Assassination Attempts Against US Vice Presidents

Aug 29, 2022 - by Mel Ayton

    

Hubert Humphrey

Correcting the Historical Record

by Mel Ayton

This article is based on Mel Ayton’s book Protecting the Presidential Candidates – From JFK to Biden, published by Frontline Books published in 2021. His latest book The Kennedy Assassinations – Debunking the Conspiracy Theories was published by Frontline Books in 2022.

My books Plotting to Kill the President (2017) and Hunting the President (2014) revealed unknown or little-known assassination attempts, plots, and threats against U.S. presidents throughout American history from George Washington to Barack Obama.

There also have been numerous assassination attempts, threats, and plots against American vice presidents. Fortunately, many of these plotters changed their mind at the last second when they were confronted by tight security. But there have also been many would-be assassins who very nearly succeeded.

The U.S. Secret Service has investigated literally hundreds of assassination threats against vice presidents. However, as the agency has always refused to say how many open threats they investigate no one will ever know how many plots or planned attacks have been thwarted. Their contemporary records are closed to public scrutiny. “The Secret Service does not comment or release information regarding our protective intelligence and protective methods” the agency always maintains.

It is also problematic in quantifying the number of assassination attempts vice presidents have faced. Many potential assassins who have made threats have possessed the “means, motive and opportunity” to carry out their act but their plans have been foiled before they could gain any proximity to the candidate. Dangerous though this threat might be, it still remains simply a threat and can best be described as a plot to kill.

But other armed threateners have gained proximity to their targets and have been in a position to attack. An “attempted assassination” therefore can be defined as an armed individual who has approached a vice president with ill intent or waited for an opportunity to knife or shoot a vice president but have been foiled at the last minute by stringent security or other circumstances.

A general assumption exists that no one has attempted to assassinate a U.S. vice president; the reasoning being the holder of the office has no real political power and has a low profile. An assassin would go after the man with the real political power, it was reasoned, and that would be the President.

Whilst it is true that no vice president has been assassinated, it is generally accepted by historians and biographers that two attempts to assassinate a vice president have been made; the attempt to assassinate Abraham Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, and the attempted assassination of Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, Thomas Marshall.

The alleged attempt to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson was not really an assassination attempt at all. John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirator, George Atzerodt, was given the task of killing Johnson but he never attempted to carry it out. He got drunk in a hotel bar instead. (Another plotter attacked Secretary of State William Seward. The Secretary of State then was second in line in terms of presidential succession. President pro tempore of the Senate, Lafayette Foster, a Republican Senator from Connecticut, would have become president had the plot resulted in the actual assassination of Vice President Johnson in addition to President Lincoln. Booth’s plan was to decapitate the head of government and his successors.)

The second known incident involving an attempt to assassinate a vice president occurred on the evening of July 2, 1915, when Eric Muenter, an anarchist who opposed American support of the allied war effort, broke into the Senate chamber, laid dynamite around Vice President Thomas R. Marshall’s office door, and set it with a timer. Muenter was later apprehended and confessed to the attempted assassination of the vice president.

However, there is compelling evidence that three more vice presidents should now be added to that list – Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president, Charles W. Fairbanks, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, and Ronald Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush. The attempt to assassinate Fairbanks is revealed here for the first time.

Following President McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Senator Charles Fairbanks became an outspoken advocate for banning anarchists from entering the country. In a speech he gave after the death of McKinley he said, “The anarchist stands as the personification of the destroyer...it certainly is consistent with the spirit of our Constitution to protect ourselves against anarchism by federal action of a drastic character."

The attempted assassination against Fairbanks occurred in Flint, Michigan, in June 1905, the year he became Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president. He travelled there to lay the cornerstone of the new federal building. The ceremony was attended by a crowd of 2,000 strong.

Fairbanks had been speaking for 20 minutes when 32-year-old James McConnell, later described as a blacksmith and anarchist, forced his way through the crowd to Fairbanks’s side holding a revolver concealed in his hip pocket. Four police detectives caught the would-be assassin and, “choked him into submission.” After McConnell was placed in a police wagon to take him to the Saginaw Street Police Station, he told police officers that, “…his time would come soon; that he would yet be able to carry out his purpose and assassinate the vice president.” The crowd reacted angrily. Soldiers from the nearby army base in Fort Wayne who took part in the ceremony and parade shouted, “lynch him” and followed the wagon. During the confrontation between the crowd and the police the anarchist reportedly pleaded with the arresting officers to protect him. After the incident Fairbanks continued with his speech, apparently unfazed.

