On September 22, 1975, history seemed to repeat itself as a would-be assassin narrowly missed shooting President Gerald Ford in San Francisco, California. Incredibly, Ford had looked down the barrel of another gun only 17 days earlier on a visit to nearby Sacramento.
Four sitting American presidents—Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy—have been murdered in office, but an even greater number of chief executives have escaped close calls with death. On the 40th anniversary of the dual attempts to kill Ford, learn more about eight would-be presidential assassins.
The first known attempt to assassinate an American president occurred on January 30, 1835, inside the heart of American democracy—the U.S. Capitol. As President Andrew Jackson departed a memorial service for South Carolina Representative Warren Davis, deranged house painter Richard Lawrence emerged from a crowd and fired a single-shot gold pistol just feet away from the chief executive. When the gun misfired, Lawrence pulled out a second one, which failed to shoot as well. An enraged Jackson charged Lawrence and beat him with his cane as bystanders subdued the shooter. The English-born Lawrence, who believed he was an heir to the British throne and owed a massive sum of money by the U.S. government, was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to institutions until his death in 1861.
The presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt—the longest in American history—almost ended before it ever began. Less than three weeks before his inauguration, Roosevelt delivered a speech from the back of his open touring car in Miami’s Bayfront Park on the night of February 15, 1933. Moments after the president-elect finished, unemployed bricklayer Guiseppe Zangara fired six shots toward the president’s car. Roosevelt emerged unharmed, but five others, including Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, were wounded. Zangara, an Italian-born naturalized citizen, told authorities he disliked political leaders of all types and had attempted to kill the Italian king a decade earlier. The shooter received an 80-year sentence after pleading guilty to four counts of attempted murder. However, when Cermak succumbed to his wounds on March 6, 1933, Zangara pleaded guilty to murder and was executed two weeks later.
Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola
On November 1, 1950, President Harry Truman settled in for an afternoon nap at the Blair House, his temporary quarters during an extensive four-year renovation of the White House. The president’s sleep was suddenly interrupted by a volley of gunshots as two members of the extremist Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, who sought the island’s full independence from the United States, attempted to storm the front door of the townhouse, just steps off Pennsylvania Avenue. The shootout left Oscar Collazo wounded in a pool of blood at the base of the Blair House’s staircase. Secret Service Agent Leslie Coffelt managed to kill Griselio Torresola before dying of his gunshot wounds. Collazo received a death sentence after being found guilty of first-degree murder, but Truman commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. After President Jimmy Carter commuted his sentence to time served, Collazo returned to Puerto Rico, where he died in 1994.
As Samuel Byck’s marriage crumbled and he plunged deeper into depression, the unemployed Army veteran increasingly believed President Richard Nixon responsible for his financial woes. Twice in 1973 he was arrested outside the White House for protesting without a permit. Then on February 22, 1974, Byck launched a wild plot to crash a hijacked airliner into the executive mansion in the hopes of killing Nixon. Armed with a gun and a gasoline bomb, Byck killed a police officer before storming a Delta airliner waiting at a gate of Baltimore/Washington International Airport. The hijacker ordered the pilots to take off, but when they explained they couldn’t leave before removing the plane’s wheel blocks, an enraged Byck shot them both. One pilot died later from his wounds, and after a standoff, Byck committed suicide as police launched an assault on the plane, which never left the gate.
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme
As President Gerald Ford shook hands with a crowd outside the state capitol in Sacramento, California, on September 5, 1975, he suddenly saw a gun in one of the outstretched hands. Witnesses heard the pistol click but not fire before Secret Service Agent Larry Buendorf quickly wrestled it away from 26-year-old Lynette Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson, who had been convicted of carrying out a murderous rampage in 1969. Ford was whisked to safety as the cult member shouted, “This man is not your president!” Nicknamed “Squeaky” for her high-pitched voice, Fromme received a life sentence after becoming the first person convicted of the attempted assassination of a president, but she was released from prison on parole in 2009.
Sara Jane Moore
Just 17 days after Fromme became the first woman to try to kill the president, middle-aged mother and accountant Sara Jane Moore became the second when she fired a shot at Ford as he walked to a waiting limousine outside the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The bullet missed Ford’s head by a narrow margin before ricocheting and grazing a taxi driver among the bystanders. Before she could fire a second shot, Vietnam veteran Oliver Sipple tackled the would-be assassin and Ford was hurried away in his vehicle. Moore said the shooting was a protest against the American political system, and she hoped it would unite San Francisco’s radicals. Moore pleaded guilty to attempted assassination and served 32 years in prison before her 2007 release.
John Hinckley Jr.
As President Ronald Reagan waved to the crowd outside the Washington Hilton following his speech to the AFL-CIO on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots. Secret Service agents shoved Reagan into his waiting limousine and discovered that a ricocheted bullet had hit the president in the chest. Following emergency surgery, the 70-year-old Reagan spent nearly two weeks in the hospital recovering. The shooting wounded police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and left press secretary James Brady paralyzed. Hinckley, who suffered from mental illness, shot the president in the hopes of impressing actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was obsessed. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, Hinckley was placed in psychiatric care and is currently allowed periodic unsupervised visits with his family.