Today in 1933, Giuseppe Zangara was executed for first-degree murder. While all but forgotten today, Zangara’s actions very nearly changed, in a significant way, the course of western civilization.
Zangara was born in September, 1900 in Ferruzzano, a village located on the “toe” of the Italian peninsula. After serving in the First World War, he worked for several years near his ancestral home. Growing restless, he left Italy with his uncle and came to the United States in 1923, settling in Patterson, New Jersey. In September, 1929, just days after his 29th birthday, Zangara became an American citizen.
Zangara’s induction as a US citizen almost exactly coincided with the stock market collapse in October, 1929. The ensuing depression hit the nation hard, but it was especially difficult for men who, like Zangara, had no education and limited skills. While he was a bricklayer by trade, Zangara soon found that he had trouble finding any work at all. This state of affairs was made worse by gall bladder problems, which caused him severe abdominal pain. This pain would later be blamed for Zangara’s mental instability.
In his unbalanced state, Zangara began to believe that the President of the United States, Herbert Hoover, was the cause of his troubles, both physical and economic. He despised anyone who had money, telling what few friends he had that all capitalists, presidents and kings should be assassinated. In 1932, Zangara began planning to assassinate Hoover. However, the election held in November that year brought another man to the White House: Franklin Roosevelt.
By early 1933, Roosevelt’s would-be assassin was living in Miami, Florida. Much to his surprise, the President-elect (inaugurations were not held until March in those days) was due to visit the city on February 15th and give a speech at the city’s Bayfront Park. Zangara bought a used .32 caliber pistol from a local pawn shop and joined the crowd gathering near Roosevelt. He was barely five feet tall and thus had to stand on a nearby folding chair in order to see the President-elect. He fired his first shot at FDR, but missed and hit Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who was sharing the stage with Roosevelt at the time. People near Zangara grabbed his arm to keep him from hitting anyone else, but he emptied his revolver nonetheless. In the end, Cermak and four other people lay injured in the park.
Immediately after being arrested, Zangara confessed that he had, indeed, been the shooter. He showed no remorse and claimed to have bigger plans in which, as he stated before, he would kill kings and presidents first and then move on to capitalists. His trial was swift even by the standards of the day. He pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted murder and received a sentence of 80 years. It seemed as if Zangara would spend the rest of his life behind bars.
That changed on March 6th, 1933 when Anton Cermak died of his wound. Zangara was hauled back into court on the tenth and indicted for first-degree murder. He pled guilty and was promptly sentenced to death by electrocution. Ten days later the sentence was carried out at the Florida State Penitentiary in Raiford, Florida. According to eyewitnesses, Zangara was angry that no press photographers were there to capture his last moments. His last words were an angry command: “Push the button!”
Police and federal officials who interviewed Zangara concluded that his assassination attempt against the President-elect was the work of one mentally disturbed man, not the work of a larger group. However, as with so many other tragic events in American history, conspiracy theories abound as to what really happened in Miami 75 years ago today. It didn’t take long for residents of Chicago to begin claiming that Mayor Cermak, who was considered a mortal enemy of the Chicago mob, was the real target. According to their theory, Zangara was hired as a diversion from the real shooter, a professional sent to kill Cermak while security officers looked the other way. The idea of a “patsy” would rise again almost exactly 30 years later with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It would seem that many Americans have trouble believing that one disturbed person can change the world in a blink of the eye.