As federal laws protecting vice presidents had not yet been enacted the unnamed anarchist was charged with disorderly conduct. Flint police said the anarchist had stalked Fairbanks from Chicago and had intended to shoot him there. Fairbanks had stayed in Chicago en route east from the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon.

Responding to the attempted assassination, Fairbanks said he had been unaware that an attempt had been made on his life and, “treated the matter lightly.”

When Senator Hubert Humphrey was selected to be Lyndon Johnson’s vice-presidential running mate in the 1964 presidential election, he was one of the premier political figures of his time and was seen as a future president in his own right. He pursued the presidency on four occasions, 1960, 1968, 1972 and 1976, but never achieved the presidential office.

Hubert Humphrey lived under the threat of assassination all his political life, especially during the time he was vice president. He was also threatened numerous times when he ran for president in 1968. In fact, as a presidential candidate that year there were “hundreds of threats” including threats to bomb, shoot and hire Hell’s Angels to kill him. Some of the threats were made under the influence of alcohol or were judged by the FBI and Secret Service to be the result of an ill-considered comment in a public place. Most of the threats came in the form of letters and telephone calls.

However, there were three serious assassination attempts on the life of Hubert Humphrey when he was vice president. During a visit to Australia in 1966, Humphrey was targeted by a mentally ill man armed with a pistol. During a visit to South Vietnam in 1967, Viet Cong guerrillas targeted Humphrey with mortars. The most serious attempt, however, occurred in 1965 on a visit to Louisiana.

Humphrey was invited to speak in Baton Rouge by a friend, Victor Bussie, head of the Louisiana AFL/CIO Unions. The date set for the speech was April 9, 1965, at the Jack Tar Capitol House Hotel in Baton Rouge.

Louisiana State Policeman Joe Cooper worked undercover for the FBI from 1963 to 1965, infiltrating a Ku Klux Klan organization, the “Feliciana Klan.” Cooper served in the Klan’s KBI (Klan Bureau of Investigation). He was approached by a Ku Klux Klan member and asked if he could provide security information about the impending visit of Humphrey to Louisiana. The Klan, Cooper reported to his FBI contacts, was plotting to assassinate the vice president when he visited Baton Rouge. The Klan wanted Humphrey killed because he was “an integrationist.”

When he made contact with FBI agents, Cooper supplied the names of two of the plotters. FBI agents followed the alleged conspirators and took photographs, but they were not arrested. The FBI in turn advised Cooper he should tell his Klan contacts Humphrey’s security would be heavy “. . . along the route of the Vice President’s motorcade . . .,” but he was also told to suggest, “it might not be as tight at the Capitol House.” The Secret Service feared that if their surveillance was discovered others would take the place of the two men who had been tracked.

When the information about the plot was relayed to the Secret Service, Humphrey’s agents advised the vice president he should call off his visit. However, Humphrey insisted he was safely protected and refused to cancel the event.

When Humphrey arrived in Baton Rouge, he rode with the governor in a limousine to the governor’s mansion. Later the two men rode together to the hotel. Security forces were everywhere along the route, covering the motor- cade with high-powered rifles stationed on rooftops. Humphrey, escorted by Governor McKeithen, entered the hotel’s ballroom and walked to the speaker’s platform. FBI and Secret Service agents were present observing all visitors coming and going. The man given the task of shooting Humphrey, a union member who had a ticket to get into the ballroom, was spotted immediately.

He had taken a seat at the rear. Two FBI agents sat down in front of him. Secret Service men sat on both sides. A further two members of the team sat behind. The gunman stood up and reached for his pistol which he had concealed under his coat. The federal agents subdued him and led him out through a kitchen door. The second would-be assassin was also arrested and removed from the ballroom. When agents searched his car, they found a gun. There was a third man on the assassination team, but he left before Humphrey arrived.

The plotters were questioned but were never charged. Cooper said FBI agents told him they did not have sufficient evidence. “I know this guy would have killed Humphrey,” Cooper said. “He was a crack shot. He could part your hair without touching your scalp.”

Word about the attempt on Humphrey’s life was not allowed to leak out until two years later, when the New Orleans States-Item printed part of the story. They described an attempt on Humphrey’s life by a “right-wing organization” but did not mention the Klan by name.

Within a few years, all three of the men who were arrested for the assassination attempt were dead. One was shot to death by his wife. Another was killed when a metal door fell on him. The third, a young man, died of a heart attack. Emile W. Weber, Joe Cooper’s attorney, said, “There is absolutely no question in my mind that Joe saved Hubert Humphrey’s life.”

