ASSASSINATIONS, PRESIDENTIAL. Political assassinations were not supposed to happen in the United States of America. In Old World despotisms such extreme measures might be necessary to remove tyrants, but they were not necessary, so it was generally believed, in a Republic whose leaders were by definition responsive to the popular will. Consequently until 1901 American presidents were not even supplied with Secret Service protection. Their office doors were open to all comers; they freely walked the streets mingling with the people they served. When President Rutherford B. Hayes, for example, wanted to visit the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, he bought a railroad ticket and took the coach, just as any other American might do.
Created in the afterglow of the Enlightenment, the United States clung to that era's rationalistic, optimistic view of human nature, even after sad experiences demonstrated its limitations. William H. Seward reflected the views of a majority of Americans when he flatly declared, "Assassination is not an American practice or habit." James A. Garfield more fatalistically concluded, "Assassination can no more be guarded against than death by lightning; and it is best not to worry about either." Both Seward and Garfield later had cause to regret their too-easy reliance on Enlightenment assumptions at the expense of the irrational, dark side of human nature.
Richard Lawrence and Andrew Jackson
The first president to become an assassin's target was ironically the first to have been elected by mass popular suffrage, Andrew Jackson. On 30 January 1835 he attended a funeral service for Congressman Warren R. Davis in the hall of the House of Representatives. Aged and frail, Jackson emerged leaning on a cane. A thirty-five-year-old, English-born housepainter named Richard Lawrence stepped out from the crowd of spectators brandishing a pistol, which he fired at the president's breast from about a dozen feet away. The weapon misfired, but the sound of the exploding percussion cap sent most of the mourning dignitaries scrambling for cover. Not so the aged hero of New Orleans, who advanced on his assailant with upraised cane. Lawrence pulled out a second pistol and fired it at point-blank range, but it too misfired. By that time the would be assassin had been wrestled to the ground, and the angry president had to be restrained from thrashing him with his cane. "I know where this comes from," Jackson shouted, convinced that Lawrence was in league with his political enemies.
Evidence presented at the trial on 11 April 1835 did not support Jackson's suspicions. Rather than the agent of a political conspiracy, Lawrence was revealed as a delusion-obsessed loner. Lawrence believed he was the rightful king of England and hence heir to vast estates that the machinations of President Jackson had prevented him from enjoying. The trial was brief, lasting only one day, and the prosecuting attorney, Francis Scott Key of "Star Spangled Banner" fame, was inclined to leniency in view of Lawrence's clearly disturbed mental condition. After five minutes of deliberation, the jury found Lawrence not guilty by reason of insanity. He spent the remainder of his life in mental hospitals and died on 30 June 1861 at St. Elizabeth's in the District of Columbia.
John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln
Thirty years passed before the next attempted presidential assassination, which was different from its predecessor in many ways. This assault was conducted by a band of conspirators, they were rational though misguided, and above all they succeeded. Unlike the obscure misfits generally attracted by the reflected glory of murdering famous men, John Wilkes Booth was a successful member of America's most prominent family of Shakespearian actors. He was an ardent Confederate sympathizer who late in the Civil War conceived a plan to aid his cause by kidnapping President Abraham Lincoln and exchanging him for high-level Confederate prisoners of war.
The surrender of General Robert E. Lee's Confederate army at Appomattox put an end to this project, but the embittered Booth substituted another plan to strike one last blow for the South, the simultaneous murders of President Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and General Ulysses S. Grant. Through his show business connections, Booth learned that Lincoln and Grant were expected to attend a performance of the hit comedy Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre on Good Friday, 14 April 1865. Using his professional access to the building, Booth tiptoed into the president's box, and at the point in the play that evoked the loudest laughter, he fatally shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a single-shot derringer pistol. General Grant had declined to attend the play at the last minute. His seat was occupied by Major Henry R. Rathbone, whose left arm Booth slashed with a dagger when he attempted to restrain the assassin. As Booth jumped onto the stage, his spurs caught in a flag, and he broke his left leg in the awkward fall. Hobbling to a waiting horse, he made good his escape.
The other conspirators were not as successful. George Atzerodt, who had been assigned to kill Vice President Johnson, got cold feet and drank himself into a stupor. Lewis Payne forced his way into Secretary Seward's home, where he wounded Seward and four other residents but killed none before he fled.
Booth escaped to Virginia, where the pain from his broken leg kept him from traveling farther. After a twelve-day manhunt, he was cornered in a tobacco barn and shot on 26 April. Atzerodt, Payne, David Herold, and Mary Surratt were tried by a military court and were hanged on 7 July 1865. Others involved, including Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set Booth's broken leg, served long prison sentences.
