This article is adapted from Mel Ayton’s latest book, Hunting the President, an examination of plots, threats and assassination attempts against American presidents. The book was published by Regnery Publishing in April 2014.
by Mel Ayton
The history of the American presidency has witnessed a variety of incidents of actual and potential harm to the president. These situations have included four assassinations, near assassinations, illegal entries to the White House, incidents of violence and conflict near the presidential residence or where the president was visiting, unauthorized aircraft flying near the White House, plots to use airplanes to attack the executive mansion and other threats of attack including bombings, armed assaults, feared kidnapping and assassination plots.
Political scientists and psychologists specializing in political violence blame the level of threats a modern American president faces on political heritage, on the ready availability of firearms and on a system that requires politicians to mix with the public. In recent years violence in general has increased, some experts aver, because of poorly implemented “care-in-the-community” mental health programs and an increase in addiction to violent Internet video games. Assassination attempts and assassination threats have also increased, they argue, because American society has become more violent, presidents have become a personal symbol of authority and modern mass communications has assured attackers the notoriety many of them seek.
Additionally, the Secret Service has been faced with a new phenomenon in modern times (although its origins date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries) – the “Copycat Effect.” It involves the mimicking behaviour of potential assassins – unstable individuals who look to assassins of the past for inspiration – and an increase in assassination threats following any well-publicised attempts to harm the president. Each assassination or assassination attempt has produced a domino effect – their echoes playing on delusional minds leading to another threat or planned attack. This has been especially true since Giuseppe Zangara attempted to assassinate President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The phenomenon can be seen in a wider context by the way the number of homicides increases significantly after publicized prize-fights “in which violence is rewarded” and drops significantly after publicized murder trials, death sentences, life sentences, and executions in which violence is punished. Additionally, suicides have increased after the deaths of famous celebrities. (1)
Following incidents of mass murder, law enforcement agencies have been on alert for incidents of copycat behaviour. In July 2012 at least three people were arrested at the U.S. showings of the new Batman film amid fears following the Colorado cinema massacre in where a gunman shot and killed 12 people and injured scores of others. In November 2012 police arrested 20-year-old Blaec Lammers whose mother turned him in after he had bought two rifles and 400 rounds of ammunition. He confessed to police he had purchased tickets to see the new Twilight movie and intended to shoot people attending the screening. (2)
In modern times copycat incidents of assassination attempts or threats to assassinate have occurred after nearly every serious presidential threat or attack and it has had a disconcerting effect on the Secret Service. Following assassination attempts or ‘near-lethal approaches’ the possibility of contagion has been only too real. After the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., the number of threats against prominent government figures jumped more than fivefold.
The assassination of President Kennedy provoked a host of copycat threats to JFK’s successor. For example, in December 1963, a month after the Kennedy assassination, James Francis Burns was arrested for threatening to, “...go to Washington and pull an Oswald and get satisfaction one way or another.” (3) During the same month the Secret Service arrested a 19-year-old Cuban immigrant, Omar Padilla, in New York City for threatening to assassinate President Johnson. . Padilla had told co-workers that President Kennedy had been “asking for it” when he was assassinated. He then told them he was “going to shoot LBJ.” (4)
Ex-convict Walter Daniel Hendrickson mailed a letter in April 1965 threatening Johnson’s life. He wrote that Johnson’s “… turn will come. I will do a better job than Oswald and will succeed in escaping.” (5) In November 1965 Billy Ray Pursley purchased the same type of rifle used in the Kennedy assassination from a discount store in Charlotte, Virginia and told the store clerk he was going to kill President Johnson. (6) In March 1966 Oswald S. Pick made two telephone calls to the FBI and said he was going to kill the president and that “two Cubans had put him up to it.” FBI agents thought Pick’s first and last name may in some bizarre way have connected the would-be assassin to JFK’s killer. (Author’s Note: Pick was the surname of Lee Harvey Oswald’s half-brother) Pick was tracked down and arrested as he was about to board a Washington, D.C.-bound train. (7)
In 1968 the man who would become the “second Kennedy assassin” wrote in his diary of his “hatred” for Johnson and his desire to kill him. Although Sirhan Sirhan denied at his trial that he wanted to kill the president, he lied. Sirhan had written in his diary/journal, “Must begin work on…solving the problems and difficulties of assassinating the 36th president of the glorious United States…the so-called president of the United States must be advised of their punishments for their treasonable crimes against the state more over we believe that the glorious United States of America will eventually be felled by a blow of an assassin’s bullet…” (8)
