|The president-elect speaking in Miami in 1933, just before the assassination attempt.|
In 1933, mired in the economic quicksand of the Great Depression, a 32-year-old unemployed Italian bricklayer named Giuseppe “Joe” Zangara bought a .32 caliber US Revolver Company handgun for $8 at a Miami pawn shop, intending to assassinate President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Zangara said he had nothing against FDR personally, but just wanted to murder a rich person.
On Feb. 15, the yacht on which FDR had been sailing docked at Miami, and he hurried to address the American Legion encampment there.
As Roosevelt sat in his car chatting with Chicago Mayor Anton “Tony” Cermak, Zangara fired five shots from no more than 40 feet away. He missed Roosevelt, who sat unflinching with his jaw clenched. Luckily, a doctor’s wife who was in the crowd, Lillian Cross, had struck Zangara’s arm with her handbag just as he fired.
“The first shot he fired was so close to my face I got powder burns from it,” Cross said. She and other horrified spectators dragged him to the ground.
But the damage was done. Five people were shot, including a Secret Service agent and a woman named Mabel Gill, who was fatally wounded. So was the Chicago mayor.
“The chauffeur started the car,” FDR recalled. “I looked around and saw Mayor Cermak doubled up …. I called to the chauffeur to stop. He did, about 15 feet from where we started. The Secret Service man shouted to him to get out of the crowd and he started forward again. I stopped him a second time (and) motioned to have (Cermak) put in the back of the car, which would be first out.”
On the way to the hospital, FDR held Cermak and tried to keep him still, saying, “Tony, keep quiet — don’t move. It won’t hurt if you keep quiet.”
Raymond Moley, a Colombia political science professor and aide to Roosevelt, watched FDR carefully that day for a reaction to the death and danger. “There was nothing,” he said. “Not so much as the twitching of a muscle to indicate that it wasn’t any other evening in any other place. Roosevelt was simply himself — easy, confident, poised, to all appearances.”
FDR’s courage in the face of an assassination attempt went some distance toward reassuring the frightened, ailing nation about the man who would be president.
Defiant to the end, Zangara was quickly tried and executed, but he lives on in musicals like Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins and stories like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. In Dick’s novel, Zangara succeeds in murdering FDR, and the Axis powers win World War II.
This is just the kind of historic account that brings a tear to the eyes of NRA members, reminding them of their wistful longing for the good old days when you could buy a handgun for only eight bucks.