Possible corroboration for the attempt on Humphrey’s life is chronicled in the FBI files. In a memo dated February 8, 1965, an FBI agent wrote: “Information set forth re: possible picketing by the Klan in connection with the visit of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and New Orleans on April 9, 1965, being furnished to Department of Justice, Secret Service, military intelligence and appropriate local authorities including officials of Louisiana State University where the Vice President is scheduled to speak. Matter being closely followed.”

However, a follow-up memo dated March 3, 1965, titled “Visit of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey to Baton Rouge, Louisiana April 9, 1965” is completely redacted – which may or may not suggest that an informant or undercover agent’s name, and background information about the agent, had been withheld. A further memo dated April 1, 1965, From Cartha DeLoach to Mr. Mohr was heavily redacted except for one comment, “Was Humphrey notified? I discussed the matter with [redacted] approximately two weeks ago. Not only was [redacted] advised but additionally I left him with a blind memorandum containing all facts in the matter. He was very grateful and stated that the Vice President would be definitely alerted.”

In 1966an Australian youth, 19-year-old Peter Kocan, became enamoured with Lee Harvey Oswald and was an admirer of Hitler. During Humphrey’s visit to Australia that year, Kocan attempted to position himself near the vice president in order to shoot him. As Humphrey’s Secret Service protection was too tight, Kocan decided it was too risky and left. The fact the would-be assassin went on to shoot a leading Australian politician led the Secret Service to believe it was an extremely serious threat. If Humphrey’s detail had been lax in their duties, the Secret Service believed, it was very likely Kocan would have gone ahead with his assassination attempt.

Kocan turned his attentions to an Australian politician. On the evening of June 21, 1966, while Labour Party leader Arthur Calwell was campaigning, Kocan tried to assassinate him. After Calwell left the meeting and just as his car was about to drive off, Kocan approached the passenger side of the vehicle, aimed a sawn-off rifle at Calwell’s head and fired at point-blank range. The closed window deflected the bullet, which lodged harmlessly in Calwell’s coat lapel. He sustained only minor facial injuries from broken glass.

When asked about his motive, Kocan told police, “I had to do something to set me aside from all the other nobodies.” He also admitted to police his plan to assassinate Humphrey, but he was never charged with that crime. Kocan was tried and found guilty of the attempted murder of Calwell in late December 1966 and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was later transferred to a hospital for the mentally ill and was released in 1976.

The third incident that can be identified as a serious assassination attempt occurred in October 1967 during the inauguration ceremonies for South Vietnam’s President Thieu. The vice president’s motorcade lined up in the Presidential Palace’s circular drive when Secret Service agent Glenn Weaver intuitively thought they had been waiting there too long for safety. He ordered agent Rick Barbuto, the limousine driver, to move. A minute after Barbuto drove the car away two cars in front of the limousine were hit by a mortar and a driver was killed. Rufus Youngblood said Humphrey was aware he was one of the primary targets and that, “. . . the Viet Cong would have scored a real coup if the vice president of the U.S. had been killed.” According to agent Jerry Parr, “It was clearly intended for the vice president.

There was a serious assassination threat during George H.W. Bush’s time as vice president. During the 1988 presidential election campaign, 22-year-old David Russell attended a Bush campaign rally in Kentucky armed with a .45 calibre handgun. As Bush shook hands with supporters, Russell took photos of him. The would-be assassin came within 40 feet of the vice president. Two days later he wrote a letter to the White House, demanding that Bush drop out of the race and attached a photo he had taken at the rally. Russell threatened to assassinate the vice president if he refused. Russell was arrested and charged. He later admitted in court that he had acted “stupidly.” The judge concluded that he intended to carry out his act and sentenced him to 22 months in prison.

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It is a common perception that an attack on a president or vice president is an irrational and deranged action. Ergo, the would-be assassin must be mentally ill. In most cases, however, mental illness was not a primary cause. The threats or attacks were the result of a desire to achieve political goals, act out some perceived personal grievance or vent some kind of anger or grudge. Mental illness rarely played a major role, although almost all had some type of psychological or emotional problem which could arguably be categorised as “a mental illness.”

In those cases where the attacker suffered from a mental illness, their attacks were a means to call attention to themselves and the problems they were experiencing, and their illnesses generally did not prevent them from rationally planning the attacks. In fact, the presence of a mental illness did not necessarily mitigate the influence of his or her political belief system as conscious motivation for the crime.

 

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