American Political Assassins

Let us say, instead, American assassins of political figures, because the major pre-occupation with the current assassin du jour, Jared Lee Loughner, is his mental state. One would suppose that the motivation to kill a politician is political. Political assassins have throughout history, been villains, patriots, heroes and devils. It may depend on where you stand, as to where you sit on the question. Charlotte Corday is more a heroine to the French than a villainess, and Sirhan Sirhan adorns recruiting posters for Jihad. Perhaps a little history of American assassination attempts would be instructive.

Richard Lawrence holds the distinction of being the first American assassin, though in truth, he was British. Since he thought he was the rightful King of England, there is little controversy as to his mental state when he tried to shoot President Andrew Jackson in 1835. Jackson survived because Lawrence’s guns misfired. Despite a lifetime of bizarre behavior and the suspicion that the chemicals involved in his painting pointed to a derangement of some sort, there was a conspiracy theory, and Americans seem to love them. It was so prevalent that Senator John C. Calhoun took the Senate floor to deny he was involved, and Senator George Poindexter lost his Senate seat in Mississippi because his constituents felt he was involved. Lawrence was found not guilty by reason of insanity and received the great American consolation prize for assassination, or it’s attempt, free room and board for life. He died in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C. in 1861, having outlived his target by almost sixteen years.

Orrin Porter Rockwell may be the only truly successful American assassin, but he may have been as innocent as the jury said he was of the attempted assassination of former Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs, author of the Mormon Extermination Order, more formally Missouri Executive Order 44. Boggs survived, and Rockwell was acquitted. The only evidence against him was, apparently, that he was a Mormon associate of Joseph Smith, which was not enough for a jury.

All of which brings us to John Wilkes Booth, matinee idol and the first truly competent American assassin, or at least the first one to be a success at it. His motive would definitely have been political, though being a matinee idol as a teenager probably did mean his mental state was somewhat in question.

The spirit of success followed Charles J. Guiteau who, in 1881, shot and killed President James A. Garfield. Since he had decided that God commanded him to kill the President for the crime of not making him an ambassador to, well anyplace at all he wasn’t particular, the consolation prize lay within his grasp. The jury decided differently however and he was hung in June of 1882. Appeals courts were a lot more efficient then.

Presidents remained a favored target and Leon Czolgosz kept it a winning record, killing President William McKinley in 1901. Leon was more dedicated than deranged, a life long anarchist he was mimicking the Italian assassin of King Umberto of Italy, anarchist Gaetano Bresci, who killed the King for the sake of the common man. Seeing the success of his ideas on Mediterranean shores, he killed an American President in the same cause about fourteen months later. Pure political assassination is, of course, the worst sin. Leon was electrocuted on October 29, 1901, one month and fifteen days after the death of McKinley. Appeals courts at the time were just getting better and better.

John Shrank, however, ended the assassins’ winning streak in 1912 when the New York saloonkeeper failed to eliminate former President Theodore Roosevelt in Milwaukee. To be fair it wasn’t so much incompetence as the pocket Roosevelt carried his glasses and a fifty-page speech in. But political assassination then as always is governed by the vaguerities of fate. Shrenk apparently was offended by Roosevelt’s seeking of a third term or other domestic policies. The courts decided he had inhaled too many alcohol fumes in his career and declared him insane awarding him the consolation prize. He died in 1943 in the Central State Mental Hospital in Waupin, Wisconsin, outliving his target by twenty-four years. The irony of that being that he lived to see another Roosevelt capture a third term.

Dr. Carl Weiss may have shot Senator Huey P. Long, at least that is the accepted version. Either that or Long’s bodyguards did the deed, but then why would they? Carl either threw a punch at the senator or shot him, when the smoke cleared he’d been shot sixty-two times. Long lasted two days, and the conspiracy buffs geared up. Weiss used a thirty two? Long was killed by a thirty-eight, or a forty-five?

Giuseppe Zangara was apparently a lousy shot. He aimed at Franklin Roosevelt and hit five other people, including the Mayor of Chicago Anton Cermak, who died of his wounds. Politically, Zangara just didn’t care for capitalists. He had a rather involved plan to kill Herbert Hoover, but Hoover lost to Roosevelt and he figured that there was little profit in letting a good plan go to waste, so on Feruary 15, 1933, he gave it a shot, or six. Even though Zangara lived in Florida and had no contact with organized crime, Frank Nitti became the focus of a pretty involved conspiracy theory in which Cermak and not Roosevelt was the target. Various versions of this theory have Zangara as a diversion for a second gunman who actually targeted the mayor, and Zangara as an expert marksman from the Italian army who shot who he was supposed to shoot. Giuseppe was executed on March 20, 1933, of course he eschewed the consolation prize proudly pleading guilty. Among his last words were “Viva Italia,” and “Push the button.”

