By Brad Dison
In February, 1933, the world was in the midst of a severe economic downturn we refer to as the Great Depression. Millions of Americans struggled to find any sort of work. One out of work bricklayer, Giuseppe Zangara, an Italian immigrant and naturalized American citizen, was angry and frustrated. As with many Americans, Zangara blamed President Herbert Hoover for the depression. Throughout the country, hordes of unemployed people lived in slum towns in shacks they built from little more than discarded trash. These slum towns were nicknamed after the man they blamed for the depression and called them Hoovervilles.
Zangara was an unstable, disturbed man bent on assassination. While living in Italy, he had planned to kill Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III. Through all of his careful planning, Zangara was unable to get close enough to the king to take action. Zangara had failed. Now in Miami, Florida, Zangara made plans to kill President Hoover.
On February 12, Zangara went to a Miami pawn shop and bought an old .32 caliber pistol for less than $8.00, which, adjusted for inflation, would be about $160.00 today. Zangara scanned newspaper articles in search of the perfect opportunity to assassinate Hoover. He came across a newspaper article which described the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. He cut out the newspaper article and stuffed it into his pocket. Zangara found no information on President Hoover’s upcoming events, but read about a political speech which would be held in Miami’s Bay Front Park in three days. President Hoover would not be present. Zangara settled on a different target.
On February 15, a large crowd gathered at Bay Front Park. Mrs. W.F. Cross of Miami struggled to see the speaker over the throng of people although she was only 25 feet away. She stood on a bench to get a better view. Another man stood up on the bench next to her. Mrs. Cross casually looked over at the man and saw that he held a pistol in his hand. It was Zangara. He raised the pistol and fired toward the speaker. POW! POW! POW! POW! POW!
As he began to fire, Mrs. Cross grabbed the hand which held the pistol, pushed it up toward the sky, and screamed. Another bystander, Tom Armour, took action immediately. He helped Mrs. Cross hold Zangara’s pistol hand in the air. Other men grabbed Zangara by the neck and began choking him. Police arrested Zangara and transported him to jail.
Five bullets from Zangara’s pistol struck five different people. The wounded lay on the ground, some conscious, some unconscious. Chicago’s Mayor Anton Cermak was shaking hands with another politician when the shooting began. He was shot in the abdomen. Mrs. Joe Gill of Miami, shot in the abdomen. Miss Margaret Kruis of Newark, New Jersey, shot in the hand. New York Policeman William Sinnott, shot in the head. Russell Caldwell of Miami, shot in the head. The wounded were quickly transported to the local hospital for treatment.
Secret Service officers and Miami investigators interrogated Zangara. He spoke of his hatred for America’s capitalistic society, and proclaimed that he “would kill all presidents and all officers,” if given the opportunity. In his pockets, investigators found the newspaper clipping which described President McKinley’s assassination, along with newspaper articles which detailed the political event in Bay Front Park.
Five days after the shooting in Bay Front Park, Zangara appeared in court. He was uncontrollable at times and made frequent outbursts. He was infuriated when several physicians claimed that he had “a psychopathic personality.” Zangara shouted that he was not insane. When the judge read the verdict, an 80-year sentence, Zangara shouted, “Don’t be stingy, Judge, make it a hundred years!”
As the days passed, four of the five gunshot victims gradually improved. Chicago’s Mayor Anton Cermak’s condition steadily declined. Cermak fought hard but he encountered one complication after another. Nineteen days after the shooting, March 6, Chicago’s Mayor Anton Cermak died. A grand jury met the same day and indicted Zangara for the first degree murder of Mayor Cermak, to which Zangara plead guilty. The judge sentence Zangara to death by the electric chair. Zangara called the judge a “crook man,” and shouted, “I no ‘fraid that chair.”
Zangara was defiant till the end. As prison guards held and escorted Zangara to the electric chair, Zangara ordered, “Don’t hold me, I no ‘fraid of chair.” When Zangara saw that no photographers had come to photograph the electrocution, he yelled, “No pictures?! Capitalists, all capitalists, lousy bunch, crooks!” The prison’s chaplain arrived in the death chamber and made a short prayer. Zangara spouted, “What’s your business?” When the prison chaplain explained that he was a minister Zangara yelled, “Get out of here—get to—out of here. I no want no minister.” When asked if he was sorry for killing Chicago’s Mayor, Zangara simply said, “no.” When asked if he was sorry he wounded Mrs. Joe Gill, Zangara replied, “No. She had no business getting in the way of the bullet.” At 9:15 a.m., March 20, 1933, the switch was thrown and Zangara’s defiance ended.
Zangara, the failure, had not failed this time. Or had he? Chicago’s Mayor was not Zangara’s target. His target was not President Hoover. His target would be president, the longest-serving president in United States history. Zangara’s intended target was the man who was shaking Chicago’s Mayor Cermak’s hand when Zangara began shooting, president-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.