Today is the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of JFK. I thought I’d take a moment to look back on the history of Assassinations in American Politics.
To date, we’ve had four Presidents assassinated; Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and JFK. All four were killed by firearms, three by handguns and one by a long gun. Killing the President didn’t fair well for the lives of the assassins. James Wilks Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, was shot and killed by the Army. Leon Czolgosz was beaten so severely by both the crowd surrounding McKinley and later by the police and National Guard who “rescued” him form the crowd that it was unsure if he would live to stand trial. Lee Harvey Oswald was shot and killed two days after the assassination of JFK by an upset gangster named Jack Rudy. Only Charles Guiteau was arrested and tried without incident for the assassination of Garfield.
It hasn’t only been assassinations that have resulted in the beating or killing of assassins. In 1835 a man by the name of Richard Lawrence, who thought of himself as King Richard the Third of England, decided that Andrew Jackson needed killing. So while Jackson attended a funeral, Lawrence waited outside. As the President passed him, Lawrence drew a pistol hidden in his flamboyant clothing and fired. The gun misfired. Undeterred, Lawrence pulled a second, matching pistol and fired. It too misfired. Jackson, who saw him, preceded to thrash him soundly with his cane. The crowd eventually separated the two, and “wrestled Lawrence into submission.” Involved in the apprehension was one Congressman named Davy Crockett, so I can imagine what that wrestling match might have looked like.
In another humorous, if it is possible that assassinations might be humorous, story is the attempt on Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. Roosevelt was running under the Progressive party, having already left office three years earlier. While in Milwaukee, saloon owner John Schrank got close enough to the former president to shoot him in the chest with a .38 revolver. Apparently the planned speech saved Teddy’s life. The 50 page speech, folded twice, was in his breast pocket along with a metal case for the President’s glasses. These slowed the bullet down enough to save the President’s life. Schrank was attacked by the crowd, beaten severely, and nearly lynched. Roosevelt shouted out that he was not to be harmed. Roosevelt went on to deliver his speech, even showing the crowd his bloody shirt and remarking that it would take more to “Kill a Bull Moose.” (Bull Moose Party was the nickname of the Progressive Party) After the speech, Roosevelt’s staff convinced him to go to the hospital where it was learned the bullet had lodged between two ribs. Deemed to unsafe to remove, the old bull moose carried the bullet for the rest of his days.
Attempts at killing Presidents seem to be increasing. Every president since JFK, with the single sole exception of LBJ, has had at least one attempt on their lives. In the case of George H. W. Bush, the attempt came shortly after he left office. And in multiple cases of Barack Obama, the attempts were either while running for office or as President-Elect.
Future Presidents have had the ability to deal with the assassination attempts of past Presidents at least twice. Bill Clinton fired 23 Tomahawk Missiles into Iraq aimed at the Iraq Intelligence Headquarters to punish them for the car bomb assassination attempt on G.H.W. Bush. And Barack Obama gave the kill order for Osama Bin Laden, who in 1996 came incredibly close to killing Bill Clinton. Had the Secret Service not rerouted Clinton’s motorcade in Manila, where the President was visiting for an economic conference, the bomb waiting on a bridge of the route would have surely killed him. Bin Laden was the mastermind (and possibly the reason for failure) of the attempt.
The attempt on the life of President Jimmy Carter is as strange as anything else in the Carter Administration. Carter’s would be assassin carried a starter pistol filled with blanks. How, exactly, this was to kill the President isn’t clear. Raymond Lee Harvey, failed assassin, was a drifter, but claimed the attempt was real and he was part of a conspiracy to kill Carter. Whatever the case may be, Harvey was never convicted of the crime.
At least twice, planes have been the weapon of choice in assassination attempts. In 1974 Samuel Byck attempted to hijack a commercial airliner and fly it into the White House occupied by Richard Nixon. The plane never left the ground, and Byck was killed. In 1994, Frank Corder stole a single engine Cessna 150 airplane and attempted to crash it into the White House. Corder made it to the South Lawn and died on impact. Bill Clinton was not at home at the time of the crash. It is possible a third attempt using an airplane may have been made. The 9/11 plane that went down in Pennsylvania may have been aimed at the White House or possibly the Capitol.
