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Joseph Zangara Trial: 1933

Defendant: Joseph Zangara
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: James M. McCaskill, Alfred A. Raia, and Lewis Twyman
Chief Prosecutor: Charles A. Morehead
Judge: Uly 0. Thompson
Place: Miami, Florida
Date of Trial: March 9, 1933
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by electrocution

SIGNIFICANCE: Joseph Zangara's failed attempt to assassinate U.S. President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt demonstrated how the frustrations of financial misfortune in the Great Depression could lead to desperate and mindless acts of violence.

Early in 1933, Joseph Zangara, a bricklayer who was out of work, bummed rides from Hackensack, New Jersey, to Florida in hope of finding warm weather and a job. A self-proclaimed anarchist, he carried a revolver, probably as much to protect his diminutive 5-foot frame as to protest the system.

On February 15, Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived in Miami, scheduled to make a major speech at a rally of Democrats. In November, he had won an unprecedented victory over incumbent President Herbert Hoover as the country, hoping for a savior from the economic devastation of the Great Depression, responded to his personal charm and the concern for "the forgotten man" that he had expressed in one campaign speech after another. His inauguration was set for March 4.

Huge crowds turned out to welcome Roosevelt as he rode in an open car in the official motorcade from the railroad station to his hotel. One of his escorts, seated directly behind him and Eleanor Roosevelt, was Anton J. Cermak, the mayor of Chicago, who had helped to deliver FDR's landslide vote.

At one point, the car stopped in the midst of the surging crowd. As he often did because of his relative immobility (the result of his attack of polio, or "infantile paralysis," in 1921), Roosevelt stayed in the car to deliver a short speech. Then the crowd pressed forward, eager to shake his hand. With his usual wide grin and buoyant enthusiasm, he welcomed them.

"Too Many People Starving to Death"

Amidst the tide of people pressing toward the car came Joseph Zangara. Suddenly he was eight feet away, swinging his gun toward the president-elect, shouting, "There are too many people starving to death." As he emptied his revolver, a woman seized his arm. Two shots hit Mayor Cermak. Others scattered widely, wounding four spectators.

The crowd crushed Zangara to the ground, kicking and pounding him. When the police seized him moments later, he was already bloody. Roosevelt, barely glancing at the would-be assassin, turned to help the mayor. "He was the calmest person present," said a witness. Twice, as the car moved from the fray, he had it stopped so he could help make the wounded mayor more comfortable. The whole event was Roosevelt's first national demonstration of his daring lack of fear or concern for his personal safety.

With Mayor Cermak and the wounded spectators in the hospital, Zangara was immediately tried for assault with a deadly weapon, convicted, and sentenced February 21 to 80 years in prison.

On March 6, the mayor died of his wounds. Blaming the murder of Cermak on "that woman who got in the way," Zangara said he was sorry that Cermak had died but that he had fully intended to kill the president-elect.

Dade County Solicitor Charles Morehead, who had been standing by with an indictment for murder ready, brought Zangara to trial on March 9. He pleaded guilty and was condemned to death. A few days before his execution on March 20, he told a newsman he had always hated Roosevelt. "If I got out," he said, "I would kill him at once." He sat down in the electric chair without remorse.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Gunther, John. Roosevelt in Retrospect. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950.

Hurd, Charles. WVhen the New Deal lVas Young and Gay. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1965.

Nash, Jay Robert. Almanac of World Crime. Garden City, N. Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday & Co., 1981.

E nytclopedia of World Crime. Wilmette, Ill.: CrimeBooks, 1991.

"Roosevelt, Franklin D." Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. XXIII. New York: Americana Corp., 1953.

Joseph Zangara Trial: 1933

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