It was February 15th, 1933 and there was great anticipation in Miami for the scheduled visit of the president-elect to the Magic City. After the 1932 election and prior to his March 4th, 1933 inauguration, Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose Florida as the place where he would take a vacation. His original plan was to take his private railway car into Jacksonville, board Vincent Astor’s yacht, the Nourmahal, go fishing for several days and then return to Jacksonville to head back up to New York. However, it was suggested by Robert H. Gore, the publisher of the Fort Lauderdale Daily News, that, on the yacht’s return, Roosevelt attend a rally in Miami, where the president-elect can meet influential party leaders and then leave for New York from there. Roosevelt agreed that this was a good idea.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Vacation before Inauguration
Although times were very difficult for all Americans in the depths of the Great Depression, there was a spring of hope with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His vision for economic recovery was seen as the last great hope for capitalism. Miamians knew that this visit of a president-elect was something special. After twelve days of cruising and fishing, the Nourmahal sailed into Biscayne Bay on February 15th as the sun was setting. It was roughly 7pm and as the yacht was being tied up to the municipal docks, the passengers enjoyed a festive farewell dinner.
Shortly after dinner was finished, Roosevelt met with reporters and quickly made it clear that he was not going to discuss cabinet appointments. He discussed his fishing exploits and confirmed that he enjoyed his time away from politics. After the reporters left, Roosevelt met with the Mayor of Miami, Redmond Gautier, to escort FDR to the park. The city had planned a rousing welcome home party complete with all the fanfare of a presidential welcome. The plan was to usher the president-elect to the area near the amphitheater bandstand in Bayfront Park, where he would give a brief, and as he put it to the press “inconsequential” speech, and then he would be driven to the train station. There he would greet the people that had gathered near his private railway car, and then depart for New York by 10:00pm. As most Miamians made their way to Bayfront Park, there were roughly 2000 others gathered at the train station anticipating a closer look at the president-elect as he would later board his private rail car in order to depart Miami for New York.
At 9:00pm in the evening, Roosevelt’s party left the yacht and boarded three waiting cars to head to the bandstand. By ten minutes after nine, the cars traveled the one hundred yards to reach Biscayne Boulevard and were joined by several other vehicles occupied by prominent people. The motorcade traveled very slowly to the amphitheater bandstand because of the number of people that lined Biscayne Boulevard. People had begun to gather in the park by about six in the evening, and by seven o’clock there was standing room only. This was the largest crowd ever to assemble in the history of the city, estimated to be 25,000 people in size. As the motorcade nosed through the crowd, Vincent Astor, riding in the last car, commented on how dangerous of a situation it was for the president given the size of the crowd and the openness of Roosevelt’s green Buick convertible.
A Brief Speech Then Shots are Fired
Roosevelt’s car finally arrived and stopped directly before the steps of the stage to the amphitheater. On stage were a number of dignitaries including the Mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak. All 7000 seats in front of the stage were filled to capacity, and thousands more filled the aisles and around the seating area.
It was a warm February evening. The trees were filled with red, white and blue lights, and there was a flood light pointing right at the president-elect’s car. The crowd was beyond the brightness of the flood light. Bayfront Park was filled with the sounds of blaring music from the American Legion drum and bugle corps and the sounds of the thousands of people cheering and clapping. Because of his handicap due to polio, Roosevelt was propped up on the back seat of his car. Some of the dignitaries came down from the stage to greet him.
In the crowd was a man, slight of stature, dressed in brown slacks and a brown print shirt. This man was Giuseppe Zangara, who was often referred to as ‘Joe’ to those who knew him. Although undetected prior to Roosevelt’s speech, Joe had a five shot .32 calibre revolver tucked in one of his pockets. He had purchased this gun for $8.00 at a downtown pawn shop off of North Miami Avenue just days earlier. Joe was also carrying a newspaper clipping detailing FDR’s schedule in Miami. Zangara was able to make his way to the third row of the seating area, where he was unable to proceed any further. At this vantage point, he was roughly twenty five or thirty feet from where Roosevelt was going to speak.
George E. Hussey, chairman of the reception committee, urged the crowd to quiet down, and then introduced Mayor Gautier, who in turn introduced Roosevelt. Those who could not make it to Bayfront Park in person were able to hear Fred Mizer’s broadcast of the proceedings on WQAM. Once Mayor Gautier finished his introduction, the microphone was handed to Roosevelt, who had been hoisted atop the back seat of his car. True to his promise, Roosevelt’s speech was both brief and “inconsequential”. The president-elect delivered his 145 word speech in less than one minute.
After completing his speech, Roosevelt handed the microphone back to Mayor Gautier. The president-elect then shifted his attention to the dignitaries that came down from the stage to greet him. One of those dignitaries was Anton Cermak, the Mayor of Chicago. FDR and Cermak had a very good relationship. Cermak had some important Chicago business to discuss with Roosevelt, which is why he traveled all the way from Chicago to meet with him. Roosevelt suggested that they talk on the train a little later in the evening. Cermak agreed, nodded and then walked to the back of the car, which put him between the president-elect and ultimately in Zangara’s line of fire.
