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United States Presidential Assassinations

Updated on January 12, 2014
The Kennedy assassination shocked the nation.
The Kennedy assassination shocked the nation.

Assassinations undermine the essence of the democratic process. They have the potential to cause chaos and panic, leading to long term instability and uncertainty among the populace. For these reasons, modern presidents are protected by a massive security apparatus which (hopefully) significantly reduces the chances of an assassination.

Four United States presidents have been assassinated since the nation’s inception. The assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy are very well known. They have been the subject of dozens of books, films, and plays over the years. The other two are more obscure, but they were nonetheless events that shocked and horrified millions of Americans. With the fiftieth anniversary of the J.F.K. assassination taking place on November 22, 2013, here is a look back at all of the presidential assassinations in United States history.

One of the last photographs of President Lincoln.
One of the last photographs of President Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is arguably America’s most iconic president. His leadership during the Civil War has been praised by countless historians. Lincoln is also known for his famous top hat, his legendary speeches, and the Emancipation Proclamation. He has been the subject of countless books, movies, and historical documentaries.

Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a stage actor, at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. on April 14, 1865. He was shot in the back of the head while he was watching a play. His doctors quickly realized that Lincoln had suffered a mortal wound, and their efforts to save him were futile. He died the following morning.

Booth was an ardent supporter of slavery and a Confederate sympathizer. His co-conspirators, Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt, were supposed to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward as part of a desperate last ditch attempt to save the Confederacy from certain defeat in the Civil War. Powell stabbed Seward but failed to kill him. Atzerodt lost his nerve and fled.

A group of soldiers later tracked down Booth, who was hiding in a farmhouse. They set the building on fire after Booth refused to surrender. One of the soldiers shot the assassin, severing his spinal cord and paralyzing him. Booth was taken into custody and died three days later on April 26, 1865.

Or did he? There are alternative theories that suggest that the soldiers killed an imposter, and that Booth lived under an assumed name (John St. Helen) for the rest of his life until he committed suicide in 1903. However, no proof has been found to support these allegations.

Abraham Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated and his death had a profound impact on the country. Even today, his death still has a significant influence on American culture. Many mementoes and artifacts associated with the assassination have been preserved and are displayed in museums.

An illustration depicting the assassination of James Garfield.
An illustration depicting the assassination of James Garfield.

James Garfield

James Garfield had one of the shortest tenures of any president. He was in office for just over six months, from March to September 1881. Garfield had previously spent an eighteen year stint in the House of Representatives. He is remembered for being the first president to be left handed and is the only sitting member of the House of Representatives to be elected directly to the presidency.

Garfield’s assassinator was Charles Guiteau, a mentally unstable man who had become enraged after being denied an ambassadorship with the administration. On July 2, 1881, Garfield was walking through the now defunct Baltimore and Potomac Railway Station in Washington D.C. when Guiteau calmly walked up behind him and shot him in the back. The president did not die right away, and there was hope that he could be saved. His doctors unsuccessfully attempted to find and remove the bullet with primitive and unsanitized medical tools. Ironically, the damaging and unhealthy actions of his doctors are likely what ultimately killed Garfield. After nearly three months of agonizing pain, he finally died on September 19, 1881. As for Guiteau, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was executed by hanging in July 1882.

An illustration depicting the assassination of William McKinley.
An illustration depicting the assassination of William McKinley.

William McKinley

William McKinley was a very popular president. He had been re-elected in a landslide in 1900 after an economic recovery following the Panic of 1893 and a triumph over Spain in the Spanish-American War during his first term. Before becoming president, he had been the governor of Ohio and a member of the House of Representatives. McKinley was the last Civil War veteran to become president.

One citizen who was not impressed with McKinley’s accomplishments was Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who saw McKinley as a symbol of tyranny. He felt that killing the president would make a powerful political statement. On July 6, 1901, Czolgosz shot McKinley in the abdomen during a public reception at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York. McKinley was there to take part in festivities associated with the Pan-American Exposition. Like Garfield, McKinley survived the initial shooting. He died a week later after gangrene developed in his wounds. Leon Czolgosz was swiftly tried and found guilty. He was executed in the electric chair just six weeks after the assassination.

