Head (of State) Shots


By Tom Clavin

“The Overlook” appears every Thursday at tomclavin.substack.com. An overlook is usually a place from which one can see in many if not all directions, including where one has been and where one is going. There is no political or personal agenda at work here other than to tell stories that from time to time will have a particular relevance. If you enjoy the column, please "like" it and let me know what you think by commenting (check out previous issues while you're at it).  Likes, comments, and shares help with author discoverability on Substack.com, and all support is appreciated.And don't forget to hit the ‘Subscribe’ button – it’s free!

“If I had this much attention in Hollywood, I’d have stayed there.”

                                                Ronald Reagan to medical staff, March 30, 1981

          Some history buffs may have already noted that this week is the 40th anniversary of the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life by John Hinckley Jr. It came very close to being a successful attempt. Thankfully, as far as we know, the shooting on March 30, 1981 was the last time a U.S. president was attacked and most of the credit must go to the Secret Service.

          Before offering a few details about this event, it might be interesting to review previous attempted assassinations of presidents. There were, of course, four successful ones: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. There could well have been more.

          The first attempt to kill a sitting president took place on January 30, 1835 when, right outside the Capitol Building, a house painter named Richard Lawrence attempted to shoot Andrew Jackson with two pistols. Fortunately for Old Hickory, both of them misfired. (Earlier in his life, Jackson had survived being shot in a duel.) Lawrence was apprehended after the 67-year-old president beat him severely with his cane. Lawrence was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to a mental institution until his death in 1861.

          There had been two previous, very serious efforts to kill Lincoln before the one that worked. The first occurred when he was president-elect. On February 23, 1861 the “Baltimore Plot” was enacted while Lincoln was en route to his inauguration. (Before the 1930s, presidents were inaugurated on March 4.) This was a conspiracy involving several southern sympathizers and the Pinkerton Detective Agency played a key role in protecting the president-elect by managing Lincoln's security throughout the journey. A riveting telling of this tale can be found in The Lincoln Conspiracy, a best seller by Brad Meltzer which was published last year.

Then in August 1864, a lone rifle shot fired by an unknown sniper missed Lincoln's head by inches – the bullet passed through his hat -- as he rode in the late evening, unguarded, north from the White House three miles to the Soldiers’ Home. (This was his regular retreat where he would work and sleep before returning to the White House the following morning). Near 11 that night, Private John W. Nichols of the Pennsylvania 150th Volunteers, the sentry on duty at the gated entrance to the Soldiers' Home grounds, heard the rifle shot and moments later saw the president riding toward him "bareheaded.” Lincoln described the matter to Ward Lamon, his old friend and loyal bodyguard, and it is unlikely Honest Abe would make up such a story.

Flash-forward to 1909. Presidents William Taft and Porfirio Diaz were planning a summit between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a historic first meeting between the U.S. and Mexico’s leaders and also the first time a sitting American president would cross the border into Mexico. Díaz requested the meeting to show U.S. support for his planned eighth run as president, and Taft agreed to support Díaz in order to protect the several billion dollars of American capital then invested in Mexico. Both sides agreed that the disputed Chamizal strip connecting El Paso to Ciudad Juárez would be the meeting place. Texas Rangers, 4000 U.S. and Mexican troops, U.S. Secret Service agents, FBI agents, and U.S. Marshals were all called in to provide security. An additional 250-member private security detail was led by Frederick Russell Burnham, the celebrated scout, who had been hired by John Hays Hammond, a close friend of Taft from Yale and a former candidate for U.S. vice president in 1908. On October 16, the day of the summit, Burnham and Private C.R. Moore, a Texas Ranger, discovered a man holding a concealed palm pistol standing at the El Paso Chamber of Commerce building along the procession route. Burnham and Moore captured and disarmed the would-be assassin within only a few feet of Taft and Díaz.

This next one sort of counts because the victim had already been president and was seeking the office again. Theodore Roosevelt had turned the presidency over to Taft in March 1909 but in 1912, he wanted it back again and he ran at the head of the Progressive Party ticket. While campaigning in Milwaukee on October 14, John Flammang Schrank, a saloon-keeper from New York who had been stalking him for weeks, shot Roosevelt once in the chest with a .38-caliberColt Police Positive Special. The 50-page text of his campaign speech titled "Progressive Cause Greater Than Any Individual,” folded over twice in Roosevelt's breast pocket, and a metal glasses case slowed the bullet. Teddy assured the crowd he was all right and ordered police to take charge of Schrank and to make sure no violence was done to him. Roosevelt, as an experienced hunter and anatomist, correctly concluded that since he was not coughing blood, the bullet had not reached his lung, and he declined suggestions to go to the hospital immediately. Instead, he delivered his 84-minute scheduled speech with blood seeping into his shirt. 

Afterwards, probes and an x-ray showed that the bullet had lodged in Roosevelt's chest muscle but did not penetrate the pulmonary pleurae. Doctors concluded that it would be less dangerous to leave it in place than to attempt to remove it, and Roosevelt carried the bullet with him for the rest of his life. He spent two weeks recuperating before returning to the campaign trail – alas, to no avail, as Woodrow Wilson was elected that November. By the way, at Schrank's trial, the would-be assassin claimed that Roosevelt’s predecessor, the successfully shot  McKinley, had visited him in a dream and told him to avenge his death. He was found legally insane and was institutionalized until his death in 1943, when another Roosevelt was president.

Decades passed, until 1975 when there were two assassination attempts within three weeks of each other. On September 5, 1975, on the northern grounds of the California State CapitolLynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson, drew a Colt .45 caliber pistol on Ford when he reached to shake her hand in a crowd. She had four cartridges in the pistol's magazine but none in the firing chamber, and as a result, the gun did not fire. She was quickly restrained by Secret Service agents. Fromme was sentenced to life in prison but was released from custody in 2009. Only 17 days later, in San Francisco, Sara Jane Moore fired a revolver at Ford from 40 feet away. A bystander, Oliver Sipple, grabbed Moore's arm and the shot missed Ford, striking a building wall and slightly injuring a taxi driver. Moore was tried and convicted in federal court and sentenced to life in prison. She was paroled in 2007.

And now we’re back to that day in 1981. Ronald Reagan had been in office for only two months. He had just left the Washington Hilton Hotel, having addressed a union convention there, when Hinckley approached. He raised a .22-caliber pistol and fired at least five times.  Bullets found James Brady, the White House press secretary, a Secret Service agent, and a policeman. One hit the president in the chest. He was pushed into a limousine and rushed to George Washington University Hospital. There, Reagan walked into the emergency room. He underwent surgery, and only later did many of us learn how close the president came to dying that day.

          Whatever your politics, let’s hope that 40-year run continues indefinitely.

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including, most recently, “Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride From Hell.” The next collaboration with Bob Drury, “Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier,” will be published in April by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Amazon/bn.com to pre-order.