America’s Famous and Forgotten Assassins

An 1865 Currier and Ives colored lithograph that inaccurately depicts the assassination of Abraham Lincoln

American assassins emerge from the shadows to kill without remorse. With obscure political agendas, anger, transforming their reality, serves deeper drives.

American history is riddled with political assassinations. Four presidents were assassinated in office. Using pistols, automatic weapons, and aircraft, other Presidential assassins tried and failed. Public figures at every level have been assassins’ targets: heroes, demigods, and Governor Wallace, who died a demigod of the Old South to rise a hero of the New.

Homegrown Assassins – An American Tradition

Most assassins did not succeed. As with their lives, their final acts were characterized by failure, some spectacularly so : the assassin too short to see the seated FDR, even perched on a chair, so that his wild shots hit Chicago’s Mayor Cermak and three bystanders; the assassin who commandeered a jetliner to dive bomb the White House but, having unluckily disabled the cockpit crew in his onslaught, delayed the flight till an airport cop blew him away through the thin door; one so unfamiliar with the pistols that when he loaded them, one witness reported, the balls fell out in his pockets.

The First Presidential Assassin – Type and Archetype

Even with properly loaded weapons, the first Presidential assassin would still have been no match for Andrew Jackson. Before the second pistol misfired, the President charged him fearlessly, brandishing his cane. He would have beaten him soundly had those accompanying him not rushed to hold the old soldier back, while others disarmed and wrestled the attacker to the damp rock of the portico floor.

Thus was the archetype born: the strong national leader, not person nor politician, but a larger than life symbol of the nation; the assassin, a deranged nobody, the first in a series of “haunting American malcontents who have lived their lives underwater, bubbling to the surface only for one ghastly gasp of air, a spasm of dreadful clarity.”

American Political Assassins – But Not Political

Why so many? In a free, open democracy, with an electorate that decides its fate, assassins seem incongruous. But then, American assassinations are not in the strictest sense political. All assassins whose words survive make it clear they are moved toward one purpose: “To go forth to kill another whom they do not know believing one thing only–that they will change the course of history.” For this end to be political, the assassination would be but a means. But American assassins rarely plan beyond their act. Their plans may be in the name of a lofty Cause, but their offers of help are rarely welcomed. Occasionally, by opening the door to the sword of retribution, they obliterate this Cause (for example Anarchism) from the political landscape. Their tenuous grip on reality can be blamed: “I believed the country would rise in revolution,” said Sara Jane Moore, paroled in 2010, when asked, “Why shoot President Ford?” But assassins themselves cannot see through the murky waters. “Assassins,” comments Thomas Green, “selectively perceive reality in a way that serves deeper drives.”

“I must have fame!” as Booth declared.

Identity – The Deepest Drive

One such drive is identity development. Wilkinson and Gaines trace the process in American assassins, based on Rogers’ Theory of Personality, wherein “unity of the self” is fulfilled as the actual self approaches the ideal self. Various deprivations attending happenstance of birth deny future assassins interaction with healthy adult role models. Although recognizing their own superiority, because the uncertain self cannot take criticism, they cannot grow. “Unsure of the actual self, the ideal self appears increasingly unattainable.” Fame is denied, with others always to blame.

Fictive personality can be a compensation: Booth the actor, Hinckley as Travis Bickel, others in assumed identities. But the pull of identity strengthens, unbearably.

One relief manifests in losing the self in service to a future perfect world, to replace the world of oppressive inequality that did not recognize their potential. In serving a Cause that opposed the existing social order, private miseries could be politicized. Here too the first collision occurs. The Chief Obstacle in formation of the Ideal Society the assassins have given now their lives and resources in service of is the Chief Executive, a “well adjusted, popular, charismatic political leader,” who is everything they are not. A Presidential surrogate, defined as the highest ranking politician within reach or likely to cause the biggest stir, will do as well.

Assassins then begin to “relate concretely and significantly to society and to history” by stalking their prey. They see themselves, Jewett and Lawrence suggest, as “Hyper-Americans,” enforcers of the American Dream with its “violently dramatic conventions,” who “translate into reality mythic fantasies widely shared in [the] culture.” They alone demonstrate the “courage of [these] mythic convictions.”

The President must be symbolically sacrificed to show that he is the cause of all the nation’s problems. Assassination is not only justifiable but necessary. McKinley was “the enemy of the good people, the working people,” Czolgosz stated. “I blame the Capitalist government for my sickness,” wrote Zangara, of which the patrician President, symbol of Capitalism, was the head. “It is to [Lincoln] our nation owes all its trouble,” Booth penned. By the end, the need is an obsession,driven by the momentum of a freight train.”Whatever am I doing here?” asked Moore, as she took aim at the President.

Not every assassin’s name becomes a household word. But their names become forever merged in history books with those of the famous men they brought down.And just as Abram became Abraham when God called him, when fame by bullet plummeted these otherwise unknown entities out of obscurity, they attained longer, grander names.

Lee Oswald dies. Lee Harvey Oswald is born, to live forever.


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  10. Schwartz, Jonathan. “Background Information.” Review of Broadway musical Assassins. 23 Dec. 1996
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