Charles Guiteau and James A. Garfield
The misleading label "disappointed office seeker" is invariably attached to the name of Charles Julius Guiteau, the assassin of James A. Garfield. True he did continually pester the newly elected president for a choice diplomatic position, but this was merely one of Guiteau's grandiose delusions.
Born in 1841 in Freeport, Illinois, Guiteau spent some years at John Humphrey Noyes's Perfectionist community at Oneida, New York, before pursuing a series of occupations. He dabbled in journalism, hoping to start a newspaper though he was penniless; in law, trying only one case; in theology, being hooted off the lecture stage; in literature, plagiarizing a book by Noyes; and finally in politics. He believed a speech he had prepared but never delivered was responsible for Garfield's 1880 presidential election win, and he expected a suitable reward, preferably consul general in Paris. When this hope was frustrated, he seized upon the conviction that God had chosen him to "remove" President Garfield to heal the breach with the Stalwart wing of the Republican Party. As an added bonus, the publicity might stimulate sales of Guiteau's plagiarized book.
Armed with a .44 caliber, ivory-handled pistol, Guiteau stalked his prey for six weeks, catching up with him at the Baltimore and Potomac railroad station on 2 July 1881, as the president was about to leave Washington, D.C., for a summer vacation. Declaring "I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts," Guiteau pumped two bullets into the president's back, leaving him severely wounded. Garfield clung to life throughout the summer but died on 19 September, shortly after he was moved to the seaside resort of Elberon, New Jersey.
Guiteau turned his trial into a tasteless circus, singing and raving. Despite his antics, the jury found him both sane and guilty after deliberating for slightly over an hour. He was hanged on 30 June 1882 while reciting a childish hymn of his own composition. Subsequently Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act, which reformers promoted by exploiting the late president's tragedy to further their own cause.
Leon Czolgosz and William McKinley
Twenty years later tragedy struck another president. Leon Czolgosz (pronounced "sholgosh") was born near Detroit in 1873, shortly after his parents emigrated from Poland. Moody, friendless, and sullen, he drifted into anarchist circles, but even they distrusted him. From his half-digested reading of anarchist tracts he concluded: "I don't believe we should have any rulers. It is right to kill them."
On 6 September 1901 President William McKinley attended the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, where he greeted the public at a reception in the Temple of Music. Czolgosz, a drab, inoffensive-looking figure with a handkerchief wrapped around his right hand as if it were a bandage, waited in the long receiving line. The handkerchief concealed a small pistol, and when Czolgosz reached the president, he pressed the concealed weapon against McKinley's abdomen and fired twice. He was instantly wrestled to the ground, and the stunned president ordered, "Be easy with him, boys!"
For a time it seemed as if the wounded president might recover, but he died in Buffalo of complications brought on by blood poisoning early on the morning of 14 September. Czolgosz was rushed to trial nine days later. The trial lasted eight hours; the jury required thirty-four minutes to find him guilty. Shortly after midnight on 29 October the assassin was electrocuted.
Early Twentieth Century Attempts
After the death of McKinley, the third president murdered in thirty-six years, presidents were finally given protection by the Secret Service. For another sixty-two years no president was assassinated, but in that interval unsuccessful attempts were made on the lives of a former president, a president-elect, and a sitting president.
Former president Theodore Roosevelt attempted a political comeback in 1912. This break with tradition was particularly offensive to John N. Shrank, a thirty-six-year-old German who had immigrated to New York at the age of thirteen. A friendless, moody young man with literary and intellectual aspirations, Shrank became obsessed by the conviction that in seeking a third term Roosevelt was subverting the principles of the American Republic. This conviction was strengthened by Shrank's two vivid dreams, in which the ghost of President McKinley said of Roosevelt: "This is my murderer. Avenge my death."
Armed with a .38 caliber Colt pistol, Shrank stalked Roosevelt on his campaign swing for twenty-four days and two thousand miles, finally catching up with him in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on 14 October. Leaving the Gil-patrick Hotel to deliver a speech at the Milwaukee Auditorium, the former president stood in his open car, waving to the crowd. Shrank shot him in the chest from a distance of only six feet. Fortunately for Roosevelt, the bullet struck his breast pocket and spent much of its force passing through his glasses case and the folded manuscript of his speech before lodging in his body. Roosevelt, who boasted that he was as strong as "a bull moose," insisted on delivering his scheduled address. Ruled insane, Shrank spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital near Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he was considered a model patient. He died on 15 September 1943. During his long incarceration he never received a single letter or visitor.
