Tales of murder, espionage, assassinations and international hit men—they sound like something out of a James Bond movie, or a Hollywood blockbuster film. Stories of mysterious women dressed in cloaks and wigs knocking off unassuming diplomats with undetectable vials of poison or discrete lethal injections and fleeing the scene. Men in disguise sneaking up behind foreign dignitaries and spraying them with invisible mists, never letting their presence known, minus before they drop to the ground. Clandestine meetings under the veil of night from which well-known high-profile politicians never return. These are the terrifying stories of real-life espionage and spy operations that make the hairs stand up on the backs of our heads.
It’s not only murders and assassinations that have horror movie plot lines either. There are endless accounts of unexplained mysteries and disappearances related to spies that will send chills down your spine. Journalists writing dissent pieces and suddenly vanishing shortly after, never to be seen again. Or worse, their bodies discovered days, weeks or months later, subjected to horrific atrocities. There are non-fiction tales of secret agents being tortured for information, victims of gruesome beatings, water tactics, extreme temperatures, psychological warfare and other frightening practices. There are daredevil accounts of harrowing situations where spies risked everything not to blow their cover, along with the times their covers were blown and they faced brutal consequences.
Perhaps most fascinating is that these true chilling spy stories know no gender. For every account of a Jason Bourne-like young man taking out his enemies with guns and ammo comes another account of a terrifying femme fatale using disguises, fake names, undercover operational tactics and other forms of deception to coax information out of politicians, soldiers, aristocrats, business magnates and other high-profile subjects. Many of these women used their smoldering good looks and seductive charm to lure men into traps, at times grooming their male subjects for months or years. Using their beauty and sensuality, these female spies knew exactly how to dupe their assignments into divulging information. Men and women alike worked under secret code names and were ruthless in their pursuits, brave and ballsy, at time heartless and always willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice to deliver their intel.
Read through these chilling, eery and sometimes extraordinary stories of real-life secret agents.
15 Kim Jong-Nam Murder
On Feb. 14, 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the exiled half brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was waiting to board a flight to Macau at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport when he suddenly collapsed. He had reportedly told airline staff his face was feeling “extremely painful” moments before he dropped to the floor. He was rushed to the hospital where he died shortly after arriving. Within days, surveillance photos emerged of a suspicious woman wearing a white “LOL” shirt walking through the airport carrying a handbag. The photos prompted an investigation and she was soon apprehended, along with another woman. However, in an ironic twist, the two women claimed they were both duped by North Korean secret agents who’d been grooming them for three months. According to the suspected assassins, a strange man befriended them three months before the murder and convinced them to pull a “prank” that would be featured on a spoof TV show. The prank involved splashing a man in his face with a liquid--something they said they rehearsed multiple times. Kim Jong-nam had survived an assassination attempt in 2012 and reportedly begged his half brother to spare his life.
14 Alexander Litvinenko Poisoning
On Nov. 1, 2006, former Russian FSB secret service officer Alexander Litvinenko met two long-time work associates and fellow ex-spies in a posh bar in London’s swanky Millennium Hotel. Since Litvinenko didn’t drink alcohol, his friend offered him some of his tea, saying he wasn't going to finish it. Litvinenko poured himself a cup and drank three to four sips of it over the course of their meeting. They wrapped up and he headed home.
That night, Litvinenko fell mysteriously ill. He was rushed to the hospital where doctors and nurses were baffled by what could be ailing him. Seventeen days later the former secret agent was dead. An autopsy revealed he was the first ever victim of lethal polonium-210-induced acute radiation syndrome. Subsequent investigations found traces of the highly toxic and extremely rare polonium on the table and chairs where the trio had been seated. Litvinenko, who’d left the FSB in the 90s after claiming he’d been ordered to kill a Russian oligarch, had been publicly critical of Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. Just before his death, he dictated his final words to a trusted friend who released them posthumously: "You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world, Mr. Putin, will reverberate in your ears for the rest of your life."
