10 Presidential Assassination Attempts and Plots

Throughout American history, several presidents have faced serious threats to their lives. These incidents, while often horrifying, shed light on the dangers that come with holding one of the most powerful positions in the world. Understanding the history of these assassination attempts can provide insight into the lengths some individuals will go to in an effort to change the course of the nation.

Examining these plots and attempts reveals not only the personal risks faced by these leaders but also the complex security challenges involved in protecting them. The following article delves into the history and details of ten significant assassination attempts and plots on U.S. presidents, offering a closer look at these pivotal moments.

1) Abraham Lincoln Assassination by John Wilkes Booth

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. Booth, a well-known actor and Confederate sympathizer, carried out the attack at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

The assassination happened during a performance of “Our American Cousin.” Booth entered the presidential box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Lincoln was rushed to the Petersen House across the street, where he succumbed to his wounds the next morning at 7:22 am.

Booth fled the theater and escaped on horseback, aiming to get to Virginia. A massive manhunt ensued, and Booth was eventually tracked down 12 days later. He was found hiding in a barn in Virginia and was fatally shot by Union soldiers.

Lincoln’s death shocked the nation and had significant political and social ramifications. He was the first U.S. president to be assassinated, a tragic event that added to the turbulence of the Civil War era.

2) Failed Plot against Andrew Jackson by Richard Lawrence

Failed Plot against Andrew Jackson by Richard Lawrence

Richard Lawrence, an unemployed house painter of English descent, made history in 1835 by being the first person to attempt to assassinate a sitting U.S. president. On January 30, as President Andrew Jackson was leaving a funeral at the U.S. Capitol, Lawrence approached him.

Lawrence pulled out a pistol and aimed at Jackson. Incredibly, the weapon misfired. Undeterred, Lawrence then pulled out a second pistol, which also misfired. This double misfire was seen as extraordinarily unlikely and miraculous at the time.

After Lawrence’s failed attempt, Jackson reportedly confronted him, reacting with his typical aggressive demeanor. Jackson’s quick response and the malfunctioning weapons ensured his survival.

Lawrence was quickly subdued by bystanders and later found not guilty by reason of insanity. He went on to spend the rest of his life in a mental institution. This event marked the first known assassination attempt on a U.S. president, setting a grim precedent for the future.

3) Assassination Attempt on Theodore Roosevelt by John Schrank

Assassination Attempt on Theodore Roosevelt by John Schrank

On October 14, 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was campaigning for the presidency in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As he left the Gilpatrick Hotel to head to the Milwaukee Auditorium, John Schrank, a former saloonkeeper, was waiting for him.

Schrank approached Roosevelt and shot him at close range. The bullet penetrated Roosevelt’s steel eyeglass case and a folded copy of his speech, lodging in his chest. Remarkably, Roosevelt decided to continue with his speech despite being injured.

Roosevelt spoke for 90 minutes with the bullet still in his chest. He showed the crowd his blood-stained shirt and told them it takes more than that to kill a “Bull Moose,” referencing the nickname of his Progressive Party.

John Schrank was arrested immediately after the shooting. He claimed that he had visions instructing him to stop Roosevelt from being reelected. Schrank was later declared insane and committed to a mental institution for the rest of his life.

Roosevelt carried the bullet in his chest for the rest of his life. The assassination attempt, though unsuccessful, is remembered as one of the strangest in American history.

4) Harry S. Truman Assassination Attempt by Puerto Rican Nationalists

On November 1, 1950, President Harry S. Truman faced an assassination attempt by two Puerto Rican nationalists. Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola sought to draw attention to Puerto Rico’s independence movement.

The attempt took place at Blair House in Washington, D.C., where Truman was residing during White House renovations. Truman was unharmed in the attack.

Collazo and Torresola planned to kill Truman as a way to broadcast their cause to the world. Their plan, however, did not succeed.

Torresola mortally wounded a White House police officer, Leslie Coffelt, who managed to shoot and kill Torresola. Collazo was captured and later sentenced to death. Truman commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter released Collazo, who then returned to Puerto Rico and lived there until his death in 1994.

5) John F. Kennedy Assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald

John F. Kennedy Assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald

John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was assassinated on November 22, 1963. He was riding in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, at the time. Kennedy was with his wife, Jacqueline, and Texas Governor John Connally.

