Monday, July 20, 2009

Forgotten Florida history: the attempted assassination of FDR

I was Googling up info on the WPA in Florida when I came across a fascinating bit of Florida history I'd never known before: in 1933 President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt narrowly survived an assassination attempt in Miami. The photo above, from the state archives, has the following caption:

"The Pres.-elect had just returned from a fishing trip aboard Vincent Astor's yacht Nourmahal to address a gathering in Miami's Bayfront Park. Accompanied by Mayor R.B. Gautier, in the rear seat of a convertible, the Pres.-elect made a short talk and had just finished greeting Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak when Giuseppi Zangara began firing. Franklin D. Roosevelt was spared but Cermak was fatally wounded. At right he is assisted by W.W. Wood and L.L. Lee to Roosevelt's car, in which he was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital. He died of peritonitis on March 6th."

Further research yielded this information:

Franklin D. Roosevelt (Assassination Attempt)
Information released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts
Gathered from the FBI Website April 16, 2002

From the Department of Justice Website: "On February 15, 1933, Guiseppe Zangara attempted to assassinate Franklin Delano Roosevelt while the then President-elect was giving a speech in Miami, Florida. The United States Secret Service was responsible for the primary investigation and the FBI's role was mainly administrative in nature."

Zangara, an Italian anarchist, had lived in New Jersey since 1924, and had only been in Miami for a couple of months. According to the papers, "he was in Miami because it was warm and he was out of work, and that he had lost $200 on the dog races." It is said that he wanted to kill kings and presidents of wealthy governments since he was 17.

By chance, Zangara heard that FDR would be in Miami to give a speech. Three days before the shooting, Zangara purchased a 38 caliber pistol at a Miami Avenue pawn shop. As Roosevelt finished a short speech at Bayside Park, Zangara fired five rounds from 25 feet. Roosevelt was completely untouched by the gunfire due to Zangara losing his footing atop an uneven chair, and a bystander striking his arm. One bullet struck Chicago's Mayor Anton Cermak who was shaking hands with Roosevelt at the time. Four others were wounded, including Mrs. Joseph Gill, wife of the President of Florida Power and Light.

An example of swift justice, Zangara pled guilty five days later and was sentenced to 80 years in Raiford Prison. At his sentencing he said of the President-elect, "I decide to kill him and make him suffer. I want to make it 50-50. Since my stomach hurt I want to make even with capitalists by kill the President. My stomach hurt long time."

Anton Cermak subsequently died from his wounds two weeks later, and Zangara was immediately tried for his murder. Zangara was sentenced to the electric chair and executed on March 20 at Raiford. Unrepentent, Zangara was cursing and railing against capitalists as he was put to death.

Although Zangara said he acted alone, some evidence and theories link him with organized groups responsible for additional terrorist acts. Others claim that Zangara's true target was Mayor Cermak, who had alleged ties with organized crime.

Guiseppe Zangara

List of those present at Zangara's execution

All images from the State Archives of Florida


  1. New to me too. Would have been a history-changing event if FDR was taken.

  2. fyi: the assassination attempt is Chapter 25 in Newsweek reporter Jonathan Alter's 2006 book, "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope".
    Also thanks for creating your post; after reading about the event, I used Google to read more, and found your page. Nice detail especially the photographs.