10 Close-Calls Of Civilians Trying To Assassinate An American President

By Nathaniel Whelan on May 25 2020 in Politics

Image credit: YouTube
  • Andrew Jackson was almost killed by Richard Lawrence, a man who believed himself to be Richard III, a 15th century English king.
  • Gerald Ford almost fell victim to Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a drug-addled Charles Manson devotee seeking the crazed man’s approval.
  • Ronald Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton when he was shot by John Hinckley Jr., Jodie Foster's stalker.

Abraham Lincoln. James A. Garfield. William McKinley. John F. Kennedy.

These four men are the only presidents who have been assassinated in the course of American history. However, many of the other 41 have had close encounters with death during their own presidencies. Motivated by various reasons, these would-be assassins were foiled by misfiring guns, police, bystanders, and—thankfully for the presidents—bad luck.

Below are the stories of ten close-call assassination attempts. Discover how a 50-page speech saved Theodore Roosevelt, how airplane wheel blocks spared Nixon, and how Gerald Ford almost fell victim to a member of the Charles Manson family.

10. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson reportedly flung himself at his attacker to avoid assassination. www.biography.com

On January 30, 1835, Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United Sates, was leaving the funeral of a House representative when he was jumped by Richard Lawrence, an unemployed house painter. Jackson’s would-be killer raised a gun and pulled the trigger, but it misfired. He produced a second pistol, but against all odds, this too misfired. According to rumor, Jackson flung himself at his attacker and beat him with his cane. Lawrence was put on trial and found not guilty by reason of insanity. It was revealed that the painter believed himself to be Richard III, a 15th century English king. Lawrence spent the rest of his life in a psychiatric hospital.

9. Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt delivered a famous speech despite being shot. Image credit: vox.com

Politician and professional rancher, Theodore Roosevelt served as the 26th president of the United States from 1901 to 1909. After losing the presidential nomination of the Republican Party in 1912 to William Taft, Roosevelt ran for the presidency under the banner of the newly established Progressive Party—or the Bull Moose Party. Prepared to give a speech in Milwaukee on October 14, Roosevelt was entering his car on his way to the venue when he was shot. The attacker was quickly apprehended, but instead of going to the hospital, Roosevelt went ahead and delivered his speech, attributing his survival to his metal glasses case and the 50-pages of speech folded in his pocket which slowed the bullet down considerably. The bullet remained lodged in his ribs until his death in 1919.

8. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Chicago mayor Anton Cermak died when Giuseppe Zangara attempted to assassinate FDR. Image credit: www.courierpress.com

Although he had been elected as the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt had not been sworn into office yet when Giuseppe Zangara—an unemployed bricklayer—attempted to take his life. On February 15, 1933, after Roosevelt finished giving a short speech in Miami, Zangara opened fire shouting, “Too many people are starving!” Chicago mayor Anton Cermak died as a result, and several others were badly wounded, but the soon-to-be president escaped without injury. Zangara was found guilty and spent ten days on death row before being sent to the electric chair. Ten years later, Soviet officials claimed to have uncovered a Nazi plot to murder Roosevelt; however, there is no evidence to confirm that Zangara was acting on the Nazi’s behalf.

7. Harry S. Truman

White House police officer Leslie Coffelt died while protecting President Truman. Image credit: britannica.com

In the fall of 1950, the White House was undergoing renovations, forcing Harry S. Truman and his wife to temporarily relocate to Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue. On November 1, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola attempted to storm the building with the 33rd president of the United States inside. They never made it past the entryway. White House police officer Leslie Coffelt took down Torresola before resulting to fatal injuries himself. Collazo and Torresola belonged to the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, a group of extremists fighting for full independence from the United States. Coffelt received the death penalty, but Truman—who appeared completely unfazed by the incident—took pity on the man and got it reduced to a life sentence.