Like Shrank, Giuseppe Zangara was a lonely immigrant with an obsession. Born in southern Italy in 1900, he went to work at the age of six to help his impoverished family. He attributed the stomach pains that tormented him throughout his life to that wrenching experience. Zangara vowed revenge on the capitalists and "bosses" responsible for his stomachache: "I make my idea to kill the President—kill any President, any king." While still living in Italy, Zangara unsuccessfully stalked King Victor Emmanuel III, and after immigrating to the United States in 1923, he considered murdering Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. A more convenient target appeared in February 1933, when the president-elect Franklin Roosevelt made an appearance in Miami, where Zangara was spending the winter. Hoover or Roosevelt, it made no difference, "every body the same."
On the night of 15 February, Zangara joined the crowd gathered at Bay front Park to observe the newly elected president. Roosevelt delivered a brief speech from the back seat of his car, which was parked in front of the amphitheater's stage. When the speech was over, he asked some dignitaries on the stage, including Chicago's visiting May or Anton Cermak, to come down to his car, which the crippled Roosevelt was unable to leave easily. As they chatted, Zangara jumped onto a folding chair and fired wildly. Roosevelt was not hit, but Cermak and four spectators were wounded. Cermak died on 6 March. At his two trials, one before, the other shortly after the death of Cermak, Zangara was judged sane. Sentenced to be electrocuted, he went to his death on 20 March 1933 still muttering curses against "the lousy capitalists" who had caused his stomach to ache.
The 1950 attack on President Harry Truman represented a new style in presidential assassinations—terrorist violence designed to gain publicity for a cause. The assailants, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, Puerto Ricans living in New York, were active in the island's independence movement. Whether their attack was their own initiative or the command of the organization is unclear. On the afternoon of 31 October they boarded a train for Washington, D.C., a city they had not visited previously. Their preparations were haphazard. They did not know the location of the president's residence, they were not aware of his whereabouts, and Collazo did not even know how to operate the automatic pistol he carried.
As it happened President Truman was then living in Blair House, across the street from the White House, which was undergoing repairs. On the afternoon of 1 November he was taking his customary after-lunch nap in an upstairs bedroom when Collazo and Torresola tried to storm their way through the front door of Blair House. In the flurry of gunfire that followed, Collazo and two Secret Service agents were wounded. Torresola fatally shot agent Leslie Coffelt, who managed to kill his attacker before he died. Collazo was tried and sentenced to death, but on 24 July 1952 President Truman commuted the sentence to life in prison. On 10 September 1979 President Jimmy Carter released Collazo from jail along with three Puerto Ricans who had fired shots into the House of Representatives on 1 March 1954. The would-be assassin returned to Puerto Rico, where he died on 20 February 1994 at the age of eighty, unrepentant to the end.
Although every aspect of the assassination of John F. Kennedy has been the subject of controversy, the basic facts seem beyond dispute. At 12:30 p.m. on 22 November 1963, while riding in an open car past Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, President John F. Kennedy was fatally struck by two bullets from a high-powered rifle fired from the adjacent Texas Book Depository building.
All evidence pointed to a worker in that building, Lee Harvey Oswald. A former marine, Oswald had defected to the Soviet Union, redefected, and most recently had been active on behalf of Fidel Castro's Cuba. He owned the murder weapon, had been seen smuggling a long package into the building, had fled shortly after the assassination, and had killed a policeman in panic. Furthermore he was capable of committing political murder, having recently attempted to shoot the retired general Edwin A. Walker, a prominent right-wing figure.
Nonetheless many Americans were not convinced. Perhaps unwilling to acknowledge that such an insignificant figure as Oswald could single-handedly alter the course of history, they followed conspiracy theories trumpeted by sensational books and in the tendentious motion picture JFK (1991). The alleged conspiracies were masterminded either by the Russians, the Cubans, the Mafia, the Central Intelligence Agency, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, or time travelers from an alternate universe. Two days after Kennedy's assassination, while Oswald was being transferred to another jail, he was killed by Jack Ruby, a Dallas strip club operator, providing more fuel for the conspiracy theories. Even in the early twenty-first century polls consistently showed that most Americans continued to believe in a conspiracy theory even though no credible evidence emerged to seriously challenge the conclusion of the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone.
A Violent Era
The death of President Kennedy signaled the beginning of an era of violence in American public life. It was stoked by the counterculture's exaltation of sensation, including violence, and by the social upheavals generated by racial, generational, and sexual hostility, all aggravated by the unpopular Vietnam War. In addition to attacks on presidents, the era experienced the successful assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and John Lennon and unsuccessful attempts on George Wallace and Andy Warhol.
