Presidential Assassination Attempts: 1880–1920

Updated July 20, 2020 | Logan Chamberlain

white house - presidential assassinsEveryone knows about the assassinations of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, but there is a larger history of attempts on the lives of U.S. leaders. Here are the presidential assassination attempts you might not have heard of, and the people involved.

James Garfield & Charles Guiteau

President James Garfield had an incredibly productive first year in office with several monumental appointments and major reforms. So why don’t we talk about him much? Because his presidency lasted only 200 days. Washington can get very hot in the summer, so Garfield publicly made plans to pass the summer somewhere cooler during his first year. When he made his way to the station on July 2, 1881 and prepared to board his train, Charles J. Guiteau came up and shot him twice. Despite being majorly underqualified, Guiteau was trying for an appointment to Paris from Garfield’s State Department as a “reward” for his supporting Garfield in the election. When Guiteau was denied, he convinced himself it was because he was part of a rival Republican faction, the Stalwarts. He decided to assassinate Garfield so that Chester Arthur, a fellow Stalwart, would become president. Garfield died on September 19, 1881.

William McKinley & Leon Czolgosz

McKinley enjoys a great deal more notoriety than Garfield as the president who launched the country into the Spanish-American War, set the precedent for the President to mobilize the military without consulting Congress, and laid the groundwork for the Panama Canal and Roosevelt’s Gunboat Diplomacy. He made it through four and a half years until he was shot at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in September 1901. Leon Czolgosz, a young disenfranchised steel worker influenced by American anarchist thinkers, believed that assassinating McKinley, a strong and militarily-inclined president, would aid the anarchist cause. Czolgosz hid a pistol in his handkerchief and shot McKinley twice while in line to shake his hand. The young man was nearly killed by a mob but for the president telling them to stop. McKinley died on September 14, 1901. After the president's death, Czolgosz was sentenced to death by electric chair.

Theodore Roosevelt & John F. Schrank

Teddy Roosevelt’s assassin failed to kill him, and how. Roosevelt was pursuing his third term as president, now at the head of his own Progressive, or “Bull Moose” Party. He was on his way to deliver a speech in Milwaukee on October 14, 1912 when one John F. Schrank shot him in the chest with a pistol. Schrank said that he was told to kill Roosevelt by the ghost of William McKinley, as a warning against all who tried to violate the two-term limit (Schrank would later be committed to a mental hospital). The bullet passed through Roosevelt’s eyeglass case and his 50-page speech before entering his chest. The president checked that it had not punctured a lung, and then proceeded to deliver his 90 minute speech with an amended opening. “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”

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Remember to read U.S. Presidential Assassination Attempts: 1920–Present.

By Logan Chamberlain