The Assassin and FDR-the-POTUS-Elect

Less than a month before FDR’s first inauguration in 1933, he was the target of an assassination attempt.

FDR: President Elect

NY Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an unlikely candidate for President in 1932. The 50-year-old New York patrician had a pleasant, but not stellar resume of accomplishments, but the last, as a popular NY Governor, carried weight. In addition, and unknown to many of his fellow citizens, FDR (as he liked being called) had suffered from polio a decade earlier, and for all intents and purposes, was crippled.

The Democratic politicians of the day liked him well enough, but generally considered him a lightweight. A nice fellow, but one with nebulous leadership.  One thing in his favor: he had a very famous name. Many Americans believed he was “Theodore’s” son. He wasn’t, but many voted for him for just that reason.

By 1932, however, the Great Depression was well underway. Millions of people were unemployed. Foreclosures on homes and businesses and property were at an all time high. People were literally homeless and starving, and the traditional charities were stretched past their limits. President Herbert Hoover, victorious in 1928 as the “Great Engineer” and the “Great Humanitarian” watched his fine reputation plummet into the pits.

It was easy enough to elect Franklin Roosevelt.

Giuseppe (Joe) Zangara

Giuseppe Zangara was born in Italy in 1900, fought during the Great War, and finally emigrated to the US in 1923, hoping to better his condition. He became a bricklayer, and a naturalized citizen in 1929.

Giuseppe “Joe” Zangara

His was a hard life. Only five-feet tall, he suffered since childhood from stomach pains, possibly from grueling physical work and possibly from an abusive father. If it did not create the anger and hatred in his troubled psyche, it certainly did not help.

As the Depression became even more depressed, Zangara lost his livelihood. Like many anarchists and related malcontents, he believed his misery was caused by the rich and powerful people at the top.

He went to Miami in February, 1933 for some odd-job work, bought an $8 gun and a few bullets at a pawn shop, carried a rickety metal folding chair (for added height) and went to Bayford Park, when he heard that president-elect Roosevelt was in town.

FDR: An Unplanned Visit

The quintessential campaigner

Franklin Roosevelt had not planned to go to Southern Florida after a brief appearance in Jacksonville on Feb. 15. With the inauguration coming up in less than three weeks, he needed a rest in warm climate to work on his speech and his cabinet plans – and maybe a little fishing and some therapeutic swimming in warm Caribbean water. His friend and neighbor Vincent Astor had a yacht which he put at FDR’s disposal when he left Jax. They docked later that evening in Miami.

FDR sitting atop the convertible.

It was not scheduled, but the new president-elect was a friendly fellow who always enjoyed the meet-and-greets, and was happy to spend a little time with the politicians who came to see him. After a half-hour of hand-shaking, he was lifted into a green convertible and taken to Bayford Park, to smile and wave his hat and maybe say a few innocuous words. FDR frequently used convertibles for impromptu speeches. He could sit on top of the back seat for extra height, with his crippled legs on the seat cushion. It gave him folksy informality, and kept him from the rigors and arrangements of podiums and platforms.

In the years ahead, people became very used to it.

Anton (Tony) Cermak, Mayor

Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak

Anton Cermak was the new Mayor of Chicago: the first Democrat elected in decades. It was a horrid time for Chicago, between the Depression, Prohibition, and the seemingly uncontrollable ten years of crime in the Windy City. An immigrant himself, from Austria-Hungary (now the Czech Republic), he had come to America, done well, and parlayed his accomplishments into becoming mayor of a very large city. As such, he became acquainted with NY Governor FDR, but the relationship was somewhat rocky.

When Cermak learned that FDR was to be meeting and greeting in Miami, he made it a point of being close by to mend political fences, which included standing on the running board of Roosevelt’s convertible when the president-elect made rounds.

The Assassination Attempt

True to form, FDR was seated atop the convertible, waving his hat and grinning his soon-to-be famous smile. Within moments, shots rang out. Five shots, five wounded bystanders. The shot aimed at FDR missed.

Within seconds, the crowd overcame Zangara, his gun and the rickety folding chair. Policemen nearby muscled closer. And FDR, raised his hand and called out not to harm the assailant – and to let the law and justice prevail. Then he directed his escorts to help a seriously wounded and bleeding Tony Cermak into the car. He reportedly calmed the injured man, and they sped off to the closest hospital.

Zangara’s mugshots.

The wounded bystanders were also rushed to the hospital, and the would-be assassin was arrested and taken into custody.

Within Weeks…

Naturally the event made headlines across the country. It has been suggested that Roosevelt’s insistence of letting the law take its course, and the manner in which he calmed the bleeding Mayor Cermak resonated well with the public, and boosted his leadership image.

Zangara’s moment of infamy.

Zangara was duly tried for attempted murder at the Dade County Courthouse, where he is said to have told the judge, “I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists.” He was convicted on four counts, and sentenced to 80 years in prison.

Only two days after FDR’s inauguration, Anton Cermak died of his wounds. Zangara was retried – this time for murder, and sentenced to death. They wasted no time. Ten days later, he was strapped into the electric chair and executed. Angered that no newsreel cameras were allowed, his final words were “Go ahead, push the button.”

Sources:

Black, Conrad – Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom – Public Affairs, New York – 2003

Davis, Kenneth – FDR: The New York Years 1928-1933 – Random House, 1994

https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1516.html

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fdr-escapes-assassination-in-miami

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