McKinley was succeeded by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt. While most people are familiar with Roosevelt, many may not realize that he initially became president as the result of an assassination (“Teddy” was later elected in his own right in a landslide in 1904).

After McKinley died, the United States Congress officially put the Secret Service in charge of the president’s protection for the first time. Since then, they have been successful in protecting presidents from assassinations…except once.

John F. Kennedy, pictured just moments before he was shot.
John F. Kennedy, pictured just moments before he was shot.
A couple falls to the ground and covers their children after hearing shots fired.
A couple falls to the ground and covers their children after hearing shots fired.
A secret service agent climbs onto the car after Kennedy is hit.
A secret service agent climbs onto the car after Kennedy is hit.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

John F. Kennedy was a sensation in the early 1960’s. The president and his picture perfect, ultra-photogenic family were media darlings. As president, JFK saw many ups and downs during his two and a half years in the White House. He suffered a major political blow during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, but also won praise for helping to diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was the first Catholic president and the youngest man ever to be elected to the office.

J.F.K’s private life was unknown to the general public at the time, but it has since been the subject of much discussion. He reportedly had numerous affairs with attractive young women, including legendary Hollywood starlet Marilyn Monroe. This was an era in which a president’s private life was not discussed publicly by members of the press, a practice that had saved J.F.K. (and many other philandering presidents) from political embarrassment in the past. Kennedy appeared to be a solid bet to win re-election in 1964.

As everyone reading this knows, it all came to a horrific end on November 22, 1963. His campaign team was already gearing up for the next election a year in advance, and they decided to make a campaign stop in Texas, an electoral vote-rich state that they believed would be crucial to Kennedy’s chances of victory. Kennedy had been warned not to visit the city of Dallas, where he was despised, but decided to go anyway. Kennedy was allowed to ride in a slow moving convertible while traveling down a busy downtown street, making him a sitting duck for any potential assassins. Lee Harvey Oswald, a disgruntled former U.S. Marine, shot at Kennedy three times from his vantage point at the Book Depository. Two of the bullets struck the president, and one of them dealt a fatal blow to his head. Kennedy was pronounced dead shortly after reaching a nearby hospital. Lee Harvey Oswald was found and arrested, but he was shot to death by nightclub owner Jack Ruby before he could stand trial.

The bizarre circumstances surrounding the assassination have spawned numerous conspiracy theories over the years. The FBI, CIA, mafia organizations, and many other individuals and groups have been accused of orchestrating a plot to kill Kennedy. Some theories have even claimed that Vice President Lyndon Johnson hatched the plot so that he could become president. Polls have consistently shown that many Americans believe that JFK was killed as a result of a conspiracy. However, no proof to support any of these theories has ever been uncovered.

John F. Kennedy remains a major figure in American popular culture. In 2011, Stephen King released the novel “11/22/63”, which chronicles the efforts of the main character to travel back through time and stop the Kennedy assassination. He discovers that the lone gunman theory is correct, and is able to stop Oswald, but his actions have unintended consequences. The novel became an enormous critical and commercial success.

Was Kennedy really killed as a result of a conspiracy? Perhaps. Or perhaps these alternative theories were created because people had difficulty comprehending that one unremarkable young man could change history and bring down a president. Maybe it was just too frightening to imagine that one seemingly irrelevant person could have that much power.

Ronald Reagan gave a special address to Congress three weeks after his assassination attempt.
Ronald Reagan gave a special address to Congress three weeks after his assassination attempt.

Close Calls

Many other presidents have been targeted for assassination. Here are some of the most notorious failed attempts.

Andrew Jackson

Jackson was leaving a funeral in Washington D.C. on January 30, 1865, when he was confronted by a mentally unstable house painter named Richard Lawrence. Lawrence had two pistols with him. He shot at Jackson with the first, which misfired. He then attempted to fire at Jackson with his other pistol, but it misfired as well. Lawrence was finally subdued (Jackson helped by whacking his would be assassin with his cane) and arrested. He spent the rest of his life in mental institutions.