In the years following the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy reporters who were assigned to cover Edward Kennedy campaign tours called it the “death watch.” The threat of a copycat assassination was partially responsible for his decisions to eschew presidential candidacies in 1968, 1972 and 1976. When he eventually threw his hat into the ring for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination threats to his life increased. On November 28, 1979, after he had declared his candidacy, it was only by chance a deranged woman armed with a knife was prevented from killing him in his Senate office. A Secret Service agent, Joseph Meusberger, managed to wrest the knife from the deranged woman. The agent was stabbed in the process. (9) Kennedy was also the target of future President Reagan attacker John Hinckley who waited in the hallway outside the Senator’s office for a chance to shoot him, giving up only when he ran out of patience. (10)
After attempts were made on the life of President Ford, the number of threats escalated to an alarming rate. In the six month period following the attempt on Reagan’s life the average number of threats increased by over 150% from a similar period the previous year. Following Hinckley’s assassination attempt against President Reagan in 1981 the Secret Service was on high alert investigating threats to “finish the job” by unconnected individuals all across the United States. Accordingly, the agency expressed fears that, “...publicity over the…threat to President Reagan’s life could prompt a string of “copycat assassination attempts.” (11)
From Anonymity and Failure to Notoriety and Fame
Many presidential assassins had a variety of motives, including bringing attention to a personal or public problem, or avenging a perceived wrong, ending personal pain, saving the country or the world, or developing a special relationship with the target. Because many presidential attackers had multiple motives, the Secret Service has concluded that it is impossible to stereotype or identify potential assassins. (12)
However, numerous cases investigated by independent researchers and the Secret Service have confirmed that one of the central motivating forces has been ‘notoriety and fame’ following a life of ‘anonymity and failure’. (13)
Although some would-be assassins had genuine political motives – especially Islamists, domestic militia-type terrorists and members of racist organizations and black power groups – most presidential threateners were engaged in psychodrama rather than political drama and they valued the act more than the victim. They were basically murderers in search of a cause and their feelings towards the target were, in fact, irrelevant. According to one unnamed researcher hired for a Secret Service study of assassins, longing for fame turned out to be a more important factor than a particular ideology. “It was very, very rare for the primary motive to be political,” he said, “though there were a number of attackers who appeared to clothe their motives with some political rhetoric.” (14)
Throughout American history most presidential threateners, potential attackers or assassins have possessed commonly shared traits of previous presidential assassins. The recurring theme in their life histories is that of isolation, loneliness and unfulfilled dreams of success. In 1964 David Rothstein examined cases of JFK threateners who had been incarcerated. He concluded, “The first thing one notices in reviewing these histories is the number of striking similarities between them and the fragmentary outline of the life history of Lee Oswald….” (15)
James Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, “had failed at everything he had tried” according to author Candice Millard, “and he had tried nearly everything…” (16) President McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, despaired of his lowly position in life and had an alias – “Fred C. Nieman,” (literally, “Fred Nobody”). JFK’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Bishara Sirhan (who first targeted President Johnson before he set his sights on presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy) had been fired from jobs because of their disagreeable personalities. And they turned to radical politics for the purpose of ego-building. According to Lee Harvey Oswald’s wife Marina, learning Russian gave her husband a reputation for being intelligent, making up for the fact that he had a reading disability which gave him feelings of inadequacy. He believed he was an important man and Marina often ridiculed him for this “unfounded” belief. “At least his imagination,” Marina said, “his fantasy, which was quite unfounded, as to the fact that he was an outstanding man. [I] always tried to point out to him that he was a man like any others who were around us. But he simply could not understand that.” (17) Sirhan Sirhan believed he had the makings of a UN diplomat and was resentful of the wealthy and successful. He admired the Black Panthers believing they were just like him — underdogs within American society. His identification with the Arab cause bolstered his self-esteem. (18)
Unemployed car tire salesman Samuel Byck, who wanted to fly a plane into the White House to kill President Nixon, failed at everything he tried, blaming political corruption and the president in particular for his marital and financial problems. (19)
Arthur Bremer, who stalked Richard Nixon before he turned his attention to Presidential candidate George C. Wallace, was a disgruntled bus boy and janitor and a failure in his personal relationships. He had no friends and girls avoided him because he was ‘”strange,” “angry” and “erratic.” “Life has been only an enemy to me,” he wrote in his diary. Mark Chapman, who killed former Beatle John Lennon in December 1980, said he initially planned to target President Reagan (amongst many other celebrities). (20) He lamented, “I was an acute nobody. I had to usurp someone else’s importance, someone else’s success. I was ‘Mr Nobody’ until I killed the biggest somebody on earth (John Lennon)”. (21)
