JOHN WILKES BOOTH
Arguably the most well-known presidential assassin in our nation’s history, John Wilkes Booth was an American stage actor and Confederate sympathizer. Born in 1838 into a prominent theatrical family, Booth made his stage debut at the age of 17 and quickly developed a reputation as an outrageous scene stealer, strikingly handsome and intensely physical onstage.
As the Civil War began to tear the country apart, Booth continued to perform extensively across the country, though he was arrested in St. Louis at one point for “treasonous remarks” against the President and the government. In late 1864, he even developed a plot to kidnap President Lincoln and smuggle him into Richmond, Virginia in an effort to bring victory to the South. A last minute change in plans on the part of the President foiled the plan.
On the morning of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Booth learned that the President and First Lady would be attending his performance in the play Our American Cousin that very evening at Fords Theatre in Washington D.C. Booth immediately set about putting a plan in place, which included making arrangements for a getaway horse and planning an escape route. He also enlisted compatriots to assassinate the Vice President and the secretary of state in order to decapitate the Union government.
That evening, at about 10 PM, Booth burst into the President’s box, shot him in the back of the head with a .41 caliber Deringer and stabbed Major Henry Rathbone when he attempted to intervene. Booth jumped from the President’s box to the stage, allegedly breaking his leg in the process, and raised his knife, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!” before making a hasty exit. Neither of his compatriots succeeded in their duties to assassinate the Vice President or the secretary of state.
Nearly two weeks later, following a ragged attempt to flee to the South, Booth and his companion David Herold found themselves holed up in Confederate sympathizer Richard Garrett’s tobacco barn, betrayed by the man who led them there. Union soldiers set the barn on fire and shot Booth as he fled. His final words were allegedly, “Tell my mother I died for my country.”
Born in 1841, Charles Guiteau was a preacher, writer and lawyer who had a history of mental illness. He took an interest in politics and penned a few speeches in support of the Republican nominee, James Garfield. After Garfield won the presidential election, Guiteau felt the new President owed him a position in the administration for his support and demanded an ambassadorship to Paris or Austria. His requests were repeatedly denied and he was banned from visiting the White House. Angered by this rejection and convinced that God was on his side, Guiteau plotted his revenge and ultimately shot President Garfield on on July 2, 1881.
Famed inventor Alexander Graham Bell hastily invented the world’s first metal detector to help doctors locate the assassin’s bullet lodged in the President’s body. His efforts were in vain. The doctors laid President Garfield on a metal spring mattress to search for the bullet, which led to many “failed attempts” to locate it. Additionally, there was little understanding at the time of germs and the necessity for sterilization. Despite these medical failures, the President managed to survive several months before succumbing to his wounds.
Born in Italy in 1900, Giuseppe Zangara immigrated to the United States after serving in World War I. Due to physical and mental health issues, he found it difficult to work and did odd jobs to stay afloat. In this troubled state, Zangara began to believe that the President of the United States was the one responsible for his pain and hardship. On February 15, 1933, Zangara attended a political event in Miami, Florida where President Roosevelt and Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak were present. He opened fire and five people were shot, including Cermack. The mayor lost his life but President Roosevelt was unharmed.
Under Florida law, a convicted murderer could not share cell space with another prisoner before his execution, but another convicted murderer was already awaiting execution at the Florida State Prison in Raiford, Florida where Zangara was held. Therefore, Zangara’s sentence required prison officials to expand their waiting area, and the “death cell” became “Death Row.” On March 20, 1933, after spending only 10 days on Death Row, Zangara was executed in an electric chair nicknamed “Old Sparky.” He was furious when he learned that no cameras would film his final moments. He shouted “Viva Italia! Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere! … Push the button! Go ahead, push the button!”
LEE HARVEY OSWALD
Born in 1939, Lee Harvey Oswald was a former US Marine sniper who, following a troubled military service, defected to the Soviet Union before returning to the United States with a Russian wife and baby daughter a few years later. They settled in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas where he struggled to maintain a job and at one point (just 11 days before the assassination), attempted to return to the Soviet Union via Cuba.
On November 22, 1963, according to five different government investigations, Oswald assassinated President Kennedy as he traveled by motorcade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. Oswald was charged with the assassination of President Kennedy on November 23 and was murdered the following day by Jack Ruby, a night club owner, while being transferred from the police station to the county jail. Due to Ruby’s actions, Oswald’s motive for assassinating the President was never made clear.
After the assassination, presidential transportation vehicles were made more secure from different forms of attack. Some of the features now standard in presidential limos include armor plating, bullet proof windows and an interior that is sealed off from the outside world to reduce risks of a chemical attack.
LYNETTE “SQUEAKY” FROMME
Though a bright and talented child, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme struggled with drinking and drugs in high school and found herself kicked out by her father after graduation. The blossoming young hippie was befriended by Charles Manson on Venice Beach in 1967 and was swiftly swept up in what became the “Manson Family.” Following the conviction of Manson and many of his followers after the Tate/La Bianca murders in 1969, Fromme remained devoted to Manson, moving to Sacramento to be close to Folsom Prison where he was relocated. In the early ‘70s, she and family member Sandra Good changed their names to “Red” and “Blue” and became leaders of a new faith based on Manson’s teachings called the “Order of the Rainbow.” She dressed in red robes and accepted responsibility for the protection of the redwoods.
