Four U.S. presidents have been assassinated while in office and many more have faced serious attempts on their lives. Andrew Jackson holds the dubious distinction of being the first sitting president to survive a serious assassination attempt, which occurred in 1835. Thirty years later, Abraham Lincoln was the first to be slain. Chances are, you can name at least one other president who met a similar fate, but can you name them all?
It was April 15, 1865, and the Civil War had officially ended just five days earlier. President Abraham Lincoln and his wife were attending Ford’s Theater that evening to watch the play “Our American Cousin” when John Wilkes Booth shot him in the back of the head. Lincoln, fatally wounded, was taken across the street to Petersen House, where he died at 7:22 the next morning.
Booth, a failed actor and Confederate sympathizer, escaped and managed to elude capture for nearly two weeks. On April 26, after being cornered in a barn outside the hamlet of Port Royal, Virginia, Booth was shot and killed by U.S. Army troops after refusing to surrender.
Odds are that President James Garfield would have survived the July 2, 1881 assassination attempt on his life had he lived in today’s times. Lacking antibiotics and an understanding of modern hygienic practices, doctors repeatedly probed the entry wound on Garfield’s lower back in the days and weeks after the assassination in an unsuccessful attempt to find the two bullets. The president lingered for more than two months before finally dying.
The president’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, was a mentally disturbed man who had stalked Garfield for weeks in a deluded attempt to secure federal employment. On July 2, he shot President Garfield on the platform of a Washington D.C. train station as Garfield was preparing to board a train. He was arrested immediately after shooting the president. After a swift trial, Guiteau was executed by hanging on June 30, 1882.
President William McKinley was greeting visitors at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., on September 6, 1901, when Leon Czolgosz stepped out of the crowd, drew a gun, and shot McKinley twice in the abdomen at point-blank range. The bullets didn’t immediately kill McKinley. He lived another eight days, succumbing to gangrene caused by the wound.
Czolgosz, a self-proclaimed anarchist, was attacked by others in the crowd and may have been killed had he not been rescued by police. He was jailed, tried, and found guilty on September 24. He was executed by electric chair on October 29. His last words, according to reporters who witnessed the event, were, “I am not sorry for my crime. I am sorry I could not see my father.”
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, as he drove past crowds of onlookers that lined the streets of downtown Dallas during his motorcade from the airport. Kennedy was struck once in the neck and once in the back of the head, killing him instantly as he sat beside his wife Jackie. Texas Gov. John Connally, traveling with his wife Nellie in the same convertible, was wounded by another bullet.
The accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had staged his assault from the sixth floor of the Texas State Book Depository building, which overlooked the motorcade route. After the shooting, Oswald fled. He was apprehended later that day, shortly after fatally shooting Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit.
Kennedy’s assassination was the first in the era of modern communications. News of his shooting dominated TV and radio for weeks after he was shot. Just two days after Kennedy was killed, Oswald himself was shot to death on live television as he was in police custody. Oswald’s killer Jack Ruby died in prison on January 3, 1967.
Unsuccessful Assassination Attempts
People have plotted to assassinate the president for nearly as long as the U.S. has existed as a republic. There’s no record of an attempt on George Washington’s life while he was president, but an assassination plot was thwarted in 1776. Here are some of the most notable attempts to kill the president:
- The first recorded attempt on a president’s life occurred on Jan. 30, 1835, when English-born house painter Richard Lawrence attempted to shoot Andrew Jackson. Lawrence’s gun misfired and Jackson was unharmed. Lawrence, found guilty by reason of insanity, died in an insane asylum in 1861.
- Theodore Roosevelt, who became president when William McKinley was assassinated, barely survived an attempt on his own life on Oct. 14, 1912. Roosevelt had already left office but was trying for a third term as an independent. He was speaking at a hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin when he was shot in the chest at close range by Bavarian saloon-keeper John Flammang Shrank. Shrank’s aim was good, but the bullet hit the eyeglass case in the president’s breast pocket, as well as a voluminous copy of the speech he was about to give, saving his life. Shrank died in a mental institution in Wisconsin in 1943.
- Giuseppe Zangara attempted to kill President Franklin Roosevelt on Feb. 15, 1933, just as the President wrapped up a speech in Miami’s Bayfront Park. A total of five people were hit by the hail of bullets. Rumors ran rampant for a while that the actual target was Chicago Mayor Anton J. Cermak, who was in attendance, sustained a bullet wound and eventually died. Zangara confessed and was sentenced to 80 years in prison but died of peritonitis on March 6, 1933.
- Harry Truman‘s life was threatened on November 1, 1950. Would-be assassins Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, both Puerto Rican activists, stormed the home where Truman was staying while the White House underwent renovations. The President was under heavy guard at the time and Torresola was killed. Truman was never harmed. Collazo was convicted and sentenced to death, but Truman commuted his sentence. Paroled in 1979, he returned to Puerto Rico where he died in 1994.
- Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson, attempted to kill Gerald Ford on Sept. 5, 1975, in Sacramento, Calif. Her reason? She was protesting environmental pollution. Her gun failed to fire although she was at close range. No one was hurt. Fromme was sentenced to life imprisonment and paroled after 34 years in 2009.
- “Honey, I forgot to duck.” That’s what President Ronald Reagan told his wife Nancy as he was being wheeled into an operating room after John Hinckley, Jr. shot him outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. on March 30, 1981. Hinckley wanted to impress actress Jodie Foster. Reagan was shot in the chest and suffered a punctured lung, but he survived. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was released from institutional care in 2016.
There have been recorded attempts on the lives of most presidents in the modern era, including George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Following the death of William McKinley, Congress directed the Secret Service to assume full-time security for the president, a role the federal agency still fills today.