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Assassination Attempt on Franklin Roosevelt

On the evening of February 15, 1933, President-elect Franklin Roosevelt delivered a short speech to a crowd at Miami’s Bayfront Park. Years earlier, FDR had fallen victim to polio. Because of his resulting disability, Franklin Roosevelt often spoke from the rear seat of an open touring car rather than making the arduous trip to a platform. When he finished his remarks, the crowd surged forward, but was halted abruptly by six pistol shots fired in rapid succession. Five people were hit. The most seriously injured was Chicago Mayor Anton J. Cermak, who sustained a stomach wound. The crowd quickly restrained the assailant, but was prevented from doing him bodily harm by Roosevelt’s intercession. Mayor Cermak was loaded into the car and comforted on the ride to the hospital by the president-elect. Medical staff credited FDR with preventing the mayor from going into shock, thus giving him a better chance at recovery. Giuseppe Zangara was the attempted assassin. He was born in Italy, came to the United States in the early 1920s, became a citizen and in 1933 was working as a bricklayer in Miami. Zangara subscribed to no political philosophy, but harbored a hatred for wealthy capitalists. He had blamed Hoover, and later Roosevelt, for the plight of the common man. Probably more important than any political view was the fact that Zangara suffered from chronic and debilitating stomach pain that put him at odds with those around him. In his own words: “I don’t like no peoples.” Zangara was quickly tried and convicted on charges of assault with the intent to kill; he was sentenced to 80 years in prison. However, on March 6, Mayor Cermak died after lingering for three weeks. Zangara was hastily retried and convicted on murder charges; he insisted on pleading guilty despite the belief of some that doctors had misdiagnosed Cermak’s condition and contributed to his death. On March 20, only five weeks after the attempted assassination, Zangara died in the electric chair in the state prison at Railford. There was some speculation at the time that perhaps Franklin Roosevelt was not the intended target. Walter Winchell, a gossip columnist and radio personality, popularized the idea that Cermak had offended mob leaders in Chicago and had been marked for assassination; no corroborating evidence of that contention has ever surfaced. The events in Miami were significant for two reasons. First, many in the country were uncertain of what to expect from the man who would become president several weeks later; some were outspokenly fearful, but FDR’s calm and compassion during the incident offered a large measure of reassurance to an anxious public. Second, the assassination attempt underscored the fact that the response of the overwhelming majority of Americans to the hardships of the Depression was orderly and lawful. Giuseppe Zangara was not a socialist or Communist, but a deranged individual. Leftist groups that were critical of American capitalism did grow during the 1930s, but their numbers remained consistently small. The vast majority of citizens were confident that the existing system of government would eventually find the answers to the nation’s ills. Despite Zangara's attempt to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt, no assassination attempt of a U.S. president was successful between McKinley in 1901 and John F. Kennedy in 1963.