Dramatic Assassination Plots from History and Their Outcomes

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Assassination and the risk thereof are an occupational hazard for the prominent, the powerful, or just the plain famous and popular.

Assassination and the risk thereof are an occupational hazard for the prominent, the powerful, or just the plain famous and popular. The murder of such people can have an outsized impact, sometimes altering the trajectory of history and producing results that shape events for centuries. Following are thirty-five things about historic assassination plots, some successful, others not.

President Harry S. Truman. National Archives

35. The Puerto Rican Seeds of an Assassination Plot Against Harry S. Truman

Assassination has claimed the lives of four American presidents, and several other commanders in chief have escaped attempts on the lives. One of the latter was Harry S. Truman, who survived a now largely forgotten assassination attempt by Puerto Rican nationalists, who sought to draw attention to their cause by killing a sitting US president.

Today, the question of Puerto Rico’s ties to the US revolves around whether it should join the country as a new state, or remain an American territory. However, there was once significant support within Puerto Rico for a third option: outright independence. Failure to secure that goal eventually set pro independence activists on the path of political violence.

Pedro Albizu Campos (1893-1965), Puerto Rican nationalist, raising his hat to a crowd as he is arrested following the deadly shooting of a policeman by two nationalists. Albizu would serve the next ten years in United States jails. Walmart

34. The Puerto Ricans Who Lobbied for Independence, With the Pen and With the Sword

In 1922, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (PRNP) was formed, to lobby for independence by both the pen and sword. Decades later, the pen had not brought about independence. So frustrated PRNP activists, led by the party’s charismatic leader, the Harvard-educated Pedro Albizu Campos, came to favor the sword.

On October 30th, a series of coordinated armed attacks struck American targets in six Puerto Rican towns. The uprising was swiftly crushed by a strong military response, that included the use of planes. President Harry S. Truman described the event as “an incident between Puerto Ricans”. That further upset PRNP activists. To draw attention to the cause of independence – and make a point that what had happened was a rebellion and act of war between two countries – they drew plans for the assassination of Truman.

Puerto Rico’s National Guard occupying a town after the failed uprising

33. Planning the Assassination of President Truman

The failed uprising in Puerto Rico frustrated PRNP activists. In the Bronx, two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, were further angered by what they saw as excessive force by the US military to beat back the rebels. So they decided to retaliate – and draw attention to their cause – with an assassination of the American president.

The gutted interior of the White House during its 1950 renovation
At the time, Truman was not living in the White House, which was undergoing a renovation, but in the nearby – and less secure – Blair House. Torresola, an experienced gunman, secured a Walther P38 pistol and a German Luger, and taught the less experienced Collazo how to load and handle them. The duo then caught a train from NYC to Washington, DC, to reconnoiter. On November 1st, 1950, they sprang into action.
Oscar Collazo. Puerto Rico Institute of Culture

32. The Attempted Assassination of Harry S. Truman

While President Truman was napping in the Blair House, Griselio Torresola approached the building from the west side. His partner, Oscar Collazo snuck up behind a Capitol police officer, Donald Birdzell, who was standing on the Blair House’s steps, and tried to shoot him in the back. However, the inexperienced Collazo had failed to chamber a round. He did so and fired just as Birdzell turned around, and hit him in the knee.

Griselio Torresola.
Hearing the gunshots, Secret Service agent Vincent Mroz rushed out of a separate Blair House entrance, and shot Collazo in the chest as he was climbing the steps. Two other Secret Service agents joined in, and exchanged fire with Collazo in what was described as “the biggest gunfight in Secret Service history”. In the meantime, Torresola had reached a guard booth, and shot White House Police officer Leslie Coffelt four times, mortally wounding him.
Officer Leslie Coffelt. War is Boring

31. Would-be Assassin Brought Down by a Dying Man

After mortally wounding officer Leslie Coffelt, Torresola shot another officer, Joseph Downs, in the hip, back, and neck. Despite his injuries, Downs managed to lock the door, denying the attackers entry into the Blair House. Torresola then joined Collazo in his firefight, and shot officer Donald Birdzell in the knee. As the gunfight raged, President Truman stuck his head out of a window, just 30 feet away, to see what was going on.

The front of Blair House, site of the assassination attempt. Ghosts of DC
As Secret Service agents shouted at the president to get away from the window, officer Leslie Coffelt, who had been shot by Torresola and lay dying, managed to prop himself against the guard booth. Taking aim, he fired on Torresola from 30 feet away, and shot him in the heat, killing him instantly. Coffelt was rushed to the hospital, but died of his wounds four hours later. Oscar Collazo survived his injuries to be tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Truman commuted his sentence to life in prison.
Actor Henry Cele as Shaka Zulu in the TV series of the same name.

30. The African Conqueror Who Created a Tribal Empire

Truman was an example of a lucky leader who escaped assassination. Many others were not so fortunate. One such was Shaka Zulu (circa 1787-1828), a warrior who rose from humble origins to become chief of his tribe, then launched a ruthless campaign of conquest against other Southern African tribes. A military visionary, he revolutionized tribal warfare, bringing it to a hitherto unprecedented pitch of destructiveness. By the time he was done, he had established a Zulu Empire. He overcame all before him – except an assassination plot that brought him down at the height of his power.

When Shaka came to power, tribal warfare in Southern Africa was a low intensity affair. It was dominated by rituals and display, with relatively little actual fighting, and thus few fatalities. Shaka was of a bloody-minded bent, and he set about changing that. He introduced fighting formations, organized his men into regiments known as impis, and transformed the Zulus into a disciplined army.


Zulu warrior. Imgur

29. Shaka Zulu Was Assassinated by His Own Brothers

Shaka abandoned the throwing spears used in the region for centuries. Instead, he trained his men to use short stabbing spears, emphasizing shock tactics and decisive close combat. Zulu tactics and training made them unstoppable, triggering a catastrophe known as the Mfecane, meaning the “crushing” or “forced migration”. Tribes fleeing Shaka’s onslaught were forced to encroach upon their neighbors, who were then forced to fight or become refugees, encroaching upon their neighbors in turn, in a cascade of violence that killed millions.