Would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley, a failure at everything he tried, lived in the shadow of his successful father. He failed to hold down jobs and was an unsuccessful student. Hinckley said, “I was desperate in some bold way to get...attention.” (22)
President Ford’s would-be assassins, Sara Jane Moore and Lynette Fromme, were also failures in life. By 1975 Moore had suffered five broken marriages and borne four children, three of whom had been adopted by her parents. (23) Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme was a high school drop-out who never worked a day in her life except to labor hard to persuade the authorities to release her hero, cult leader Charles Manson, from prison. (24) Gary Steven DeSure and Preston Mayo, who plotted to kill President Ford on the very day he visited Sacramento where he was attacked by Lynette Fromme, were two jobless ex-convicts and armed robbers who had lived a life of criminality and failure. (25)
“These are lonely, alienated people who suddenly see an opportunity to become celebrities,” Dr. Judd Marmor, president of the American Psychiatric Association, said following the attacks on President Ford in 1975, “Publicity gives them an ego massage.”(26) However, the pathology was perhaps best expressed by an Australian would-be assassin who attempted to kill political leader Arthur Caldwell. “I realized that unless I did something out of the ordinary, I would remain a nobody” he told reporters. (27)
Most presidential assassins had a desire to be someone special – what some psychologists have described as “pathological narcissism.” For them, killing a prominent politician would remove any feeling of failure and bring success. The assassin wins his place in history, becomes a somebody instead of a nobody. And no symbol of the United States is more potent than the presidency, especially since the aggrandizement of the office from the time of FDR. The political leader, especially the president, is also always “on show,” especially during election campaigns. Additionally, in the modern era, would-be assassins are supplied with a large stage by the means of television and the Internet. They know their attempts to assassinate the president will be witnessed by millions.
John Wilkes Booth, whose career was taking a downturn when he shot Lincoln, and who coveted celebrity said, “I must have fame, fame!...what a glorious opportunity for a man to immortalize himself by killing Abraham Lincoln” (28) Charles Guiteau became excited at the attention he was about to receive when he assassinated President Garfield. “I thought just what people would talk” he said, “and thought what a tremendous excitement it would create and I kept thinking about it all week.” (29)
FDR’s would-be assassin, Giuseppe Zangara, failed at everything he attempted including his efforts to shoot the president-elect. He missed Roosevelt but hit Chicago Mayor Anthony Cermak killing him. Zangara went quietly to the electric chair after he was convicted of murder and only lost his composure when he discovered there were no photographers present to witness his execution. Sirhan Sirhan made up for his failures in life by seeking fame as a Palestinian assassin. “They can gas me, but I am famous” he said, “I have achieved in one day what it took Robert Kennedy all his life to do.” (30) Arthur Bremer said at his trial that his motive was to become a celebrity. Edward Falvey, who threatened to kill President Carter, said he felt like a “movie star” after his arrest.
During his police interrogation John Hinckley asked Secret Service agent Steve Colo whether his assassination attempt had been taped for television broadcast. He also asked if the broadcasts of his assassination attempt would pre-empt the Academy Award presentations. (31) Francisco Martin Duran who tried to assassinate President Clinton in 1994 was examined by a doctor following his arrest. He said, “Doc, are we going to be on (current affairs television show) “Hard Copy?’”Before leaving his home state of Colorado to travel to Washington, D.C. he told several people of his intent to commit assassination and gave one colleague a card bearing his signature. Duran said the card would become “valuable” one day. (32)In recent years a would-be unnamed assassin was fixated on a state governor until he heard that the vice president was coming to his area. He knew that no one had attempted to assassinate a sitting vice president so his choice of target would propel him into the history books. (33)
Most, if not all, presidential assassins or would-be assassins were also enamoured with past assassinations and assassins. Much of their behavior was copycat in nature. Samuel Byck was fascinated by Mark “Jimmy” Essex who in 1973 used a high powered sniper rifle to kill six people before he was gunned down by New Orleans police. Essex’s slogan “Kill Pig Nixon” had great meaning for Byck. Before he assassinated President McKinley in 1901 Leon Czolgosz was obsessed with Gaetano Bresci who assassinated the king of Italy several years before. He kept a newspaper cutting about the assassination in his wallet and would frequently take it out and read it. Giuseppe Zangara had a newspaper clipping of the Lincoln assassination in his hotel room. It was discovered after he tried to shoot Roosevelt. Roger Hines, who stalked President Bush (41) armed with a .357 magnum revolver and 50 rounds of ammunition, sent postcards of the Lincoln assassination to relatives. He said he wanted “to become famous.” (34)
Lee Harvey Oswald read books about the assassination of Louisiana Governor Huey Long. Sirhan Sirhan read books about Oswald and European assassinations. Arthur Bremer read books about Oswald and Sirhan. John Hinckley not only visited Ford’s Theater, the scene of Lincoln’s assassination but read extensively about Oswald, Sirhan and Bremer. The character in the movie Taxi Driver, would-be assassin Travis Bickle, was his role-model. Bickle’s character was modelled on Arthur Bremer.
