Miami-Dade County

He took a shot at a president-elect, and could have changed history

An original front page of The Miami Herald on the day after the assassination attempt by Giuseppe Zangara on FDR at Miami's Bayfront Park in February 1933.
An original front page of The Miami Herald on the day after the assassination attempt by Giuseppe Zangara on FDR at Miami's Bayfront Park in February 1933.

From the Miami Herald archives: In 1933, 84 years ago this month, an unemployed bricklayer tried to assassinate President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. The visiting mayor of Chicago died in the Feb. 15 attack. Here is a look back at that day from a Herald file story originally published in 2007 for a symposium on the case.

Long before Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan, there was Miami's Guiseppe Zangara, a troubled man who nearly altered the course of U.S. history on a February night in 1933 when he arrived at a packed political rally at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami with a .32-caliber pistol hidden in his pocket.

His target: President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt

PHOTOS: See photos of Bayfront Park through the years on Flashback Miami

On the night of Feb. 15, FDR's life or death rested on the aim of Zangara, an Italian immigrant, an unemployed bricklayer and self-described anarchist itching to assassinate what he saw as a symbol of capitalism.

READ MORE: In Miami, the murder plots rival the movie plots

Zangara, who had purchased the pistol for $8 at a local pawnshop, mingled among a record crowd of 25,000 people who had come to catch a glimpse of the famed FDR.

The drama that unfolded on that night has been largely erased from the collective memory of much of Miami. Today, few recall that Chicago Mayor Anton “Tony” Cermak died from a bullet meant for FDR; four others were wounded by Zangara's errant shots.

“This is an important moment in history that has all but been forgotten,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Scott J. Silverman, fascinated by the case for years. “It's one of the biggest 'what ifs' of the 20th century. What would have happened if FDR had died that day?”

'NEVER SEEN BEFORE'

Silverman is founder and trustee of the 11th Judicial Circuit Historical Society, a new group created to preserve South Florida's legal history.

FDR's visit to Miami had been a last-minute thing. In early February 1933, as FDR planned his Cabinet, he decided to vacation in sunny Florida.

The popular president was to stop in Jacksonville for a rally and then board a yacht owned by his millionaire friend, Vincent Astor, for a two-week Caribbean vacation before his inauguration on March 4.

On the day of the shooting, Astor's yacht docked at the city marina, where FDR greeted reporters and the mayor of Miami, Redmond Gautier, who escorted him to Bayfront in a green Buick convertible.

The polio-stricken FDR was driven to an elevated area of the band shell at the park at about 9 p.m.

Miami was abuzz about FDR's visit. Thousands showed up.

Party bigwigs were coming to shake his hand. Among them: Joseph Gill, president of Florida Power & Light, and his wife, Mabel, and Cermak, in from Chicago to meet with his powerful friend.

Also on hand: several spectators who would become a footnote in history.

Caldwell, then 22, a private chauffeur for a local woman, arrived at the park about 5 p.m.

THE SHOTS

FDR's motorcade slowly moved through the crowd before coming to a stop. FDR hoisted himself atop the back seat.

FDR said a few words about enjoying his fishing vacation and promised to return. His breezy chat by the bay was over in less than five minutes.

Suddenly shots rang out in the night, followed by the screams and pandemonium.

Lillian Cross, a doctor's wife, ended up standing near the would-be assassin. Photos show Zangara peering over her hat.

“The first shot he fired was so close to my face I got powder burns from it,” Cross told reporters. She tried to grab Zangara's arm; other horrified spectators did the same, tackling him to the ground.

His errant bullets had missed FDR but fatally wounded Cermak, Mabel Gill and William Sinnott, a former New York police officer working security. Two others in the crowd who took bullets were Margaret Kruis, 21, a dancer from Newark, and Caldwell.

'IT WON'T HURT'

In the melee, FDR asked that Cermak be brought to his car for the ride to the hospital. “I said, 'Tony, don't move; keep quiet. It won't hurt, ’’ FDR later told reporters. Cermak would die of peritonitis in 19 days.

FDR visited all the wounded. Caldwell said he wheeled himself into his room. "He didn't have any high airs or anything. He was just real nice."

At the jail in the Dade County Courthouse, Zangara confessed and expounded on his dislike for heads of state.

"I have the gun in my hand. I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists, " he said.

His first appearance in Courtroom 6-1 on the West Flagler Street courthouse was a worldwide sensation. But there would be no trial. Zangara pleaded guilty to the attempted murders of four people and was sentenced to 80 years by Judge E.C. Collins.

As he was led out, Zangara gave the judge lip in broken English: "Four times 20 is 80. Oh, judge, don't be stingy. Give me a hundred years."

Collins, fully aware Zangara would most likely be executed if Chicago Mayor Cermak didn't make it, wryly responded:"Maybe there will be more later."

Cermak died on March 6. He received a hero's funeral and his words that night to Roosevelt — “I'm glad it was me instead of you” — are inscribed in a plaque at Bayfront Park.

The grand jury quickly indicted Zangara for first-degree murder in Cermak's death. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to die.

'PUSHA DA BUTTON!'

Zangara smiled on his way out of the courtroom. Within days, he was at Raiford State Prison. On March 20 — after spending 10 days on Death Row — he was executed.

When it came time to die, Zangara exploded when he learned no newsreel cameras would be allowed to capture his final moments, cutting short his 15 minutes of fame.

It put him in a foul mood.

So when asked if he had any final words: He spit back:

"Pusha da button!"

And someone did.

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