Over the course of our 241 year history there have been four presidential assassinations. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William Mckinley, and John Kennedy were all murdered while in office. While the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations have certainly had much deeper imprints on our history and our psyche all four killings each possessed their own sets of circumstances and backstories. And each assassination, in its own way, affected the course of our national history.
Abraham Lincoln – The First of the Presidential Assassinations
Abraham Lincoln was shot on the night of April 14, 1865 while attending a play with his wife Mary at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.. The mortal wound was a shot in the back of the head from a .44 caliber Derringer pistol.
Andrew Johnson—the Vice President—was also targeted for murder on the same night but the assigned killer had second thoughts and did not make an attempt.
Lincoln died just after 7:00am the following morning, April 15, 1865. He lived for ~ 9 hours after being shot but never regained consciousness. This was merely weeks after the end of the Civil War. He was only 56 years old.
The assassin was John Wilkes Booth, an avid Lincoln hater and a long-time sympathizer of the Confederacy. Booth was a frequent actor at Ford’s theater and had once been proclaimed “the most handsome man in America”. Booth had previously hatched a plot to kidnap Lincoln but such a task was beyond execution for him and his band of incompetents.
After shooting the president, Booth jumped from the balcony to the stage severely fracturing his leg in the process. He fled the theater on horseback. Booth managed to elude a massive man-hunt for eleven days until he was finally cornered in a barn in Port Royal, Virginia. The barn was torched and Booth was shot while trying to escape. His last act, reportedly, was to look at his hands and mutter the words “useless, useless”.
Misc Assassination Tidbits
- Mary Surratt, convicted as a co-conspirator in the assassination, was the first woman in the United States to be given the death penalty. She was hanged. In the years that followed questions of her guilt were raised that, to this day, have not been resolved.
- Why did the Secret Services not provide better protection for the President? The Secret Service did not yet exist. Presidential Assassinations had been threatened but had never been actually carried out.
- The Lincoln assassination had its share of conspiracy theories. They included:
- That Secretary of War Edwin Stanton conspired with Booth to assassinate the president. Ostensibly due to the fact that the Secretary was fearful that Lincoln would be too lenient with the defeated South.
- The Catholic church somehow had a hand in the president’s murder.
- That the Vice President, Andrew Johnson, was in league with Booth. That would have been odd since Andrew Johnson was actually on the hit list that night!
James Garfield, our 20th president, was shot in Washington, D.C. on the morning of July 2, 1881. He had been in office a mere 4 months. The assassin, Charles Guiteau, shot Garfield twice; once in the back and again in the right arm. The weapon used was a .442 caliber Webley British Bulldog revolver.
President Garfield survived for an agonizing 11 weeks after being shot—finally succumbing to his injuries on September 19, 1881. He was 49 years old at the time of death.
Guiteau was apprehended and charged shortly after the shooting. Guiteau was found guilty and sentenced to death after a trial that ran from November 1881 through January 1882. He was hung on June 30, 1882. The wheels of justice turned much faster back then!
Guiteau’s motive for the assassination appeared to be revenge against the President for not having appointed the delusional Guiteau to the position of Ambassador to France. It was hypothesized at the time that Guiteau was suffering from syphilis and that the disease had spread to his brain.
Misc Assassination Tidbits
- A component of Guiteau’s defense during trial was a claim of “insanity”. One of the first cases in US trial history where an “insanity” defense was employed.
- On his way to the gallows Guiteau’s broke into dance! When given the opportunity to speak some last words, Guiteau sang a song he had written for the occasion entitled “I am Going to the Lordy”.
William McKinley, our 25th president, was assassinated on September 6, 1901. The president was shot while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY. McKinley was six months into his second term at the time of his assassination.
The assassin, Leon Czolgosz, fired two shots at McKinley using a .32 caliber revolver. The first shot was deflected by a button on the President’s coat and fell harmlessly into his sleeve. The second shot entered McKinley’s stomach damaging his pancreas and one kidney. Both shots were at point-blank range. Czolgosz had wrapped the revolver around his hand using a bandage, thereby giving the impression that he was merely extending a wounded hand. McKinley initially seemed to be recovering despite the severity of his wounds and was even receiving restricted visitation. However, on September 13 his condition rapidly deteriorated and he died on September 14 at the age of 58.
