Utterly WTF Ways People Died Chasing A Story
They say the pen is mightier than the sword. Unfortunately, every time someone with a sword puts that to the test, we wind up a writer soundly decapitated. Their words live on, sure, but the journalist is still dead-dead-dead, and that can't be much fun for them. It can be awful, and it can be mysterious, and it can be deeply weird.
Kim Wall Definitely Shouldn't Have Gone Alone To Interview That Wacky Inventor Aboard His Submarine
One of the coolest things about being a reporter has to be interviewing weird and wonderful people. For instance, who'd turn down the chance to interview Peter Madsen, a man who'd been designing and launching rockets since he was a teenager? This guy went on to create a private rocket lab in Copenhagen, and he also constructed three submarines all on his own. Certainly, all of these are marks of an eccentric genius, and all those movies casting such figures as supervillains are nothing but petty fearmongering.
In 2017, Swedish writer Kim Wall tried repeatedly to schedule an interview with Madsen, who was now looking to travel to space via crowdfunding. Wall had reported for The New York Times, Time magazine, and a bunch of other famous outlets, and she was hoping to put together a piece of a new Danish space race. On August 10, she finally got to tour Madsen's lab. He invited her to continue the interview aboard his sub that night. A bunch of friends saw her off as she boarded the UC3 Nautilus -- they were throwing a party to celebrate her impending move to Beijing, and they expected her to rejoin the party after a couple hours. Instead, a week later, her torso washed up on a nearby beach.
Her head, legs, and all her clothes turned up later in plastic bags in the water, and police found her arms last, floating free. They checked in with gracious host Peter Madsen, who was not entirely forthcoming about what had happened that night. He'd already sunk the sub to hide evidence, and he now kept changing his story. First he said he'd dropped her off safely. Later, he said something had accidentally hit her head, then he switched that to carbon monoxide knocking her out. We never quite got a confirmed blow-by-blow account of the night, and honestly, few of us would particularly relish hearing one. A jury didn't need one to find Madsen guilty and sentence him to life in prison.
The catch-all explanation is this was a horrifically violent, sexual murder. The prosecution also offered a more detailed theory of what went down. Based on his browsing history, Madsen seemed to be obsessed with the idea of snuff films. He'd recently been expelled from a Danish BDSM club, for being too passive. Perhaps Madsen planned to record Wall in a snuff film, proving his dominance either to himself or to future sexual partners. He botched this shoot, because in addition to being a murderous psychopath, Peter Madsen was deeply incompetent -- but then, you could guess that just from the whole "crowdfunding a space travel venture" thing.
The French Prime Minister's Wife Straight-Up Shot A Newspaper Editor To Death, And Got Off
To be clear, we're not talking about the current French prime minister's wife. If this story happened today, you'd probably have heard of it. This was a hundred years ago, and the prime minister in question was Joseph Caillaux, who'd now moved to the ministry of finance and offered some controversial ideas, such as taxing everyone's income. That earned him few supporters in the conservative press, and one outlet, Le Figaro, came out with new coverage against him with each passing day. Le Figaro is still in business, by the way, so even if this story is a hundred years old, it's not from some totally bygone age.
The paper started printing correspondence Caillaux had sent to his wife, Henriette. Digging up private love letters is never very classy, and Caillaux had written these when he was still married to another woman, with Henriette his mistress. The letters didn't exactly reveal Caillaux had been having an affair, but they certainly dropped a few hints, and who knew what further, more explicit letters they had in their arsenal. So Henriette made an appointment to meet the paper's editor, Gaston Calmette, presumably to entreat with him personally to publish no more of them.
Turns out Henriette Caillaux had more on her mind than measured negotiations. She hid an automatic pistol in her furs as she made her way into the editor's office. The man wasn't available immediately, so she went away for an hour, came back, was admitted to the office, greeted Calmette ... and then shot him six times. She hung around the office as doctors and the police came, but she refused to let the police take her to jail. "Je suis une dame!" she said, so she insisted that her personal chauffeur take her to jail.
Calmette died, and Henriette went on trial. But after a week of testimony, the jury took an hour and acquitted her. Henriette had killed the man due to "unbridled female passions," her lawyer argued, and the jury agreed it had been a crime of passion -- a phrase that normally refers to crimes that are not premeditated, but the jury apparently took the phrase in this case to mean "crime that is related to sex in some manner." And as big a deal as an editor's murder may seem, people soon had other concerns. Just hours after the verdict, World War I was declared.
