Five Seconds in Miami


Guiseppe Zangara’s stomach “always hurt.” The 33 year-old Italian immigrant bricklayer held and lost numerous jobs from New Jersey to California following his 1923 arrival in the United States. His wanderlust, apparently driven by a stomach ulcer, brought him to Miami in the winter of 1933. Though unemployed, Guiseppe found enough money to buy a .32 caliber pistol in a Miami pawn shop. Walking out of the pawn shop, he slipped the gun into his pocket — a pocket that held a news clipping announcing the arrival, at Miami’s Bay Front Park on Wednesday evening, February 15, 1933, of President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

For years Guiseppe blamed his troubles, including his sore stomach, on President Hoover. But Hoover was in Washington and this new president would be in Miami. To Guiseppe, all president’s were no good capitalists. Guiseppe planned to get even.

Lillian Johns Cross, a Miami physician’s wife, stood in the crowd at Bay Front Park on Wednesday evening, February 15. Thomas Armour, a tall, rangy Miami contractor, stood behind Mrs. Cross. Nearby sat an old bench. Mr. Armour and Mrs. Cross had never met; they had in common the desire to see the new president.

At half past nine, the president-elect’s car pulled up at the park’s bandstand. FDR had spent the previous week and a half on Vincent Astor’s yacht, Nourmahal. An aide handed Roosevelt a small lapel microphone. Pulling himself up onto the convertable’s trunk, FDR flashed his famous smile and said, “My friends…. I’ve had a very wonderful twelve days’ fishing…. It has been a wonderful rest. I’m not going to attempt to tell you any fish stories…. The only fly in the ointment has been I’ve put on about ten pounds…. I hope to come down here next winter…. Many thanks.”

Applause and cheers echoed through the park as Roosevelt slipped down into the back seat. While acknowledging the crowd, Roosevelt saw Chicago’s Mayor Anton Cermak on the bandstand. The President-elect waved him to the car.

“Hello Tony!”

“Hello, Mr. President.”

While the two politicians chatted, Guiseppe Zangara — a short man reaching only five feet in height — desperately tried to see over the crowd. Spotting an old bench, he climbed on it. With his new vantage point Zangara could see the President-elect only 35-feet away. Mayor Cermak started to walk away from the car. Roosevelt began reading a telegram an aide had thrust into his hand.

Zangara pointed his pistol and fired. Margaret Kruis, a Newark, New Jersey showgirl, fell to the ground.

Zangara fired again. A red stain appeared on the white shirt front of Mayor Cermak, who clutched his stomach and collapsed to his knees.

Lillian Cross standing next to the bench instinctively reached for Zangara’s arm. Thomas Armour, standing behind the bench, also grabbed at the weapon.

Zangara fired again. Mrs. Joseph Gill, wife of the president of Florida Power and Light, stumbled down the bandstand steps, the bullet having ripped into her abdomen.

Despite Cross and Armour’s interference, Zangara blindly fired a fourth shot. Ironicly, the bullet struck the head of retired New York detective William Sinnott, who had once guarded New York’s Governor Roosevelt.

With Cross, Armour, and a torrent of people descending on him, Zangara squeezed off one final shot, grazing a young Florida boy’s forehead. The area near the bench quickly resembled a football pile-up with Zangara at the bottom. Police yanked Zangara from the pile and handcuffed him. Voices in the crowd yelled “Kill him! Lynch him!”

Back at the car, President-elect Roosevelt shouted “I’m all right! I’m all right.” His driver began to pull away when someone yelled, “Mayor Cermak’s shot.” Roosevelt ordered the car stopped and said, “Bring him here. Put him in my car.” Chicago’s wounded mayor was placed in the back seat, his head cradled on the President-elect’s left arm. Police sirens wailed through the dark streets, as the president-elect’s car raced to Jackson Memorial Hospital. At first, Roosevelt tried and failed to find a pulse, then the Mayor straightened up and Roosevelt felt a pulse. He said, “Tony, keep quiet — don’t move. It won’t hurt you if you keep quiet.”

Doctors at Jackson Memorial found the bullet lodged in Cermak’s spine near the back of his abdomen. In another room, Mrs. Gill hovered near death from her wound. The other three victims suffered flesh wounds; they were treated and released.

Zangara quickly pleaded guilty to four assault charges; the judge sentenced him to 80 years in prison. Zangara yelled, “Don’t be stingy, give me 100 years!” Later he said “If I could eat, I no kill anybody.” At that moment, he had killed no one. Eventually Mrs Gill recovered from her wounds, but, on March 2, Mayor Cermak died. Charged with murder, Zangara was convicted and went to Florida’s electric chair on March 20, 1933, five weeks after he pulled the trigger.

If Zangara had been a better shot or if Lillian Cross and Thomas Armour had not grabbed his arm, Franklin Roosevelt might have become a footnote in history. Considering Roosevelt’s influence on both American and world history over the next dozen years, it staggers the imagination to think how much hinged on those five seconds in Miami so long ago.