The Assassination of US Presidents
While the United States has had a relatively peaceful domestic history compared to many other countries, it has periodically suffered from violent political events.
How many US Presidents have been assassinated?
On four separate occasions from 1865-1963, a US president was assassinated while in office, throwing the country into turmoil. Thankfully, in all four cases, a peaceful transition of power shifted from the deceased president to the vice president as laid out in the constitution.
5 days after the conclusion of the Civil War on April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln attended a play with his wife at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate sympathizer who despised the abolitionist movement, entered the theater and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Lincoln was taken to the Peterson House across the street from the theater, where he died the following morning.
Unlike the assassins of the other US presidents, John Wilkes Booth was able to initially escape and evade capture for nearly 2 weeks. He fled to southern Maryland and received treatment for his broken leg which he had injured while fleeing the theater.
Eventually, Booth was tracked down after he left Maryland and entered Virginia, being cornered on a farm and killed by US soldiers after refusing to surrender.
The Lincoln assassination was the most significant in American history, having far-reaching effects for decades to come. Lincoln had established himself as a firm but conciliatory leader, always looking for ways to reconcile the southern states to the union as peacefully as possible once the Civil War concluded.
His death marked the beginning of Reconstruction, a bitter era of political conflict that never achieved Lincoln’s goal of peacefully reuniting the South without sacrificing the rights of freed slaves.
James A. Garfield
James A. Garfield was shot in the back on July 2, 1881, as he was attempting to board a Washington D.C. train, just 4 months after he had taken office.
Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, was a mentally deranged man who had been stalking Garfield for weeks seeking a position in the federal government. Although his only contribution to the Garfield candidacy was writing and distributing a failed speech, Guiteau felt he had done enough to warrant a major diplomatic position.
Oddly enough, Garfield survived for nearly 3 months after being shot, even meeting with his cabinet on July 29. However, the lack of effective medical treatment during the late 1800s for treating infections eventually resulted in Garfield succumbing to his wounds and passing away on September 19, 1881. Guiteau was executed for his crime the following year by hanging on June 30, 1882.
Garfield’s assassination is probably the least well-known presidential assassination in US history. Although traumatic at the time, it did not have the major implications and effects of the other US presidential assassinations.
While receiving visitors at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY on September 6, 1901, William McKinley was shot twice in the abdomen by Polish immigrant Leon Czolgosz.
A self-proclaimed anarchist, Czolgosz had been angry at what he perceived to be a corrupt federal government that oppressed working people. Czolgosz probably would have been killed by the angry crowd which started to attack him had he not been taken away by police in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
After initially appearing to improve in the first few days after the attack, President McKinley eventually died from gangrene 8 days after he was shot. Czolgosz was tried and convicted of murder on September 24, just 18 days after his crime. He was executed by the electric chair on October 29 of the same year.
McKinley was the 2nd president to die from an assassin’s bullet in only 20 years, recently following the death of James A. Garfield. While McKinley had been a very successful president in his own right, his assassination is most noted for jumpstarting the presidential career of Theodore Roosevelt.
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy was shot in the neck and head as he was traveling in an open limousine in a motorcade on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. After being shot at 12:30 pm, Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 1 pm.
Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had shot Kennedy from the 6th floor of the nearby Texas State Book Depository building before being captured by police an hour later.
Ironically, Oswald himself was assassinated by Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner just 2 days later. While many investigatory agencies concluded that Oswald had acted alone, large amounts of evidence point to the strong likelihood of a broader conspiracy involving more than one shooter. However, no definitive theory for who exactly may have acted in concert with Oswald or helped him kill Kennedy has ever been proven.
The JFK assassination is one of the most famous events in American history and has been featured in countless documentaries, tv shows, and movies.
Probably the greatest political effect of his assassination was the establishment of a more aggressive foreign policy under Lyndon Johnson.