On 22 February 1974 Samuel Byck, an in-and-out mental patient whose family and business lives were crumbling, attempted a spectacular plan to avenge himself on President Richard Nixon, whom he considered the source of his problems. Intending to hijack a commercial airliner and crash it into the White House, Byck forced his way into an airplane parked on the Baltimore airport runway, killing a security guard as he stormed into the cockpit. Byck then killed the copilot and seriously
wounded the pilot before security guards on the tarmac shot him through the plane's window. Byck then turned his gun on himself.
Nixon's successor Gerald Ford was the target of two assassination attempts, both of them made by women. Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme was a devoted follower of the cult leader Charles Manson. After Manson's imprisonment for the brutal Tate-Bianca killings, Fromme's mission in life was to spread his message. Shooting or threatening to shoot a president, she reasoned, could publicize her cause and perhaps even give Manson a worldwide forum if he testified at her trial. On the morning of 5 September 1975, as President Ford walked across the capitol grounds in Sacramento, California, Fromme stepped out from the crowd of onlookers, pulled a pistol from her flowing robes, and leveled it at the president from a distance of about two feet. Before she could fire, she was tackled by Secret Service agents and was disarmed. At her trial, where Manson was not allowed to testify, she was found guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Later that same month President Ford was the target of another California woman with ties to the counterculture, Sara Jane Moore. After five failed marriages and a botched career as an accountant, the middle-aged Moore had drifted into the radical underground, where she found an acceptance that had been lacking in her earlier middle-class life. To add to her sense of excitement and importance, she also became a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant, spying on her new friends. Remorseful over betraying them and fearful of their revenge, she decided to reestablish her radical bona fides by shooting the president. On 22 September 1975, after dropping her son off at school, she joined the crowd behind the rope line across the street from San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel. When the president emerged at 3:30 p.m., she fired once but missed her target. She too was sentenced to life in prison.
Earlier assassins were motivated by the voice of God or by some ideological commitment, but John Hinckley exhibited a more contemporary sensibility. He wanted to attract the attention of the movie actress Jodie Foster, the star of his favorite film, Taxi Driver (1976), which featured a political assassination. Hinckley decided to reenact the movie by killing President Ronald Reagan, even though he had no political or personal grievance against him.
On 30 March 1981, as Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel, Hinckley began firing wildly, seriously wounding the president, the president's press secretary James Brady, a policeman, and a Secret Service agent. The president escaped fatal injury, but Brady was left paralyzed. The grace and courage Reagan displayed following the attack did much to cement his subsequent popularity. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was confined to St. Elizabeth's mental hospital in Washington, D.C., the same institution that had housed Lawrence.
Aside from the attacks on presidents Lincoln and Truman, none of these assassination attempts were political, in the strictest sense of the term. Each of the presidential assassins was delusional to one degree or another and projected those delusions onto the figure of the president. With the exceptions of the Lincoln and Truman attacks, the assassins apparently worked alone. No conspiracy has been credibly established, though conspiracy theories surrounded all the attempts, dating to the attack on Jackson that the president himself believed was inspired by his Whig opponents. Some have maintained, on equally flimsy evidence, that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was implicated in Lincoln's death or that Zangara's real target was Mayor Cermak, who had aroused the enmity of the Chicago mob. These theories seem to represent an attempt to find some rational meaning for what were essentially irrational deeds.
Byand large the stronger the president the more likely he is to attract assassins, not because of his controversial policies but because of his commanding presence. No one tried to kill Millard Fillmore or Benjamin Harrison. It can hardly be a coincidence that assassination attempts have increased along with the twentieth century's enlargement of the so-called "imperial presidency." If, however, President William Clinton was correct that "the era of big government is over," then perhaps the twenty-first century will see a decline in presidential assassinations as well.
Bishop, Jim. The Day Lincoln Was Shot. New York: Harper and Row, 1955.
Clarke, James W. American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Donovan, Robert J. The Assassins. New York: Harper, 1955.
Ford, Franklin L. Political Murder: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. Chapter 15 deals with the United States.
Hanchett, William. The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Jackson, Carlton. "Another Time, Another Place: The Attempted Assassination of President Andrew Jackson." Tennessee Historical Quarterly 26 (summer 1967): 184–190.
Manchester, William. The Death of a President, November 20–November 25, 1963. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.
McKinley, James. Assassination in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.
Peskin, Allan. Garfield. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1978. Chapter 25 deals with the assassination.
Posner, Gerald L. Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. New York: Random House, 1993. Refutes the various conspiracy theories.
United States. Warren Commission. Report of the President's Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964. The Warren Commission report.