possible to have “organized” anarchists, anyway.

  • Pamela Toler (@pdtoler)

    Bleak, indeed. Sounds like you need to give yourself a dose of something joyous to clear the brain.

  • Margy Rydzynski

    Kind of sad, but certainly not the last we’ll see of this particular activity. Did you actually say that Elizabeth of Austria was killed by a nail file??

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