Oscar Collazo and Grisello Torresola wanted freedom, freedom for Puerto Rico, what they considered to be their country, and which lay beneath the heel of the American oppressor. To rectify this historical mistake they decided that assassinating President Harry S. Truman would be a good start. With the White House being renovated, on November 1, 1950, they snuck into the President’s temporary residence, the Blair House. Though they never got near the President they did engage in a gunfight in the attempt. When the smoke cleared Torresola and White House police officer Leslie Cofelt were dead and Collazo in custody. Oscar got the death penalty, which President Truman commuted to a life sentence. President Jimmy Carter commuted that in 1979, making Oscar the first assassin to lose the consolation prize to anyone but an executioner. He died in 1994.

Richard Paul Pavlick missed his date with destiny only barely, blame his soft heart. He pretty much hated Catholics and wealthy people and had the dynamite already to go. He’d donated his property to a local youth camp (such charity is not common in assassins.) He loaded his 1950 Buick with dynamite and set off to blow up President elect John Kennedy. He stopped, however when he noticed Kennedy was with his wife and children. Faint heart neer blew up a President, and was caught shortly thereafter. Whether Pavlick would have been successful or stopped himself again isn’t clear, he barely makes the list. Acting out a fantasy that would never be fulfilled? Or just a softhearted assassin with fate intervening? We don’t know. He was committed in 1961, released in 1966 and died in 1977 at age 88.

Byron De La Beckwith is a bit of an anomaly in the annals of American assassination. A marine, a machine gunner at Guadalcanal and Tarawa, Beckwith had three bronze stars, a Good Conduct medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and a Purple Heart. In other words not the typical resume of an assassin. Of course he could have just been practicing his profession at home. On June 12, 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi, he killed civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Two trials in 1964 ended in hung juries, but in 1975, he was convicted of conspiring to kill A. I. Blotnick, a director of B’nai Brith. Paroled in 1977, he began to make the rounds of KKK rallies where he was hailed as a hero. Too much bragging about his success in assassinating Evers at these rallies led to a trial in 1994 where the jury convicted him. Sentenced to the consolation prize, he died in custody in 2001. He was a bit of an anomaly in the annals of American assassins, a decorated marine who remained a hero to an increasingly marginalized political point of view until his death.

As far as we know, Lee Harvey Oswald dreamed and did what Richard Paul Pavlick contemplated. Of course with Lee we sort of have a smorgasbord of choices. We’ve all heard the theories of the grassy knoll, the second gunman, the Warren report and the New Orleans D.A. among other things. About the only thing we do know is that Jack Ruby was definitely an assassin; I mean he did it on television, and pretty much for political reasons one way or another. And then, of course he figures in the conspiracy theories.

Before things really get tangled and ghosts of every conspiracy theory from John C. Calhoun, through Frank Nitti to the mysterious riflemen of Dallas come home to roost, Norman 3X Butler, Thomas 15X Johnson and Talmadge Heyer are due a mention. Apparently they rushed a stage in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan on February 21, 1965 and assassinated Malcolm X; they were convicted of it and secure in the notion that, in America, people are convicted beyond a reasonable doubt they are undoubtedly guilty.

James Earl Ray might have assassinated Martin Luther King, he did confess, though he later recanted. The conspiracy theory here was a whopper. In effect Ray was convicted criminally and, 1999, Loyd Jowers, owner of Jim’s Grill in Memphis, owed the debt civilly. Jowers laid out a complex conspiracy involving the government and the mafia to take out Dr. King. And the shooter? Lt. Earl Clark of the Memphis police department. A Memphis jury ruled that Jowers’ conspiracy indeed assassinated Dr. King. In effect that James Earl Ray was a fall guy. Who’s the assassin? Ray grabbed off the consolation prize with a plea bargain in 1969, he died in 1998. Jowers paid a hundred dollars civil damages, Clark was never charged, an assassination without an assassin?

