Thursday, February 15, 2007

February 15, 1933:

Giuseppe Zangara Tries to Assassinate FDR

The concentration of so much power in the hands of the executive of the United States has an unfortunate side effect: an assassin can change everything. It has happened four times in 200-plus years, and there have been a number of other close calls.

Franklin Roosevelt very nearly became a footnote in American history -- the man elected in 1932 but shot down before he could serve. What, people would later ask, would he have done differently than John Nance Garner, 32nd president of the United States, who came to office in the depths of the Depression?

"At about 9:15 [pm] on Wednesday, February 15, 1933, during a crowded political rally in Miami's Bayfront Park, Giuseppe Zangara [pictured], an unemployed Italian immigrant bricklayer, fired five pistol shots at the head of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then the president-elect," wrote Blaise Picchi in The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara (1998). "Although no more than 25 feet away from his target, his shots went wild, missing Roosevelt by inches, and hitting five bystanders, one of whom was Anton Cermak, mayor of Chicago. Most of the witnesses agreed that Zangara's first shot was free, clean and unobstructed. This little bricklayer from Calabria could have changed the history of the United States, if not the world.

"What actually saved Franklin Roosevelt's life was probably the fact that Giuseppe Zangara stood only five feet, one inch tall tall. He could not see over the heads of the crowd, although his first shot, at least, was unimpeded [he was standing on a chair]..."

Mayor Cermak died of his wounds on March 6, and with a rapidity inconceivable today, Zangara was sentenced to die in Florida's electric chair for murder, and did so on March 20 -- five weeks after the shooting.

Why did Zangara do it? Some speculated that he had ties to the mob, and was really gunning for Cermak. Idle speculation, as it turns out, for a number of reasons. For one thing, a real mob hit man would surely have found a more private place to commit his murder. Otherwise he would have been an odd choice to carry out such a hit: Zangara was nearly destitute, in constant pain (perhaps severe ulcers, but no one knows) and probably delusional.

"In retrospect, one thing seems clear: Zangara wanted to die," Picchi wrote, offering a more informed opinion. "This seems to have been something everyone overlooked at the time... today, psychologists recognize a phenomenon known as 'suicide by police' in which a person provokes the police into killing him...

"It is conceivable that when, the day after buying the gun, Zangara learned about Roosevelt's visit, he decided that he could kill two birds with one stone: commit suicide and at the same time become famous as a champion of the downtrodden."

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