Close Calls: Presidential Assassination Attempts

In the history of the United States, four Presidents–Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy–have been assassinated. But there were a number of unsuccessful assassination attempts on US Presidents–many of them now largely forgotten.

JacksonAssassinationAttempt

Assassination attempt on Andrew Jackson, 1835.

The first actual attempt on a US President’s life came on January 30, 1835. President Andrew Jackson was attending the funeral of a Congressman in front of the Capitol Building when he was approached by Richard Lawrence, a house painter, who pulled a pistol, pointed it at Jackson’s back, and pulled the trigger. The flintlock pistol misfired. Lawrence dropped it, pulled another pistol from his pocket, and tried again. That pistol misfired too–it was a cloudy drizzly day and the powder in both guns had become wet. Jackson, meanwhile, an old soldier and frontiersman famous for his toughness, began to beat Lawrence on the head with his walking stick. The surrounding crowd wrestled Lawrence to the ground. At his trial, it was established that Lawrence suffered from delusions, imagining that he was the King of England, that the US government owed him money, and that President Jackson was blocking this payment. Lawrence was judged insane and died in an asylum in 1861.

The same year Lawrence died, Abraham Lincoln took office as President. His very election had caused the Southern states to secede and spark the Civil War, and Lincoln’s life was in danger even before he took office. When the Pinkerton Detective Agency (the Secret Service didn’t yet exist) discovered a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln as he traveled to Washington DC to assume office, by blowing up his train in Baltimore, Lincoln switched trains at the last minute. Three years later, in 1864, there was another attempt on Lincoln’s life. As he rode on a horse alone through the streets of DC near the White House, a shot was fired at him, and the rifled musket ball passed through his hat, narrowly missing him. Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth a year later.

In 1901, President William McKinley was shot and killed by an anarchist, and Vice President Teddy Roosevelt assumed office. After winning the 1904 election, Roosevelt declined to run in 1908, but in 1912 decided to run again for the White House, this time under his own Bull Moose Party. On October 14, 1912, Roosevelt left his hotel for the nearby Milwaukee Auditorium to make a campaign speech. As he waved to the crowd, an unemployed bartender named John Schrank fired one shot from a .38 pistol. The bullet passed through the metal eyeglass case and folded-up speech in Roosevelt’s pocket and lodged between his ribs. Roosevelt, an experienced soldier and big-game hunter, knew it was not a serious wound, and he continued on to the auditorium to deliver his speech before going to a hospital. At his trial, Schrank declared that the ghost of William McKinley had told him in a dream to kill Roosevelt. He was judged insane and died in an asylum in 1943.

Twenty years after Teddy Roosevelt’s speech, his fifth cousin, Franklin D Roosevelt, was elected President. On February 15, 1933, President-elect Roosevelt was traveling in Miami, Florida, with Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. At Bayfront Park, FDR decided to make an impromptu speech from inside the open car. In the crowd was Giuseppe Zangara, an Italian immigrant who had lost his job as a bricklayer because of health problems. Zangara fired five shots from a .32 pistol at the car, missing Roosevelt but hitting five other people, including Cermak, who died three weeks later. At his trial, Zangara pleaded guilty, and said he wanted to shoot “rich capitalists” like Roosevelt for causing the Great Depression. Zangara was executed by electric chair on March 20, less than five weeks after the shooting.

In April 1945, President Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage, and Vice President Harry S Truman took office. In 1947, Truman became the target of an assassination attempt by the Stern Gang, a terrorist group in Palestine that was attempting to drive out the British and establish an independent state of Israel. The Stern Gang mailed a number of letter bombs to members of the British Government, and when British intelligence found out that similar bombs were to be mailed to American politicians, including Truman, they tipped off the Secret Service, who intercepted the packages and defused the bombs.

But on November 1, 1950, Truman became the target of yet another independence movement, this one from Puerto Rico. In October 1950, pro-independence nationalists in Puerto Rico had staged the Jayuya Uprising, in which armed groups seized control of several towns and were attacked by US troops and air forces. After this, two members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in the US, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, decided to strike at the US government to publicize the fight for independence. At the time, the White House was undergoing renovations, and President Truman was living at the Blair House, across the street. Armed with rifles and pistols, Collazo and Torresola stormed the two guardhouses outside the Blair House, and a gunfight broke out with Secret Service and local police. Torresola and one of the police guards were killed. Collazo was wounded and captured. He was sentenced to death, but Truman himself commuted this to life in prison, and after serving almost 30 years, Collazo was released by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. He went to live in Puerto Rico, where he died in 1994.

