Close Calls: 5 Unsuccessful Assassination Plots and Coups

Close Calls: 5 Unsuccessful Assassination Plots and Coups

Patrick Lynch - May 28, 2017

Throughout history, there have been numerous successful plots and conspiracies that changed the world. For example, the Black Hand coordinated the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914; an act that lit the spark for World War I.

Of course, not every plot is a success. From the Catiline Conspiracy to the July 20 Plot, would-be conspirators have failed in their task. While these efforts often go unnoticed due to their failure, success could have changed the course of history. In this article, I look at 5 such plots.

Close Calls: 5 Unsuccessful Assassination Plots and Coups
Spartan Warriors – Greek History and Prehistory

The Conspiracy of Cinadon in Early 4th Century BC

This conspiracy was an elaborately planned attempt to overthrow the oligarchic Spartan state and ensure its poorer citizens received better treatment. The Spartans were known for their fearsome fighting ability, but they treated their slaves poorly, even by the standards of the era. It was normal for Spartans to murder their slaves, and they brutalized their servants to the point where the slaves felt powerless to act despite outnumbering their Spartan masters by up to 7:1 at one point.

After Athens had capitulated in the Peloponnesian war at the end of the 5th century BC, Sparta was the dominant force in Greece. Spartan power was at its zenith in the first decade of the 4th Century BC, and it began an ambitious plan to expand. However, the state’s appalling treatment of slaves was in danger of leading to an open revolt. Cinadon was a military officer and was probably an elite guard of the Spartan army.

However, despite his lofty position as someone who carried out important missions for the ephors (Spartan leaders), Cinadon was a member of the ‘hypomeiones’ (inferiors). This was a term given to Spartans who lost their civil rights; either through poverty or cowardice. Cinadon came from a humble background so was probably unable to pay his dues to the syssitia hence his demotion. Cinadon was a proud man who wanted to be a Lacedaemonian inferior to no other.

As a result, he planned to overthrow the Spartan elite and gathered together a group of hypomeiones including Tisamenus; a man who lost his citizenship because of poverty. He had fought bravely in the Greco-Persian Wars which is why he received citizenship in the first place.

It is said that when King Agesilaus II oversaw a sacrifice, he apparently saw an omen which suggested the formation of a conspiracy and that is how it was foiled. In reality, one member of Cinadon’s group betrayed the plot to the ephors. Instead of arresting him immediately, the ephors sent Cinadon to the Elean frontier as part of a supposed mission. Once in the field, Cinadon was interrogated and revealed the names of his co-conspirators. Upon his return, Cinadon and the others were bound, flogged and dragged through the city until they died.

While the ephors successfully suppressed the conspiracy, they failed to reflect on the reasons why such a plot existed in the first place. The Spartans did not learn the lessons of the Athenians, and soon, their power started to crumble. After defeat to the Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, Sparta lost its hold on Greece. The Cindon Conspiracy arose because the elite mistreated everyone else. In some ways, it is one of the first recorded conspiracies in history. While it failed, it was an indication of the decay of Spartan society and its fall from grace soon afterward is no surprise.

Close Calls: 5 Unsuccessful Assassination Plots and Coups
Lorenzo De Medici. Your Contact in Florence

The Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478

The Medici Family ruled Florence and possessed an immense amount of power in the middle ages. The House of Medici was formed by Cosimo de’ Medici in the early part of the 15th century. Their power and wealth grew to the stage where they were able to fund the Medici Bank which was Europe’s largest during the 15th century. Although the family was officially only citizens of the Republic of Florence, they were really the rulers. The Medici Family ultimately used its vast wealth to gain political power in other areas of Italy and Europe. The dynasty lasted until the 18th century, but things could have been very different had a rival family’s coup proved successful.

The Pazzi was a noble Florentine family and grew envious of Medici power. In 1477, Francesco de’ Pazzi, a manager of the Pazzi bank in Rome, formulated a plot to murder Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici as a means of ending Medici rule of Florence. He was abetted by Francesco Salviati and Girolamo Riario (a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV). Apparently, Pope Sixtus gave his approval to the plot. Salviati was the archbishop of Pisa, but Lorenzo de’ Medici refused to recognize his title. Also, Riario resented Lorenzo’s attempts to prevent the consolidation of papal rule in the region of Romagna.

