- In American history, four out of 45 US presidents have been assassinated.
- However, many more presidents have escaped attempts on their lives, including Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush.
- Below, learn more about which presidents survived – and how.
Four out of 45 US presidents have been assassinated over the course of American history.
But many more chief executives escaped assassination attempts thanks to heroic bystanders, diligent guards, misfiring pistols, and crazy luck.
Even two presidents who were eventually assassinated escaped previous attempts on their lives.
On a hot August night in 1864, a sniper shot Lincoln’s hat off his head – missing his skull by inches – as he took a solo ride on his favourite horse “Old Abe,” according to “1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History.” Lincoln was later shot and killed by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth, just five days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee.
Almost a century later, in 1960, retired postal worker Richard Paul Pavlick crammed his car with dynamite and plotted to ram the vehicle into Kennedy’s limo in Palm Beach, Florida, according to Smithsonian magazine. He was motivated by his intense hatred of Catholics and the Kennedy family, but backed off when he saw that the president was with his wife and young children. Pavlick was later arrested and institutionalized until 1966, three years after Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald while visiting Dallas, Texas.
But these 13 other presidents all experienced serious assassination threats and ultimately survived – and these are only the most dramatic, most-publicized instances. Undoubtedly, the Secret Service has thwarted many more over the years.
Here are 13 presidents who escaped attempts on their lives:
On a misty January day in 1835, Richard Lawrence, an out-of-work house painter who believed he was the 15th-century English king Richard III, walked into the US Capitol Building.
President Andrew Jackson was leaving the funeral of a House representative when the English national confronted him in the East Portico, brandishing a pistol.
He raised the gun at Andrew Jackson and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
“Let me alone! Let me alone!” Jackson yelled at Lawrence, according to Smithsonian magazine. “I know where this came from.”
Lawrence discarded the weapon, produced a second pistol, and aimed the new gun at Jackson. It also misfired.
According to legend, Jackson subsequently flew at the man and thrashed him with his cane. Whether or not that’s true, Lawrence’s assassination attempt was unsuccessful. Smithsonian magazine reported that national anthem lyricist Francis Scott Key prosecuted his trial, where he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Lawrence spent the rest of his life institutionalized.
As Time reported, the chance that both perfectly functional pistols would misfire was about one in 125,000. Jackson’s survival may have depended on the dampness in the air that day.
President Theodore Roosevelt was saved by the length of his speech after an assassin shot him in the chest with a .38-calibre revolver in 1912.
At the time, Roosevelt was running for the presidency on the Bull and Moose ticket. Saloon-owner John Schrank had begun stalking the former president after having an unusual dream.
According to “Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumoured Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief,” Schrank wrote: “In a dream I saw President McKinley sit up in his coffin pointing at a man in a monk’s attire in whom I recognised Theodore Roosevelt. The dead President said, ‘This is my murderer – avenge my death.'”
Fortunately, Roosevelt had his notes with him when he was shot on October 14 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – 50 pages of them, folded in his breast pocket next to his metal glasses case. These objects slowed the bullet and saved Roosevelt’s life.
The ex-president continued to speak after letting his audience know he’d been shot, according to the Theodore Roosevelt Association:
“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet – there is where the bullet went through – and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”
He finished the rest of his speech with a bullet in his ribs, where it remained until his death in 1919.
In 1928, President Herbert Hoover was nearly killed while visiting the Andes.
Argentine anarchists attempted to blow up his train, but the would-be assassin was seized before he could plant the bombs on the tracks.
After learning of the thwarted plot, Hoover tore the front page story from the newspaper so his wife Lou Henry Hoover wouldn’t worry, according to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. The 31st president is said to have quipped that while he was unconcerned, “It’s just as well that Lou shouldn’t see it.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
17 days before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first presidential inauguration, the president-elect disembarked from his yacht and made a short speech in Miami, Florida on February 15, 1933.As the Chicago Tribune reported, Chicago mayor Anton Cermak then approached Roosevelt for a short chat afterwards.
At that moment, anarchist Giuseppe Zangara opened fire. Roosevelt emerged from the attack unscathed, but Cermak was mortally wounded, along with onlooker Mabel Gill.
It’s unclear who Zangara intended to assassinate. He was arrested and went to the electric chair after ten days on death row.
Ten years later, Soviet officials claimed to have uncovered a Nazi plan to murder Roosevelt and other world leaders at the Tehran Conference, according to “Eureka Summit: Agreement in Principle and the Big Three at Tehran, 1943.”
Harry S. Truman
According to the New York Times, Harry Truman’s daughter Margaret Truman Daniel alleged in her father’s biography that a Zionist gang had sent him and several other White House officials mail bombs in 1947. The alleged incident was never publicized and apparently ended with the Secret Service defusing the explosives.
The more famous attempt on Truman’s life came about on November 1, 1950. Puerto Rican nationalists Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola attempted to storm the Blair House, where Truman lived while the White House was being renovated, according to the Harry S. Truman Library.
Torresola and White House police officer Leslie Coffelt died in the attack. Truman commuted Collazo’s death sentence to life, which was then commuted to time served by Jimmy Carter in 1979.
Arthur Bremer, who ultimately shot and paralysed Alabama governor George Wallace, first considered targeting President Richard Nixon, according to the Washington Post.
A more high-profile Nixon assassination attempt came about on February 22, 1974. According to the LA Weekly, Samuel Byck shot and killed a police officer at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, raced through the security checkpoint, and broke onto a Delta flight to Atlanta. Hours earlier, he had mailed a tape to the Washington Post detailing his plan to hijack an airliner and crash it into the White House, in order to kill Nixon.