On November 22, 1963, President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald. But Kennedy had already been the target of a previous assassination attempt. The 1960 election was one of the closest in US history, and after Kennedy was declared the winner, a 73-year old retired postal worker in Belmont, New Hampshire, named Richard Paul Pavlick, decided that the Kennedy family had used its wealth to “buy the Presidency”, and made plans to kill the President-elect before he could take office. Pavlick packed some possessions into his 1950 Buick, and loaded the trunk of the car with dynamite wired to a switch on the dashboard. His plan was to get as close as he could to Kennedy and trigger the switch, blowing both of them up. As he tracked Kennedy across the country, he began sending postcards to his old boss at the post office in Belmont, suggesting that Pavlick, well-known locally for his rightwing anti-Catholic views, would soon become known “in a big way”. When the Secret Service investigated, they discovered that Pavlick had made a large purchase of dynamite, and began looking for him. On December 11, 1960, Pavlick parked his car near the door of the St Edward Catholic Church in Palm Beach, Florida, where Kennedy had been attending Mass. But when Jackie Kennedy and their children also appeared, Pavlick changed his mind and decided to wait for another opportunity. Four days later, local police stopped Pavlick for a traffic violation, found the dynamite inside the car, and arrested him. He was committed to a mental hospital until being released in 1966. Pavlick died in 1975.

In 1972, Richard Nixon won re-election by one of the largest landslides in history. During the campaign, Nixon had been targeted by would-be assassin Arthur Bremer, a mentally-ill loner, who in his diary declared that he wanted to shoot someone famous as “a statement of my manhood for the world to see”. On April 13, 1972, Bremer went to Ottawa, Canada, where Nixon was making a state visit. Armed with a .38 revolver, Bremer hoped to shoot Nixon, but the security was so tight that he could not get close enough. After that, Bremer decided on an easier target, and on May 15, 1972, he shot and paralyzed Presidential candidate George Wallace at a rally in Laurel, Maryland.

Two years after that election, President Nixon was targeted again. In 1972, a mentally-ill unemployed Philadelphia tire salesman named Samuel Byck had been turned down for a Small Business Association loan, and blamed Nixon for it. Byck sent a series of tape-recorded rants to several US Congressmen in which he threatened Nixon, but when the Secret Service investigated him, they concluded Byck was just a harmless crank. In 1974, however, Byck began forming a plan to assassinate Nixon by hijacking an airliner and crashing it into the White House. On February 22, 1974, Byck drove to the Baltimore/Washington Airport, shot and killed an airport security guard, and forced his way into the cockpit of a DC-9 that was waiting to taxi, carrying a homemade bomb with  him. When the two pilots told him the plane could not take off because the wheel chocks were still in place, Byck shot them both (killing one of them), and, bizarrely, ordered a nearby passenger to try to fly the plane. After a standoff, the plane was entered by an off-duty police officer who had picked up the revolver belonging to the security guard that had been killed. The policeman fired four shots through the window of the cockpit door, wounding Byck. As other police stormed into the plane, Byck killed himself with his revolver.

Six months after Bycks’ failed attempt, President Nixon was forced by the Watergate scandal to resign his office, and Vice President Gerald Ford took over as President. He was the target of two bizarre assassination attempts. On September 5, 1975, Ford was shaking hands on the lawn of the California State Capitol Building in Sacramento. In the crowd was Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a prominent member of “The Family”, the cult group led by jailed mass murderer Charles Manson. Fromme pulled out a Colt .45 automatic pistol and pointed it at Ford, and was quickly wrestled to the ground. Although there was a loaded magazine in the gun, there was no bullet in the chamber. Fromme declared that she hadn’t actually intended to shoot Ford, but did it to draw attention to environmental issues. She was sentenced to life in prison, but was paroled in 2009.

On September 22, 1975, just two weeks after Fromme’s attempt, Ford was entering the Presidential limousine in front of the St Francis Hotel in San Francisco when Sara Jane Moore, standing in the crowd across the street, drew a .38 revolver and fired one shot, which missed Ford, ricocheted off the stone hotel front, and wounded a bystander. Moore  was a political radical and a sympathizer of celebrated SLA bankrobber and “urban guerrilla” Patty Hearst. She was working as a bookkeeper for William Randolph Hearst’s charity organization People In Need, but was also working for the FBI as an informant at the time. Her militant politics had caught the attention of the Secret Service, who evaluated her and decided she was not a threat, but Moore had been arrested by police just the day before the assassination attempt, on a weapons charge. The police had released her after confiscating her .44 revolver, and Moore had just purchased a .38 caliber revolver the morning of the assassination attempt. Moore pleaded guilty to the shooting, was sentenced to life in prison, and was paroled in 2007.