13 Saleem Shahzad Disappearance
Saleem Shahzad was a Pakistani investigative journalist who’d recently begun writing articles connecting the military and al-Qaida. In October of 2010, the journalist was contacted by Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency (ISI) and ordered to meet with some of their agents at its headquarters. After the meeting, Shahzad reported being terrified for his life and contacted the Human Rights Watch (HRW), saying the thought something was going to happen to him. On May 20, 2011, he met with an American journalist, telling him: “Look, I'm in danger… I’ve got to get out of Pakistan.” Nine days later, Shahzad’s body was found in the Upper Jhelum Canal in Islamabad with signs he’d been tortured. HRW said the organization had a "reliable interlocutor" who said Shahzad had been abducted by the ISI agency. After his death, the United States said its own intelligence had discovered "reliable and conclusive" information implicating senior ISI agents in the his death.
12 Anna Chapman Spy Ring
Anna Chapman was a sultry redhead who frequented New York’s hot nightlife scene. Those who saw her in the clubs said they thought she was either a “billionaire” or a “hooker,” as she would show up in platform heels and designer clothes, flirting lasciviously with every man in sight. She was friends with high-profile men such as Nouriel Roubini, a business school professor nicknamed “Dr. Doom” who is credited with predicting the global economic meltdown.
What her many gentlemen suitors did not know, however, was that the sexy femme fatale was actually operating as a secret spy for Russia’s external intelligence agency, the SVR. On June 26, 2010, the redhead met with a man at a Manhattan coffee shop who she thought was a Russian consular officer. However, unbeknownst to Chapman, whose real name was Anna Vasil’yevna Kushchyenko, he was actually an undercover FBI agent. Chapman grew suspicious when he offered her a fake passport and the young woman called her father, desperately asking for advice. The phone call led to her downfall and the next day she was arrested, along with nine other alleged Russian spies in the largest espionage bust since the Cold War.
11 Math Genius's Bondage Death Mystery
Gareth Williams was a brilliant math genius who worked as a codebreaker for the British Secret Intelligence Service. In August of 2010, the naked body of the 31-year-old rising MI6 star was discovered in a padlocked gym bag inside a bathtub in a London safe house. The key to the padlock was inside the North Face bag underneath his remains. Investigators determined his corpse had been there for a week before it was found. An investigation revealed the deceased codebreaker had visited several bondage websites although they were "sporadic and isolated" and he reportedly never frequented sites about claustrophilia – a sexual interest in being confined in small spaces. Nevertheless, conspiracies about sex games gone bad abounded during the investigation. His family, however, claimed fingerprints were wiped from the scene as part of an agency coverup. The Cambridge post-grad dropout had worked with the U.S. National Security Agency and the FBI prior to his death, and the State Department requested that no details of his work be released. His death, which was ruled “suspicious and unexplained,” remains a chilling mystery.
10 "The White Rabbit" Torture And Escape
In February 1944, amid the throes of World War II, a man claiming to be a British pilot named Kenneth Dodkin was captured by the Gestapo in Paris and taken back to their headquarters for interrogation. The Nazis tortured him brutally, repeatedly submerging him in ice cold water until he passed out and then using artificial respiration to revive him before repeating the process. Gestapo officers used tactics like electrocuting his genitals and beating him nearly to a pulp. He never revealed that he was in fact Forest Frederick Edward Yeo-Thomas, an infamous spy also known as “The White Rabbit.” After attempting to escape prison twice, the Gestapo set him to Buchenwald concentration camp where, with German officers still unaware of his true identity, he managed to organize a resistance. After using many failed disguises, the secret agent finally escaped by shooting a Nazi point blank and fleeing to the Allied lines where he arrived in April of 1945, becoming one of a select few to escape Nazi concentration camps.
9 Lillehammer Affair
On July 23, 1973, two assassins climbed out of a vehicle in Lillehammer, Norway, and brutally gunned down a young man on his way to the movies with his pregnant girlfriend. The hit had been carried out by secret agents from Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency and its target was Ali Hassan Salameh, the leader of Palestine’s militant group Black September. However, they horrifically got the wrong guy. It turned out the young man they murdered in the street was an innocent waiter named Ahmed Bouchiki.
One of the assassins was Sylvia Rafael, Israel’s top female spy hitwoman at the time. After her arrest, she told authorities she became suspicious about the legitimacy of their operation when the man they were following failed to turn around even once. She said she knew Salameh would have been more privy to secret agents tailing him. Yet she remained silent and the hit continued. The incident sparked global outrage and Rafael was convicted of planned murder, espionage, and the use of forged documents.
