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  • Mike Martinez

Political Assassinations: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

In this blog, I discuss Chapter 10 of my forthcoming book titled Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders, scheduled for release on November 14, 2017. The chapter discusses the attempted assassination of President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

On February 15, 1933, Giuseppe Zangara, an Italian immigrant, fired gunshots at Roosevelt, who rode in an open car near Bayfront Park in Miami, Florida. Roosevelt was not hit, but five other people were, including Chicago mayor Anton Cermak. Of those struck, two people died, including Cermak, who lingered for 19 days before his death.

Little is known of Zangara’s early life. He was born in Ferruzzano, Italy, on September 7, 1900. He lived there until he immigrated to the United States in August 1923. His childhood apparently left him alienated and bitter. His mother died when he was two years old and his father remarried shortly thereafter. Zangara’s stepmother had six daughters, and the family was impoverished. He grew to adulthood feeling as though he was a stranger in his own family, little noticed or appreciated.

A diminutive young man—he stood barely five feet tall and weighed about 105 pounds—Zangara was easy to ignore. He became moody and withdrawn, an invisible person. At the age of 16 or 17, he enlisted in the Italian army, probably to escape from his father’s discipline. He served during World War I in the Tyrolean Alps, but little is known of his military record or his experiences. He returned home to work various menial jobs. Zangara and his uncle eventually left the country, bound for America and the promise of a better life. They arrived in Philadelphia on September 2, 1923. For the next decade, Zangara led a lonely existence, mostly working in dead-end jobs as a day laborer. Little is known of his life during this time.

By February 1933, Zangara was living in Miami and virtually destitute. He and his uncle had experienced a falling out after the older man married. With no prospects on the horizon, Zangara grew increasingly bitter about his life. He resolved to lash out at the cause of his sorrows. Although he was not a political man and knew little or nothing of national affairs, Zangara picked up bits and pieces from his acquaintances. He heard that President Herbert Hoover had created the Great Depression, which had caused untold suffering to working men and women. If anyone was to blame for Giuseppe Zangara’s sad and lonely existence, it was Herbert Hoover. He must be made to pay.

On Monday, February 13, Zangara strolled into Davis’s Pawn Shop on Miami Avenue and bought a .32-caliber handgun for $8.00. He planned to buy a bus ticket for Washington, DC, and search for an opportunity to get close enough to President Hoover to use his newly acquired purchase to good effect. Having a purpose in life and acting on his plan allowed him a measure of control over his life that had been missing for years.

Before he bought the bus ticket, Zangara read a newspaper article about a visit from President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR was coming to Miami the next day and he promised to appear in Bayfront Park to address a crowd of well-wishers. Zangara recognized a prime opportunity to effect his plan with minimal inconvenience. Why spend the time and money to travel to Washington, DC, to assassinate the sitting president when the man who had defeated Hoover in the 1932 presidential election and was slated to take office in less than a month would be in the neighborhood?

The plot did not go as Zangara had expected. On the day of reckoning, he could not find a spot close to the dock to get off a shot as the president-elect arrived in Miami by boat. Trailing a boisterous crowd into the park, the would-be assassin grew frustrated by the mass of people crammed into a tight space. Because he was barely five feet tall, Zangara discovered that he could muscle his way through the throngs only with great difficulty. To make matters worse, Roosevelt’s speech lasted only two minutes. It was a welcoming oration more than a genuine political speech. The would-be assassin had been convinced that politicians would yammer on at great length. The abrupt end meant that Zangara had missed his prime opportunity to shoot the president-elect.

Dignitaries gathered around the car to speak with Roosevelt at the conclusion of his remarks. It would be only a matter of minutes before the greetings ended and the automobile lurched out of range. If Zangara intended to carry out his scheme, he had to act fast.

Unable to see above the people ahead of him, he found a chair. Stepping up to peer over the other onlookers at a distance of 40 feet from Roosevelt, Zangara whipped out his .32 and squeezed off five shots. A woman standing nearby, Lillian Cross, saw a man with a gun and reached out to hit his arm with her handbag. Perhaps as a result, the shots missed striking FDR, although others were hit. Mrs. Joseph (Mabel) Gill, wife of the president of Florida Power & Light, was seriously wounded. William Sinnott, a detective traveling with Roosevelt, felt a bullet crease his head. A Miami resident in the crowd suffered a nicked scalp. A New Jersey native was struck in the hand. Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, 59 years old, had been standing on the car’s running board and speaking to Roosevelt when the shooting commenced. Struck in the chest, he staggered and fell down.

The mayor survived for 19 days before succumbing to his wounds. The dramatic events of that day inspired many myths and rumors. The first myth was a famous quote attributed to Cermak. Transported to a Miami hospital for treatment, Cermak reputedly told FDR, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” Another rumor that sprang up was that Zangara was aiming for Cermak, not Roosevelt, as retribution for Cermak’s performance as mayor. Most historians have discounted both stories as apocryphal.

The shooter made no effort to rationalize his actions or hide his guilt. In one astonishing exchange with his police interrogators, Zangara bluntly confessed, “I have the gun in my hand. I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists.” Not surprisingly, after two of his victims died from their wounds, the gunman was sentenced to die in Florida’s electric chair.

The death sentence brought an angry response from the guilty man. “You give me electric chair,” Zangara snapped at the judge in broken English. “I’m no afraid that chair. You’re one of capitalists. You is crook man, too. Put me in electric chair. I no care.”

True to his word, Giuseppe Zangara went to his death in Old Sparky, the electric chair located in the Florida state prison in Raiford, on March 20, 1933, unrepentant and apparently unafraid. In an astonishingly short time—33 days after he shot at Franklin Roosevelt in Bayfront Park—he entered the legal system, entered his “guilty” pleas, received his sentence, and surrendered his life.

Zangara’s actions suggest that he was a Type 3 actor. The Type 3 actor is a nobody without any hope of ever becoming a somebody. Earlier in his life, he might have struggled to find meaning, but by the time he takes up arms against his sea of troubles, he has lost hope. The world is meaningless, and the Type 3 actor has wallowed in its meaninglessness long enough. Because he is miserable with no end of the misery in sight, he will share the misery by assaulting a public figure. Killing a famous person probably will not alleviate his suffering, but at least it will resolve his existential crisis, albeit temporarily, because he will have done something in the world. In a strange way, assailing a public figure tells a Type 3 actor that he is still alive and, perversely, that he functions as a rational actor in an irrational universe.

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