Trotsky and his wife Natalia in 1937. Following the attack, Trotsky died of his wounds in hospital. Mercader was put on trial and was imprisoned for nearly 20 years. Photograph: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
On the evening of 20 August 1940, a man known as Frank Jacson called at a large house in the suburbs of Mexico City, and asked to see the ‘Old Man’ – as everyone called its celebrated resident, Leon Trotsky.
A few minutes later, the tip of the axe was buried more than two inches 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, which will reopen in a new building to accommodate thousands of other artefacts that have emerged from the shadows.
The story of the ice axe is a convoluted one, befitting the extraordinary and macabre story of the Trotsky assassination. After the 1940 press conference, it 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 deciding to put 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. For the avid collector, who lives in Boca Raton, Florida, the ice axe had become something of an obsession.
“It was a search that took me 40 years, and up lots of blind allies and lots of misinformation,” 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 on Wednesday, Salas denied any knowledge of the sale. Trotsky’s grandson, Volkov, said he was unconcerned about the axe’s fate.
“Frankly, we are not interested in this,” he told the Guardian. “I never did the DNA test. I was not going to accept being part of a business deal for that woman.”
“It has no significance,” 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.
“Who knows if it is the real axe?” he added.
Melton said he had authenticated the artefact beyond doubt and by several methods. There is a paper trail confirming that it passed into Salas’ possession. It bears the stamp of the Austrian manufacturer, Werkgen Fulpmes, a detail that was not made public; it is of the same dimensions as those recorded in the police report and it still bears the rust mark left by assassin’s bloody fingerprint, identical to the one in the photograph from the 1940 press conference.
Melton also believes he has also solved one of the enduring mysteries about Trotsky’s murder. Why, if the killer had an automatic pistol and a 13in dagger, did he resort to the ice axe?
Two sons of the 1917 Russian revolution, Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, were locked in rivalry that – by the nature of the two men – could only end in death.
Stalin approved a final plan for Trotsky’s assassination in 1939. It comprised two parallel plots: the first was a frontal assault, led by David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist who was also an agent for Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD.
On 24 May 1940 Siqueiros and a team of hitmen, dressed as policemen and soldiers, raked Trotsky’s house with more than 200 bullets, but the intended victim and his wife Natalia survived.
It seemed to be a miraculous escape, but proved to be only a short reprieve. A back-up assassination plot was already in motion.
Two years earlier, at the congress of Trotsky’s Fourth International in Paris, a lonely young New Yorker and ardent Trotskyite, Sylvia Ageloff, was introduced to a dashing 25-year-old called Jacques Mornard, supposedly the son of a Belgian diplomat.
His real name was Ramón Mercader, a Spanish communist whose mother, a loyal Stalinist, had put him up to the task of killing Trotsky.
Ageloff was persuaded to move to Mexico City to work for the Trotsky family. Mercader told her that to move with her, he would have to adopt a false identity to avoid being pursued for military service. He would go under the name of Frank Jacson (the NKVD forgers misspelled Jackson on his passport).
Ageloff accepted the explanation and the Trotsky entourage grew accustomed to see him drive her to the compound every morning.
On August 20 1940, Mercader was making his 10th visit to the house.
He told the guards he was planning to publish an article in a magazine and wanted Trotsky to look at the draft. Since the May attack, however, a new level of security had been introduced. There was a second door with a lock that was controlled from a guard tower. If Mercader was going to escape after killing Trotsky, the guards in the tower would have to let him out.
“The only chance he had was to kill him silently and then exit as a guest before they discovered the body,” Melton said.
A pistol would clearly not work in that case, and a dagger could not be guaranteed to kill Trotsky outright. By previous experience, the NKVD recommended blunt force to the back of the head to guarantee a completely silent death; to do the job Mercader stole the ice axe from his landlord’s son.
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 one-man 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 Mercader into his study, Trotsky sat down to read his article, and the assassin attacked.
Trotsky let out a long scream and fought with his assailant until the guards arrived.
“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 on Wednesday. “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 in hospital. Mercader was put on trial and imprisoned for nearly 20 years.
During his time in jail, his Soviet handlers ensured he was as comfortable as possible, sending money each week and even arranging a girlfriend for him: a Mexican starlet called Roquella, who became his wife and accompanied him to Moscow after his release.
Mercader died of cancer in Cuba in 1978, with Roquella by his side. 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.”