8 The Umbrella Murder
On Sept. 7, 1978, Georgi Markov, a dissident BBC writer from Bulgaria, walked across the Waterloo Bridge on the River Thames and stood to wait for a bus. He reportedly felt a “slight sharp pain” in the back of his thigh which felt like a bug bite. When he turned around, he saw a man lean over, pick an umbrella up off the ground and rush to grab a taxi on the other side of the street. By the Time he got to his office, he could see a small red, pimple-like bump on his thigh where he’d felt the prick. That night, he came down with a horrible fever and was rushed to the hospital where he died four days later of ricin poisoning. An autopsy discovered a pinhead-sized metal pellet in the victim’s leg and, although KGB defectors have confirmed the Russian spy agency was behind the assassination, the suspect—Francesco Gullino AKA “Picadilly” — remains a free man living in Europe.
7 Beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots
Sir Francis Walsingham was a cunning and ruthless spy in the 16th Century who worked for Queen Elizabeth I of England. Although officially a principal secretary to the Queen, he was commonly known as her “spymaster.” After a Dutch resistance leader was murdered in 1584, the clever, Cambridge-educated Protestant spy put together a group of signatories that vowed to track down and murder anyone found to be conspiring against the Queen. The following year, he helped pass a parliamentary act that would put any person attempting to claim the throne on trial for plotting against the Queen.
With this legislation in place, he then set up a trap for Mary, Queen of Scots, a rival of Queen Elizabeth who’d up until then been locked in a manor house surrounded by a moat. Although her letters were screened, Walsingham set up a clandestine operation that allowed her to smuggle letters in and out of her prison house in a beer keg. Mary was assured the letters were covert; however, Walsingham’s men secretly deciphered and read them. In 1586, the secret agents intersected a letter detailing a plot to kill the queen and free Mary. After slaughtering 14 conspirators, Mary was put on trial under the legislation he’d set up, found guilty, and sentenced for beheading.
Her execution was a gruesome sight. As she knelt on a cushion before the executioner’s block, blindfolded with a white veil embroidered in gold, the first blow missed her neck and struck the back of her head. The second blow severed part of her neck but left a small piece of sinew. The executioner then used an ax to slice through the sinew, picked up her head and yelled “God save the Queen." As he was yelling this, the head dropped to the ground, leaving a red-headed wig still in his hands and revealing that Mary actually had short, stubby gray hair beneath her wig. As if in a grand finale, Mary’s tiny dog then emerged from the dead woman’s underskirt, now merely a detached body, and walked to its slain owner. According to reports, the little Skye terrier had to be forcibly removed, refusing to leave its owner.
6 Murder Of Stepan Bandera
On Oct. 15 1959, Stepan Bandera was standing outside an apartment building in Munich when the Ukrainian political activist suddenly fell to the ground without any explanation. Not long after he was dead and an autopsy determined he’d be poisoned by cyanide gas. Everyone was mystified by how the leader of the nationalist movement of Ukraine had been murdered. An investigation later uncovered that Bandera had been a victim of one of the Russian’s notorious KGB defectors named Bohdan Stashynsky. The assassin had been ordered to slay Bandera by the head of the Soviet spy agency Alexander Shelepin, along with the Russian premier himself, Nikita Khrushchev. Stashynsky was trained at age 25 with a specialized gun that sprayed a jet of poison gas from a crushed up capsule of cyanide. The poison triggered a cardiac arrest and makes it look as if the victim had simply had a heart attack.
5 Mata Hari's Execution Kiss
Mata Hari was a seductive, sultry exotic dancer and gorgeous courtesan who led a double life as a secret agent in the early part of the 20th century. The Dutch-born beauty, whose full name was Margaretha Geertruida "Margreet" MacLeod, was known to be overtly flirtatious and provocative, captivating men with her sensual charms and flaunting her body on and off the dance floor. She was the mistress of millionaire Emile Etienne Guimet and lover of WWI Russian pilot Vadim Maslov who was wounded in 1916. Following Maslov's accident, she went to visit her lover in the hospital where she was intercepted by French intelligence agents who said they’d only let her see Maslov if she agreed to spy on Germany. A deal was struck and she was enlisted in numerous operations, one of which involved seducing a senior German general, the Crown Prince Wilhem.