Shortly before he attempted to shoot President Clinton, Francisco Martin Duran visited the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, scene of the sniper killing of JFK and checked into the same hotel in Washington, D.C. where Hinckley shot Reagan. He also visited the Austin Clock Tower where, in 1966, Texas sniper Charles Whitman shot dead 13 people and wounded many more. Shawn Robert Adolf, Nathan Dwaine Johnson and Tharin Robert Gartrell, the neo-Nazis who allegedly plotted to assassinate President Obama, talked about killing him by shooting from a “grassy knoll,” an allusion to conspiracy theories about a sniper who purportedly assisted Lee Harvey Oswald. (35)
Profile of an Assassin
Although previous studies of presidential assassins have sounded a note of caution in identifying future attackers they have at least allowed a profile of the next typical American presidential assassin, would-be assassin or serious threatener to be ventured. He is likely to be a young man, these studies indicate, slight of build that comes from a dysfunctional family.* He will likely have experienced an absent father or the father has been unresponsive to the child. The assassin will be a loner although he may some kind of link to a domestic or foreign terrorist group. He will be unmarried or divorced, with no steady female friends. He will have a history of moodiness, irascibility and anger which has had some effect in his workplace. He will also be suffering from “status incongruence” – where the achievement level of a person is inconsistent with his expectations due to the fact he has been unsuccessful in his life goals. He is also likely to be narcissistic and have some delusions of grandeur blaming his failures on others, particularly the community in which he lives.
He will also lust for infamy and will look to assassins of the past for inspiration.
*Although many threateners and would-be assassins have been women the vast majority are male.
1 Leo Bogart, Commercial Culture, 1995, 171
See also: TIME, Is Copycat Behaviour Driving Murder-Suicides? By Maia Szalavitz 23 April 2009, http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893273,00.html
2 The Daily Mirror, “Twilight Massacre Plans foiled after Man accused of plot Is Turned In by His Mum”, UK, http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/twilight-massacre-foiled-blaec-lammers-1442200
3 The News and Courier, “Man Arrested After Threat To President”, 28 December 1963, 2A
4 Reading Eagle, “Cuban Held For Threat”, 9 December 1963, 5
5 St Petersburg Times, “Man Said To Have Written Threatening Note To LBJ”, 11 July 1965, 14A
6 Rome News- Tribune, “Chattanooga Man Sentenced On Threat Charge”, 15 April 1966, 9
7 New York Times, “Jerseyan Is Given 5 Years In Threat To Kill Johnson”, 12 May 1966, 22
8 The Forgotten Terrorist – Sirhan Sirhan and the Assassination of Robert F Kennedy by Mel Ayton, (Potomac Books 2008), 260
9 Toledo Blade, “Alleged Knife Attack At Office Of Kennedy Brings Indictment”, 22 January 1980, 4
10. Defining Danger by James W. Clarke, 216
11 Baltimore Sun, “Threats To Ford Triple – Simon Blames Publicity For Rise In Danger” by Dean Mills, 1/10/1975, page A1, The Modesto Bee, “Secret Service Worried About ‘Copycat’ Threats”, 7 April 1981, A6
12 US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Protective Intelligence and Threat Assessment Investigations – A Guide For State and Local Law Enforcement Officials by Robert A. Fein and Bryan Vossekuil - National Institute of Justice http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij and Office of Justice Programs http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov July 1998
13. Journal of Forensic Sciences, “Assassination in the United States: An Operational Study of Recent Assassins, Attackers, and Near Lethal Approachers” by Robert A. Fein, and Bryan Vossekuil, Volume 44, Number 2, March 1999, 324. The Secret Service believe that assassins are recognizable, not by who they are, but by what they do. Though assassins fit no particular physical or psychological profile, most share a pattern of behaviour. Assassination is not a spontaneous event, but a trail of action that can lead to discovery.