After the shooting Czolgosz was unable to flee the scene as he was immediately set upon by members of the crowd. Sometime shortly after his arrest, Czolgosz was severely beaten and some feared that he would die prior to his trial.
Czolgosz’s trial commenced on September 23, 1901, a mere nine days after McKinley’s death. Another example of how swiftly our justice system moved earlier in our history. The trial was over in two days. The jury deliberated for 30 minutes. As expected, Czolgosz was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was executed via electric chair on October 29, 1901.
Misc Assassination Tidbits
- Czolgosz’s casket was filled with acid prior to burial. A rather macabre act to insure the destruction of his remains.
- By this time the American public was sick of seeing their presidents assassinated. Presidential assassinations had become much to common within a “civilized” society. Much pressure was brought on Washington to take some preventative action. As a result, in 1906 legislation was finally enacted which put the Secret Service in charge of presidential security.
- The McKinley assassination occurred on a Friday. Lincoln, Garfield, and Kennedy were also assassinated on a Friday. Just one of several coincidences that exist within our history of presidential assassinations.
John Kennedy-Presidential Assassinations and Conspiracy
John Kennedy, our 35th president, was assassinated on November 22, 1963. The president was shot while travelling in a motorcade in Dallas, TX. Despite warnings from the Secret Service, Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline were travelling in an open-topped convertible. They were accompanied by Texas governor John Connally and his wife Nellie.
Kennedy was shot twice. Once in the neck and once, fatally, in the head. Governor Connally was also wounded during the shooting. The president and the governor were immediately rushed to Parkland hospital in Dallas. Kennedy was pronounced dead 30 minutes after arrival. He was 46 years old.
The assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had constructed a sniper’s nest on the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository where he was employed. He used a 6.5mm Carcano infantry rifle for the shooting. Oswald, having had some training as a marksman while serving in the Marines, was able to hit Kennedy first in the throat and then in the head despite the fact that the president was in a moving vehicle. Oswald fled the building amid the chaos and confusion that immediately followed the shooting. He left behind his rifle as well as the spent shell casings. Those items were found by law enforcement agents later that day.
Later that afternoon Oswald shot and killed Dallas police officer, J.D.Tippit. After shooting Tippit, Oswald fled to a nearby movie theater where he was finally captured, roughed-up, and arrested. On November 23 Oswald was formally charged with the murders of John Kennedy and J.D. Tippit. Oswald strongly proclaimed his innocence and made the famous claim that he was a mere “patsy”. That claim was the spawn of an avalanche of conspiracy theories that continue to live today—54 years after the event.
On Sunday, November 24, Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby. Ruby, a person of questionable character, claimed that he had acted out of rage that such a tragedy had befallen the president and the first lady. Oswald’s murder meant that a trial would never be possible, further fueling the breadth and depth of subsequent conspiracy theories.
Misc Assassination Tidbits
- An extensive investigation by the Warren Commission found that Oswald killed Kennedy and that he had acted alone. The report has been vehemently criticized by conspiracy theorists, both then and now. However, since the time of its release, most of its findings have been validated.
- Oswald lived in the Soviet Union from 1959 until 1962. He had applied for Soviet citizenship but was denied. While living in the Soviet Union he was married to Marina Nikolayevna.
- Jack Ruby was convicted of killing Oswald and was given the death penalty. That ruling was subsequently overturned and Ruby died of cancer, in prison, while awaiting retrial.
- A loud altercation erupted between Dallas police and the Secret Service while at Parkland hospital. The Secret Service wanted to transfer Kennedy’s body out of Dallas. The Dallas police objected, demanding that the body remain in Dallas under their jurisdiction. The Secret Service prevailed and Kennedy’s body was flown out of Dallas.
- If Oswald had not been killed his trial would have been held in Dallas. In 1963, the assassination of a president was not a federal offense.
No event in our history, or maybe even in world history, has created such a vast and long-lasting list of conspiracy theories. That is perhaps to be expected. We often have a hard time accepting relatively mundane explanations for extraordinary events. The possibility that a nobody like Oswald could have single-handedly murdered our president was just very difficult for many to accept at face value.
In 2003, author Gerald Posner published the book “Case Closed” The book takes a thorough and objective look at all evidence generated by the assassination and makes a compelling case that Oswald did in fact act alone.
Presidential Assassinations have plagued this nation since its early history. Will we be revised by that scourge? Only time will tell.