During this war, incidentally, Caillaux got a little too cozy with German agents, so though Henriette got off, Caillaux was very much found guilty ... of treason. And speaking of collaboration with Germans ...
The Czech Prime Minister Killed A Newspaper Editor With A Poisoned Sandwich
Move one war forward, and we get Czech Prime Minister Alois Elias and the plot known as the Sandwich Affair. In September 1941, Elias went to a deli and bought a bunch of sandwiches. Then he called in a confederate, Milos Klika, who provided him with a series of toxins from the bacteria responsible for botulism, typhus, and tuberculosis. Sources variously describe Klika as a pharmacist and a urologist, so we have to assume that he obtained at least some of these bacteria directly from an extremely sad penis.
Elias added the toxins to the delicious sandwiches. Then he invited in his guests for the afternoon: seven Czech journalists, there to discuss the current German offensive against Russia. He served them the sandwiches in hopes of killing them all, punishing them for their pro-Nazi stances. It turned out that infected sandwiches don't make for the most reliable weapon, so most of the crew survived, but one of them -- Karel Laznovsky, editor of the daily paper Ceske slovo -- did indeed die from the poison.
The prime minister was fighting Nazis, so we suppose Elias looks like the hero in this story. Still, given that Germany had occupied Czechoslovakia the past three years, a conscientious purge of all who publicly toed the party line would include not just pro-Nazi papers (were any papers allowed to be anti-Nazi?) but the entire Czech government, starting with Elias, whom historians would for decades portray as a collaborator himself. Listen, we're not looking to come off as pro-Nazi here. We just have a personal stake in suggesting people err on the side of not killing journalists with dong disease sandwiches, if that's an option.
Elias' role in the murder remained a secret for a long time -- historians confirmed it recently, but at the time, the Gestapo were unable to pin it on him. And it looks like the Sandwich Affair might have been just a trial run. Elias next planned to sandwich-to-death his government's secretary of state, the Nazi Karl Hermann Frank. But he never got the opportunity. Just weeks after Laznovsky's death, the Gestapo separately uncovered that Elias was working with the Czech government-in-exile, headquartered in England. They arrested him and quickly executed him, making him the only head of government the Nazis killed during the war. So, yeah, guess Elias really is the hero in this story.
A BBC Reporter Fell To A Secret Ricin Bullet At A London Bus Stop
Secret poisons got a bit slicker in the years to come. In 1978, when Georgi Markov fell to one of them slipped into his body by a hit man, he didn't even need to eat anything. He was just waiting for the bus one day, headed to his job at the BBC. Then he felt a slight pinch on his leg, as though an insect had bitten him. He made it to work, and he told a presumably deeply uninterested coworker about the new pimple that had appeared on his leg. And then a fever set in. He died in four days.
Maybe he should have been paranoid and expecting something like this. He had earlier written in Bulgaria and now reported on Bulgaria, and his criticism of the regime made him an enemy of the people. Bulgaria had already tried and sentenced him, even though he wasn't exactly present for the trial, being safely in another country 1,500 miles away. But really, 1,500 miles is no safe buffer when the communist regime wants you dead.
We first told you about Markov's death almost ten years ago, but no one knew for sure at the time who was responsible. To learn that, we needed a KGB defector to speak up in 2015. Bulgarian secret services carried out the murder, and the KGB gave the go-ahead and provided the poison. That poison was ricin, placed on a pellet made of platinum and shot out of an umbrella. Yes, really: The assassin fired it from an umbrella, and to this day, the Bulgarian Umbrella is the name for this mysterious weapon.
The pellet was tiny, just a millimeter wide, and a sugary coating bound the ricin to it. The warmth of Markov's body melted the coating and released the poison. We'd like to say the lesson here is to panic at each animal bite and immediately inject yourself with every known antidote, but we're not sure how beneficial that would be. Maybe the surer solution is to fill your writing with dick jokes, fooling assassins into thinking writers aren't really a threat. "The pen is mightier"? More like the PENIS mightier, right? Ha, ha! Don't kill us.