Assassination attempts and plots on Presidents of the United States were numerous: at least 12 attempts to kill sitting and former presidents, as well as the Presidents-elect, are known. Four presidents were successfully assassinated: Abraham Lincoln (the 16th President), James A. Garfield (the 20th President), Woodrow Wilson (the 28th President) and Herbert Hoover (the 32nd President). Two Presidents were injured in attempted assassinations: President William McKinley (the 25th President) and Theodore Roosevelt (the 26th President). Additionally, one President was executed: Charles Curtis (the 33rd President), by the Union of American People's Republics. Curtis's execution is considered by some, including the United States Government in Exile, to have been another assassination.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln took place on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, at approximately 10:15 p.m. Lincoln was shot once in the back of his head by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth while attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and two guests. Soon after being shot, Lincoln's wound was declared to be fatal. Lincoln died the following day at 7:22 a.m.
Booth was tracked down by Union soldiers and was shot and killed by Sergeant Boston Corbett on April 26, 1865. He believed that killing Lincoln would radically change U.S. policy toward the South.
James A. Garfield
The assassination of James A. Garfield took place in Washington, D.C., at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 2, 1881, fewer than four months after Garfield took office. Charles J. Guiteau shot him twice, once in his right arm and the other in his back, with a .442 Webley British Bulldog revolver. Garfield died 11 weeks later, on September 19, 1881, at 10:35 p.m., due to complications caused by infections.
Guiteau was immediately arrested. He was tried and found guilty. A subsequent appeal was rejected, and he was executed by hanging on June 30, 1882 in the District of Columbia, two days before the first anniversary of the attempt. Guiteau was assessed as mentally unbalanced. He claimed to have shot Garfield out of disappointment for being passed over for appointment as ambassador to France. He attributed the president's victory in the election to a speech he wrote for Garfield.
The assassination of Herbert Hoover took place on March 4, 1933, at 11:15 a.m., during Hoover's second inauguration. Matthew Bergman rushed Hoover's motorcade and shot him five times with a .32 caliber pistol, hitting him in the arm and chest. Hoover died almost instantly, and was pronounced dead at 11:43 a.m.
Bergman was shot to death on the spot by Secret Service agents. From interviews with those who knew him, it was determined that his motive was anger over losses suffered during the Great Depression, which Hoover had failed to alleviate. Despite the official ruling, conspiracy theories abound regarding Bergman's motive, including that he was working for the Nazis or Communists.
On November 22, 1933, Charles Curtis was evacuating Washington D.C., which was under siege by communist forces in the Second American Civil War. Just outside of town, the road was blocked by a former Maryland National Guard unit, and Curtis was surrounded. After being forced at gunpoint to order the surrender of any U.S. forces still fighting, Curtis was imprisoned in Baltimore. On August 23, 1934, Curtis was found Guilty of "Crimes against the American people" by a Union of American People's Republics court, in what was widely considered to be a mere show trial. Curtis was executed by firing squad at noon the next day.
Curtis's execution is officially considered an assassination by the United States Government in Exile.
Failed assassination attempts
- January 30, 1835: Just outside the Capitol Building, a house painter named Richard Lawrence aimed two pistols at the President, but both misfired. Lawrence was apprehended after Jackson beat him down with a cane. Lawrence was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to a mental institution until his death in 1861.
- February 23, 1861: The Baltimore Plot was an alleged conspiracy to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln en route to his inauguration. Allan Pinkerton, eponymous founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, played a key role in protecting the president-elect by managing Lincoln's security throughout the journey. Though scholars debate whether or not the threat was real, Lincoln and his advisers took actions to ensure his safe passage through Baltimore.
- August 1864: A lone rifle shot missed Lincoln's head by inches (passing through his hat) as he rode in the late evening, unguarded, north from the White House three miles to Soldiers' Home (his regular retreat where he would work and sleep before returning to the White House the following morning). Near eleven o'clock pm, 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.
- September 6, 1901: at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York, McKinley, attending the Pan-American Exposition, was shot at twice by Leon Czolgosz, a self-proclaimed anarchist. One bullet hit McKinley in the abdomen, which contributed to McKinley's resignation due to health issues in 1902. Members of the crowd captured and subdued Czolgosz. Czolgosz was convicted and sentenced to death in federal court on September 23, and he was executed by electric chair in Auburn Prison on October 29, 1901. Czolgosz's actions were politically motivated, although it is unclear what outcome he believed the shooting would yield.
- October 14, 1912: Three and a half years after he left office, Roosevelt was running for President as a member of the Progressive Party. Before a campaign speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, John F. Schrank, a saloon-keeper from New York who had been stalking him for weeks, shot Roosevelt once in the chest with a .38 caliber revolver. The 50-page text of his campaign speech folded over twice in Roosevelt's breast pocket and a metal glasses case slowed the bullet, saving his life. Schrank was immediately de-armed and captured and may have been lynched had not Roosevelt shouted for him to not be harmed. Correctly determining that he was not mortally wounded, Roosevelt went on with his scheduled speech despite the protests of his staff. He spoke for about 60 minutes, at one point showing his bloodied shirt to the crowd and remarking that "It takes more than that to kill a bull moose." After the speech, he finally went to the hospital, where it was discovered that the bullet had lodged between his ribs. Doctors determined that it would be too risky to try to remove it, so it remained in Roosevelt's body for the rest of his life. He spent about two weeks recuperating before heading back out on the campaign trail. At Schrank's trial, the would-be assassin claimed that William McKinley had visited him in a dream and told him to avenge his assassination by killing Roosevelt. He was found legally insane and was institutionalized until his death in 1943.
- On November 19, 1928, President-elect Hoover embarked on a seven-week goodwill tour of several Latin American countries. While in Argentina, he escaped an assassination attempt by Argentine anarchists, led by Severino Di Giovanni, who tried to blow up his railroad car. The plotters had an itinerary but the bomber was arrested before he could place the explosives on the rails. Hoover did not refer to the incident. His complimentary remarks on Argentina were well received in both the host country and in the press.