Harry Truman

Two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate Truman on November 1, 1950. Truman was staying at Blair House, the presidential guest house in Washington D.C., because the White House was being remodeled. The nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, shot and killed a police officer who attempted to stop them from entering the building. They also became involved in a shootout with the Secret Service. Torresola was fatally wounded, while Collazo was severely injured. The two never made it inside and Truman was unharmed. Collazo received a life sentence.

Gerald Ford

Ford was targeted by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a member of Charles Manson’s infamous “family”, on September 5, 1975. He was shaking hands with onlookers at the state capitol building in Sacramento when Fromme pulled out a handgun and attempted to shoot him. She was quickly subdued by a Secret Service agent. Fromme received a long prison sentence, but was finally paroled in 2009, over two years after Ford’s death.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan nearly had his fledgling presidency cut short on March 30, 1981. Reagan was leaving the Hilton Hotel in Washington D.C. when he was shot by John Hinckley, a mentally ill young man who was obsessed with actress Jodie Foster. The bullet punctured his lung and caused damage to his rib cage. Reagan was in serious danger of dying, the closest call any president has had since JFK’s death. He was rushed to the hospital and doctors were able to perform a successful emergency surgery. Reagan returned to the White House after two weeks in the hospital. Hinckley was ruled legally insane and has spent the past four plus decades in mental institutions.

I will leave you with some quotes I thought were relevant to this topic.

“Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. 'Who is dead in the White House?' I demanded of one of the soldiers. 'The President,' was his answer; 'he was killed by an assassin.'" – Abraham Lincoln, describing an eerie dream he had three days before he was assassinated.

“Assassination can no more be guarded against than death by lightning.” – James Garfield

“If anything in life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.” – Michael Corleone, “The Godfather Part II”

“Anyone can be killed.” - Arya Stark, “Game of Thrones”.

Poll

Which Assassination Do You Think Had the Greatest Impact on the Nation/World?

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    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 3 years ago from California, United States of America

      This is a very interesting look at the assassinations of these US Presidents. I, of course, had knowledge of the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy, but limited knowledge of the assassinations of the other Presidents listed here. I also was not aware of when the Secret Service started guarding the President. Very interesting examination here, rather captivating. Interesting, too, to consider all the historic circumstances surrounding these assassinations.

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 3 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Thank you Nate! Yeah the Garfield and McKinley assassinations have definitely faded into obscurity over the years, but are still interesting.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Nice article. So many people don't know about the assassinations of Garfield and McKinley. Although certainly Kennedy's had the most impact in history. Lincoln's place in history was set. But with JFK, we don't know what would have happened with issues like Vietnam, and Civil Rights. The succession of Presidents would have been different. Maybe no Nixon? So we never would have had Watergate, etc. Carter? Reagan? Voted up.

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 3 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Yeah, good point. I was just reading an article about a book that came out, "If Kennedy Lived", that is about that very subject. Yeah it's definitely fascinating to think about. We might have had a completely different group of presidents over the past fifty years. Thanks for commenting!

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 3 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      It's amazing that there is still debate about the Kennedy assassination. I suppose it will never be resolved for the history books. Ronald Reagan was the victim of an attempted assassination and was very fortunate to have survived. Guarding a U.S. President is not fool-proof and, unfortunately, an assassination could happen at any time.

      Good article, voted up!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      This is a great hub detailing those assassinations and near misses of U.S. Presidents. I was in high school when JFK was assassinated and will never forget the horror of that day. Those were turbulent times in the 1960s! Sharing this well written hub.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

      With JFK and then his brother Bobby being murdered who was running for president I don't think it was just some crazies; well it may have been but I think the mafia possible was behind it and I have always suspected Lyndon Johnson of having prior knowledge of JFKs assassination.

      I have also heard that Bobby and another man went to see Marilyn the night she died. Not suggesting they hurt her in any way but it apparently was a visit she did not welcome to OD. Someone has all these answers I believe.

      Very interesting.

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 2 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Thank you, Peggy! Glad you enjoyed it. Yeah my parents and grandfather still remember that the JFK assassination like it was yesterday!

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 2 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Jackie, definitely lots of interesting theories out there about the Kennedy assassinations. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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