6. Richard Nixon

Samuel Byck attempted to hijack a plane so he could kill President Nixon. Image credit: www.thoughtco.com

After multiple failed attempts to start his own business, Samuel Byck applied for a loan from the Small Business Administration, but was turned down. Angry and depressed, he redirected his anger on Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States. In 1974, Byck murdered a police officer outside of Baltimore-Washington International Airport and broke onto a flight to Atlanta. His plan: to hijack the plane and crash it into the White House, taking out Nixon in the process. Byck stormed the cockpit and yelled at the pilots to take off, but it was impossible to do so without first removing the wheel blocks. With his plan foiled, he shot both pilots, killing one of them. Police shot Byck twice through the window before he could kill himself to avoid being arrested.   

5. Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford survived two assassination attempts during his presidency. Image credit: www.biography.com

Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States, survived two assassination attempts during his presidency. On September 5, 1975, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a drug-addled Charles Manson devotee seeking the crazed man’s approval, took a shot at Ford in a crowded Sacramento park while he was on his way to give a speech. The gun misfired and she was quickly apprehended by the Secret Service.

Less than three weeks later, Sara Jane Moore, an unstable former FBI informant with ties to left-wing radical groups, attempted to do what Fromme could not. Her shot went wild, however, because of the intervention of a bystander, Vietnam veteran Oliver Sipple. Both Fromme and Moore were paroled shortly after Ford’s death in 2006.   

4. Jimmy Carter

Four men tried to kill President Carter in 1979. Image credit: medium.com

On May 5, 1979, Jimmy Carter was scheduled to give a speech in Los Angeles at the Civic Center Mall. The Secret Service were quick to apprehend a man called Raymond Lee Harvey who was standing outside the building with a starter pistol loaded with blank rounds. Harvey claimed to be a part of a larger four-man plot to assassinate the 39th president of the United States. He and another man were expected to create a diversion with their starter pistols, while two men with rifles took down Carter in the ensuing confusion. He identified Osvaldo Espinoza-Ortiz as one of his co-conspirators. Espinoza-Ortiz was taken into custody and denied the whole thing before finally admitting to the plot. Detectives found a gun case and three rounds of ammunition in a room at a nearby hotel, seemingly confirming Harvey’s story.

3. Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley Jr. in 1981. Image credit: britannica.com

In the early afternoon of March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan was walking to his limousine from the Washington Hilton when John Hinckley Jr. opened fire. The 40th president of the United States was shot in the chest and suffered from internal bleeding and a punctured lung. Press Secretary James Brady took a bullet to the head, an injury that left him partially paralyzed and with extreme brain damage. Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and police officer Thomas Delahanty were also wounded in the attack. When asked about motivation, Hinckley admitted that he hoped his actions would impress actress Jodie Foster. He was found insane and committed to a psychiatric hospital.  

2. Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton was the target of many assassination attempts during his presidency. Image credit: www.pewresearch.org

During his eight years in office, Bill Clinton was the target of numerous assassination plots, three of which all happened in 1994. The most notable attempt on his life, however, occurred in November 1996. The 42nd president of the United States was staying in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. While his motorcade was en route to the event, intelligence agents picked up a message hinting at a possible attack on the president. The motorcade immediately rerouted. American agents later found a bomb planted under a bridge that Clinton had been expected to drive over. Further investigation revealed that the bomb was the work of Osama bin Laden.

1. George W. Bush

George W. Bush survived two assassination attempts during his time in office. Image credit: wikimedia.org

On February 7, 2001, George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, survived an attempt on his life when Robert Pickett opened fire on the White House. Pickett was an accountant with the IRS before being fired in 1988 for incompetence and poor attendance. He spent years trying to get reinstated, but when that failed, he redirected his anger on the newly inaugurated president. Bush was in the residential area of the White House at the time and came out of the attack unharmed. A Secret Service officer took down Pickett who was later sentenced to three years at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester.    

George W. Bush survived a second assassination attempt on May 10, 2005. Believing that the president was being “too soft” on Muslims, Vladimir Arutyunian chucked a Soviet-made hand grenade at the man while he was delivering a speech in the Freedom Square in Tbilisi, Georgia. The grenade did not detonate, because the would-be assassin had tied a red handkerchief around the weapon, ultimately preventing the safety lever from detaching. Arutyunian was sentenced to life in prison.  

More in Politics