Attempted Assassination of FDR in Bayfront Park in 1933

FDR speaking in Bayfront Park in 1933FDR speaking in Bayfront Park in 1933

It was February 15th, 1933 and there was great anticipation in Miami for the scheduled visit of the president-elect to the Magic City. After the 1932 election and prior to his March 4th, 1933 inauguration, Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose Florida as the place where he would take a vacation.  His original plan was to take his private railway car into Jacksonville, board Vincent Astor’s yacht, the Nourmahal, go fishing for several days and then return to Jacksonville to head back up to New York.

However, it was suggested by Robert H. Gore, the publisher of the Fort Lauderdale Daily News, that, on the yacht’s return, Roosevelt attend a rally in Miami, where the president-elect can meet influential party leaders and then leave for New York from there. Roosevelt agreed that this was a good idea.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Vacation before Inauguration

FDR in Jacksonville in 1933

FDR in Jacksonville in 1933

Although times were very difficult for all Americans in the depths of the Great Depression, there was a spring of hope with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  His vision for economic recovery was seen as the last great hope for capitalism. Miamians knew that this visit of a president-elect was something special. After twelve days of cruising and fishing, the Nourmahal sailed into Biscayne Bay on February 15th as the sun was setting. It was roughly 7pm and as the yacht was being tied up to the municipal docks, the passengers enjoyed a festive farewell dinner.

Shortly after dinner was finished, Roosevelt met with reporters and quickly made it clear that he was not going to discuss cabinet appointments. He discussed his fishing exploits and confirmed that he enjoyed his time away from politics. After the reporters left, Roosevelt met with the Mayor of Miami, Redmond Gautier, to escort FDR to the park. The city had planned a rousing welcome home party complete with all the fanfare of a presidential welcome.

The plan was to usher the president-elect to the area near the amphitheater bandstand in Bayfront Park, where he would give a brief, and as he put it to the press “inconsequential” speech, and then he would be driven to the train station. There he would greet the people that had gathered near his private railway car, and then depart for New York by 10:00pm.

As most Miamians made their way to Bayfront Park, there were roughly 2000 others gathered at the train station anticipating a closer look at the president-elect as he would later board his private rail car in order to depart Miami for New York.

At 9:00pm in the evening, Roosevelt’s party left the yacht and boarded three waiting cars to head to the bandstand. By ten minutes after nine, the cars traveled the one hundred yards to reach Biscayne Boulevard and were joined by several other vehicles occupied by prominent people. The motorcade traveled very slowly to the amphitheater bandstand because of the number of people that lined Biscayne Boulevard.

People had begun to gather in the park by about six in the evening, and by seven o’clock there was standing room only. This was the largest crowd ever to assemble in the history of the city, estimated to be 25,000 people in size. As the motorcade nosed through the crowd, Vincent Astor, riding in the last car, commented on how dangerous of a situation it was for the president given the size of the crowd and the openness of Roosevelt’s green Buick convertible.

A Brief Speech Then Shots are Fired

Giuseppe Zangara

Giuseppe Zangara

Roosevelt’s car finally arrived and stopped directly before the steps of the stage to the amphitheater. On stage were a number of dignitaries including the Mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak. All 7000 seats in front of the stage were filled to capacity, and thousands more filled the aisles and around the seating area.

It was a warm February evening. The trees were filled with red, white and blue lights, and there was a flood light pointing right at the president-elect’s car. The crowd was beyond the brightness of the flood light. Bayfront Park was filled with the sounds of blaring music from the American Legion drum and bugle corps and the sounds of the thousands of people cheering and clapping. Because of his handicap due to polio, Roosevelt was propped up on the back seat of his car. Some of the dignitaries came down from the stage to greet him.