After hearing that President Ford would be visiting the Sacramento Capitol Park, an armed Fromme decided she would go confront the President. On September 5, 1975, dressed in a ceremonial red robe, Fromme made history as the first woman to attempt to assassinate the President when she pointed her .45 semiautomatic pistol at Gerald Ford. The pistol’s magazine was loaded with four rounds, but there was no cartridge in the chamber. Years later she was quoted as saying, “I stood up and waved a gun (at Ford) for a reason. I was so relieved not to have to shoot it, but in truth, I came to get life. Not just my life, but clean air, healthy water and respect for creatures and creation.”
Fromme was released on parole from Federal Medical Center, Carswell on August 15, 2009 and has since moved to Marcy, New York.
Following an honorable discharge from the US Army in 1956, Samuel Byck struggled to keep a job and started several businesses that failed. His wife left him in 1972, taking their four children with her. Suffering from depression, he sought psychiatric help, expressing his belief that the government was corrupt, a slave to special interests and a conspirator in the oppression of the poor. Byck over time was arrested twice for protesting outside the White House without a permit, and later dressed in a Santa Claus suit for another protest.
He began plotting to kill President Nixon in order to “take back the government” for the people. He planned to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House and kept detailed audio recordings of his steps to do so, imagining that he would be honored as a hero. Byck’s plan was thwarted, though not before two innocent lives were lost: an airport security guard and the co-pilot to a Delta Airlines flight he had managed to board (though severely wounded, the pilot survived). The plane never left the tarmac. Byck committed suicide in the cockpit before he could be captured and Nixon’s schedule was not affected by the assassination attempt. Before his death, Byck sent a tape detailing his plan—“Operation Pandora’s Box”— to a news columnist.
Born in 1873, Leon Czolgosz was the son of Polish immigrants. A steel worker by trade, the poor working conditions and low wages he experienced daily led him to become interested in Socialist and Anarchist ideologies. After losing his job and battling depression, he immersed himself further into the study of Socialism and Anarchy, believing a complicit government was to blame for the inequality and injustice in America. Inspired by Gaetano Bresci, a European anarchist who had assassinated King Umberto I of Italy, Czolgosz set his sights on President William McKinley. Czolgosz ultimately succeeded in assassinating President William McKinley in 1901, resulting in Congress informally requesting that the Secret Service provide presidential protection. To this day, the Secret Service assumes full-time responsibility for presidential protection.
SARA JANE MOORE
Sara Jane Moore made history for trying to assassinate President Gerald Ford just 17 days after Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme’s attempt in 1975. Moore was an accountant involved in radical left-wing politics. The Secret Service evaluated her in 1975, but decided that she posed no legitimate threat to the President.
The day before her assassination attempt, Moore was picked up by police on an illegal handgun charge in San Francisco. She was released, but the police confiscated her weapon. The following morning she purchased a new handgun in haste and assumed a place among the crowd outside the St. Francis Hotel. She was about 40 feet away from the President when she fired and narrowly missed—the sights on her new .38 caliber revolver were six inches off! When she realized she had missed, she raised her arm to fire again, but Oliver Sipple, a former Marine, wrestled her to the ground after knocking the pistol out of her hand.
After her sentencing, Moore stated “Am I sorry I tried? Yes and no. Yes, because it accomplished little except to throw away the rest of my life. And, no, I’m not sorry I tried, because at the time it seemed a correct expression of my anger.” Moore was released on December 31, 2007 at the age of 77 after serving 32 years of her life sentence at the federal women’s prison in Dublin, California.
JOHN HINCKLEY, JR.
John Hinckley, Jr. developed an obsession with a young Jodie Foster after watching the 1976 film Taxi Driver, about the same time when he was first prescribed anti-depressants and tranquilizers to deal with “emotional issues.” Hinckley was so driven by his obsession with Foster that when she entered Yale University, he quickly moved to New Haven, enrolling in a Yale writing class in order to slip poems and messages under her door. After failing to develop a relationship, or any sort of contact with Foster, he developed a scheme to impress her by assassinating the President. He initially trailed President Jimmy Carter from state to state before being arrested in Nashville on a firearms charge. He returned home, penniless.
Despite continued treatment for his depression, Hinckley’s mental health did not improve and he developed a new plan around newly-elected President Ronald Reagan. On March 30, 1981, Hinckley shot a .22 caliber revolver six times at Reagan as he departed the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. While he did not hit the President directly, a bullet ricocheted off the limousine door and seriously wounded Reagan in the chest. Hinckley’s shots also wounded a police officer, a Secret Service agent and Press Secretary James Brady, who was hit in the side of the head and paralyzed on the left side of his body.
Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982 and remains confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. His obsession with Foster continues today.
Assassins is the annual co-production between The 5th and ACT Theatre. Performances take place at ACT, and run from February 27 through May 8. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.
By KWAPI VENGESAYI, 5th Avenue Community Engagement Specialist
Original photos by MARK AND TRACY PHOTOGRAPHY
Design elements by JEFF CARPENTER, Senior Graphic Designer