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Presidential Assassins: Loser

A trifle over 62 years separated the assassination of William McKinley and that of John F. Kennedy.  The American people had grown perhaps complacent in the thought that presidential assassinations were a thing of the past, although Giuseppe Zangara could easily have assassinated President-Elect Roosevelt instead of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak in 1933, and Puerto Rican terrorists came perilously close to assassinating Harry Truman in 1950.  Nevertheless, the assassination of John F. Kennedy hit America hard.

Back in 1963 I was in second grade, but I was not in school.  Sick with pneumonia, my mother had taken me to the doctor and he had prescribed penicillin.  After getting my prescription filled my mother took me home.  She turned on our television set and I planted myself on the couch to watch it.  As we watched television we saw the initial news flashes that President Kennedy had been shot.  This was on a Friday, and the remainder of that day and the weekend, my mother, father and I and my brother practically lived in front of the television set, riveted by the around the clock coverage, something unprecedented in this country before that dreadful day.

Conspiracy theories have flourished almost before Kennedy’s corpse was cold, a great many people unwilling to accept that a frustrated loser like Lee Harvey Oswald could have been the assassin of Kennedy. Continue Reading

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Presidential Assassins: The True Believer

The late 19th century witnessed a wave of anarchist assassinations and attempted assassinations as the turbulent 19th century waned into an even more turbulent 20th century.

Among the victims of these actions were a Prime Minister of Spain on August 8, 1897, the Empress of Austria-Hungary on September 18, 1898 and the King of Italy on July 29, 1900. A terrifying aspect of these murders: they were the actions of loan wolf assassins, inspired by anarchist writings, but not members of organized conspiracies. Security services around the globe were puzzled as to how to combat a group that eschewed organized plotting and celebrated individual violent acts.

If William McKinley was concerned about the prospect of assassination he left no hint of it. Of course he left virtually no personal correspondence in which he expressed his views on any public matters. One of the more enigmatic men to ever be president, McKinley was largely a mystery even to men he had known for decades. Close mouthed, McKinley rarely expressed himself on any issue unless he had to, and always after a period of careful consideration.

Rising from Private to Brevet Major during the Civil War, McKinley began his ascent in politics by defending, pro bono, striking workers accused of rioting, obtaining acquittals for all but one of his clients and becoming a Republican who could gain blue collar votes. McKinley served a long political apprenticeship before becoming President: prosecuting attorney, Congress, Governor of Ohio, sometimes meeting with defeat in the politically divided Ohio. When he ran for President in 1896, he won one of the great political victories in American history, establishing Republican political dominance that would endure until 1932. His victory in 1900 was even greater, the GOP winning all but four states outside of the solid South.

His personal life was marked by tragedy. He and his wife had two daughters, one who died in infancy and the other before her fourth birthday. McKinley’s wife, suffering from epilepsy and deep depression, became a semi-invalid, McKinley devoting himself to her care for the rest of his life.

Theodore Roosevelt, the reluctant Vice-President of McKinley, assumed that he would have so little to occupy his time, that he planned on attending law school during his term in office.
Another man who did not have enough to do was Leon Frank Czolgosz. Born to immigrants from Belarus in Detroit in 1873, he worked at the Cleveland Rolling Mill until the Panic of 1893. With economic hard times, Czolgosz became interested in socialism and anarchism. In 1898 he went to live with his father on a 55 acre farm near Warrensville, Ohio that his father had purchased. He came into conflict with his father due to his loafing and his rejection of the fervent Catholicism of his father. Inspired by the assassination of King Umberto on July 29, 1901, he decided, in the cause of anarchism, to assassinate President McKinley. Continue Reading

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Presidential Assassins: The Failure

James Garfield, the second president to die at the hands of an assassin, in one way resembled Lincoln.  Like Lincoln he rose from poverty.  Unlike Lincoln he was college educated, enjoyed swift political success, and had an extensive military record, rising to Major General during the Civil War.  Also unlike Lincoln he had little time in office, being shot on July 2, 1881, during his first year in office.  He lingered in ever increasing pain until September 19, 1881.  He doubtless would have survived if modern medicine had been available.  He died as a result of a massive infection caused perhaps by the unsuccessful efforts of his doctors to probe his wound with unsterilized instruments and fingers in a fruitless effort to find the assassin’s bullet which had lodged in his abdomen.  His weight also plunged, intravenous nourishment being more than eighty years in the future.