In the crowd was a man, slight of stature, dressed in brown slacks and a brown print shirt. This man was Giuseppe Zangara, who was often referred to as ‘Joe’ to those who knew him. Although undetected prior to Roosevelt’s speech, Joe had a five shot .32 calibre revolver tucked in one of his pockets. He had purchased this gun for $8.00 at a downtown pawn shop off of North Miami Avenue just days earlier. Joe was also carrying a newspaper clipping detailing FDR’s schedule in Miami. Zangara was able to make his way to the third row of the seating area, where he was unable to proceed any further. At this vantage point, he was roughly twenty five or thirty feet from where Roosevelt was going to speak.

George E. Hussey, chairman of the reception committee, urged the crowd to quiet down, and then introduced Mayor Gautier, who in turn introduced Roosevelt. Those who could not make it to Bayfront Park in person were able to hear Fred Mizer’s broadcast of the proceedings on WQAM. Once Mayor Gautier finished his introduction, the microphone was handed to Roosevelt, who had been hoisted atop the back seat of his car. True to his promise, Roosevelt’s speech was both brief and “inconsequential”. The president-elect delivered his 145 word speech in less than one minute.

After completing his speech, Roosevelt handed the microphone back to Mayor Gautier. The president-elect then shifted his attention to the dignitaries that came down from the stage to greet him. One of those dignitaries was Anton Cermak, the Mayor of Chicago. FDR and Cermak had a very good relationship. Cermak had some important Chicago business to discuss with Roosevelt, which is why he traveled all the way from Chicago to meet with him. Roosevelt suggested that they talk on the train a little later in the evening. Cermak agreed, nodded and then walked to the back of the car, which put him between the president-elect and ultimately in Zangara’s line of fire.

Mayor Anton Cermak Shot

Mayor Anton Cermak Shot

As Cermak was moving away from the car, A.B. Willis, the Dade County Democratic executive committeeman, was being ushered to Roosevelt to present him a six-foot long welcome telegram, signed by 2,800 citizens of Miami. At that moment five shots rang out. Some described the noise as that of a motorcycle backfiring. Miami looked on and listened in shock over the open microphone from Fred Mizner’s WQAM broadcast. In all count, there were a total of five shots that were fired.

Immediately there was a fury of bodies charging to the area where the gun shots erupted. It didn’t take very long, but several people had pinned Zangara to the ground. It was reported that one of the policemen began striking Zangara with his blackjack. Some in the crowd began chanting the sentiment of a typical lynch mob. By the time Zangara was completely subdued, he had lost his much of his clothes, was handcuffed and then taken to the Miami Police Station for booking. Zangara was transported to the jail tied to a trunk rack on one of the cars in the president’s procession.

Plenty of Casualties

Zangara fired his weapon while standing on a wobbly folding chair. In addition, as soon as he pulled out his gun, it was said that those around him immediately grabbed or moved his arm to keep him from hitting Roosevelt. Lastly, considering Zangara’s size, he had to attempt to shoot over people standing in front of him to hit his intended target. Therefore, it is quite amazing that five shots were fired and five people had been hit. One of the first casualties to be noticed was Mabel Gill, the wife of the president of the power company, who had taken a bullet in the abdomen. Although she would recover from her wound, she was near death for weeks following the shooting.

All but one of the other casualties had minor injuries. Margaret Kruis, a twenty-three-year-old visitor from New Jersey had a bullet pierce her hand. Bill Sinnott, a fort-six-year-old New York Policeman suffered a glancing wound to his forehead and scalp. Russell Caldwell, a twenty-two-year-old chauffeur who lived in Coconut Grove, was hit squarely in the forehead by a spent bullet which embedded itself under the skin. Then there was a secret service agent, Robert Clark, who was standing next to the convertible, who had a bullet graze the back of his right hand. Although he never sought medical assistance for his injury, he is listed by the Secret Service as an agent wounded in the line of duty.