14. National Public Radio, “Author Sees Parallel In Gifford’s Shooting And JFK Assassination” by Scott Hensley, 14 November 2011, http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/01/14/132937650/author-sees-parallel-in-giffords-shooting-and-jfk-assassination
Criminologist Stephen Schafer, in his book The Political Criminal: The Problem of Morality and Crime, identified some offenders as “pseudo-convictional,” that is, common criminals who use political grievances to mask a motivation centered around their own sense of thrill or adventure, who live beyond and outside the law to share in popular fame and adulation. According to Schafer these offenders’ claims of political motive, however strenuously asserted, are mere excuses. (Stephen Schafer, The Political Criminal: The Problem of Morality and Crime, New York: Free Press, 1974, 156)
15. Archives of General Psychiatry, “Presidential Assassination Syndrome” by David A. Rothstein MS, MD, 26 March 1964, www.archgenpsychiatry.com )
16. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard, Anchor, 2012, 1
17. The Report of the U.S. President's Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1964, commonly referred to as the Warren Report, 418
18. Kaiser, Robert Blair, RFK Must Die,. RFK Must Die: A History of the Robert Kennedy Assassination and Its Aftermath. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970, 209
19. Clarke, James W. Defining Danger – American Assassins and the New Domestic Terrorists Transaction Publishers 2007, 128
20 National Enquirer, “Lennon’s Killer – Hollywood Hit List!” 4th October 2012, 31
21. Gallagher R, “I’ll Be Watching You – True Stories of Stalkers and Their Victims” London Virgin 2001, 38
22. Clarke, James W. On Being Mad Or Merely Angry: John W. Hinckley Jr. and Other Dangerous People Princeton University Press 1990, 97
23. Spieler, Geri Taking Aim at the President – The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot At Gerald Ford Palgrave Macmillan 2009, 29
24. The Deseret News, “I Wanted Attention, ‘Squeaky Tells Jailer”, 8 September 1975, 1
25. The Milwaukee Journal, “Two Accused Of Plot Against Ford”, 21 October 1975, 2
26. Time, Those Dangerous Loners, 13 April 1981, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,954701,00.html
27. Ellis, Albert and Gullo, John Murder and Assassination, Lyle Stuart Inc, New York, 1971, 221
28 Time, Those Dangerous Loners, 13 April 1981, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,954701,00.html)
29. Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard, 135
30Knol – A Unit of Knowledge, 2011, Understanding Assassination by Randy Borum, http://knol.google.com/k/randy-borum/understandingassassination/1tgrw19q7jfhp/4#Exceptional_Case_Study_Project_(28)ECSP(29)
31 Defining Danger, xvii
32 Stalking, Threatening, and Attacking Public Figures – A Psychological and Behavioural Analysis Edited by J. Reid Meloy, Lorraine Sheridan and Jens Hoffman, Oxford University Press 2008, 377
33 Knol – A Unit of Knowledge, 2011, Understanding Assassination by Randy Borum, http://knol.google.com/k/randy-borum/understandingassassination/1tgrw19q7jfhp/4#Exceptional_Case_Study_Project_(28)ECSP(29)
34. United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, United States of America v. Roger Leroy Hines, 26 F.3d 1469,. - 26 F.3d 1469, Argued and Submitted 3/1/1994. Decided 20/6/1994, http://cases.justia.com/us-court-of-appeals/F3/26/1469/619449/
35 Daily Mail, “White supremacists cleared of gun plot to assassinate Barack Obama” by David Gardner, 28/8/2008, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1049169/White-supremacists-cleared-gun-plot-assassinate-Barack-Obama.html#
Mel Ayton is the author of numerous books and articles. He has an MA postgraduate degree in History from Durham University and is a former Fulbright Teacher in the United States. Ayton, who lives in County Durham, England, has appeared in documentaries produced by the National Geographic Channel and the Discovery Channel and has worked as a historical consultant for the BBC. His latest book, Hunting the President, an examination of plots, threats and assassination attempts against American presidents, was published by Regnery in April 2014.