Infamous ice axe that killed Trotsky donated to Washington museum
On the evening of 20 August 1940, a man known as Frank Jacson called at a house in the suburbs of Mexico City, and asked to see the ‘Old Man’ – as everyone called its celebrated resident, Leon Trotsky.
Jacson wore a raincoat which concealed a gun, a dagger and a sawn-off ice axe. A few minutes later, the tip of the axe was buried more than four centimetres into Trotsky’s skull, becoming arguably the world’s most infamous murder weapon.
The axe was fleetingly displayed at a police press conference, but then disappeared for more than six decades.
Next year, however, the bloodstained relic will go on public display at Washington’s International Spy Museum when it reopens in a new building to accommodate thousands of other artefacts that have emerged from the shadows.
After the 1940 press conference the ice axe was stored in a Mexico City evidence room for several years until it was checked out by a secret police officer, Alfredo Salas, who argued he wanted to preserve it for posterity. He passed it on his daughter, Ana Alicia, who kept it under her bed for 40 years until putting it up for sale in 2005.
Trotsky’s grandson, Esteban Volkov, offered to give blood for a DNA test – but only on condition that Salas donated the weapon to the museum at Trotsky’s house, preserved intact from the time of the murder. Salas rejected the deal.
“I am looking for some financial benefit,” she told the Guardian at the time. “I think something as historically important at this should be worth something, no?”
The weapon was eventually bought by a US private collector, Keith Melton, a prolific author of books on the history of espionage, and a founding board member of the International Spy Museum.
“It was a search that took me 40 years, and up lots of blind allies,” Melton said. He doggedly tracked down every rumour, including one claiming the Mexican president was using it as a paperweight, until Salas emerged.
Melton would not disclose what he paid Salas for the axe. Contacted yesterday, Salas denied any knowledge of the sale. Trotsky’s grandson, Volkov, said he was unconcerned about the axe’s fate.
cance,” Volkov said. “It could have been a knife or a pistol. It doesn’t have any significance that it was a pick. And it was clumsily done, too.”
Melton said he had authenticated the artefact beyond doubt and by several methods. The axe is now among 5,000 artefacts that Melton is pledging to the International Spy Museum from his collection, which also includes a British oneman submarine used in second world war raids, and one of the plates used by the Nazis to forge perfect pound notes.
According to Melton, none of his treasures has quite the eerie presence of the ice axe.
After letting Jacson, who was in reality Ramon Mercader, a Stalinist who had infiltrated Trotsky’s household, into his study, Trotsky sat down at his desk, and the assassin attacked. The pick end of the axe hit him, not at the base of his skull as intended, but on the upper right side of his head, penetrating 4.4cm.
Trotsky let out a long scream and fought with his assailant until the guards arrived and beat Mercador into submission. “I still remember looking through the open door and seeing my grandfather lying on the floor with his head bathed in blood and hearing him tell somebody to ‘keep the boy away, he shouldn’t see this’,” Volkov recalled yesterday.
“I always thought that was a sign of his humanity. Even in a moment like that he was worried about me.”
Trotsky died of his wounds a little over 24 hours later. Mercader was put on trial and imprisoned for nearly 20 years.
Mercader died of cancer in Cuba in 1978. His last words, are said to have been: “I hear it always. I hear the scream. I know he’s waiting for me on the other side.”
Police display the murder weapon and the ice axe out of hiding 40 years later
Ramon Mercader, alias Frank Jacson, a Stalinist who had infiltrated the Trotsky household in Mexico City and carried out the murder in 1940