Murder, an umbrella and ball bearings

It was 36 years ago that Georgi Markov was assassinated whilst travelling into work at the BBC World Service. It was the third attempt by the Bulgarian secret police, assisted by the KGB, to kill him, and they succeeded. To this day, no one has been charged with his murder. But how can anyone get away with murdering someone in broad daylight, during London’s rush hour, in one of it’s busiest areas?

The umbrella murder

A Bulgarian umbrella gun, that may be similar to the one used to kill Markov.

A Bulgarian umbrella gun, that may be similar to the one used to kill Markov.

Markov’s assassination was exceptionally sophisticated and involved the use of a ball bearing, poison and an umbrella. Whilst waiting for a bus to take him to work, Markov reported that he felt a sharp pain in his leg, like a bite or s ting from an insect. When he looked behind him, he saw a man pick up an umbrella off the ground, mumble an apology, and get into a taxi on the opposite side of the street.

It wasn’t until he arrived at the office that Markov noticed a small red pimple appear at the site of his earlier insect sting, and the pain hadn’t lessened or stopped. That evening he developed a fever and was admitted into hospital. He died 4 days later at the age of 49 from ricin poisoning.

Ball bearing

Ball bearing used for assassination

Ball bearing used for assassination

Markov had suspicions he had been poisoned and expressed his concerns to the doctors in the hospital, due to this the Metropolitan Police ordered a thorough autopsy of Markov’s body. During the autopsy, forensic pathologists discovered a ball bearing, the size of a pin-head embedded in Markov’s leg.

It measured 1.70mm and was 90% platinum and 10% iridium. Two holes 0.35mm in diameter were drilled through to produce an X shaped cavity. Inside this is where the ricin was stored, along with a sugary substance which created a bubble to trap the ricin inside. This coating was designed to melt at body temperature (37° Celsius), ensuring that as the ball bearing was shot into its target, the coating melted and released the ricin into the bloodstream. With no known antidote at the time, it was an effective way of ensuring the target was eliminated. 

Other attacks

This was not an isolated incident, with at least one other person a victim of a similar attack, Vladimir Kostov. He was hit in a busy Paris metro station and doctors found the same type of pellet embedded in his skin. However, it seemed that the sugar coating was damaged at some point and only a small amount of the poison got into his system, causing a fever, but not killing him.

In 2012 a German man died almost a year after being stabbed with an umbrella in the city of Hanover. German police noticed the resemblance to the Markov case, and believe the umbrella was used to inject mercury into his system.