History can be transformed in a split second with the squeeze of a trigger. Famous assassinations of a president, pop-music icon, infamous criminal, or even the assassin himself can send shock waves through a nation and perhaps the entire world. Assassinations can have such a profound effect on those who were alive for them that they will always remember where they were and what they were doing at the moment they heard the news of the murder.
Sometimes the assassination of a famous person is for political reasons. Other times it might be revenge or greed. And there are those instances when the murder is inexplicable. Two common themes that run through the following assassinations (and almost every other one) is that they altered the course of history to some degree, and history has not yet forgotten them and likely never will.
Here are six assassinations—along with assassins and the guns they used—most of which have left people grasping for answers and sometimes crafting conspiracy theories to try to make sense of them:
Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States (1861–65). He was commander-in-chief during the entire American Civil War. During the war, Lincoln issued the proclamation that ended slavery, and he presided over a Union Army that virtually destroyed the southern states, their economy, and their way of life. So, it’s not surprising that he would have engendered hatred in more than a few Confederate sympathizers.
John Wilkes Booth was one such sympathizer. A member of a distinguished acting family, Booth was reportedly an exuberant supporter of the Southern cause and an outspoken advocate for slavery. At the same time, he publicly declared his hatred of Lincoln.
On the evening of April 14, 1865, Booth shot Lincoln in the head using a .44-caliber Henry Derringer single-shot pistol. The round lead ball, weighing nearly an ounce, lodged in the back of the president’s head as he watched a performance at Washington’s Ford Theater.
President Lincoln died the following morning.
John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald
The assassination of President Kennedy stands out as the most infamous and shocking murder of the twentieth century. John F. Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States and was in office from 1961 through 1963. During his shortened term, he faced several crises, including a nuclear standoff in Cuba with the Soviet Union. He was also successful in securing the Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and initiating the Alliance for Progress. Kennedy was the youngest man and the first Roman Catholic ever elected President of the United States. His chapter in the history of famous assassinations took place on November 22, 1963, while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
Lee Harvey Oswald is the accused assassin of President Kennedy. Oswald allegedly fired three shots from a window on the sixth floor of a school-book depository. Two of the 6.5x52mm rounds struck the president—once in the throat and the other in his head. Oswald used a mail-order Carcano Model 91/3 Italian infantry rifle. The shot to President Kennedy’s head was fatal, and it began a series of conspiracy theories that have not entirely subsided even though over fifty-five years have passed.
Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby
The idea that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in his assassination of President John F. Kennedy has been widely disputed. Rampant conspiracy theories have become mainstream, from linking the Soviet Union, the Mafia, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, and others to the killing over the years.
Unfortunately, nobody was ever able to question Oswald thoroughly either about his motives or whether he had any accomplices. That’s because just one day after Oswald was arraigned for the murder of the president, he himself was gunned down after he was brought to the basement of the Dallas police headquarters. A police van was waiting to take Oswald to a more secure jail. He never made it.
While television cameras rolled, and as a crowd of police and a national audience looked on, Jack Ruby, a well-known local strip joint operator, emerged from the crowd and shot the alleged assassin in the mid-section. Ruby had somehow made it past the police with a concealed .38-caliber Colt Cobra revolver, which he fired from point-blank range.
First responders rushed Oswald to Parkland Memorial Hospital–the same hospital where doctors pronounced Kennedy dead two days earlier. Oswald died shortly after arriving at the hospital. This left the country to provide its own answers as to who all was involved in the killing of the president.
Jack Ruby died in prison four years later.
William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz
William McKinley was a popular U.S. President in 1901. The country just elected him to a second term by a comfortable margin over his opponent. He was hoping to build on the prosperity that the country was enjoying under his leadership. It was McKinley who had approved the 1898 war against Spain—one in which the United States was victorious while acquiring a global empire that included Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
Just months after his reelection, the 25th president left for a tour of the western states, which was to conclude with a speech at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. More than 50,000 admirers attended his exposition speech. Still, the following day, September 6, 1901, while the president was shaking hands with well-wishers at the exposition, Leon Czolgosz, a 28-year-old anarchist, fired two shots at the president’s chest and abdomen using a .32-caliber Iver-Johnson Safety Automatic revolver.
