The Umbrella Murder
Georgi Markov was a man with many achievements to his name: he had been a successful novelist and short-story writer in his homeland of Bulgaria; after his defection in the 1970s several of his plays were staged in Britain; and he became a broadcaster with the BBC and Radio Free Europe among others. But it is for his mysterious death that he is best remembered.
On September 7 1978 Markov was waiting at a bus stop near Waterloo Bridge, en route to his job at the BBC, when he felt something sting his right thigh. Behind him a man was picking up an umbrella, apologising to Markov who thought little of the incident. The stranger hurried across the road to a taxi which whisked him away.
Later in the day Markov told a colleague or colleagues at the BBC what had happened. The pain in his leg had not gone away, and that evening a fever gripped him to such an extent that he was immediately hospitalised. Four days later he died.
An autopsy revealed a tiny – 1.5mm diameter - platinum and iridium sphere in his leg. The hollow object pierced by two holes had contained ricin, a poison with no known antidote. The ricin was kept in place by a coating over the holes, that coating designed to melt at body temperature. Markov had been assassinated, and in a very sophisticated manner. It was probably no coincidence that September 7, the day of the attack on the writer, was the birthday of Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov. Markov in his broadcasts had attacked Zhivkov’s nepotistic activities and inauguration of a system of privileges for his cronies and supporters, the living example of Orwell’s Animal Farm phrase ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ Tyrants and dictators are not good with criticism.
The crime now referred to as ‘the umbrella murder’ had not been solved at the time of writing, or at least nobody had been brought to justice for it: The Times among others has identified a claimed perpetrator. It is not even clear that an umbrella gun was used – in a subsequent attack on another defector in Paris no umbrella was carried by the putative assassin. But until the full facts are known, Georgi Markov’s death will always be associated in the public consciousness with a deadly umbrella.
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