However, it was Anton Cermak who had gotten the worse of the injuries. As soon as the shots were fired, FDR’s driver began to edge away from the scene in order to get the president-elect out of danger. Roosevelt looked back and saw Cermak doubled over in pain and noticed that he had been hit. He insisted that his driver and the secret service stop to help Cermak. Eventually the secret service was able to get Cermak into the convertible while the chaos ensued. Then, the presidential procession proceeded to Jackson Memorial Hospital to save Cermak’s life. The bullet hit Cermak in the right rib cage.

Later, Roosevelt would say that the ride to Jackson Memorial Hospital seemed to take forever. Cermak was in bad shape and FDR was given credit for keeping Cermak from going into shock with his encouraging words during the seemingly endless trip to the hospital. Although he seemed to be on the road to recovery for a while, on March 6, just nineteen days after he was shot, Anton Cermak died due to complications from his wounds incurred from Zangara’s bullet.

FDR’s Assassin

Zangara in Custody at Dade County Jail

Zangara in Custody at Dade County Jail

Giuseppe Zangara was angry at the world. He was described as an anarchist who was at one time employed as a bricklayer. Zangara was an Italian immigrant who spoke very poor English. Although defiant at first, he was considered courteous as they questioned him. He did not try to deny his actions. He was very open about his desire to “kill all kings and presidents”, to punish them for all the pain inflicted on the poor, as well as, his own personal pain. Zangara had a very difficult childhood and had experienced serious stomach pains as an adult. He somehow equated his suffering as the fault of the establishment.

On Monday, February 20th, four days after the shooting, Zangara was brought to Room 630 of the Dade County Courthouse for arraignment and trial. By the end of that day, Zangara was given a sentence of 80 years of hard labor, the maximum penalty for four counts of attempted murder. As Zangara left the court room, he said to the judge, “oh judge, don’t be stingy. Give me a hundred years”. Judge EC Collins replied “maybe there will be more later”. Zangara left as he was ushered out of the courtroom.

The day after Mayor Anton Cermak had passed away, Zangara was brought back into Room 630 for his second arraignment. The sentence of “death by electrocution” was reached on March 10th, 1933.

Shortly after 9:00am on Monday, March 20th, 1933, Zangara was strapped into the electric chair and prepared for electrocution. His last words were “Pusha da button. Go ahead, pusha da button”. At 9:27am, Giuseppe Zangara was pronounced dead. It had been exactly 33 days since the shooting in Bayfront Park to Zangara’s execution. The five weeks that culminated in the electrocution of Zangara was considered by many the swiftest legal execution in 20th-century American History.

Near Change of Destiny

Although this story has so many bylines and invokes so many questions, I reflect on one of Anton Cermak’s last statements to Roosevelt, “I am glad it was me and not you, Mr. President”. What if it were FDR that suffered Cermak’s fate? How dramatically different would the course of US history have changed? Would Miami and Bayfront Park be the original Dallas and Dealy Plaza? Of course, we will thankfully never know the answer to these questions, but it is always worth pondering how narrowly this country’s fate could have been drastically different during the height of the Great Depression and prior to American’s involvement in World War II.

The bulk of my research on the attempted assassination of FDR was found in a book entitled “The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara” by Blaise Picchi. This book is very detailed and provides a lot of perspectives on not only the event of the assassination attempt, but also on the prejudices of the 1930s and the judicial system that so swiftly ushered a convicted criminal to the electric chair in only five weeks. If you would like to learn more about this topic, I would highly recommend this book.

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31 Comments on "Attempted Assassination of FDR in Bayfront Park in 1933"

  1. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to mention that I’ve truly loved surfing around your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write once more soon!

  2. A magazine theme would make ur blog look nicer 🙂

  3. I really enjoyed reading this story.
    I am a history buff and never really knew the entire story of FDR’s brush, with an assassination attempt in Bayfront Park. I enjoyed it very much.

  4. Although I was relatively aware of this this story about the assassination attempt on FDR’s life, I did not know all the specific details of that day. Casey Picket did a commendable article about the moments leading up to the shootings and what witnesses did to save FDR’s life. This is one of those fascinating “what if?” stories that are amazing, more incredible because it really happened!

