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The Idealog guide to innovative assassinations

An exploding cigar

As part of the infamous CIA plot “Operation Mongoose,” a plan was hatched to kill then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro with a cigar that would explode when he smoked it. Although conspiracy theorists say the plan was deliberately leaked as a way to deflect from more serious attempts to kill Castro, the Cuban leader believed it to be one of at least 638 attempts by the CIA to kill him – though it didn’t stop him from smoking several cigars a day.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Poisoned tea

Ever thought your tea tasted funny? No? Doesn’t matter – because tea poisoned with polonium apparently tastes the same as tea without polonium.

An incredibly radioactive substance, just a few microns of polonium-210 can kill a person – and there’s no known cure. Death by polonium poisoning is the fate that befell Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and KGB who was a well-known foe of Vladimir Putin and fled to the United Kingdom to receive political asylum. Litvinenko was sipping tea at around 5pm on November 1, 2006 at the Millennium Hotel in London, when he quickly fell violently ill. Rushed to hospital, scans revealed he was dying from acute radiation poisoning. Losing all his hair and massive amounts of weight because of the poisoning, Litvinenko died a few days later – but not before he publicly blamed Putin for his death. Unsurprisingly, the Russian strongman has denied any involvement, suggesting Litvinenko might instead have been assassinated by the Russian mafia or angry business associates.

An intensive investigation after Litvinenko’s death revealed traces of polonium on a teacup at the Millennium Hotel.

Exploding chocolate

Who doesn’t like chocolate? The late British prime minister Winston Churchill had quite a sweet tooth, with chocolate his particular favourite. The only problem: the Nazis knew this too, so they sent him actual exploding chocolate. Hitler was personally said to have ordered his bomb-makers to coat a packet of explosives with chocolate, then to wrap it in paper and send it to the PM. Fortunately, British intelligence agents found out about the plot, and the package of potentially catastrophic confectionary was intercepted before it could kill.

Moral of the story: be treat-wise, lest you meet an unfortunate end.

A bear costume and an axe

DNA testing wasn’t exactly a thing in the 17th century, so a would-be assassin thought he could get away with killing Swiss preacher-turned-politician Jorg Jenatsch by dressing up in a bear suit at a carnival and attacking him with an axe. It worked.


Toothpaste is usually good for you, right? After all, it can help clean your teeth and prevent plaque buildup, among other benefits. But it can also kill you.

In the 1960s, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, was executed by firing squad after being deposed in a coup thought to have been orchestrated by the CIA, MI6 and the Belgian government. But before Lumumba met his end, CIA Congo station chief Larry Devlin was instructed to ensure poisoned toothpaste made its way into Lumumba’s mouth. Reportedly horrified at the ridiculousness of the plot, Devlin allegedly threw the deadly tooth-cleaner into the Congo River. Its present whereabouts are unknown.

Ricin-firing umbrellas

Ricin is an incredibly deadly substance that can kill a person if even just a fraction of a milligramme is ingested. The KGB was quite well-versed in its dangerous properties, and so in 1978 decided to off Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov by walking past him with an umbrella as he was standing at a bus stop and quickly firing a pellet into his thigh. Markov died four days later. An autopsy revealed a single pellet containing 0.2 milligrammes of ricin in his thigh.

Self-collapsing ceilings and self-sinking boats

The Roman emperor Nero didn’t get along with his mother, Agrippina the Younger, very well, so he decided to have her killed. Unfortunately, two plots his best strategists devised in the first century AD – a self-collapsing ceiling above her bed and a self-sinking boat – didn’t work as planned. So instead he had her killed and framed as a suicide. As unimaginative as he was brutal.

Vaccination programmes

Prior to the US Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011, US forces were having a devilishly difficult time tracking down where he even was. Receiving intelligence that he may be in the Abbottabad area, the CIA recruited Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi to run a door-to-door polio vaccination campaign, with the real goal of collecting DNA samples to find out where specifically bin Laden was. While it was partially successful (bin Laden was located and killed, after all), the long-term effects have been devastating: many communities throughout Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Muslim world now violently resist polio vaccination campaigns, due to the (very real) fear they could be the CIA’s next target. As a result, Pakistan and Afghanistan remain the only two countries in the world where polio is endemic.

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