Attempts on the life of the President are as American as apple pie: According to a recent report, there have been twenty attempts and plots to slay the leader of the free world. Four were successful: Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. All of them were killed by a gunshot. Attempts have been made on both sitting and former presidents.
Former president Theodore Roosevelt was shot in 1912 while campaigning as a third party candidate. The bullet struck him in the chest, its thrust drastically slowed by a steel eyeglasses case and a folded copy of his fifty-page speech. Known for his robust masculinity, Roosevelt decided to continue, reasoning that since he was not coughing up blood, the bullet had not hit his lungs and that the injuries would be minor. In September 1975, President Gerald R. Ford was shot at twice in the span of seventeen days. Interestingly, both of his would be assassins were women (a rarity), and amazingly, one of them was a former member of the Charles Manson Family.
The very first attempt on a president’s life came in January 1835, when a mentally ill former house painter took aim at President Andrew Jackson with two pistols. Both malfunctioned. Jackson, a noted roughneck, charged his assailant and beat him with a cane before being dragged off.
On November 1, 1950, President Harry S. Truman suffered a failed assassination attempt.
Built during the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams, the White House, by 1945, was in a shambles, due largely to neglect during the Great Depression. When Truman took office following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945, he found the White House sorely in need of repairs. It was so bad that in 1948, a piano leg went through a second story floor. The floorboards were found to be rotted. A building commissioner claimed that the second floor was sinking, and that the ceilings were remaining where they were by sheer force of habit.
In 1949, Congress created a commission for the reconstruction of the White House. The interior was almost entirely gutted and rebuilt.
In the autumn of 1950, Truman was staying in Washington’s Blair House. On the afternoon of November 1, the Trumans were upstairs when a commotion broke out in the street below: Yelling, shouting, and gunfire. When the smoke cleared, two men were dead: Secret Service Agent Leslie Coffelt and Griselio Torresola.
Torresola, a Puerto Rican nationalist, had, along with Oscar Collazo, strolled up to the front stairs of the Blair House and opened fire. Coffelt was mortally wounded by Torresola, but managed to kill him with a shot to the head before falling. Collazo and several D.C. police officers were wounded in the attack.
Torresola and Collazo launched their poorly-planned attack (they didn’t even know if Truman would be there) on behalf of Puerto Rican independence, despite Truman’s support for the matter.
Collazo was sentenced to death, but Truman himself commuted the sentence to life in prison. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter commuted it further to time served. That same year, he was honored by Cuba’s communist dictator Fidel Castro.
Photos of Torresola and Collazo hang in Chicago’s Puerto Rican Cultural Center.