Assassinations are a terrible tragedy on several different levels. There’s the sudden loss of life, always regrettable, particularly so when it happens in violent fashion. There’s a sense of injustice, at how one rogue, usually deranged individual can unfairly impose his will on millions of people. In retrospect, there’s always the sense of “What if?” If Abraham Lincoln had lived, would the nation’s Civil War wounds have healed faster? Did John F. Kennedy’s assassination set the stage for the social upheaval in the U.S. in the late 1960s?
Four sitting U.S. Presidents have been assassinated while in office: Lincoln in 1865, James A. Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901) and Kennedy (1963). But there have been more than a dozen failed assassination attempts of either sitting or past United States presidents. Here are five of the strangest attempts.
5. Harry Truman
In one of the deadliest assassination attempts, Secret Service agents and White House police engaged in a shootout with two Puerto Rican activists on Nov. 1, 1950, outside the Blair House, where President Harry Truman was living during White House renovations. As Truman looked on from a second-floor window, a White House policeman, Leslie Coffelt, managed to fatally wound one of the men before himself succumbing to a gunshot. The remaining would-be assassin, Oscar Collazo, was sentenced to death, but Truman commuted the sentence to life in prison. Collazo was released in 1979 after President Jimmy Carter commuted the sentence to time served.
4. John F. Kennedy
Almost three years before he was killed in Dallas, Texas, John F. Kennedy was almost the victim of a bold assassination plan while vacationing with his family in Florida in December 1960. Richard Paul Pavlick, a retired postal worker, loaded his car with dynamite and intended to ram the president-elect’s limousine. Pavlick had a change of heart, however, when he spotted Kennedy’s wife, Jackie, and two young children, Caroline and John Jr., with him. Secret Service agents, who had already been investigating reports of Pavlick’s strange behavior, arrested the 73-year-old man several days later.
3. Andrew Jackson
The seventh President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, served in the U.S. military in three wars, earning the nickname “Old Hickory” for his toughness. That would serve him well in 1835, when an unemployed painter named Richard Lawrence ambushed Jackson after an appearance in the U.S. Capitol. Lawrence fired a flintlock pistol at the president, but it misfired. As Jackson raised his cane and went after the man, Lawrence fired a second pistol, this time at almost point-blank range, but that gun also misfired. After bystanders wrestled Lawrence to the ground, the 67-year-old Jackson proceeded to beat the man with his cane.
It was the first assassination attempt on a U.S. president’s life, but Lawrence shared many of the same attributes of future assassins and would-be assassins in that he was mentally unstable. In Lawrence’s case, he was convinced he was the rightful King of England, but he felt that Jackson had conspired to prevent him from taking the throne. He was ruled not guilty by reason of insanity and spent the rest of his life in a mental facility.
2. Richard Nixon
In a chilling foreshadowing of Sept. 11, a plan to assassinate Richard Nixon in February 1974 involved hijacking a commercial jet and flying it into the White House. Samuel Byck, an unemployed salesman, fatally shot a police officer at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, then forced his way aboard an Atlanta-bound Delta Airlines DC-9. After the two pilots told him they couldn’t take off yet, Byck shot them both, killing one. He then ordered a passenger to fly the plane. Police surrounded the plane and tried to shoot out the tires before an officer fired four shots through the airplane door, wounding Byck. The would-be assassin committed suicide before police could gain entry into the plane. Later, Secret Service agents revealed they had been aware of Byck’s anti-Nixon rhetoric but had thought he would not carry out his threats. The incident was made into a 2004 film, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, starring Sean Penn.
1. Theodore Roosevelt
A larger-than-life figure, Teddy Roosevelt served two terms as president (assuming the presidency following the assassination of President McKinley in 1901). In 1912, Roosevelt opted to run again for the nation’s highest office under the Progressive Party banner (also known as the Bull Moose Party, in honor of Roosevelt’s popular nickname). Before delivering a speech in Milwaukee, a bartender named John Schrank shot Roosevelt in the chest. The bullet struck Roosevelt’s glass case and tore through a copy of the speech he was giving, lodging in his chest. Incredibly, even though he was bleeding, Roosevelt ignored advice that he should go to the hospital and proceeded to speak for more than an hour, opening his speech with this bombshell: “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose … The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”
Despite finishing the speech, the bullet wound limited Roosevelt’s campaigning in the final three weeks of the presidential race; he went on to finish second in the election. Doctors determined it was too dangerous to attempt to remove the bullet, and Roosevelt carried it with him the rest of his life. As for the would-be assassin, he was committed to a mental institution where he spent the last 30 years of his life.
One More: Ronald Reagan
The attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981 was strange only after the fact, when details emerged about would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. Hinckley shot Reagan in an attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster, whom he had become infatuated with after repeated viewings of the movie, Taxi Driver. As for Reagan, his quick recovery from life-threatening injuries only enhanced his tough-guy image. While waiting to be operated on, he famously quipped to the operating staff, “I hope you all are Republicans.”