“Today I shot Lenin”, Fanny Kaplan, a dark-haired, 28-year-old Russian revolutionary recorded in a police statement, in late August 1918. “I did it on my own.”
A few days earlier the Bolshevik leader had been leaving a meeting at the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow, when Kaplan had called out to him. Lenin turned towards her. She fired three shots in quick succession at the man she considered a traitor to the socialist cause.
The first bullet missed its mark, passing through his coat to hit a colleague. The next two were more effective, one lodging in his left shoulder, the other cutting through his neck to puncture his left lung. Despite the severity of his injuries, Lenin survived. Kaplan was arrested and interrogated, but refused to implicate anyone else.
Lenin was shocked and fearful that there might be other assassins plotting to murder him. He refused to leave the fortress-like Kremlin to have the bullets removed, and it is speculated that they contributed to the strokes that eventually killed him in 1924. Kaplan might have got her target after all.
Women are not generally expected to kill in cold blood. We see them in supportive roles, as wives and mothers. It’s hard to imagine those who give life, taking it away
Almost a century later and the image of the female assassin has lost none of its potency.
The killing, this week, of Kim Jong-nam, the older half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport, has gripped the world. The exiled Jong-nam had criticised his half-brother’s ability to lead the country. He was seen as an embarrassment, traitor, and potentially a rival leader, and he - like Lenin - felt that his life was in danger.
But what has given the greatest cause for shock is that the murder was apparently carried out by two young women. Police have detained two female suspects, both in their twenties. Both are thought to have claimed to police that they were persuaded to attack Jong-nam as a “prank”.
Until the facts are established it is impossible to know whether these women were informed assassins, hapless dupes or somewhere inbetween. But their defence of ignorance has well-established precedents.
“I played the stupid little housewife”, claimed Nina von Stauffenberg, wife of Claus the famous would-be assassin of Hitler, after her arrest in 1944, saying she was taken up with “children and nappies and dirty laundry.” British female special agents captured during the war often took a similar line, some surviving execution as a result.
Simply, women are not generally expected to kill in cold blood. We see them in supportive roles, as wives and mothers. It’s hard to imagine those who give life, taking it away - sometimes to order. Yet women have done just this throughout history, whenever given motive and opportunity.
Perhaps the most famous female assassin was the Hebrew widow Judith, who talked her way into her enemy’s camp, bewitching and beheading the invading Assyrian general Holofernes in an act that has inspired artists for centuries. At once seductive and virtuous; victim and aggressor, Judith set the standard for deadly women.
After her head was severed from her shoulders it was reportedly taken from the basket and publicly slapped
It’s an image we still love; the devil with an angel’s face. Alleged Russian spy Anna Chapman, arrested in 2010 and subsequently released, is almost always referred to as “glamorous”. Tabloids plastered pictures of her in low-cut dresses, her flame red hair flowing, across their pages. While Amanda Knox, who was cleared by Italy’s Supreme Court, in 2015, of murdering her flatmate Meredith Kercher, will forever be known “Foxy Knoxy”.
The more fascinating story about the political motivations of female assassins, is often lost in the focus on their looks. We fetishise them, delighting in hearing tales of sex, subterfuge and feminine wiles.
It’s why the name Charlotte Corday endures. The 25-year-old assassinated Jean-Paul Marat, one of the radical Jacobin voices of the French Revolution, in 1793, in the hopes that it would end the violence. She sweet-talked her way into his house under the pretense of having information about a coup and then stabbed him with a six-inch kitchen knife while he sat in the bath. Like Kaplan, Corday claimed to have been working independently. “I alone conceived the plan and executed it”, she testified.
Corday was guillotined four days later. Her insistence, to the last, that her fatal stabbing of Marat with a single blow was down to luck, only increased the mystique around her. After her head was severed from her shoulders it was reportedly taken from the basket and publicly slapped.
Special punishments, it seems, are reserved for female assassins. Once it was clear that Fanny Kaplan was not going to incriminate anyone else in her would-be attempt on Lenin, she was steered into a Kremlin courtyard and shot in the back of her head. Her body was then placed in a barrel and set alight.
Yet solo female assassins have traditionally been harder for the public to accept than those working under orders. At one time, it seemed the only way to rationalise them was to label them as deranged.
In 1914, a 33-year-old Russian woman Khioniya Guseva attempted to kill Grigori Rasputin. She stabbed him in the abdomen, shouting “I have killed the antichrist!”, but the famously resilient faith healer to Tsar Nicholas II managed to stagger away. Apprehended, she was found insane and detained in an asylum.
If people were less likely to suspect a woman, they certainly wouldn’t expect to find machine guns secreted under piles of blankets
Yet when Rasputin was killed by a group of male conspirators less than two years later, no questions were raised about their mental states.
Most political assassins, however do not operate alone. The Israeli secret service, Mossad, used female operatives in the 1970s and beyond. While in 1970 Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin helped co-found the German militant Baader-Meinhof Gang. Along with other female members, they committed a series of assassinations, sometimes hiding their weapons in a baby’s pushchair. If people were less likely to suspect a woman, they certainly wouldn’t expect to find machine guns secreted under piles of blankets.
That is the great advantage of the female assassin: they arouse less suspicion. A bonus can be the perceived snub by their enemies, who are insulted that a comrade has died at the hands of a mere woman.
Of course, such incidents also make good headlines. In 1954 the Puerto Rican independence-fighter Lolita Lebron led an armed assault on the United States House of Representatives, wounding five members of Congress.
'When Terror Wore Lipstick’ screamed the front page of The Washington Post, accompanied by a photograph of the attractive Lebron. It’s hard to imagine a male assassin getting quite the same attention for his appearance.
But perhaps the deadliest assassination undertaken by a woman took place in 1989. Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister of India after the murder of his mother, Indira in 1984.
Seven years later he too would be assassinated while out campaigning. Bending down to touch Gandhi’s feet, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, a trained suicide bomber with a militant Tamil group, detonated a belt loaded with 700g of explosives hidden under her clothes. The explosion killed Gandhi and Rajaratnam and at least 25 others.
The ability of women to approach targets at close range is well-documented. Indeed, Islamic State has recently started to use female suicide bombers, most notably 26-year-old Hasna Aitboulahcen who blew herself up during the 2015 terror attack on Paris.
Given the number of female assassins in the history books, it might seem surprising that the gender of Kim Jong-nam’s alleged murderers has made headlines at all. Yet it is our enduring belief that women don’t kill, which has enabled them to be so successful at it. Now perhaps it’s time to open our eyes.
The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley is published by Macmillan. To order your copy for £10.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk. Clare's new book ‘The Women Who Flew for Hitler’ is published in June 2017.