The shots that killed Kennedy were fired from the Texas School Book Depository. Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine, was identified as the shooter. Oswald had a history of embracing Marxism and had briefly defected to the Soviet Union.

Oswald was arrested just over an hour after the assassination. He was caught and charged with killing Kennedy and a Dallas police officer, J.D. Tippit. Oswald, however, never stood trial for the assassination.

Two days after the assassination, on November 24, 1963, Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby. Ruby was a local nightclub owner with known connections to the Dallas Police Department. This act left many questions and fueled numerous conspiracy theories.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy remains one of the most significant events in American history. It has been the subject of countless investigations, documentaries, and discussions.

6) Ronald Reagan Assassination Attempt by John Hinckley Jr.

Ronald Reagan Assassination Attempt by John Hinckley Jr

John Hinckley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton after giving a speech. As he approached his limousine, Hinckley fired six shots.

Reagan was hit in the chest by a ricocheted bullet. He was quickly taken to the hospital and underwent surgery. Fortunately, he made a full recovery.

Hinckley also injured three others: Press Secretary James Brady, police officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy. James Brady suffered severe injuries and was left permanently disabled.

Hinckley was motivated by a desire to impress actress Jodie Foster. He had developed an obsession with her after watching the film “Taxi Driver.” This fixation led him to plan the attack on Reagan.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He spent many years in a psychiatric hospital. In recent years, he has been released under strict conditions. The attempt on Reagan’s life had serious implications for presidential security and mental health policies.

7) Gerald Ford Assassination Attempt by Lynette Fromme

Gerald Ford Assassination Attempt by Lynette Fromme

On September 5, 1975, President Gerald Ford faced an assassination attempt in Sacramento, California. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a member of the Manson Family, aimed a .45-caliber pistol at Ford. She was within an arm’s length of the President.

Fromme targeted Ford as he was exiting the California State Capitol building. The pistol she used had no round chambered, rendering it unable to fire. A Secret Service agent quickly intervened and subdued Fromme before any shots could be fired.

This incident highlighted security lapses and increased concerns about presidential safety. Fromme was arrested and later sentenced to life in prison for the attempt on Ford’s life.

8) Richard Nixon Bomb Plot by Samuel Byck

Samuel Byck was an American hijacker born on January 30, 1930. He attempted to assassinate President Richard Nixon on February 22, 1974. Byck planned to hijack a plane from Baltimore/Washington International Airport and crash it into the White House.

Byck was a failed businessman who blamed Nixon for his problems. He admired Mark Essex, a sniper who had killed several people. Byck made his plans known through recordings, where he claimed he would “cleanse” the government.

On the day of the attempt, Byck stole a .22 caliber pistol. At the airport, he shot and killed a policeman and one of the pilots. Despite his actions, he failed to take off and was shot by law enforcement.

Byck’s attempt did not succeed in physically harming Nixon, as the plane never left the runway. He died from his gunshot wounds. His plot remains one of the more dramatic assassination attempts on a U.S. President.

9) Franklin D. Roosevelt Attempt by Giuseppe Zangara

On February 15, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt faced an assassination attempt. During a night speech at Bayfront Park in Miami, Florida, he was attacked by Giuseppe Zangara, an Italian immigrant and unemployed bricklayer.

Zangara fired five shots at Roosevelt as he spoke from the back of his light-blue Buick.

Zangara, standing on a chair to see over the crowd, shouted, “Too many people are starving!” before shooting.

Roosevelt was unharmed, but several others were injured. One of the bullets struck Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who later died from his wounds.

Authorities quickly apprehended Zangara. He was tried and convicted and was executed in the electric chair just over a month later, on March 20, 1933.

10) William Taft Plot by John F. Schrank

While William Howard Taft faced several assassination attempts, the plot involving John F. Schrank was particularly notable. Schrank’s plan, however, didn’t target Taft directly while he was in office. Instead, Schrank became infamous for his attempt on another political figure.

John F. Schrank, a mentally unstable saloonkeeper, intended to assassinate Theodore Roosevelt while he campaigned against Taft. Schrank believed Roosevelt’s actions threatened American traditions.