The most well-known Presidential assassination attempt came on March 30, 1981. After giving a speech at the Hilton Hotel in Washington DC, President Ronald Reagan was walking to his limousine when a mentally ill loner named John Hinckley fired six shots from a .22 revolver, hitting Reagan, White House Press Secretary James Brady, a Secret Service agent and a Washington DC policeman. At his trial, Hinckley’s diaries showed that he had shot Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster. He was judged to be insane and was confined to a mental hospital.

Reagan’s successor, President George HW Bush, was not the target of any attacks while in office.  But in April 1993, after leaving office, Bush and several former members of his administration made a trip overseas to give a speech at Kuwait University, commemorating Operation Desert Storm against Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Just before the visit, Kuwaiti police uncovered a plan to kill Bush during his speech with a car bomb, consisting of 200 pounds of plastic explosives hidden inside a Toyota Landcruiser. When the FBI examined the car bomb and questioned the suspects, they determined that the bomb components were of Iraqi origin. Two of the suspects also told the FBI that they were acting under the direction of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, though both later retracted their confession. In response to the assassination attempt, President Bill Clinton ordered a cruise missile strike against the Iraqi Intelligence Service building in Baghdad.

At 2am on September 12, 1994, President Clinton himself became the target of an assassination attempt, when an unemployed truck driver who had recently been arrested for theft and drug trafficking, named Frank Eugene Corder, stole a Cessna 150 airplane from an airport in Maryland and flew it to DC, intending to crash it into the White House. Corder, who was reportedly drunk when he took the plane, missed the building and crashed into a tree on the south lawn. He was killed instantly.

Six weeks later, on October 29, 1994, Clinton was again a target when Francisco Martin Duran, a convicted felon, fired 29 shots from a Chinese SKS assault rifle at the White House. No one was hit, and Clinton was inside at the time and was not in the group of people Duran was shooting at. Duran was wrestled to the ground by tourists and quickly arrested by the Secret Service. At his trial he claimed he was saving the world from a conspiracy led by space aliens, but the jury concluded he was faking his insanity, and convicted him. Duran is currently serving a 40-year sentence.

Another unsuccessful attempt against President Clinton came in November 1996, when he was in Manila, the capitol of the Philippines, as part of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum being held there. As Clinton’s motorcade was preparing to leave for a visit to a local political official, information was received that there was a bomb planted under a bridge along the route–the motorcade was redirected, the bomb was found, and its components and construction indicated it had come from the then-little-known terrorist group called Al Qaeda.

During the first term of Clinton’s successor, George W Bush, Al Qaeda scored its biggest success of all, the 9-11 attacks in DC and New York. Although there were constant rumors of Al Qaeda plots against Bush, none ever seem to have actually been attempted. But on February 7, 2001, two weeks after Bush took office, a man named Robert Pickett fired a number of shots at the White House from a .38 handgun, before being wounded by Secret Service and arrested. Pickett had been in several mental hospitals, and had been fired from his job with the IRS in the 1980’s–a lawsuit he had filed over his firing was about to be dismissed. Pickett apparently decided to carry out the shooting after several letters he had written to the new President about his employment lawsuit went unanswered. He was sentenced to 3 years for weapons violations, and was released in 2003.

The most recent Presidential assassination attempt was made on May 10, 2005, when President Bush was visiting the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and was giving a speech in the public square in the capitol of Tbilisi, along with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. In the crowd was Vladimir Arutyunian, who threw a Russian RD-5 hand grenade, wrapped in a handkerchief, towards the stage. Although the grenade’s pin had been pulled, the tangled handkerchief prevented the safety lever from releasing and the grenade did not go off. Arutyunian escaped into the crowd, but the Georgian police and the FBI released photographs that had been taken of the suspect by people in the crowd, and identified him. Two months after the attempted bombing, Arutyunian was arrested in a raid by Georgian police, during which the head of the Georgian Counterintelligence unit, on the scene, was killed. Several pounds of homemade explosives were found, and DNA from Arutyunian matched that found on the handkerchief. He refused to cooperate with authorities, and was sentenced to life in prison. It is still not known whether his target was Bush or Saakvashvili.

In 2009, President Barack Obama took office. Obama has reportedly been the target of more reported threats and plots than any other US President, but there has been only one actual incident during his term. On November 11, 2011, 21-year old Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, who had put anti-government posts on the Internet declaring Obama to be the anti-Christ, fired 9 shots from a semi-automatic rifle at the White House from long range before driving away. One bullet lodged in a ballistic-glass window on the second floor. Obama was not in the White House at the time, and Ortega-Hernandez was arrested five days later: he had crashed his car while escaping and ran away, leaving his gun inside. He is serving a 25-year sentence.

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Forgotten mysteries, oddities and unknown stories from history, nature and science.