The Orsini Bomb

In The Golden Peril from December 1937, Doc Savage encounters an unusual type of grenade: Protruding from the body of the thing speeding through the air toward them were rows of tiny spikes. Those spikes made the object look something like a prickly pear.    Every one of those tiny spikes were a plunger. Should any one of the scores of spikes on the side of that bomb touch even the slightest projection, the plunger would set off a thermite compound that would tear a score of men to tiny bits! As described, this is a very unusual type of weapon to modern readers.

Yet the secret of this death device is found in an incident that goes back to an 1858 political assassination attempt in Paris, France by an Italian against the president of France.  The Italian was a revolutionary named Felice Orsini who viewed the French President, Napoleon III, as the single person blocking Italian independence.  In 1827, Orsini traveled to England where he had a peculiar weapon constructed. The bomb had protruding horns filled with mercury fulminate that would explode upon contact and fire the main charge. Six devices were made. The bomb was put to use the next year in what became known as the Orsini Affair.  The intended target was not harmed but eight people were killed and another 142 were wounded. Felice Orsini was soon arrested, tried, and convicted.  He was executed by guillotine few months later.

The Orsini bomb did not die with its creator.  During the American Civil War a peculiar kind of hand grenade called the Hayne’s Excelsior grenade appeared that had its basis in Orsini’s design.  This was a small iron ball studded with percussion nipples designed to explode when it landed after being thrown.

For the next fifty years, European newspapers are peppered with accounts of attacks using Orsini bombs, arrests, and discovery of dozens of the bombs throughout the continent. A failed attempt on Prince Milan Obrenović of Serbia occurred in 1871. Russian Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by a group using Orsini’s bomb.  The Orsini bomb evolved into the Orsini grenade as shown in the June 1917 issue of Scientific American.