  5. You are a good writer.

  6. Good read. Only thing I would like to point out is that a .32 revolver does not produce any “spent bullets” to imbed themselves in one’s skin. Unless you mean a fired bullet, in which case I can not see how it would do anything less than kill the person whos forehead it hit.

    • A spent bullet means one which has ricocheted or travelled a long distance and lost power.

      • As the pistol was five shot and older it was most likely chambered in 38S&W. This is a fairly under powered round. It might have even been a 32S&W. Like an iver johnson or a harrington richards. I’ll have to see if there is any mention of the gun used. But either way, these were very weak rounds fired from what would be termed a belly gun or a Saturday night special. Really for close range only

    • I am a direct descendent of Russell Caldwell. My maternal grandmother was his sister, Estelle Caldwell Overstreet. Uncle Russell lived a full life. He married and had children. However you want to call the bullet, it did not kill hiim.

  7. Richard L. Wilson | September 26, 2014 at 10:51 pm | Reply

    This is an excellent well-written account

  8. As a history major I get to tell a lot of true life stories to my kids, grandkids, and associates. Sadly many do not know even recent US History let alone World History. Those of us who know the link of famous / infamous people and their impact on American History and World History are becoming fewer and fewer. In that there is where you have the threat of bad history repeating itself. Look at Putin, ISIS ( ISIL), Obama and their gains and failures. There is a pattern in Histroy that makes what is unfolding very predictable and sad. Sad also being is that most growing up know more about Miley Cyrus and Kim K.than what our constituion actually really gurantees or of those who have made a difference to protect it. Now it is being undermind by those sworn to uphold it and tyranny abroad trhrives thanks to greed, discontent and nationalistic ambitions. Sounds like 1933 when this story took place. Those who are well read and who have read this story must be nodding their heads. So goes the nodding heads just the same for those (in fast declining numbers) who lived during that time not that long ago. I can only imagine what they realize when they see what is going on today and what went on during the 1930’s world and national stage. Read as many accounts as you can. Sort it out for yourself. Then you will see the concensus of fact really hits pretty close to the mark in many cases telegraphing what was to come. I am only 60 but it sounds like I am 90. I wish more people would understand things as well as those who have lived through it. They just need to read their stories and look at today. Then it is easy to see what a dangerous road we are on and reading the road signs of history will save a civilization and lives if they are only heeded.

    • Hubert Williams | December 14, 2014 at 9:52 pm | Reply

      With Roosevelt and Hitler both taking power in ’33, full power for Hitler not until Aug of ’34, it isn’t hard to believe that the world would definitely be different today.
      On what you said about history repeating itself, Hitler used the enabling act to abolish the presidential office to enable himself to get things done the way he wanted them to be done. Obama uses executive power to do the same. Putin seems to be trying to gain exclusive power and bring back the Soviet Union renamed as The Russian Federation. It’s probably just me but doesn’t it appear that we are well on our way to reliving the 20th century?

    • Sir: first of all you do not sound like you’re 90. You sound like a PATRIOT. And they have no age, no here, and no now. I understand exactly what you’re saying and of course, I agree with you. The person who studies history gains wisdom. Time and again it can be easily shown that history has a very bad habit of repeating itself. Sad but true, most people for whatever reason get so caught up in their own mundane and superficial selves, that they never seem to stop and really ponder what the human experience is and has been all about: love, life, God, good works, and getting to the next phase after we finally pass from here! This was a good story. A great lesson. And unfortunately perhaps, a memorial to a by-gone time that is never to be again. FDR certainly had his problems, issues, and sins but if we really think about it, he was exactly where God intended him to be.

  9. Barbara Sutton | October 9, 2014 at 5:44 pm | Reply

    I enjoyed this article as I’d never heard of an assassination attempt on Roosevelt – yes and indeed the world would have been a very different place without him being appointed President. Zangara, though is also an interesting person: his last words were so poignant. I wonder what brought him to this drastic level of disillusionment – great hardship I suspect.

