Miami History

Flashback: 80 years ago, a would-be assassin opened fire on FDR at Miami’s Bayfront Park

Giuseppe Zangara is not a household name. However, 80 years ago this week in Miami’s Bayfront Park the five foot tall Italian immigrant nearly changed world history as he stood on his toes atop a rickety metal chair and fired five shots from a silver .32 caliber revolver at the back of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt’s head.

Zangara was not a classic anarchist. Certainly, he despised capitalists, presidents, and kings for the way they purportedly treated poor people, but his primary hatred derived from the physical manifestations of pain he believed they caused to his stomach.

For Roosevelt, who was vacationing and relaxing in Miami prior to undertaking the rigors of the presidency, their joint presence in Miami was an unfortunate happenstance.

Democratic party officials prevailed upon Roosevelt to address well-wishers on the evening of Feb. 15, 1933. He rode into Bayfront Park in an open-air touring car with Miami Mayor Redmond Gautier seated to his left, propped himself on top of the rear seat, grabbed a microphone and spoke for a few minutes. Within seconds of finishing his speech, Zangara took aim and fired his gun.

Immediately after the first shot, bystanders Lillian Cross and Tom Armour sprang into action. They grabbed Zangara’s arm and lifted it upwards saving Roosevelt’s life, but he continued to fire until each round was discharged. When the smoke cleared the would-be assassin had wounded five people: New York Police Officer William Sinnott, Mabel Gill (wife of the president of FP&L), Miami native and chauffeur Russell Caldwell, New Jersey resident Margaret Kruis, and Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak.

Police hustled Zangara from the scene, not just to incarcerate him, but to save him from those in the park who wanted to lynch him.

They placed him in a jail cell atop the “inescapable” Dade County Courthouse.

After a sanity commission declared Zangara sane, he pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted murder, including the attempted murder of FDR, before Judge E.C. Collins of the Court of Criminal Record for Dade County who sentenced him to 80 years in prison.

Thereafter, Mayor Cermak died from his wound and Zangara was charged with murder. He pleaded guilty and was summarily sentenced to death by Circuit Court Judge Uly O. Thompson.

A week and a half later, Dade Sheriff Dan Hardie turned a switch and executed Zangara. His last words, “Pusha da button! Go ahead, pusha da button!” It was one of the swiftest executions of the 20th century.

Historians often recount past events, put them in context, and look at trends. Sometimes, they engage in “what if” speculation by changing historical facts and then examining the possible outcomes. Had Zangara assassinated Roosevelt, under the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Vice President-elect John Nance Garner would have taken the presidential oath on March 4, 1933. Citizens, longing for relief from the Great Depression, would not have heard Roosevelt’s enduring words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Garner, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives and a long-time conservative Democratic congressman from Texas, is today best known for saying the vice-presidency is “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Though he supported the New Deal, had he been president it would not have been Roosevelt’s version. There were stark differences between the two men.

Garner was a fiscal tightwad whose own course towards economic prosperity would likely have excluded Social Security and any trappings of the so-called “welfare state.” Roosevelt was a champion of unions, New Deal liberalism, and court-packing; Garner was not. Garner, who was also known as “Cactus Jack,” was in some respects the antithesis of Roosevelt. He was hesitant and in some instances vehemently opposed to New Deal policies involving spending, unbridled New Deal liberalism, the National Recovery Act, the right of workers to unionize, and progressive taxation. Roosevelt was a transformational president and arguably one of our country’s greatest.

He led our country out of the Great Depression and on to victory in World War II. Many of the bills he signed into law and the programs he proposed during his presidency continue to shape our society.

Eighty years ago, the promise of the new Roosevelt administration nearly came to an abrupt end along the shores of Biscayne Bay. Fortunately, it didn’t.

Scott J. Silverman is a retired Miami-Dade circuit judge and now a mediator/arbitrator in Miami Beach.

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