As Cermak was moving away from the car, A.B. Willis, the Dade County Democratic executive committeeman, was being ushered to Roosevelt to present him a six-foot long welcome telegram, signed by 2,800 citizens of Miami. At that moment five shots rang out. Some described the noise as that of a motorcycle backfiring. Miami looked on and listened in shock over the open microphone from Fred Mizner’s WQAM broadcast. In all count, there were a total of five shots that were fired.
Immediately there was a fury of bodies charging to the area where the gun shots erupted. It didn’t take very long, but several people had pinned Zangara to the ground. It was reported that one of the policemen began striking Zangara with his blackjack. Some in the crowd began chanting the sentiment of a typical lynch mob. By the time Zangara was completely subdued, he had lost his much of his clothes, was handcuffed and then taken to the Miami Police Station for booking. Zangara was transported to the jail tied to a trunk rack on one of the cars in the president’s procession.
Plenty of Casualties
Zangara fired his weapon while standing on a wobbly folding chair. In addition, as soon as he pulled out his gun, it was said that those around him immediately grabbed or moved his arm to keep him from hitting Roosevelt. Lastly, considering Zangara’s size, he had to attempt to shoot over people standing in front of him to hit his intended target. Therefore, it is quite amazing that five shots were fired and five people had been hit. One of the first casualties to be noticed was Mabel Gill, the wife of the president of the power company, who had taken a bullet in the abdomen. Although she would recover from her wound, she was near death for weeks following the shooting.
All but one of the other casualties had minor injuries. Margaret Kruis, a twenty-three-year-old visitor from New Jersey had a bullet pierce her hand. Bill Sinnott, a fort-six-year-old New York Policeman suffered a glancing wound to his forehead and scalp. Russell Caldwell, a twenty-two-year-old chauffeur who lived in Coconut Grove, was hit squarely in the forehead by a spent bullet which embedded itself under the skin. Then there was a secret service agent, Robert Clark, who was standing next to the convertible, who had a bullet graze the back of his right hand. Although he never sought medical assistance for his injury, he is listed by the Secret Service as an agent wounded in the line of duty.
However, it was Anton Cermak who had gotten the worse of the injuries. As soon as the shots were fired, FDR’s driver began to edge away from the scene in order to get the president-elect out of danger. Roosevelt looked back and saw Cermak doubled over in pain and noticed that he had been hit. He insisted that his driver and the secret service stop to help Cermak. Eventually the secret service was able to get Cermak into the convertible while the chaos ensued. Then, the presidential procession proceeded to Jackson Memorial Hospital to save Cermak’s life. The bullet hit Cermak in the right rib cage.
Later, Roosevelt would say that the ride to Jackson Memorial Hospital seemed to take forever. Cermak was in bad shape and FDR was given credit for keeping Cermak from going into shock with his encouraging words during the seemingly endless trip to the hospital. Although he seemed to be on the road to recovery for a while, on March 6, just nineteen days after he was shot, Anton Cermak died due to complications from his wounds incurred from Zangara’s bullet.
Giuseppe Zangara was angry at the world. He was described as an anarchist who was at one time employed as a bricklayer. Zangara was an Italian immigrant who spoke very poor English. Although defiant at first, he was considered courteous as they questioned him. He did not try to deny his actions. He was very open about his desire to “kill all kings and presidents”, to punish them for all the pain inflicted on the poor, as well as, his own personal pain. Zangara had a very difficult childhood and had experienced serious stomach pains as an adult. He somehow equated his suffering as the fault of the establishment.
On Monday, February 20th, four days after the shooting, Zangara was brought to Room 630 of the Dade County Courthouse for arraignment and trial. By the end of that day, Zangara was given a sentence of 80 years of hard labor, the maximum penalty for four counts of attempted murder. As Zangara left the court room, he said to the judge, “oh judge, don’t be stingy. Give me a hundred years”. Judge EC Collins replied “maybe there will be more later”. Zangara left as he was ushered out of the courtroom.
The day after Mayor Anton Cermak had passed away, Zangara was brought back into Room 630 for his second arraignment. The sentence of “death by electrocution” was reached on March 10th, 1933.
Shortly after 9:00am on Monday, March 20th, 1933, Zangara was strapped into the electric chair and prepared for electrocution. His last words were “Pusha da button. Go ahead, pusha da button”. At 9:27am, Giuseppe Zangara was pronounced dead. It had been exactly 33 days since the shooting in Bayfront Park to Zangara’s execution. The five weeks that culminated in the electrocution of Zangara was considered by many the swiftest legal execution in 20th-century American History.
Near Change of Destiny
Although this story has so many bylines and invokes so many questions, I reflect on one of Anton Cermak’s last statements to Roosevelt, “I am glad it was me and not you, Mr. President”. What if it were FDR that suffered Cermak’s fate? How dramatically different would the course of US history have changed? Would Miami and Bayfront Park be the original Dallas and Dealy Plaza? Of course, we will thankfully never know the answer to these questions, but it is always worth pondering how narrowly this country’s fate could have been drastically different during the height of the Great Depression and prior to American’s involvement in World War II.
The bulk of my research on the attempted assassination of FDR was found in a book entitled “The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara” by Blaise Picchi. This book is very detailed and provides a lot of perspectives on not only the event of the assassination attempt, but also on the prejudices of the 1930s and the judicial system that so swiftly ushered a convicted criminal to the electric chair in only five weeks. If you would like to learn more about this topic, I would highly recommend this book.