    • Barbara – In addition to mental illness, Zangara was also distressed by the economic hardship of the times and to a stomach ailment. He blamed his hardships on the “kings and leaders of the world”. His original plan was to assassinate Hoover, but seized the opportunity to kill a world leader when he heard that Roosevelt was coming to Miami. He lived in Miami at the time and reportedly was a part time tour guide of downtown Miami before his attempt on FDR’s life.

  10. Thank for the very illuminating piece. The question “what if…” is boggling the mind, and a very interesting answer to that can be found in Phillip K. Dick’s alternative-history book “THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE”. He takes this very incident as a starting point to a devastating chain of events, which ends in a Nazi-Japanese victory.

  11. I stumbled upon your blog & loved reading the piece. History is always intriguing, especially when you read about incidents that could have altered the course of a country. And you write it so well.

    Prasanna
    Nepal

  12. “Pusha da Button. Go ahead and Pusha da Button”.

    More poignant words have never been spoken.

  13. Thank you for writing this very detailed and accurate article on the assination attempt on FDR in Miami. I’ve always known about this because my Uncle Russell Caldwell was the chauffer. He was the brother of my maternal grandmother and they did live in Coconut Grove. Uncle Russell lived long after I was born, he married, and had cihildren. My grandmother Estelle Caldwell Overstreet worked all her life for Irving J. Thomas the first Mayor of Coconut Grove. Most articles do not mention everyone who was shot and I’m so glad you did. I think it is quite remarkable to be shot in the forehead and live to tell about it.

  14. Interesting article, thanks. There is a rather fictitious, but riveting version of this story on an episode of the famous tv series, The Untouchables (The Unhired Assassin) uploaded on YouTube. It does get pretty close to the actual event in some parts…

    • Joey, thanks for providing the Untouchables Episode. Very interesting. There was actual footage from Bayfront Park the night of the attempted assassination, that was included in the mini-series documentary “The Roosevelts”.

  15. Good reporting, I specifically like the fast turn around on the death sentence. Only 33 days, I wish all that get the death penalty and plead Guilty that fast.

  16. Jeffrey Matthew Cohen | December 12, 2014 at 4:37 pm | Reply

    This was great! Thank you.

  17. Nathan Gibson | January 1, 2015 at 9:48 am | Reply

    While the author is lamenting the speed of the justice system, I beg to differ. The typical death row inmate is 15 years plus with millions being spent on government paid defense and government paid prosecution.Given that the government produces no product or significant service to sell, that means the few of us who actually pay taxes. There was no question who committed the crime nor the gravity of the crime…..when this is the case and it often is, I say 5 weeks might have been a little too long.

  18. You are an interesting writer, You presented your story in such a form that even those of us who had no idea there was an assassination attempt on FDR will read and follow what happened then. Thanks for your gift of writing. Although the law, time and Zangara’s social status worked against him but he had no reason to take away peoples lives just for the simple reason that he was angry with the world world. Can anyone convince me that the judge even had time to question the suspect irrespective of the fact he admitted his guilt?

  19. when Americans were great.

  20. War history not withstanding, IF Roosevelt had been killed that day, perhaps we would not be so mired down with out welfare woes and over spending and bloated government. #greatsociety.

    Either way, we are left with the country we have, both good and bad.

  21. My grandfather knew FDR and played golf with him. he worked as a minute man during the WW11 needs for steel production. My father was in the Navy in Jacksonville! Now I know the political connection better through your article how and why dad went to school in Jacksonville! Too bad punishments can’t be as swift as thye were back then with a few good bold men running things!

  22. Is ‘t quite an interesting piece of ‘ story event.
    ‘S Good to gain knowledge of this enthusiasm master piece.
    Bye Bye from Accra, Ghana

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