The U.S. Mail was the weapon of choice on two attempts to assassinate Barack Obama. As recent as this past June, someone sent a ricin laced letter to the President. Another letter was sent in April. Neither reached the President. Obama is not alone in this, Harry Truman had several mail bombs sent to him and his staff in 1947, but a tip from the British prevented the bombs from reaching the President.
A least four attempts on Presidential lives have occurred while the President was abroad. As already mentioned, Bin Laden attempted to kill Bill Clinton while he was in Manila. In 2005, while visiting Georgia (the country, not the state), Vladimir Arutyunian threw a live grenade at George W. Bush. W’s father, George H. W. Bush was in Kuwait when Iraqi Intelligence tried to kill him. In 1928, Herbert Hoover was the target of a failed bombing in Argentina.
The White House may be the safest place for the President, but it isn’t without risk. Besides the attempt on Bill Clinton involving the airplane, Fransico Martin Duran fired at least 29 shots at the White House thinking he saw Clinton on the front porch in 1994. Clinton was safely inside. In 2001, Robert Pickett fired at the White House in an attempt to kill G.W. Bush.
Not staying in the White House is also a dangerous move for Presidents. Once, while riding alone in 1864, Abraham Lincoln was targeted by a assassin using a long riffle. Lincoln was riding his horse to Soilder’s Home, his retreat away from the White House. The bullet barely missed, taking Lincoln’s hat off his head. Two gunmen attacked Harry Truman while he stayed in The Blair House while the White House was renovated. The 1950 attack was thwarted, but Truman came very close to facing the gunman. A White House policeman managed to kill one of the attackers at the cost of his own life. Officer Leslie Coffelt killed Griselio Torresola. The second gunman, Oscar Collazo, was wounded in the attack but lived. Truman commuted his death sentence after his trial to life in prison. Jimmy Carter commuted that sentence to time served 29 years later. 15 years later, Collazo died of a stroke.
Presidential Assassinations are a relative rarity in the modern era. Security is much improved, mostly following the JFK assassination. Direct attacks seem to be rarer, and instead the focus of assassins is through more stand-off means, such as mail or bombs. Metal Detectors and highly trained Secret Service Agents make it much less likely that a assassin will simply walk up to a President and shoot him. I don’t think we can assume that the time of Presidential Assassinations are over. The attempt on G.W. Bush was all too close. Had the grenade not failed, it is unlikely that the President would have survived the attack.
Prior to Reagan, there was the supposed “Curse of the zero year” which stated that every president elected in a zero year dies in office. Reagan survived, but was shot by John Hinckley in 1981. G.W. Bush also survived a zero year election, but the grenade in Georgia made that a close call. Prior to Reagan was JFK. Before JFK was Warren Harding, who officially died of a heart attack but many historians think may have been poison. Before Harding was William McKinley who was assassinated. Before McKinley was Garfield, also assassinated. Before Garfield was Lincoln, assassinated. And the originator of the curse, William Henry Harrison, died of pneumonia while in office.
It is said that Harrison started the curse because of his treatment of indians while Governor of the Indiana Territory. In a battle in 1811, Harrison’s forces attacked Indian leader Tecumseh at Tippecanoe. While Reagan and G.W. Bush seemed to have avoided the Tippecanoe or Zero Year Curse, it is still a fact that for 120 years starting with Harrison and ending with JFK, every President elected in a zero year has died in office, most often from assassination. Possibly only Harrison died of natural causes since Harding may have been poisoned. Perhaps Harrison’s death wasn’t natural either, if you give any credence to curses.
One last note about the curse and deaths in office… only one President died in office WITHOUT being elected in a curse year. That would be Zachary Taylor. But it must be mentioned that he died in 1850, a zero year, and had fought against Tecumseh along with Harrison. So maybe… he too was killed by the curse.