The assassination attempt took place on April 26, 1478, during High Mass at Florence Cathedral. It was a bold move as the conspirators attacked the brothers in front of 10,000 people. Giuliano died after being stabbed 19 times, but Lorenzo managed to fight the attackers off although he sustained serious injuries in the process. He was locked in the sacristy to keep him safe, and when the conspirators failed to capture the Gonfaloniere of Justice and the Signoria of Florence, they knew their coup had failed.

It didn’t take long for the conspirators to be rounded up and executed. Five of them, including Salviati and Francesco de’ Pazzi, were hanged from the windows of the Palazzo Della Signoria. The head of the Pazzi family, Jacopo, fled Florence but was caught and tortured before getting hanged and put on display with the others. Even after his body was buried, the Medici Family was not finished delivering its message. Jacopo’s body was dug up, tossed on a ditch, dragged around the streets and dumped at the Palazzo Pazzi where the head was used as a door-knocker. To complete the indignity, the body was thrown into the Arno River but fished out by kids, hung from a willow tree, flogged and tossed back into the water.

The Pazzi Family was banished from Florence with their lands confiscated. Their name was erased from public registers, and all buildings and streets bearing the Pazzi name had their names changed. If you had Pazzi as a surname, you were ordered to have it changed, and if you married a Pazzi, you were banned from public office. The Medici Family ultimately went on to influence the Italian Renaissance; once wonders what would have happened had the Pazzi succeeded in killing Lorenzo?

Close Calls: 5 Unsuccessful Assassination Plots and Coups
George Washington.

Assassination Attempt on George Washington in 1776

In June 1776, a huge British invasion fleet was making its way to New York Harbor and a group of conspirators hoped to take advantage of the confusion by murdering George Washington. Fortunately for the Continental Army, one of the plotters, Thomas Hickey, a private in Washington’s Guard, was unable to keep quiet and bragged about the plan while in prison. The plot was foiled, so Washington was safe and able to lead his men to a victory over the British.

As a member of Washington’s private Guard, Hickey had easy access to the Commander-in-Chief. The role of the Guard was to protect Washington, watch over the army’s coffers and protect the official documents sent and received by the Continental Army’s leader. As such, you would expect the men trusted with such important duties to be brave and upstanding individuals, but Hickey was not cut from the same cloth as the others.

Indeed, it was his propensity to get himself in trouble that helped uncover the plot in the first place. On June 15, 1776, Hickey was sent to prison for passing counterfeit Bills of Credit along with another plotter by the name of Michael Lynch. The two men were unable to stay silent about their plans and told another prisoner, Issac Ketchum, about the plot along with details of how they recruited and paid others to join in support of the British. Ketchum wasted no time in reporting his findings to the prison guards in an attempt to obtain a favorable outcome in his own case (also involving counterfeiting).

The exact details of the plot are not known regarding whether the conspirators planned to murder Washington or kidnap him and hand him over to the British. What we do know is that top Tory Government officials such as Mayor David Mathews and Colonial Gov. William Tryon were involved. Hundreds of rebels were set to defect to the British army, and after capturing or killing Washington and several important officials, they would cause chaos amongst the rebel forces. The British would use the opportunity to launch an attack and try to demolish the rebellion before it got started.

Loyalist sentiment in New York was still relatively strong, so there was a chance the plan could have succeeded. Washington became aware of a plot against him about a week beforehand when a woman requested an audience with him. She told him his life was in danger and Washington took the matter seriously enough to tell only his closest confidants. On June 22, Washington pounced, and a number of plotters were arrested including Mathews (placed under house arrest) and several members of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard.

Although Hickey wasn’t close to being the leader of the plot, he was one of the scapegoats as the Continental Army presumably chose to make an example of him. Several of his co-conspirators testified against him in return for leniency. A jury found Hickey guilty, and he was hanged in front of 20,000 spectators on June 28, 1776. He was the only member of the plot to die for his actions. Washington’s Guard remained in place until he disbanded it in 1783. If the plot had succeeded, it would have been a hammer blow to the Continental Army; who knows how it would have fared against the British without its inspirational leader?

Close Calls: 5 Unsuccessful Assassination Plots and Coups
Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Bully Pulpit

Assassination Attempt on Gamal Abdel al-Nasser in 1954

Nasser became the President of Egypt in 1956, but two years earlier, he remarkably survived an assassination attempt where the gunman somehow missed with eight shots. On October 26, 1954, he was speaking to a crowd in Alexandria, Egypt when suddenly, a number of bullets whizzed by him. The gunman, Mahmoud Abd al-Latif, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and was seemingly a terrible shot.