No doubt it irritated, to say the least, Garfield when he learned that his assassin was a disappointed office seeker.

Born in 1841, Charles Julius Guiteau had failed at everything he turned his hand to: college, member of a commune, newspaper publisher, law, theology and marriage.  With such a record of failure it was inevitable that he would turn to politics.  Supporting Garfield in the 1880 election, he wrote a speech in favor of Garfield that may have been delivered twice.  When Garfield was elected, Guiteau convinced himself that he was responsible for electing Garfield.  Along with hordes of other office seekers he went to Washington where he unsuccessfully requested that he be named consul in Paris although he could not speak French and had no diplomatic experience.

Outraged, Guiteau purchased a revolver and stalked the President, finally ambushing him as he was entering the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station.  After shooting Garfield Guiteau shouted,

“I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. … [Chester A.] Arthur is president now!”  The reference was to the Stalwart faction of the New York Republican Party that opposed Civil Service reform that Garfield supported.   Guiteau was convinced that this reform prevented him from getting the job he sought.  Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service reform act in 1883, Guiteau having made opposition to such reform politically impossible, and converted Arthur to the cause of reform. Continue Reading

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Presidential Assassins: Born Under an Unlucky Star

Hattip for the above video to commenter Greg Mockeridge.

I have never liked Presidents’ Day. Why celebrate loser presidents like Jimmy Carter and James Buchanan, non-entities like Millard Fillmore, bad presidents, like Grant, with great presidents like Washington and Lincoln? However, most presidents, for good and ill, have shaped the story of America.

To say that presidents have had a large impact on our history is to merely recite a truism. Presidential assassins, regrettably, have also had a large impact on our history.

On this President’s day we will look at the murderer of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth. The rest of the week we will look at other successful assasins of presidents.

On July 4, 1835 Junius Brutus Booth, founder of the Booth theatrical family, sat down and penned a letter to President Andrew Jackson. Booth and Jackson knew each other and were friends, which makes the letter quite odd indeed. The text of the letter:

To His Excellency, General Andrew Jackson, President of the United States, Washington City,

You damn’d old Scoundrel if you don’t sign the pardon of your fellow men now under sentence of Death, De Ruiz and De Soto, I will cut your throat whilst you are sleeping. I wrote to you repeated Cautions so look out or damn you. I’ll have you burnt at the Stake in the City of Washington.

Your Master, Junius Brutus Booth.

You know me! Look out!

Booth was one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his day, and he often gave unforgettable performances. However, he was often noted for his off stage escapades, usually fueled by copious amounts of alcohol. I have little doubt that when he penned this missive Booth was quite drunk. De Ruiz and De Soto had been convicted of piracy. Many Americans had asked for clemency for the men. De Soto did receive a Presidential pardon on July 6, 1835 after an interview with De Soto’s wife and defense attorney with Jackson. In 1832 De Soto had saved the lives of 70 Americans aboard the burning ship Minerva in 1831 and that made him a sympathetic figure to the American public and Jackson. De Ruiz and the other men convicted of piracy were hung. Go here for the details of the piracy trial.

And what happened to Booth? Nothing apparently. I assume that Jackson probably laughed off the letter, assuming that his friend was drunk when he wrote it, and in any case threatening to assassinate the president was not a crime in 1835. One fervently wishes that Booth’s son, John Wilkes Booth had merely written a letter threatening to assassinate Lincoln. Continue Reading