The Bulgarian Umbrella Murder of 1978

The Bulgarian Umbrella Murder of 1978

There is an amazing true story of a man being murdered by umbrella in London in 1978. But is it actually true?

There is a lot about it on Wikipedia, even a separate entry for a device known as a Bulgarian Umbrella that is capable of launching a poison pellet into the bloodstream of your intended victim. There is a replica in the Berlin spy museum. But is it real?

It is absolutely true that a Bulgarian dissident was murdered using the poison ricin in 1978. It is absolutely true that another Bulgarian had a metal pellet embedded in him a few weeks earlier, in Paris. The London man, Georgi Markov, died, but the Paris man did not.

Interestingly the long, walking-stick umbrella, and the walking cane, have both been imagined as gun-like weapons since around 1823. There is a long history, but the 1978 case became so famous that it is still remembered today even by those without a fixation on espionage. Such a gun even appeared in 2015’s movie Kingsman starring Colin Firth.

The weapon used to kill Markov has never been recovered. But he was killed by ricin enclosed in a metal pellet in a substance that dissolved into his bloodstream. It is highly unlikely that the weapon was a ‘gun’ in the sense of a weapon that uses gunpowder to fire a bullet, or pellet, out the end. It is possible that it was instead forced out of the end more slowly using compressed air or a syringe-based fluid system. But was the delivery tube an umbrella?

 Was an EpiPen-style device the murder weapon?

Was an EpiPen-style device the murder weapon?

We cover this story on our Spies of Westminster walk with AirbnbExperiences. There are several books about the murder, and it remains a fascinating mystery. My own rudimentary tests have shown that a long 1 metre umbrella is difficult to direct and control, and would have a high chance of failing. Either you miss the body of your victim, or they notice you before you get close enough, or the umbrella slides off their leg or arm. If I were tasked to assassinate a dissident, I would refuse the offer of an umbrella.

I believe a shorter device, perhaps like a modern EpiPen used to treat anaphylaxis was the weapon. Even the Berlin spy museum agrees, but the brazen daring of the umbrella is the image that sticks in the memory, and the best explanation as to why so many people remember the story.

I will be reporting back on my research in a future article.

Donald Maclean

Donald Maclean

Podcast: License to Kill

Podcast: License to Kill