Once onboard the aircraft, he shot both pilots, killing one, after he was told that they could not take off. Police shot Byck through the plane’s window, and he killed himself before he could be arrested.
President Gerald Ford survived two back-to-back assassination attempts in California during September of 1975.
At a packed park in Sacramento, California on September 5, Manson Family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme drew a gun after Ford reached into the crowd to shake her hand.
There was no round in the firing chamber, so the gun misfired and she was grabbed by Secret Service, as NBC reported. After receiving a life sentence, Fromme was released from prison in 2009, two years after Ford’s natural death.
Only a few days later, self-proclaimed radical Sara Jane Moore shot a revolver at Ford in San Francisco on September 22. The shot missed thanks to the efforts of ex-Marine and bystander Oliver Sipple, who grabbed Moore’s arm, according to the San Francisco Gate. Moore was paroled in 2007, a year after Ford died.
On May 5, 1979, police arrested drifter Raymond Lee Harvey outside of the Civic Center Mall in LA, ten minutes before Jimmy Carter was scheduled to give a speech there.
He had a starter pistol, with several blank rounds, according to the Atlantic. Harvey claimed to be part of a cell that sought to assassinate Carter, but due to his history of mental illness, the men he named as co-conspirators were later released.
John Hinckley Jr., who would later attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan, also considered shooting Carter in 1980, but backed out, according to the Dayton Daily News.
Ronald Reagan came close to losing his life in an assassination attempt on March 30, 1981.
As the New York Times reported, John Hinckley Jr. opened fire as the president walked to his limousine from the Washington Hilton around 2:30 p.m. Press Secretary James Brady suffered brain damage from the attack and eventually succumbed to his injuries years later, and Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and DC police officer Thomas Delahanty were also wounded.
Reagan was shot once in the chest and suffered serious internal bleeding and a punctured lung. He received emergency surgery at George Washington University Hospital, where he remained for several weeks.
After the attack, Reagan famously retained his sense of humour. He’s quoted as telling his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck” and jokingly asking whether the surgeons due to operate on him were Republicans, according to Time.
Hinckley claimed to have carried out the attack to impress actress Jodie Foster, whom he was stalking. He was institutionalized and released in 2016, after being deemed to no longer pose a threat to others.
President Bill Clinton was the subject of several assassination plots during his stint in the White House.
Three alone occurred in 1994. Ronald Gene Barbour sought to kill the president on his daily jog through the National Mall, according to the New York Times.
Later that year, Frank Eugene Corder rammed a red and white single-engine aeroplane onto the White House lawn, in an attempt to kill Clinton, according to the New York Times. Corder died when the vehicle “crashed through the branches of a magnolia tree planted by Andrew Jackson and came to rest in a crumpled heap two stories below the Clintons’ unoccupied bedroom.”
A month later in October, Francisco Martin Duran slipped a suicide note into his pocket and fired numerous shots at the north lawn, according to the Los Angeles Times. A group of tourists ultimately tackled Duran and he was arrested.
An assassination attempt later took place abroad, during Clinton’s visit to Manila in 1996. A bomb was discovered under a bridge that the president’s motorcade was scheduled to travel over. The bomb plot was apparently masterminded by Osama bin Laden, according to the Telegraph.
George W. Bush
Robert Pickett, an ex-IRS employee with a history of mental illness, fired several bullets at the White House in February 2001, before a Secret Service agent shot him in the knee, according to the New York Times. President George W. Bush was exercising in the residential area of the White House at the time. Pickett was treated in a Bureau of Prisons psychological institution for two years following the incident.
A few years later, in 2005, Bush had a closer call while travelling abroad.
Bush and then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appeared at a 2006 rally in Tbilisi, Georgia. During the event, Georgian national Vladimir Arutyunian tied a red handkerchief around a live hand grenade and threw it at the presidents and other officials, according to the Washington Post.
However, the explosive didn’t detonate. The handkerchief had blocked the grenade’s safety lever. Arutyunian escaped from the rally, and later killed a Georgian agent during his arrest. He was sentenced to life in prison for the assassination attempt.
While Barack Obama was still a presidential candidate in 2008, two white supremacists named Paul Schlesselman and Daniel Cowart conspired to murder 102 African American men – while driving around in a getaway car with the words “Honk if you love Hitler” scrawled on it.
Their conspiracy would culminate with the assassination of Obama.As CBS News reported, police uncovered the detailed plot and arrested the duo long before they were close to launching their cross-country murder spree.
Later, in 2011, Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez open fire on the White House after claiming that Obama was the anti-Christ, according to the Washington Post. He crashed his car while escaping, and was later arrested and sentenced to 27.5 years in jail. The Obamas were not in the White House at the time of the shooting.
Then, in 2015, CNN reported that three men – Abror Habibov, Abdurasul Juraboev, and Akhror Saidakhmetov – had been arrested after plotting to kill Obama and bomb Coney Island, in their efforts to join ISIS.
At a campaign rally in a Las Vegas strip hotel casino, Michael Steven Sandford attempted to grab a police officer’s gun. As he was taken into custody, the British national told officers that he was hoping to assassinate then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
The Guardian reported that Sandford has a history of mental illness, which Judge James Mahan acknowledged in his hearing, saying that Sandford needed help and wasn’t a “hardened criminal” – or even intent on assassinating Trump.
“I know saying sorry is not enough,” Sandford told the court, according to the Guardian. “I really do feel awful about what I did. I wish there was some way to make things better. I have cost taxpayers so much money. I feel terrible.”
On May 6, KYT 24 reported that Sandford had been deported to the UK, after being in US custody for about 11 months.
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