Blog: Meet the Assassins
John Wilkes Booth
President: Abraham Lincoln
John Wilkes Booth came from a prominent family of actors in Maryland, and he had a strong career as a popular stage actor.
As a Confederate sympathizer, he was strongly against the abolition of slavery and was outspoken about his hatred of President Lincoln. He hatched a plan with a group of co-conspirators who planned to kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Only Booth was successful in his attempt at Ford’s Theatre – Seward was shot but recovered from his injuries, and Johnson was never attacked. Booth fled the scene of the assassination and was caught with some of his fellow conspirators in a barn in Virginia.
President: James Garfield
Charles Guiteau’s life was surrounded by failure: he failed his college entrance exams, he was thrown out of the Oneida religious community, his marriage ended in divorce, his law career was unsuccessful and he ended up destitute and homeless. Guiteau suffered from what modern psychologists call delusions of grandeur: he believed that God had inspired him to “preach a new Gospel” and falsely believed he was responsible for Garfield’s presidential victory in 1880. In reality, Guiteau gave a convoluted speech in support of Garfield to a small number of people and handed out a few printed copies. When Garfield refused to show his gratitude by offering Guiteau an ambassadorship, Guiteau became enraged and shot him on the platform of a train station in Washington, DC.
President: William McKinley
Leon Czolgosz was a factory worker from Michigan who found himself jobless after the economic crash of 1893 and a failed workers’ strike. He found solace in a socialist club and was gradually radicalized until he became an anarchist with a devotion to political activist Emma Goldman. He believed that the American government held up a system that allowed the wealthy to exploit the poor, and his goal was to take drastic action to upend the political system. When Czolgosz learned that the anarchist Gaetano Bresci killed King Umberto I of Italy, he was inspired to follow in Bresci’s footsteps and kill President William McKinley. He shot McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY in 1901.
President: Franklin D. Roosevelt
Less is known about Giuseppe Zangara than other assassins in the show, but we do know that he emigrated from Italy to American in 1923. As a young child, Zangara worked long hours on his father’s farm and developed chronic severe pain in his abdomen that plagued him for the rest of his life. He became a citizen of the United States in 1929 and made his living as a bricklayer, first in New Jersey and later in Miami.
President-Elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in Miami in 1933 giving an impromptu speech in a park when Zangara joined the assembled crowd with a handgun he had purchased a few days before at a pawn shop. He stood on a wobbly chair to see over the crowd and fired one shot in Roosevelt’s direction, and then he was grabbed by several bystanders and fired four more wild shots. Five people were hit. Roosevelt was uninjured, but Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak later died from his wounds.
Lee Harvey Oswald
President: John F. Kennedy
Lee Harvey Oswald was born in New Orleans, and he lived in several places in the US throughout his youth. He followed his older brother into the US Marine Corps when he was 17, where he had several disciplinary issues and was discharged in 1959. Oswald briefly defected to the Soviet Union, where he married and lived for three years before returning to the United States. He was a self-proclaimed Marxist who never got the attention or admiration he felt he deserved.
On November 21, 1963, Oswald shot and killed President John F. Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where he was an employee. He was caught and arrested in a movie theater later in the afternoon. Dallas night club owner Jack Ruby killed Oswald a few days later as police moved him to a different jail facility.
President: Richard Nixon
Samuel Byck was born into poverty in 1930 and dropped out of school when he was 15 to support his family. He joined the army briefly, got married and had four children. Byck was denied a loan by the Small Business Administration in 1972, and most historians believe this was the incident that caused him to fixate on Richard Nixon.
The following Christmas he was arrested outside the White House while protesting in a Santa suit, and around that time he started delivering deranged, rambling tape recordings to various public figures. The long monologues that Byck delivers in Assassins are excerpted from tapes he sent to Leonard Bernstein and others.
In 1974, Byck planned to hijack a plane at BWI and fly it into the White House to assassinate Richard Nixon. He killed a police officer and a pilot and wounded another pilot at the gate before committing suicide.
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme
President: Gerald Ford
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme was born in California to an upper-middle class family. She started using drugs as a high school student and became homeless shortly after she graduated high school. Fromme met Charles Manson when she was 19 and quickly came under his influence as a key member of the Manson Family cult. When Manson and several of his other followers were arrested for the murders of Sharon Tate and Leno & Rosemary LaBianca, Fromme carved a bloody X into her forehead and camped outside the courtroom with her fellow cult members to show solidarity with Manson.
In September 1975, she approached President Gerald Ford with a loaded pistol in Sacramento’s Capitol Park. She was immediately restrained by a Secret Service agent before she could fire a shot and sentenced to life in prison for the attempted murder of a president. Fromme was paroled in 2009 and currently lives in upstate New York.
Sara Jane Moore
President: Gerald Ford
Moore was born in Charleston, West Virginia. In adulthood, she was divorced five times and had four children. She was consumed by radical politics and volunteered to be the bookkeeper for People In Need (PIN), an organization that was created to feed the poor by the wealthy business magnate Randolph Hearst. She also briefly served as an FBI informant.
In 1975, just 17 days after Lynette Fromme’s attempt on President Gerald Ford’s life, Moore purchased a new handgun that she had not trained with and shot at Ford. She narrowly missed and was apprehended quickly. Moore was sentenced to life in prison and was released on parole in 2007.
John Hinckley, Jr.
President: Ronald Reagan
Hinckley grew up in a wealthy family in Texas. In 1976 he became obsessed with actress Jodie Foster after watching her in Taxi Driver, and he stalked her for several years as she went to college at Yale. He decided to assassinate a president to become famous and get her attention. After trailing President Jimmy Carter and receiving psychiatric treatment for depression, Hinckley turned his attention to the newly elected President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley was inspired by Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of John F. Kennedy.
On March 30, 1981, Hinckley shot at President Reagan as he was leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel in Kalorama. He wounded police officer Thomas Delahanty, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, Reagan, and press secretary James Brady, who died from complications of his wounds 33 years later. Hinckley was acquitted of all counts by reason of insanity, a verdict that dismayed much of the country. He was confined to the psychiatric ward of a hospital for decades and currently lives in Williamsburg, VA under strong legal restrictions.