8 Famous Assassinations That Changed The Course Of History

Published October 20, 2018
Updated November 21, 2023

These famous assassinations didn't just end the life of a single political figure. They sparked conspiracy theories, civil, and world wars — and would ultimately reroute the course of history.

Famous Assassinations

ProKeX HD/YouTubeJacqueline Kennedy panics seconds after her husband, John F. Kennedy Jr. is fatally shot. Nov. 22, 1963.

History can be shaped in an instant by one squeeze of a trigger. Indeed, as in the case of these famous assassinations, that one fatal instant can bring on a cataclysm.

Some of the influential people we’ve mentioned below were more than just flesh and bones. They were, to the people of their time, symbols with the hopes and fears of whole nations tied up in their existence.

So when these people were attacked, the world reacted. As with these famous assassinations, the story never ends with the death of that single man. The shot that takes them down is just the beginning of a chain reaction that can — and in many of these cases will — change the world.

History’s Most Famous Assassinations: John F. Kennedy

JFK With Jackie Before Assassination

Victor Hugo King/Library of CongressPresident John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, Texas on Friday, November 22, 1963.

The 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy remains one of the most famous assassinations of the century. The sudden, violent death of the president was so shocking that, for many, it seemed impossible that it could all be the work of one lone madman.

Lee Harvey Oswald

Wikimedia CommonsLee Harvey Oswald, the man believed to be responsible for one of the most famous assassinations in American history, brandishing a rifle in his backyard, March 1963.

But according to five separate reports on the assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald did in fact act alone. For reasons only Oswald will ever truly understand, he climbed up to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository and opened fire on the President of the United States.

He fired three shots. The first went high, causing Kennedy to duck. The second struck the crouching president in the back of the neck, came out his throat, and then continued in a straight line into the governor’s back. Oswald corrected his aim again and fired the fatal shot, which struck the president in the head.

JFK Just After Assassination

ullstein bild via Getty ImagesPresident Kennedy slumps over just after being shot.

Conspiracy theories spread almost immediately. The echo of Oswald’s gun, the angles of the bullets, and the images of President Kennedy’s skull flying off in what seemed to be the wrong direction all left the public convinced that there had to be a second shooter.

Listen above to the History Uncovered podcast, episode 96: Who Really Killed JFK?, also available on Apple and Spotify.

The world never got to hear Lee Harvey Oswald’s side of the story. Two days later, on November 24, he was shot by a nightclub owner named Jack Ruby. Oswald died in the same hospital as Kennedy, and the truth of what happened that day in Dallas may well have died with him.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.