The Fates of 7 Grisly Assassination Artifacts
The murders of prominent political figures generally have a huge cultural impact; long after JFK's assassination, many could recall exactly where they were and what they were doing. As a result, there's a certain grim fascination around the relics of these events, some of which have been preserved in museum and private collections for decades—or even longer. Below are seven such assassination artifacts from the past few centuries.
1. ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S TOP HAT
At an impressive 6 feet and 4 inches, Abraham Lincoln was the tallest U.S. president, a fact that was enhanced by his fondness for wearing a top hat. On the night of April 14, 1865, as he set off for Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. to watch the play Our American Cousin with his wife Mary, Lincoln put on his hat, complete with black hatband worn as a sign of mourning for his son Willie. Lincoln reportedly enjoyed the play and laughed several times.
Then, at 10:15 p.m., actor and disgruntled Confederate John Wilkes Booth slipped into the president’s box and shot him in the head. Booth jumped onto the stage and broke his leg, but still managed to escape on horseback. Lincoln was taken to a nearby boarding house and doctors were called, but efforts to save his life were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m. the next morning.
The War Department took Lincoln’s hat and other items from where they fell at Ford’s Theater for safekeeping. In 1867, the hat was transferred to the Smithsonian Institute, where it was hidden away in a basement storage room because the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, felt its appearance would provoke agitation. He stated that the hat should not go on show “under any circumstance." However, by 1893 enough time had passed that the Smithsonian allowed the hat to be exhibited by the Lincoln Memorial Association. Today it is a prized possession at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and a potent reminder of Lincoln’s enduring status.
2. JEAN-PAUL MARAT’S BATHTUB
Jean-Paul Marat was one of the most prominent voices of the French Revolution, leading the radical Montagnard faction and writing essays on political theories. He also suffered badly from a skin condition (doctors today aren't sure what kind, though one popular hypothesis is that it may have been eczema), and spent many hours writing in a medicinal bath to relieve his symptoms. On July 13, 1793, Charlotte Corday, a young supporter of the rival Girondin faction, tricked her way in to see Marat, pretending she had important intelligence for him. After Marat scribbled down the names she supplied, Corday lunged at him, stabbing him and causing him to quickly bleed out. Corday was captured and sent to the guillotine, while the bathtub was apparently squirreled away by relic hunters.
The Montagnard revolutionaries quickly realized that the terrible murder scene could serve as propaganda, and Madame Tussaud was reportedly called in to take a wax cast of Marat. The celebrated painter Jacques-Louis David was also asked to paint The Death of Marat, which went on to become one of the most famous paintings of its day. In 1885, the bathtub was sold to the Musée Grévin in Paris, where a grisly waxwork scene was created depicting Marat in his bath. The scene, with original tub, is still on view today.
3. THE FLOOR TILE ON WHICH JAMES GARFIELD FELL
James Garfield had been president for just four months when, in July 1881, he was fatally shot by Charles Guiteau, who was angry after being looked over repeatedly for a government post. Garfield was catching a train at Baltimore and Potomac Station in Washington, D.C. when he was shot twice, falling back on the floor and exclaiming “My God, what is this?”
According to legend, the tile on which he fell was afterwards pulled up from the floor by an unnamed individual who later presented it to Garfield’s son. (Was it actually the tile Garfield fell on, or was it just one of the tiles from the floor? No one knows for sure.) The relic was one of many collected by people who felt the need to preserve the scene of this historic tragedy. Garfield’s son donated the tile to the Smithsonian, where it remains today.
4. ARCHDUKE FRANZ FERDINAND’S BLOODSTAINED SHIRT
As heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand was not a welcome visitor to Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo, which had been annexed by the empire in 1908. When the Archduke and his wife Sophie rode through the streets on June 28, 1914, crowds thronged their open-top car, hiding a number of disgruntled would-be assassins. One threw a bomb at the car; it bounced off the hood and into the crowd, exploding and injuring several people. After attending a meeting at the Town Hall, the Archduke insisted on traveling to visit those injured in the attack—a fatal mistake. As the Archduke's motorcade made its way to the hospital, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip saw his chance. He fired two shots at the car, hitting Sophie in the abdomen and Franz Ferdinand in the neck.