Some members of the audience were more than a little skeptical about the entire affair. First of all, al-Latif was relatively close to Nasser and should have been able to hit him at least once with eight bullets. The other possible red flag was Nasser’s incredibly cool reaction to the assassination attempt. Instead of fleeing as one might expect, he didn’t flinch and interrupted his speech to exclaim: “Let them kill Nasser. What is Nasser but one among many? My fellow countrymen, stay where you are. I am not dead, I am alive and even if I die all of you is Gamal Abd al-Nasser.”

The Muslim Brotherhood hated Nasser because he extended the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty for another five years a few weeks before the attempted assassination. According to the Treaty, Britain was allowed to re-enter Egypt if Turkey was attacked. The Brotherhood accused Nasser of selling out Egypt to the West. Notions that it was staged were somewhat dispelled when al-Latif and five other leaders of the Brotherhood were hanged on December 9, 1954. Nasser used the assassination attempt as an excuse to round up Communists and prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood. By the end of the year, over 200 Communists and 500 members of the Brotherhood were behind bars.

Some historians believe that if the attempt was successful, there would have been no Arab-Israeli Wars from 1956 onward. One of his lieutenants would have stepped in and seized power in the event of Nasser’s death, but it is unlikely that they would have pursued conflict quite as aggressively as he did. Even the last Arab-Israeli war, the horrific Yom Kippur War in 1973, which was started by Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, was a direct response to the embarrassment suffered by Egypt in 1967.

Close Calls: 5 Unsuccessful Assassination Plots and Coups

Project 571 – The Plot to Oust Chairman Mao in 1971

This failed plot was given the name Project 571 because the numbers 5, 7, and 1 sound like ‘armed uprising’ in Chinese. The plan involved overthrowing the leader of China, Mao Zedong, better known as Chairman Mao, and was planned by supporters of Lin Biao, the Communist Party of China’s vice-chairman. In the aftermath of the plot, the Chinese government claimed that Biao was at the head of the conspiracy. In reality, the leader of the coup was probably his son, Lin Liguo.

The original claim was that by 1970, Biao believed Mao no longer trusted him, and he had a desire to become supreme leader of China. The official narrative suggests that Biao and his wife began planning the murder attempt in February 1971. The following month, Liguo held a secret meeting with his closest supporters at a Shanghai air base, and it was here that he drafted Project 571.

The first official Outline was created by Yu Xinye on March 23/24. In it, the group had eight different ways to kill Mao including blowing up a railway bridge as his train crossed it and shooting him with a handgun. Mao was apparently oblivious to the attempt on his life, but in August 1971, he scheduled a meeting to discuss the political future of Biao and met other important members of his cabinet in Beijing. On September 5, Biao reportedly heard that Mao was planning to execute him so he sped up the plot and on September 8, he gave the order to carry out Project 571.

The group decided to sabotage Mao’s train, but their plans were ruined when Mao changed his route on September 11. There was apparently multiple attempts on Mao’s life that day, but his bodyguards saved him. He arrived safely in Beijing the following day, and Project 571 was a complete failure. Biao’s group knew all was lost, so they made plans to flee. Their first idea was to travel to Guangzhou to coordinate another attack on Mao with the Soviet Union. Once they found out that the Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, was investigating the incident, they elected to flee to the Soviet Union instead.

On September 13, the major players in Project 571, including Baio and his son, boarded a small plane. However, in their haste, they did not ensure the plane was filled with enough fuel. The plane ran out of fuel over Mongolia and crashed, killing all nine people on board. Meanwhile, Chairman Mao was carrying out a purge on his armed forces. Everyone identified as being close to Baio or his family was purged in a matter of weeks. Within a month, an estimated 1,000 military officials had been purged. Mao circulated copies of Project 571 amongst the Communist Party; contradicting his earlier declaration that everyone within the Party was fully supportive of him.

Most scholars don’t believe that Baio was created Project 571 because the writers seemingly lacked the ability to mobilize large forces and did not possess much military knowledge. The military plans were of a fairly low standard; a black mark against the idea that Baio created the plan. He was one of China’s most successful generals and would have created something a lot more complex. In the plan, the writer said that he would rely on the Air Force. Baio had a lot of support from ground forces so there is no way he would have relied on aerial attacks.

Finally, Baio was close to Mao and shared his ideology. While there is a suggestion that the two had a falling out, it is unlikely that he would risk everything on a coup that had little chance of succeeding. In the Chinese Civil War, Baio was an expert in delaying combat until he knew his chances of victory were high. In all likelihood, his son was involved in Project 571 and doomed his father in the process.