5 Famous Assassins Who Changed History

Heinous assassinations have repeatedly turned history on its head through the centuries. Who are the people behind these shocking events?

May 5, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

famous assassins changed history


Assassination, defined as the murder of a prominent figure, is a distressing public crime that often results in global reaction and outcry. They are front and center in the media and remembered somberly in history. While the victims of assassinations are at the forefront of these conversations, people are often curious to know who is behind these dastardly deeds. Sometimes, they are individuals pushed to the limit or part of a group making a statement. Still, they are all human. What drives someone to take another person’s life in such a dramatic way?


1. Jack Ruby

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Jack Ruby, far right, shoots Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963. Source: Bob Jackson photo via the New York Times


The son of immigrant parents, Jack Ruby, born Jacob Rubenstein, had a troubled childhood in Chicago. He was referred to psychiatrists as a child who found that he was “quick tempered” and “disobedient,” likely as a result of his strife-filled upbringing, and he spent some time in foster care. As a young man, he moved to California. He eventually returned to Chicago, and during this time, he worked for a union and started a novelty company. He was drafted during World War II and served in the Air Force, earning excellent character and sharpshooter ratings. He was honorably discharged in 1946. Ruby eventually followed his sister to Dallas, where he helped her manage a supper club. Later, he operated and held interest in several nightclubs.


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Jack Ruby was well known to love dogs and children. This photo hung on the wall of his office. Source: AP photo via the Times of Israel


Although Ruby was known to be swift-tempered as a child, those who knew him as an adult did not echo that sentiment. He was well known to love dogs and children. He did have run-ins with the Dallas police, but mostly for breaking morality rules in relation to his businesses. He seemed to maintain a good relationship with the Dallas police, one that would come under suspicion in the future.


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Jack Ruby would become world famous two days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. Not because he was believed to have had anything to do with the Kennedy slaying, but because he walked up to Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s suspected assassin, and shot and killed him in front of news cameras. Ruby claimed that he “did it for Jackie” (Kennedy).


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Jack Ruby listens to his guilty verdict. Source: AP photo via University Archives


However, Oswald’s death would leave more questions than answers about the Kennedy assassination, including a myriad of conspiracy theories that he was not involved at all. In fact, there was even a theory floated suggesting that someone affiliated with the Dallas police had helped Ruby gain access to Oswald, as he was killed in the police headquarters. Ruby was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death for the killing of Oswald. The verdict was later reversed and prepared for the Appeals court. However, Ruby died from lung cancer while waiting for his new trial to begin, and to this day, many questions surrounding the deaths of Kennedy and Oswald remain.


2. John Wilkes Booth


The ninth of ten children born into a family of actors, John Wilkes Booth had a comfortable life growing up on a farm run by slave labor in Maryland. He followed in his father’s and brothers’ footsteps and began acting at age seventeen, traveling throughout the United States. During his acting career, he was quite popular and became one of the first to have his clothes ripped at by adoring fans. As a teenager, he became active in politics, ardently supporting the institution of slavery and anti-immigrant causes. He worked as a secret agent for the Confederacy during the Civil War.


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John Wilkes Booth in his acting days. Source: Hulton Archives via NPR


In the summer of 1864, Booth and other conspirators began working on a plan to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln, planning to hold him for ransom to free Confederate POWs. However, the plan soon went awry and turned into a plot to murder Lincoln and other prominent figures, including the vice president and secretary of state. Booth and his accomplices divided up their assignments, with Booth taking on the coup de grace of killing President Lincoln.


He struck his fatal blow on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theater in Washington DC as Lincoln attended a play. During the third act, Booth entered the presidential box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Jumping from the front of the box to the stage, he injured his leg on some bunting as he made his escape, shouting, “sic semper tyrannis!” (thus always to tyrants).


Though injured, Booth escaped immediate capture and went on the run for two weeks with co-conspirator David Herold, who failed to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson as planned and was an accomplice in an attack on Secretary of State William Seward. Federal agents eventually captured them, and in the ensuing standoff, Booth was shot in the neck and killed. Among his last words were, “Tell my mother I died for my country.” According to his diary found on his person, he believed that “our country owed all her troubles to [Lincoln]… and God simply made the instrument of his punishment.”


3. Charlotte Corday

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The Assassination of Marat, Charlotte Corday by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, 1860. Source: Eclectic Light Co.


