The Astonishing True Story Of The Poisoned Umbrella Assassination

This article forms part of the IFLScience exciting editorial calendar for 2023.


Dr. Beccy Corkill


Dr. Beccy Corkill

Custom Content Manager

Beccy is a custom content producer who holds a PhD in Biological Science, a Master’s in Parasites and Disease Vectors, and a Bachelor’s in Human Biology and Forensic Science.

Custom Content Manager

Portrait of Man in Dark Suit and Leather Gloves Holding Umbrella Like a Rifle on Black Background. Classic British Gentleman. Vintage Style and Elegance. Vintage Style. Retro Fashion.

You were killed by my umbrella-ella-ella. 

Image credit: Jeremy Walter/Shutterstock

On September 7, 1978, around 1.30 pm, Bulgarian BBC broadcaster Georgi Markov was casually waiting on Waterloo Bridge for a bus when he felt a sharp jab in the back of his right thigh, and from there it all went downhill for him.

When he turned around he saw a person picking up a dropped umbrella – this person apologized in a foreign accent and then proceeded to hail a taxi and left the scene. Thinking nothing of it, Markov continued on his jaunt to the BBC where he worked. When he was at his office, he noticed blood on his jeans and was in great pain. He showed a colleague a red spot on the back of his thigh that was likened to an angry pimple.


Unfortunately, that evening he became extremely ill and was unable to broadcast that night – he was vomiting and had a high temperature. The next day he was so ill that he had trouble speaking and so he was taken to hospital. His blood pressure was normal, but his pulse was very fast.

When his right thigh was examined, there was a circular 6-centimeter (2.4-inch) diameter hardened inflamed area, in the center was a 2-millimeter (0.08-inch) puncture mark, although X-rays of the thigh did not reveal any foreign objects. The doctor at the time took blood on admission and refrigerated it for future toxicological examinations.

Markov’s condition worsened and he stopped passing urine (due to renal tubular necrosis), his basal temperature dropped, and he started throwing up bloody vomit. This continued until he suffered from cardiac arrest on September 11, 1978, which resulted in Markov’s death.

When looking at his body, the doctors discovered that his white blood cell count was over three times the normal value. This led medical officials at the time to think he was originally killed by septicemia. However, blood cultures disagreed with this diagnosis. 


As his death was slightly suspicious, Scotland Yard investigated further. The post-mortem examination was conducted by a Home Office pathologist and a large block of tissue was excised from his right thigh, where the puncture mark had been.

Then, the Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE) at Porton Down (a Ministry of Defence research facility) analyzed the tissue through additional microscopy. Only by some luck did the team find a foreign object:

“We were deciding where to take a piece for our work and I saw that Rufus [another doctor] had put in a pin to keep his orientation on a piece of loose tissue and had pushed it to the hilt, obviously to give him some kind of mark. Idly, as one does, I just tipped this with my gloved finger to make sure that that was what it was. To my alarm, this pinhead moved an inch across the tissue; it was a loose piece of metal. It was really very lucky that it did not roll off the post-mortem table on to the floor, under the cupboard and down the drain. But it did not and we put it in a pot for further examination at a later date. We took our tissues and suitably processed them,” Dr David Gall, the forensic toxicologist that led the post-mortem examination, told the Royal Society in 1980.

This loose piece of metal was similar to a metallic bead found on a woman’s handbag, Gall added. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a teeny tiny pellet that had two small holes drilled in at 90 degrees to create an X-shaped cavity. This cavity would have been able to hold a very small amount of poison, which led people to believe Markov did not die of natural causes and that this pellet may have been plugged up with a coating that was designed to melt at body temperature. The pellet was likely shot into Markov’s thigh, the coating melted and allowed the toxin to be absorbed into his body. It was thought that the pellet was implanted by an object – like the tip of a specially designed umbrella.


But, what killed him?

Unfortunately, there was no trace of poison in the pellet or in Markov. So, the experts had to do some detective work relying on the symptoms that the deceased exhibited. They concluded that the poison had to be extremely toxic in small quantities and the forensic team investigated toxic materials that could produce the same illness and symptoms. They ruled out illnesses caused by either bacterial or viral infection and so looked at various toxins.

It was concluded that this may have been the glycoprotein ricin. This poison is made by the caster bean plant (Ricinus communis) and it is easily purified from the processed castor bean waste material, and as little as 0.5 milligrams can kill an adult. The symptoms of ricin poisoning often occur within eight hours of the initial exposure and they include vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, and high temperature – all of which Markov suffered with.  

To further confirm the ricin diagnosis, scientists administrated the same quantity of the poison to a pig. The pig, unfortunately, died within 24 hours and displayed the same symptoms as Markov. So, all circumstantial evidence pointed towards Georgi Markov being poisoned by ricin.


Why was Markov assassinated?

To set the scene, for the latter part of the 20th Century, Bulgaria was closely aligned with the Soviet Union. In fact, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was such an enthusiastic ally to the Soviets that it was basically regarded as a loyal satellite state during the Cold War. And, as with any other Soviet state, Bulgaria had its own secret police who were closely tied to the KGB. This was bad news for any political dissidents.

Markov was born in 1929 in Bulgaria and lived there for many decades, but while there he was always walking a fine line. He was a popular writer and close acquaintance of Todor Zhivkov – the General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party – and his family. This meant Markov had access to top-secret files, which allowed him to produce writing that helped bolster a “heroic” official vision of State Security forces. However, in the 1960s Markov’s relationship with the Bulgarian government was on unstable ground as he began to push the boundaries in his writing style and topics.

Consequently, he decided to move to London in 1970, but in 1971 the Bulgarian administration refused to extend his passport. He was tried in absentia in 1972 and was charged with defection, sentenced to six and a half years in prison, and labeled a traitor. Rather than return and risk his career (and life) back in Bulgaria, Markov decided it was safer to stay, work, and live in England. He ended up working for the BBC and conducted work for Radio Free Europe (RFE). He was known for being a harsh critic of the communist party and of Zhivkov in particular.


Three months before his death, Markov received an anonymous call saying if he did not stop writing for RFE then he would be executed in a refined way that was out of the ordinary.

Unfortunately for Markov, these were not idle threats, as assassins had already made attempts on his life before this and they had even attacked other Bulgarian dissidents.

In June 1978, a Bulgarian State Radio and Television correspondent, Vladimir Kostov – another defected Bulgarian – was residing in Paris. A couple of months after he moved to the city, he also felt a blow to the back of the leg which left a similar red mark to Markov. Kostov went into hospital for 12 days, but he did eventually recover. A few weeks later, an identical pellet would be found in Markov’s body.

Years after the assassination on Waterloo Bridge, a Dane of Italian origin called Francesco Gullino was identified by a Bulgarian journalist as a renowned Soviet-era assassin. It is believed that Gullino came to London to neutralize Markov on the orders of the Bulgarian secret services, an order that was sanctioned by Zhivkov. In 1989, when Zhivkov’s regime collapsed, a stack of special umbrellas was found in the interior ministry.


All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.  


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