On October 14, 1912, Schrank shot Roosevelt in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The bullet lodged in Roosevelt’s chest but was stopped by a steel eyeglass case and a thick speech in his pocket. Roosevelt survived the attempt and continued his speech despite the injury.

This incident indirectly involved Taft since Roosevelt was running against him for the presidency. Schrank’s actions highlighted the intense political atmosphere of the time. Their impact reverberated through the political landscape, affecting both Roosevelt and Taft’s campaigns.

Historical Context of Presidential Assassination Attempts

Presidential assassination attempts in the United States have often been shaped by the political climate and prevailing security measures of their times. Changes in society and advancements in protection have influenced the frequency and methods of these attacks.

Political Climate and Tensions

Political tensions have frequently contributed to assassination attempts on presidents. For instance, Andrew Jackson faced an attack in 1835 by Richard Lawrence during a tumultuous period marked by economic distress and strong political opposition.

Similarly, James Garfield’s assassination in 1881 was fueled by intense factionalism within the Republican Party.

Social upheavals, such as those during the Civil Rights Movement, also played a part. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 amid significant political and social changes in the U.S.

Understanding these historical contexts helps explain the motivations behind the attempts and the volatile environments in which these presidents served.

Security Measures and Changes Over Time

Security protocols for U.S. presidents have evolved substantially since the 19th century due to repeated assassination attempts. Initially, presidents had minimal protection, relying mainly on local law enforcement.

The Secret Service began protecting presidents after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901.

Technological advancements, such as bulletproof vehicles and advanced intelligence operations, have further enhanced presidential security.

After attempts on Gerald Ford in 1975, security measures tightened considerably, with increased focus on crowd control and vetting procedures for those in proximity to the president.

These changes reflect a continuous adaptation to emerging threats and changing times, aiming to ensure the president’s safety.

Psychological Profiles of Assassins

Presidential assassins often share common psychological traits and motivations. Studies show that their actions are driven by a range of factors, from personal grievances to political statements.

Common Traits and Motivations

Many assassins struggle with feelings of failure and isolation. They often feel disconnected from society and can exhibit signs of paranoia or delusion. Mental illness, such as schizophrenia or severe depression, is common among them.

Motivations vary widely. Some seek fame or notoriety, while others believe they are acting in defense of a cause. A desire for revenge against perceived injustices also drives many.

Many believe their actions will bring about significant change or attention to their issues. Some expect to develop a special relationship with the president or gain recognition.

Case Studies of Specific Assassins

John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln due to his strong Confederate sympathies and belief that he would be seen as a hero. His deep-seated political beliefs and sense of betrayal by the Union victory fueled his actions.

Charles J. Guiteau, who shot James A. Garfield, had delusions of grandeur. He believed he deserved a political appointment, and Garfield’s refusal triggered his actions. His mental instability was evident in his erratic behavior and grandiose delusions.

John Schrank’s attempt on Theodore Roosevelt’s life was motivated by visions he claimed to have of William McKinley telling him to do it. Schrank showed signs of severe mental illness and was later deemed insane.

Lee Harvey Oswald, who killed John F. Kennedy, sought recognition and harbored strong political beliefs. His defection to the Soviet Union and disillusionment upon returning to the U.S. played a role in his actions.

Impact on National Security Policies

Assassination attempts on U.S. presidents have significantly shaped national security policies. These events have led to changes in laws and the ways the Secret Service protects national leaders.

Legislative Responses

In the wake of presidential assassination attempts, Congress has enacted several important laws. One major example is the Presidential Protection Assistance Act of 1976. This law increased resources for protecting the president and expanded the Secret Service’s authority.

More laws followed high-profile incidents. For instance, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the government passed laws that enhanced security protocols for presidential motorcades and public appearances. These legal changes aim to prevent future attacks and ensure robust security measures are in place.

Evolution of Secret Service Protocols

The Secret Service’s methods have significantly evolved over the years. Initially, they focused more on financial crimes. After President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901, their role shifted to include presidential protection.

Technological advancements have driven further changes. After the assassination of President Kennedy, the Secret Service began utilizing armored vehicles, increasing digital surveillance, and improving crowd control techniques. Modern protocols also include thorough vetting of individuals who come in close contact with the president and enhanced cybersecurity measures.

These evolving strategies reflect lessons learned from past assassination attempts and aim to anticipate and mitigate future threats effectively.