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The poison-tipped umbrella: the death of Georgi Markov in 1978 – archive

Defector’s mystery death

by Lindsay Mackie and John Andrews
12 September 1978

A post-mortem examination is to be held today to determine what killed a Bulgarian playwright who defected to the West in 1969.

Georgi Ivanov Markov, aged 49, died yesterday in a London hospital of septicaemia, a form of blood poisoning. Before he died he claimed that he had been stabbed with an umbrella by a stranger who bumped into him last Thursday evening in the Strand.

Mr Markov was on his way from work with the BBC Bulgarian service at Bush House. Mr Peter Frankel, the head of the BBC East European Services, described Mr Markov as an “outstanding broadcaster and writer.” He had heard about Mr Markov’s fears that he had been stabbed but added that the broadcaster had been in poor health and had kidney trouble.

A puncture mark was found on Mr Markov’s thigh, but the fact that his death did not lead to a post-mortem examination immediately may mean that the police are sceptical about Mr Markov’s known fears of the Bulgarian secret agents.

Mr Markov was married to Annabel Rilke, aged 36, the daughter of the former head of the BBC’s English by Radio Service. The couple had a two-year-old daughter.

But the Bulgarian government has in the past made clear its concern about the service as a source of Western news and comment and one broadcaster with long experience of the sensitivity aroused East European countries by this work said last night that Mr Markov’s suspicion about the umbrella was “not entirely impossible.”

Radio talks may hold key to umbrella death: post-mortem finds ‘no natural causes’

by Lindsay Mackie
13 September 1978

Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov may have died because of his political broadcasts to his home country through the American backed Radio Free Europe. Yesterday the Special Branch and Scotland Yard’s Anti-Terrorist Squad were trying to establish both how and why Mr Markov died. Mr Markov worked in the Eastern European section of this BBC Overseas Service in Bush House in the Aldwych, London. He broadcast a regular programme to Bulgaria on cultural affairs in Britain. The BBC said yesterday that Mr Markov contributed no political content for transmission but that he had worked regularly for both Radio Free Europe and and Deutsche Welle as a freelance.

Radio Free Europe is funded by the United States. Deutsche Welle comes from West Germany and both are considered “hard-nosed” Western propaganda and information stations.

Mr Markov had often expressed uncertainty and even fear about the security of his life. For Radio Free Europe, Mr Markov did scripts based on his memoirs – which contain much critical material of Bulgarian politics and politicians.

Mr Teo Lirkoff, a Bulgarian who worked alongside Mr Markov was also one of the author’s closest friends, said yesterday that Mr Markov had told him in detail about the incident in which is his thigh was pierced by an umbrella in the street outside Bush House.

Mr Markov told him that a well-built man with a foreign accent had pushed him in the leg with the point of his umbrella and said “I am sorry” and disappeared into a taxi. Mr Lirkoff said that his friend was complaining of pain and feeling weak five hours later when the two men left Bush House to return to their homes in South London.

The next day Mr Markov’s 36-year-old English wife Annabel and Mr Lirkoff, appalled at the deterioration in Mr Markov’s condition took him to St James’s hospital in Balham, South London where Mr Lirkoff warned doctors “that this might be no ordinary casualty.”

This is an edited extract.

An umbrella similar to the one used to kill dissident Georgi Markov is seen in an exhibit at the new International Spy Museum in Washington. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Markov death now a case of murder

by David Pallister
30 September 1978

Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian who died in mysterious circumstances 18 days ago, was murdered, Scotland Yard said yesterday. Evidence to back this comes from the discovery of a tiny metal pellet in Mr Markov’s leg which is identical to a pellet removed from the back of another Bulgarian exile earlier this week. The second pellet, which is now being examined at the Metropolitan Police laboratory, was taken from Mr Vladimir Kostov, former head of the Paris Bureau of the Bulgarian State Radio and TV network. He was granted political asylum last June and lives in Paris.

Three days after Mr Markov’s death – from an illness which the dead man had alleged was the result of being prodded with a poison-tipped umbrella – Mr Kostov claimed that he had been the victim of a similar attack in Paris three weeks earlier.

Mr Kostov said that as he was leaving the Arc de Triomphe Metro station on August 27 he heard a crack which sounded like an airgun report and felt a sting on the right side of his back. Although the wound became inflamed he quickly recovered. The existence of a pellet, found by doctors on Tuesday and in the presence of two Scotland Yard detectives, strengthens suspicions that the umbrella with which Mr Markov was injured was a sophisticated gun.

The size of the two spherical pellets almost certainly rules out a whole range of possible poisons, according to toxicologists. The pellets were made of 90 per cent platinum and 10 per cent iridium, a specialist alloy used in high-temperature electronics. Two holes had been bored at right angles into the centre, and the one removed from Mr Kostov still contained traces of some “material.” The diameter was 1.7 millimetres, smaller than a pin head.

Markov was ‘unlawfully killed’

by Gareth Parry
3 January 1979

Mr Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian defector who broadcast anti-Communist propaganda back to Communist countries died slowly and painfully as a rare poison seeped into his bloodstream from a pin-head sized pellet implanted in his leg. But the identity of his assassin remains a mystery, an inquest heard yesterday.

Mr Markov, aged 49, whose death last September brought the fantasy world of James Bond to reality as it was followed by an attack on another Bulgarian defector and broadcaster. Mr Vladimir Rostov, who was similarly stabbed in the back in Paris, but survived, is still under investigation by Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist squad.

But yesterday, the drama behind the attempts to save Mr Markov’s life, and the efforts to trace the poison which brought in experts in bacterial warfare agents from the Ministry of Defence establishment at Porton Down, Wiltshire, was told to a coroner in London. After two hours of pathological evidence, Mr Gavin Thurston, the Inner West London coroner, said that under new investigation he was prevented from returning a verdict of murder or manslaughter.

“Mr Markov has died of toxaemia caused by the implantation of a metal pellet containing ricin, and that it is quite impossible that this was done by Mr Markov himself.”

Continue reading here and here.

by Martin Hodgson
20 June 2008

Scotland Yard detectives have twice visited Bulgaria in three months in a final attempt to solve the murder of Georgi Markov, in which the Bulgarian dissident was jabbed with a poisoned umbrella while waiting for a London bus in 1978.

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