She came on board; however, she accepted money from the Germans at one point in exchange for French intelligence. Over time, her trustworthiness came into question. It is still unknown whether she was indeed double crossing the French, or whether it was part of her cover. She later claimed she took the money but never revealed any secrets, noting her heart always loyal to the French. Nevertheless, she was outed and her seeming double life was exposed. She was put on trial and sentenced to execution. When she stood before the firing squad, she reportedly refused to wear a blindfold and blew a kiss to the soldiers just before they sprayed her with bullets.
4 Oleg Gordievsky poisoning 20 years later
Oleg Gordievsky was born in Russia and joined the notorious KGB spy agency in 1963. However, unbeknownst to the Russians, he grew disillusioned following the brutal Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia just a few years later and joined forces with Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency. In 1982, he was assigned to the Soviet embassy in London as the “KGB Resident-designate and he was able to pass on invaluable information, to the British including how petrified the Russians were of a NATO nuclear first strike. In 1985, however, he was ordered back to a KGB safe house in Moscow out of nowhere at which time he was drugged and interrogated by furious counter counter-intelligence agents who’d been tipped off by a rogue American CIA agent. Gordievsky got a signal back to the British who deployed an elaborate escape plan to get him back to England. Meanwhile, the Russians sentenced him to death in absentia for treason.
Over 20 years later, Gordievsy was seemingly minding his own business in England when he was rushed by ambulance to the hospital where he spent 34 hours unconscious, the victim of thallium poisoning. He recovered and later claimed a UK-based Russian business associate had given him pills he said were Xanax in an attempt to kill him.
3 Belle Boyd's Civil War Espionage
On July 4, 1861, Union army soldiers raided the Virginia home of the young Isabella Maria Boyd claiming they’d heard she had Confederate flags hidden inside. During the event, the officers hung a Union flag outside her house and cursed at her mother. Their actions infuriated her and without any warning, the feisty teenager drew a pistol and shot one of the men dead. She was exonerated by a board of inquiry, possibly due to her young age; however, she was watched closely after the incident and officers were posted outside her house. She used the situation to her advantage, charming one of the young men, Captain Daniel Keily, into giving her information. With that intel, she used a slave to smuggle the information to Confederate officers in a hollowed-out watch case. After being caught with the watch case and unable to continue with that strategy, she began physically spying on the Yankees, at one point sneaking into the closet of a room where officers were meeting and eavesdropping through the keyhole. She was arrested multiple times throughout her career as a Civil War spy and later toured the country giving lectures about her experiences as a secret agent.
2 Rasputin The Mystic
On December 30, 1916, a group of men invited Grigori Rasputin, a mystic peasant and key advisor to the Russian Tsar, to a palace in St. Petersburg where they said his wife would be arriving. Once there, they took him to a soundproof wine cellar which had been stocked with four bottles of sweet wine especially for Rasputin. According to some reports, a gramophone eerily played "Yankee Doodle" on repeat as Rasputin came in and was offered tea and pastries. As he ate and drank, the men watched him closely while they discussed politics and spirituality. As time passed and nothing happened, one of the men—Prince Felix Yusupov—went upstairs suddenly, grabbed a revolver, came back down and shot Rasputin at close range.
Among the aristocrats was Oswald Rayner, a British Secret Intelligence Service who had allegedly been plotting to assassinate the advisor, along with Yusopov and the SIS. The pastries were supposed to have been laced with potassium cyanide but had failed to kill the Tsar’s advisor. After being shot, Rasputin got back up and fled, trying to escape. The men followed him down to the freezing River Nevka where they bound him and threw him into the ice-cold water while he was still alive.
Although there are varying accounts of the evening, investigations have traced the assassination plot back to the British Secret Service and it is generally accepted that MI6 agents were involved.
1 John Stonehouse's Fake Death
John Stonehouse was a British Labour Party politician who led a double life as a secret agent for the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic military intelligence. The agent supplied the Czechs with valuable secrets about government operational plans and technical aircraft intel; however, perhaps the most shocking piece of his biography occurred on Nov. 20, 1974 when he vanished without a trace, leaving only a pile of clothes on a beach in Miami. His body was never recovered but he was presumed dead, likely by drowning. Obituaries were published about his death. However, as it would turn out, the ex-minister was actually in the throes of an elaborate fake death scheme with his mistress, Sheila Buckley. Their plan failed miserably and, after being tracked down via large bank transfers, Stonehouse was located merely a month later in Australia and promptly arrested.