Sirhan Sirhan followed, well whoever did assassinate Martin Luther King, on June 5th of 1968, two months later with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. A Palestinian, and a committed anti-Zionist, Sirhan had been convinced that Kennedy would support the Zionists, who he looked on as the usurpers of his country. Although Sirhan never directly said so, the date he chose was the first anniversary of the Six Day War between Israel and it’s Arab neighbors. Sirhan tried, in vain, to confess, court appointed lawyers argued ‘diminished capacity’ and lost. Sentenced to death, the appeals courts lacked the efficiency to see that carried out before the California Supreme Court commuted all the death penalties as yet unfulfilled, to life sentences. A hero in many places in the World and one of the few assassins whose political motives remain unquestioned, Sirhan enjoys his consolation prize at the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, California.

Arthur Bremer, like many assassins before and since, wasn’t all that good with a gun. He did manage to paralyze former Governor and Presidential candidate George Wallace from the waist down, and wound three other people. Apparently Bremer just wanted to assassinate someone. Since the original target seemed to be Republican Richard Nixon, the switch to Democrat Wallace may just have been a target of opportunity. One might suppose that, somewhere in history there just had to be an assassin who did it for the artistic symmetry of it. On May 15, 1972, Bremer carried out his plans, but apparently lost it a bit. He had planned to say ‘A Penny for your thoughts,’ as he shot Wallace, and forgot about it in the excitement. Bremer was convicted and sentenced to sixty-three years, later commuted to fifty-three, of which he served thirty-five before his release in 2007.

Samuel Byck followed up Bremer in attempting to assassinate President Richard Nixon by hijacking a commercial jet flying out of Baltimore-Washington International airport on February 22, 1974 and flying it into the White House, a pioneering attempt that took seventeen years to be perfected. A mental patient, with a history of depression, he’d threatened before and was on the secret service radar as early as 1972, but not deemed a threat. He killed Maryland Aviation Police Officer George Neal Ramsburg and stormed aboard Delta Flight 523 with a twenty-two and a homemade gasoline bomb. When the pilots refused to take-off he shot them and installed a woman passenger to fly the plane. She skidded off the runway, and in the standoff that followed Byck committed suicide.

Manson family members Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who missed out on the Tate/LaBianca killing spree tried to make up for that malicious turn of fate by assassinating President Gerald Ford seventeen days apart in 1975. “Squeaky” Fromme donned a nun’s habit as a disguise and either wasn’t all that serious or forgot to properly load her gun in Sacramento on September Fifth. Sara Jane missed with her only shot by about six inches on September Twenty-second. Both received life sentences, both have been paroled, Moore in 2007 and Fromme in 2009.

Dan White, who was really ticked off at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Mayor George Moscone for not letting him back on the Board of Supervisors after his resignation, shot both the Mayor and openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk to death on November 27, 1978. His defense was ‘diminished capacity’ part of the justification of that was an over indulgence in junk food (which led to a semi-urban legend known as the ‘Twinkie defense.’) In any case the jury called it ‘voluntary manslaughter’ and Dan got out 1984. He committed suicide in 1985.

John Hinckley Jr. stepped up to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, he said to impress actress Jody Foster. Once again poor marksmanship played a role and the President survived, the first to have done so after actually taking a bullet. Hinckley also managed to shoot three other people. Hinckley was judged ‘not guilty by reason of insanity,’ and he remains ‘in treatment’ at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C. Ms Foster’s three public comments on the incident seemed to indicate that Mr. Hinckley failed to impress her.

All of which brings us to Jared Lee Loughner, and it is far too early to speculate on his eventual disposition.

It is somewhat curious that no American assassin exists in the pantheon of American heroes. Americans have after all embraced thieves, robbers and murderers, such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James and John Dillinger. Other nations are not so finicky. Even the staid Brits have their Guy Fawkes Day, presumably because they cannot decide whether blowing up both houses of Parliament is a heinous crime or just a really good idea.

Still for most of us who despite our most deeply held convictions, our most acid churning personal animosities, or a misaligned set of neurons lurking somewhere in our brains, cannot imagine pulling the trigger, assassins remain somewhat exotic creatures and we devour news coverage about them as if they were deadly snakes coiled up behind Plexiglas in the reptile house, although with every one we conger up ways to reinforce the barrier. Perhaps they are people who have simply reached the conclusion that war is too impersonal and have decided to take it personally.