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Remember Our Fallen Presidents

Monday, November 22, 2010, 13:37 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

(Edited to correct one factual error, a few minor omissions, and a typo.)

President John F. Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy 1917-1963

Most Americans know without being told that today is the anniversary of the death of President John Kennedy. His assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald on a crisp autumn day in Dallas, Texas, 47 years ago is so embedded in our national consciousness that even those of us who were not yet born feel as if we lived it through our parents. It affected not just Americans; I remember a photo given to me many years ago by my boyfriend’s mother, showing her with her parents underneath a picture of Kennedy that hung on their wall. They were an Irish Catholic family who, though Canadian, obviously held the American President in high esteem. His death, not only because it was violent but also because it happened at such a young age (more years have now elapsed since Kennedy’s death than his age when he died), moved people worldwide.

Kennedy wasn’t the first President to be killed while in office, though. Three others preceded him as members of that exclusive and tragic club.

President Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865

Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the most revered President in U.S. history, was the first to be killed while in office. Just days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to end the American Civil War, a bloody conflict that dominated his presidency and nearly destroyed the nation, Lincoln was shot in the back of the head by John Wilkes Booth while watching a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington. After being taken to a house across the street to be treated, the President died, having never regained consciousness. The date was April 15, 1865. Lincoln was the third President to die in office, the other two having died of illness. Vice President Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln as President.

Lincoln was also the second consecutive President elected in a year ending in zero to die in office, a pattern that was finally broken when Ronald Reagan completed both his terms.

President James A. Garfield

President James A. Garfield 1831-1881

James Garfield was barely President for four months when he was shot in the abdomen by Charles Guiteau while walking through a train station in Washington. Although it was the wound inflicted by Guiteau that led to his death, Garfield actually died weeks later from a massive infection caused by the lack of antiseptic procedure by those who treated him. After lingering in intense pain, the President died on September 19, 1881. Elected in 1880, Garfield was the third consecutive President elected in a year ending in zero to die during his term. He was succeeded by his Vice President, Chester Arthur.

President William McKinley

President William McKinley 1843-1901

William McKinley was attending the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo under tight security. An immensely popular President, he insisted on greeting members of the public at a reception on the Exposition grounds. One of them was Polish-American anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who shot the President twice with a revolver at close range. McKinley underwent surgery but died of complications slightly more than a week later, on September 14, 1901. Originally elected in 1896 and easily re-elected in 1900, McKinley was the fourth consecutive President elected in a year ending in zero to die in office. His Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt, succeeded him and remains the youngest person ever to serve as President.

The next two Presidents elected in years ending in zero also died in office, but of natural causes. The seventh and last to die in office was Kennedy, elected in 1960 and succeeded by Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

The assassination death toll would have been even higher if other attempts hadn’t been thwarted. Some were discovered before being implemented, others were stopped by police or Secret Service who kept the would-be assailants away from the their targets. But on several occasions, a President’s life was indeed in imminent danger:

  • The first such attempt was by an apparently mentally ill house painter who tried to fire two pistols as Andrew Jackson in 1835. The President was spared only because the pistols misfired.
  • In 1864, Lincoln survived an assassination attempt in which he was ambushed by an unknown attacker, shot through the hat, but not harmed.
  • During his brief and unlikely Presidency, Gerald Ford survived two assassination attempts within three weeks: the first by Charles Manson disciple Squeaky Fromme, who attempted to shoot a loaded gun with an empty firing chamber; the second by accountant Sara Jane Moore, who got a shot off but missed the President.
  • The attempted assassination that came closest to succeeding was John Hinckley, Jr.’s 1981 attack on Ronald Reagan in Washington. Hinckley fired several shots, wounding the President, an administration official, a Secret Service agent, and a city police officer. It was only years later that the public learned how serious the President’s wound was and how close he came to dying.

A couple of Presidents were attacked before or after, but not during, their terms of office. Theodore Roosevelt was wounded in a 1912 attempt on his life, three years after he left office and during his unsuccessful campaign to regain the Presidency as a candidate of the newly-formed Progressive Party. Twenty-one years later, his distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, was shot at but not hit while President-elect in an attack that killed the Mayor of Chicago.

On this day, as we remember that President Kennedy was killed on November 22, 1963, let’s also remember that he wasn’t the first U.S. President to be assassinated. Pray that he will remain the last.

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