The death of Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that contributed to the outbreak of World War I. The blood-spattered shirt he wore that day was preserved as a relic by the Jesuit priest who read the couple the last rites; it was acquired by the Austrian Military Museum in Vienna in 2004, but is only rarely on show due to its delicate condition.
5. THE BULLET THAT KILLED GANDHI
On January 30, 1948, as Mahatma Gandhi was walking through a crowd to a prayer meeting, he was shot three times at point-blank range by Nathuram Vinayak Godse. A Hindu nationalist, Godse detested Gandhi's pleas for peace during India's religious violence, and his calls for tolerance toward Muslims. Gandhi fell to the ground and was later pronounced dead.
Gandhi had been such an influential figure for his promotion of non-violent protest that his death was mourned the world over. His iconic status meant that any items associated with the great man became revered, and in 1961, a collection of objects once owned by or otherwise related to Gandhi opened as the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi. Among the museum’s most prized exhibits are the bloodied loin cloth Gandhi was wearing when he was shot, and one of the three bullets that took his life.
6. JACKIE KENNEDY’S PINK SUIT
Jackie Kennedy was famous for her style, as epitomized by the bright pink Chanel-style suit she wore on the day in November 1963 that her husband, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. When JFK was shot through the neck and head while the pair rode in open-top car through Dallas, he slumped down onto Jackie’s lap, and the side of her suit became soaked in blood. Just hours later, after JFK had been pronounced dead and his body loaded onto Air Force One, Jackie—still clad in the blood-spattered suit—stood stoically at the side of Lyndon B. Johnson as he was sworn in as president.
Jackie finally removed the suit at the White House the following morning, and a maid placed it into a bag. It was later reported that when aides had suggested she change clothes earlier she had refused, saying, “I want them to see what they have done.” Her mother put the unwashed suit into a box and wrote on top: “Jackie's suit and bag—worn November 22nd, 1963." Caroline Kennedy donated the suit to the National Archives in Maryland, where it's stored with the proviso that it remain out of public view until 2103, to avoid dishonoring the president's memory or causing grief to his family.
7. THE ICE AXE USED TO KILL TROTSKY
Leon Trotsky was, alongside Lenin, one of the leaders in the founding of the Soviet Union. But after a power struggle with Joseph Stalin, it was Stalin who succeeded Lenin, sowing the seed for a lifelong antipathy between him and Trotsky. The latter became increasingly critical of Stalin’s absolutist style, and by 1929, he had been expelled from Russia. Trotsky was eventually granted asylum in Mexico in 1936—but his card was marked.
The first attempt on Trotsky's life came in May 1940, when a gunman peppered his home with bullets. Trotsky and his wife, by some miracle, survived. The next attempt involved a Spanish communist named Ramon Mercader, who had infiltrated Trotsky’s inner circle over a period of years. On the morning of August 20, 1940, Mercader arrived at Trotsky’s highly fortified compound, claiming to want Trotsky to read a draft of an article he had written. When Trotsky welcomed him into his study, Mercader plunged an ice axe into the politician's skull, fatally wounding him. Trotsky died the next day. The Soviet Union denied responsibility, but today many historians believe that Stalin was behind the attack.
The axe was taken into storage as evidence at the Mexico City police station and later removed by secret police officer Alfredo Salas, who claimed he wanted to preserve it as an historical artifact. Salas passed it on to his daughter (or granddaughter—sources differ) who stored it under her bed for 40 years before deciding to sell it. Keith Melton, an American collector and author of espionage books, purchased the axe for an undisclosed sum. In February 2017 he hosted a talk at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., where the axe was displayed to the public for the first time in over 75 years.