Czolgosz had easily concealed the small handgun under a handkerchief as the president approached to shake his hand. With damage to his stomach, pancreas, and kidney, McKinley lingered in the hospital before dying in the early morning hours of September 14.
The government executed Czolgosz in the electric chair on October 29, 1901.
Famous Assassinations: Jesse James by Bob Ford
Jesse James was a teenager when he joined a group of Confederate guerrillas during the Civil war. As a member, he was rumored to have participated in the notorious Centralia massacre. During which, 22 unarmed Union soldiers and 123 other Union soldiers were slaughtered. To some, it seemed the young outlaw never stopped fighting the war.
James was born in the so-called border state of Missouri in 1847. He was too young to join up with the Confederate Army when the war began in 1861. Instead joined the gang of Confederate guerrilla fighters three years later. When the war ended in defeat for the South, Jesse and his brother Frank continued the fight by robbing banks, trains, and stagecoaches.
James formed a gang in 1879 that included two brothers—Charlie and Bob Ford. These men hated James and decided to murder him for a $10,000 reward promised by the Governor of Missouri.
As stories of famous assassinations go, James invited the brothers to his house to plan another bank heist. And as his mother was making breakfast, James turned his back to adjust a picture on the wall. Bob Ford used this opportunity to pull out his New Model No. 3 single-action .44 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver and shot the outlaw Jesse James in the back of the head.
Jesse James died instantly on April 3, 1882. He was 34 years old.
John Lennon by Mark David Chapman
Some famous assassinations have no rational explanation. Former Beatle John Lennon’s murder was one of them. His life began in violence and ended the same way.
Lennon was born in Liverpool, England, in 1940 during one of the many German air raids of World War II. By the time he was 17, he had formed a band called the Quarry Men and had also asked a young musician named Paul McCartney to join it. In the early 1960s, Brian Epstein discovered the group—now called the Beatles—. Epstein managed them until his death from an overdose of barbiturates in 1962.
As they say, the rest is history as Lennon and McCartney would propel the Beatles to fame and fortune until the group disbanded in 1970.
John Lennon would move on to a successful solo career and had just released his latest album, Double Fantasy. In the late afternoon of December 8, 1980, a 25-year-old crazed fan named Mark David Chapman stood outside The Dakota, Lennon’s New York City residence, holding a copy of Double Fantasy. When the singer/songwriter emerged to leave for a recording session, Chapman asked him to sign the album. Lennon readily agreed.
I Just Shot John Lennon
Sometime around 10:30 that evening, Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, returned home in a limo. Chapman was waiting. As Lennon and Ono left the car, Chapman raised his gun and fired his Charter Arms Undercover .38 Special revolver at Lennon. Four of the five hollow-point rounds struck the singer, one of them lodging in his aorta. Lennon was pronounced dead an hour later at nearby Roosevelt Hospital.
At his trial, Chapman told the jury he decided to kill Lennon, “because he was very famous.” The jury found Chapman guilty of second-degree murder. The court sentenced him to 20 years to life in prison. Mark David Chapman has been denied parole ten times since he became eligible for it in 2000.
Sadly, the famous assassinations of these six individuals–Oswald and James could more aptly be referred to as “infamous”—were just a sampling of the many such killings that, in some cases, have sent reverberations around the world. From Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E. to Robert Kennedy in 1968, political figures have been vulnerable to the knives and guns of the assassin. And these killings have often had a significant impact on the future of world events.
Assassins have targeted celebrities for no apparent reason, and have killed activists for a variety of reasons. Even someone as respected as the pope is not immune to an attempt on his life!