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SHARPER THAN A SERPENTS TOOTH: Biotoxins as An Assasin's Weapons
Poison has a long
and rich tradition as an assassin's weapon. Very few famous and
infamous persons have died suddenly without someone raising the charge of
poisoning. At the same time there is
little question that it has been used to eliminate those who for reasons of
state (or personal revenge) needed to be removed from the scene in a discreet
and/or sure manner.
of botulism as a weapon of war was
not in the elimination or wholesale disabling of a population.
But, in assuring the death of one man on May
27, 1941 on a street corner in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
In addition to the anthrax bomb, Porton Down was working on BTX, the
botulin toxins. Botulism, as described
earlier, generally appears as a particularly virulent form of food poisoning,
with an average mortality rate of 60%.
It can also appear as "wound botulism" -- a rare complication
that occurs when a puncture wound becomes infected with botulinum spores and
heals partially, creating an anaerobic chamber the organism can live in.
If the toxin is introduced directly into the
bloodstream the course of the disease is exactly the same as if the victim had
ingested contaminated food.
British Secret Service turned to Paul Fildes, director of Porton Down's
research for help when, in October 1941 they began to plan Operation
Anthropoid. Its object was the
assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
Heydrich had already acquired a fearsome reputation as the ruthless head
of the Sicherheitdienst (SD), the
Nazi Security Service. Hitler's
personal choice as the man to succeed him as Fuhrer, Heydrich was appointed Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia
in September 1941.
Despite his reputation for ruthless suppression, or possibly because of
it, Heydrich was very successful in his
new role. By means of both the carrot and the stick he turned the Protectorate,
with its extensive arms industries, into an important component in the German
war economy. After only one season, the
Reichsprotektor's charges were eating
better and working shorter hours -- while being more productive -- than any
other area in the Greater Reich. The
British decided he had to go. Operation
Anthropoid was launched.
In December 1941 seven Czech
assassins were parachuted in semi-moonlight near the small Bohemian town of
Lidice. They carried British arms,
radio and cipher equipment. Two weapons
were handled with extreme care. They
were British No. 73 Hand anti-tank grenades.
Normally the grenades were 9.5 inches long and weighed 4 pounds.
The grenades the Czechs carried were special
conversions, consisting of the top third of the grenade, with adhesive tape
thickly binding the open end. The
grenades each weighed just over 1 pound.
They had been personally prepared by Fildes at Porton Down and given,
perhaps personally by Fildes to the Czechs there.
The assassins, led by Jan Kubis and Josef Gabick, went into hiding with
the help of the Czech underground. Over
the next five months they built up a detailed picture of Heydrich's movements.
On the 27th of May, having found out precisely where he would be, they struck.
Precise details as to what happened differ but there were six assassins
-- four men armed with submachine guns and grenades, one with a mirror to flash
a signal when Heydrich's car rounded the hairpin bend near the Troja Bridge in
a suburb of Prague, and Rela Fafek, Gabick's girl friend.
She would precede Heydrich's car, signaling
whether he had a military escort or not.
Surprisingly for such a high-ranking Nazi, he rarely traveled with an
armed escort, today was no different.
Heydrich's open topped green Mercedes rounded the bend, where Gabick was
standing in the middle of the road with a submachine gun.
Gabick's gun jammed.
Heydrich screamed at the chauffeur to put
his foot on the accelerator but the driver, a last minute replacement, kept
slamming on the brakes. Jan Kubis, the
other leader, threw one of Fildes' grenades at the car.
It missed but the explosion tore off the
door. Splinters embedded themselves in Heydrich's body.
Heydrich leapt into the road, cursing and
screaming, then suddenly dropped his service revolver.
Clutching his right hip he staggered
backwards and collapsed. The gunmen
Heydrich, in considerable pain and bleeding from his back was driven,
fully conscious, to the nearby Bulovka Hospital. Examined by physicians, he had
several serious wounds. A splinter of
either the grenade or car body was in the chest wall near the spleen, a rib was
broken and the diaphragm had been pierced.
The wounds were not a cause for alarm nor were they considered
mortal. An operation was performed to
removed the splinters from the wound which was about three inches deep.
A day later Heyrich's condition unexpectedly
deteriorated. By the end of the day he was in a
coma. On June 4th he
died. His general degradation was accompanied
by symptoms consistent with botulin poisoning --extreme weakness, malaise,
dry skin, dilated and unresponsive pupils, dry coated tongue and mouth. These
were accompanied by a progressive muscular weakness with facial paralysis
and weakness of arms, legs and respiratory
muscles. His death, according to the Czech doctor who initially examined
him, was "totally unexpected."
The heads of the German Institute of Pathology and the German Institute
of Forensic Medicine, drew up a joint report on the cause of Heydrich's
death. They stated that death occurred
as a consequence of lesion in the [vital] organs cause by bacteria and possibly
poisons carried into them by the bomb splinters."
There is no written evidence of Fildes' involvement in
Heydrich's death. The files on the
entire operation are still sealed. There
is only the circumstantial evidence of the grenades, the suspicious nature
of Heydrich's demise, and the claims of Fildes
himself. To Alvin Pappenheimer, then a young American biologist and later
a Professor of Microbiology at Harvard, Fildes bragged that Heydrich's murder "was
the first notch on my pistol."
Man and an Umbrella
If the cause of Heydrich's death is unclear, that of Georgi
Ivanov Markov is not. Markov had been
a successful Bulgarian playwright in
Sofia. As comrade of artists, actresses and performers
in the state theaters, he came in close contact with the leaders of the
Communist party and government officials who mixed with the performers, partied
with them and conducted furtive affairs.
In 1969 Markov defected. He soon
found a job with the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), covering the cultural
affairs of Eastern Europe. In his
off-hours he wrote and broadcast political commentary for Radio Free Europe.
Corruption was his favorite target and he used his
experience in the theater scene to portray a vivid picture of
aparatchikluxury amidst the general poverty in
Bulgaria. He recounted his personal memories of senior party leaders
including descriptions of their intimate behavior and occasionally giving the
names of their mistresses.
On September 7, 1978 Markov was returning from lunch when he felt a sharp
sudden pain in the back of his right thigh.
It was the point of an umbrella.
A powerfully built man had poked him as he passed.
That evening Markov became
ill. His health deteriorated rapidly and on September 11th he
died. During the autopsy the pathologists
noticed what they took to be a tiny metal pinhead in Markov's right
thigh. They summoned the British Anti- Terrorist
Squad who took the tiny pellet to Porton Down.
The pellet turned out to a 1.52 millimeter spherical jeweler's watch
bearing. Two holes had been drilled
through it at right angles to each other producing an X-shaped hollow in the
pellet. The holes were empty.
Two week earlier, on August 26th, Vladimir Kostov had suffered a similar
stinging sensation in his back while leaving the Metro station under the Arc de
Triomphe. Kostov, another Bulgarian
defector developed a raging fever, but recovered. Acting on a hunch the British
examined an X-ray of Kostov's back and discovered a pellet identical to that
which had been taken from Markov's thigh.
Kostov was called to the hospital and the pellet removed.
Because Kostov had been wearing a bulky sweater at the time of
his encounter, the pellet had not penetrated as deeply as
Markov's. A coating of wax, intended to melt at
body temperature had only partly melted and only a portion of the 450 micrograms
of the pellets contents had entered Kostov. Chemical analysis of the remainder
was clear. The contents were
ricin. The ancient Gypsy poison was still being
used in the Twentieth Century.