LXII: You Can’t Kill Old Hickory

If you know anything about American history, you’re probably aware that presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were very famously assassinated while in office. You may even be familiar with the two lesser-known assassinated presidents, James A. Garfield and William McKinley. But what a lot of people don’t know is that trying to kill the POTUS is a shockingly common phenomenon. An astonishing 45.4% of the country’s 44 presidents have been the victim of an assassination or a legitimate assassination attempt or plot, including every single president since Kennedy. Even incumbent Barack Obama has had at least five legitimate threats or attempts on his life since taking office in 2009.

You’d think it’s political. It seems obvious that someone would kill a political figure for political reasons. But the fact that the president’s immediate successor, the vice president, always belongs to the same political party means that killing the president is highly unlikely to result in any change other than an increase in fear and security. The real reason behind most presidential assassinations and attempts is complete delusion insanity.

Take the attempted assassination of Andrew Jackson, for example. He was generally disliked as a president and a human being and did a lot of not-so-nice things while in office, so obviously somebody was out to get him. That somebody was Richard Lawrence, and he was completely nuts.

Lawrence worked as a house painter, and in the days before product regulation, this meant he came into contact with outlandish amounts of lead on a daily basis. He was known to sit in his shop muttering to himself about Jackson, who he believed owed him money. Lawrence decided that in order to get his money, he had to kill Jackson, and cash in hand, he would then sail to England and become King Richard III, who had in fact been dead for 350 years. On January 30, 1835, Lawrence was sitting in his paint shop laughing maniacally to himself (not an exaggeration) when he suddenly stood up, declared, “I’ll be damned if I don’t do it!” and headed off to the Capitol to kill the president.

Jackson was attending the funeral of Congressman Warren Davis in the Capitol, and had just exited the service via the East Portico when Lawrence approached and drew one of his two Derringer pistols. Known as “garter guns”, Derringers were small, delicate, temperamental, and carried almost exclusively by women. Lawrence’s misfired, exploding the percussion cap but not discharging a bullet. He drew a second Derringer and the exact same thing happened. Whether Lawrence has misloaded the guns or it was just too humid to spark the powder is unknown, but the odds of both guns misfiring one after another is 1 in 125,000 (when tested in the 20th century by the Smithsonian, both guns fired perfectly on the first try). Realizing he had nearly been killed, the 67-year-old president — who had once killed a man in a duel for dishonoring his wife Rachel, was known as “Old Hickory” for his propensity to start duels, brawls, and mutinies, and spent the majority of his adult life wandering around coughing up blood from the bullets and shrapnel lodged permanently in his lung — proceeded to beat Lawrence with his cane*. Presidential security was more or less crowdsourced at this point in history — if you were near the president and someone tried to harm him, you tackled that guy. So that’s exactly was Congressman Davy Crockett did. It was like some sort of historical soap opera. davy Crockett and the crowd subdued Lawrence while a very panicky Vice President Martin Van Buren swore always to go to the Senate armed from that day forward.

Lawrence was brought to trial in April of that same year. He dressed himself like an English noble and was prone to wild rants in the courtroom, insisting that he was the king of England and declaring, “It is for me, gentlemen, to pass upon you, and not you upon me.” The prosecuting attorney was Francis Scott Key, lyricist of “The Star Spangled Banner”(America’s national anthem), because in the 1800s, if there was something important happening, literally every famous person in the whole country got involved apparently. It took the jury exactly five minutes to declare Lawrence not guilty by reason of insanity. According with U.S. law, this verdict meant he was to be committed to a psychiatric facility, where he spent the rest of his life. Jackson lived a further 10 years after his attempted shooting, and his assassination attempt went down in history as both the first attempt on a sitting president’s life and the most utterly ridiculous one.

*In the linked engraving, Crockett is labled “3”, Jackson is labeled “2”, and Van Buren is labeled “5”.


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