Charlotte Corday made a large impact on France during her short 25 years on Earth as the assassin of French Revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. Growing up noble but relatively poor, Charlotte became interested in politics while she was being educated in Normandy. She was inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution, particularly those of the Girondin faction. The moderate Girondins favored a constitutional government and were somewhat sympathetic to the monarchy versus the opposing political party, the Jacobins.


Corday felt the Jacobins were too radical and wanted to destroy them by eliminating their leader. She traveled to Paris and asked to see Marat. Marat suffered from a skin condition at the time, and Charlotte was granted access to him, likely promising to reveal important information about traitors. Marat was in the bath, soaking to alleviate his symptoms, and Corday took advantage of his vulnerable position, plunging a knife directly into his heart.


Marat died immediately, and Corday was arrested. She was found guilty of murder and would be executed by guillotine on July 17, 1793. Her intentions were unmet, and many distanced themselves from her memory as they felt the violent act reflected poorly on female revolutionaries.


The Girondin faction was criticized and would eventually be eliminated during the Reign of Terror led by the Jacobins beginning in September. Thousands were arrested and killed. The French Revolution would not end until Napoleon’s rise at the conclusion of the century.


4. Leon Czolgosz

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Scene of the daring attempt to assassinate President McKinley, drawn from a description by telegraph in The San Francisco Call, 1901. Source: Library of Congress


With only six years of schooling under his belt, Leon Czolgosz, the son of Polish immigrants, managed to find work in Cleveland at the Newburgh Wire Mill as a teenager. However, after a few years of work and participation in failed strikes, Czolgosz became disillusioned with the ideas of capitalism and grew bitter. He quit his job and attempted to join a local anarchist group, but they wouldn’t allow his entry due to distrust.


After continuing to study the ideas of other anarchists and becoming inspired by a speech made by anarchist Emma Goldman in 1901, Czolgosz decided to assassinate the president of the United States. He believed the president to be an “enemy of the good working people.” He plotted to kill President William McKinley by shooting him in Buffalo in September 1901.


Illustration of the assassination of President William McKinley from The Golden Book History of the United States, Alton Stanley Tobey, 1963. Source: Mutual Art


He was successful, hitting the president in the abdomen and breastbone with revolver shots at the Pan-American Exposition. McKinley died of his wounds eight days later. Czolgosz was apprehended and arrested immediately, tried, found guilty, and executed speedily. He was electrocuted at Auburn State Prison on October 29, 1901.


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Secret Service agents with former president Obama, 2012. Source: AFP photo, via CBS News


McKinley was the third president to be assassinated, after James Garfield and Abraham Lincoln, and his death at Czolgosz’s hands prompted a change in the presidency that continues today. After McKinley’s death, the Secret Service, created during Lincoln’s term, took on a larger responsibility for the president’s security and formally became the “protector of the president.” Before this, the Service was responsible for presidential protection, but it was largely at the president’s discretion, and there were no systematic plans in place for safety.


5. Felix Yusupov

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A wax figure of Rasputin in his murder site at Yusupov Palace. Source: Rose Ann MacGillivray photo via BoomerVoice


Grigori Rasputin was a mystic who wielded considerable influence over the last Russian czar and his family through his hold over the Romanovs, particularly Czarina Alexandra, in the early 20th century. He gave the royal family political and spiritual advice and provided medical care for their hemophiliac son. This was alarming to many members of the Russian elite at a time when Russia faced a world war and significant political upheaval. As their concern grew and tensions increased, they decided that Rasputin must go. He threatened not only their power but Russia as a whole.


Along with fellow conspirators in the Duma, or legislative assembly, the richest man in Russia, Felix Yusupov, planned to put an end to the self-proclaimed holy man. Rasputin was invited to Yusupov’s home, where he was served tea cakes and wine poisoned with potassium cyanide. After eating numerous cakes and drinking several glasses, Rasputin was unaffected, so Yusupov resolved to shoot him point-blank multiple times. Still refusing to die, Rasputin was thrown into the icy waters of the Petrovskii Bridge, where his body was eventually discovered.


This account of the killing, written in Yusupov’s memoir, rapidly entered popular culture as an urban legend of sorts, though it is contested by some historians. To the dismay and surprise of some, the removal of Rasputin did not change imperial policies, and some saw his murder as an attempt for the upper class to hold onto power. Clashes between the classes would continue until the eruption of the Russian Revolution in 1917. In the residuum, provisional government leader Alexander Kerensky said, “Without Rasputin there would have been no Lenin.”

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”