Ten Famously Gruesome Murders

Blood Royal by Eric JagerEric Jager knows we have a thing for historical mysteries. His new book, Blood Royal, tells the riveting true story of murder and detection in 15th-century Paris. In this case, the victim is Louis of Orleans, but his is not the only murder that has shocked and engrossed a nation. In the following guest post, Jager shares with us ten truly grisly murders that will send thriller writers racing to their history books for inspiration.

The (mainly) historical murders listed here are not just gruesome but also involve high-profile victims whose violent deaths were political acts and often dramatic public statements by the killers. Many other cases, including the Lizzie Borden and Jack the Ripper murders, are thus omitted.

1. Agamemnon

Woodcut illustration of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdering Agamemnon

According to Greek myth, this king of Argos and victorious commander of the Greeks survived the ten-year Trojan War only to die at home by the hand of his wife. Returning with his captive and concubine, Cassandra, Agamemnon was stabbed in the bath by his jealous and vengeful wife Clytaemnestra, who during his absence had taken her own lover. (Sources: The Oxford Classical Dictionary and Aeschylus, The Oresteia.)

2. Holofernes
Judith Beheading Holofernes

According to biblical apocrypha, this Assyrian general was slain by the Jewish heroine Judith. She beguiled him in his tent, then beheaded him while he slept, hiding his head in a bag and tricking his guards into letting her leave. Returning to Jerusalem in triumph with her trophy, she rallied her people against their enemies. (The Book of Judith)

3. Edmund, King of East Anglia

Statues of St. Edmund in Stone and Steel

In 969, he refused to fight the Vikings. Unimpressed, they shot him full of javelins (or arrows) until he looked “like a porcupine, or Saint Sebastian,” then cut off his head and threw it into a forest. A wolf miraculously guarded the king’s head, which cried out to a search party sent to find it, “Here! Over here!” The reassembled body of the martyr-king was then properly buried. (Aelfric, The Passion of Saint Edmund)

4. Thrain (the Slain)

Njal saga

Caught in a legendary feud, Thrain was killed in a battle on frozen river ice (c. 990). His attacker leaped onto the ice and “shot forward with the speed of a bird. Thrain was just about to put on his helmet as Skarp-hedin bore down on him and struck at him with his axe, ‘Battle-Troll.’ The axe came down upon his head and split it right down to the jaw, so that his jaw teeth dropped out onto the ice.” (Njal’s Saga, trans. Bayerschmidt and Hollander)

5. Charles the Good, Count of Flanders

Charles the Good, Count of Flanders

Charles was sliced to pieces with broadswords in 1127 by conspirators from the rival Erembald family, who surprised their victim at prayer in church. Charles’s father, Canute IV of Denmark, had also been killed in a church, reportedly pierced through the flank by a lance after he and his knights barricaded themselves in the sanctuary against a rebel army. (Galbert of Bruges, The Murder of Charles the Good)

6. Louis of Orleans

Louis of Orleans

One night in November 1407, the widely hated brother of the insane French king, Charles VI, was attacked by a gang of masked assassins armed with swords and axes as he rode along a Parisian street. A post-mortem, which still exists, describes “enormous” wounds across the face and forehead that sectioned Louis’s head into three parts and caused his brain to protrude, as well as a severed hand and a nearly severed arm. (Eric Jager, Blood Royal)

7. King Henri IV of France

Death of Henry

Born a Protestant, Henri converted to Catholicism to become king, supposedly remarking, “Paris is well worth a mass.” His reign, marked by religious tolerance, ended with his assassination in 1610 by a fanatical priest, François Ravaillac. Shadowing the royal carriage through a crowd in Paris, Ravaillac jumped aboard and stabbed the king, piercing a lung and severing his aorta. “‘It’s nothing,’ said Henri, before slumping over, his mouth gushing blood.” Within moments he was dead. (Vincent Pitts, Henri IV of France)

8. The Pazzi Conspiracy

The Pazzi Conspiracy

In April 1478, during Sunday mass, an attack by the Pazzi family to seize power from the rulers of Florence left Giuliano de’ Medici bleeding to death with nineteen stab wounds on the floor of the city’s cathedral, Il Duomo. But his brother Lorenzo escaped to avenge him. Accused conspirators, some perhaps innocent, were hanged, beheaded, or chopped to pieces, and the Pazzi were exiled from Florence. (Lauro Martines, April Blood)

9. Tsar Alexander II

The assassination of Alexander II of Russia 1881

A reformer who emancipated the serfs, he was assassinated in 1881 in Saint Petersburg. A first bomb thrown under his carriage killed a Cossack guard, but the tsar escaped injury and got out. A second bomb thrown at his feet shattered his legs and mutilated his face. One of those who helped lift the mortally wounded czar into a sleigh was a third assassin carrying an unexploded bomb. The tsar died soon after reaching the Winter Palace, and reforms in Russia virtually stopped. (Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar)

10. Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky's Office

The Russian revolutionary leader, ousted from the Communist Party and in exile, was attacked at his home in Mexico in 1940 by a Soviet agent almost certainly sent by Stalin. Having gained Trotsky’s trust, the assassin approached him from behind with an ice-axe and struck him on the head. The blade penetrated several inches into Trotsky’s skull but did not kill him at once; indeed, Trotsky bit his attacker on the hand. Taken to hospital, where he underwent surgery, Trotsky died the next day. (Robert Service, Trotsky: A Biography)