We all know that a political assassination can change the course of history. Take, for instance, the infamous murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the throne of Austria-Hungary. His 1914 death at the hands of Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo is widely considered to have been the primary instigating factor of World War I.
For every successful assassination, however, there are often dozens of failed attempts. After all, individuals of considerable political clout are usually well protected, not only by bodyguards, but by an entire intelligence-gathering apparatus that helps to sniff out assassination plots—often before the intended target ever comes within reach of the barrel of a gun, the blade of a knife, or a vial of poison.
These five failed attempts on the lives of famous dignitaries could have rewritten history, in some cases perhaps even more dramatically than the successful attempts we all know about. What would our world today look like had they been carried to completion? We will never know…
Operation Valkyrie – 1944
Do you remember the 2008 Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie, where he played a German with an eyepatch and only one hand who was planning to assassinate Adolf Hitler? While it certainly takes liberties with the historical record, the movie was actually based on a true story. Operation Valkyrie was originally part of a much larger plan for emergency continuance of government—a contingency plan that had actually been put into place by Hitler, and was then repurposed into a plot to take him out. It almost worked, too, and was foiled not by elaborate intelligence or a brave bodyguard, but by accident.
Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the character Cruise played in the movie, placed a briefcase containing a bomb in a conference room where Hitler was having a meeting. There was just one problem—one of the other attendees moved the briefcase out of the way, not knowing that it contained a bomb. The resulting explosion killed several German officials and destroyed the conference room, but Hitler suffered only a perforated eardrum.
“To Kill a Bull Moose” – 1912
In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt had already served two terms as president of the United States—and he wasn’t done. Unable to gain enough support to run on the Republican ticket, he set himself up as a third-party candidate, in what he called the Progressive or "Bull Moose" Party. A former saloonkeeper named John Flammang Schrank was having none of it, though, and while Roosevelt was preparing to deliver a speech on the campaign trail in Milwaukee, Schrank shot him in the chest at point blank range. The bullet passed through Roosevelt's steel eyeglass case and his lengthy speech (around 50 pages) before lodging in the muscle of his chest.
Undeterred, Roosevelt first prevented the crowd from lynching Schrank, and then proceeded to deliver the speech he had planned, speaking for nearly 90 minutes as blood slowly seeped into his shirt. His opening comments were, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
Roosevelt’s third-party campaign was popular, and he received more votes than Republican nominee William Howard Taft. This sufficiently divided the Republican vote, causing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to become the 28th president of the United States.
Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise – 1800
Napoleon Bonaparte was still serving as first consul of France in the wake of the French Revolution, not yet having risen to become emperor, when he was the target of several failed assassination attempts. Of these, the most spectacular may have been the “Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise,” also known as the “Machine infernale” plot.
The idea was to fill a large wine cask with gunpowder and detonate it as Napoleon’s carriage passed by on the way to the opera. On Christmas Eve, in the year 1800, the conspirators got their chance. Unfortunately for them, their timing was off. The bomb killed several innocent bystanders but left Napoleon unharmed. In fact, he insisted on continuing to the opera, where he was reportedly cheered by the crowd when they learned that he had survived the blast.
The Palace Women's Uprising – 1542
If you’re a powerful political figure with a lot of concubines, treat them well. That’s the moral of the story of the Jiajing Emperor of China's Ming dynasty. Born Zhu Houcong, the emperor was renowned for some rather unorthodox behaviors where his concubines and household maids were concerned. Among other things, the zealously Daoist emperor was reportedly obsessed with maintaining his own longevity. He's even said to have partaken of a concoction known as “red lead,” made from the menstrual blood of virgins, whom he kept in the palace for just that purpose and fed only mulberry leaves and rainwater.
Eventually, several of the women in the palace decided they’d had enough of his capricious and often cruel behaviors. They hatched a plot to murder him by strangulation and pin the deed on his favorite concubine. Over a dozen palace maids and concubines are said to have been involved in the plot. Unfortunately for them, one got cold feet before the act had been completed, and reported it to the empress. The emperor survived, and all of the conspirators—including the one who ratted the others out—were sentenced to a particularly unpleasant death by “slow slicing.”
Murder by Magic – 1324
Edward II was king of England from 1307 until 1327, when he was deposed and possibly slain in his own bed by assassins. If he was killed by the regime that overthrew him, as many believed, it was not the first time that an attempt had been made on his life. Just a few years earlier, a plot was hatched in a deserted house outside Coventry with the aim of slaying Edward II and several other unpopular politicians by means of magic.
The would-be assassin, in this case, was a well-known local magician by the name of John of Nottingham. The plan involved seven pounds of wax and two yards of cloth, with which effigies of the intended victims were made for a necromantic ceremony. However, after a supposedly successful test on a local man, Nottingham’s accomplice turned the magician in. Nottingham stood trial for knocking off the man who had already died, but was ultimately found not guilty. While Edward II avoided murder by wax effigy, his days as king were nonetheless numbered, and in 1327 he was deposed by, among others, his own wife.