- Historic Sites
Incident In Miami
On a warm Florida evening in 1933 a madman with a pistol and a personality profile now all too familiar—“unskilled, unfriendly, unmoneyed, and unwell”—came within inches of altering the course of American history in one of its most critical moments
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
An utterly insignificant little man, he seemed, sitting there. Of all the thousands of people soon packed around him—of any crowd whatever, as he himself had long since realized, bitterly—none other was less impressive in appearance. Black-haired, hollow-cheeked, dark-eyed, square-jawed, plain-featured, swarthy, he lacked any facial distinction that would offset the impress made by his physique, and this impress was meager: when drawn up to his full height (he always held himself rigidly erect when on his feet) Zangara stood barely an inch over five feet tall, and he was proportionately narrow of body. Similarly unimpressive was he by the standards that normally measure human importance. Negatives described his general condition. No longer youthful at age thirty- two, he was unemployed, unmarried, uneducated, unskilled (or nearly so, a bricklayer by trade), unfriendly (therefore friendless), unmoneyed—and most decidedly unwell. On the bench, he was unable to sit still. Sometimes he huddled forward, elbows on knees. Sometimes he sat straight up, or leaned against the bench back, while his right hand gripped in his coat pocket, as if for dear life, or dear death, the butt of the revolver he had bought for eight dollars from a pawnshop on North Miami Avenue a day before. (The arrant stupidity of permitting any American to arm himself at any time with a handgun would be much commented upon, editorially, in the days immediately following. ) He fidgeted constantly. But no shift of position could ease his agony for more than a few seconds. “Maybe it was the excitement,” he later said. At any rate, he could not remember a time when his suffering was more intense than now, though severe stomach pain had been his virtually constant companion since early childhood. He felt (so he later indicated) as if a red-hot poker were thrust, twisting, into his abdomen.
A pitiful creature, you would have said, seeing him there. But merely pitiful.
Yet there is a sense in which he would have been highly significant even if he had not violently erupted for a brief bloody moment, as he was about to do, on history’s stage. For even if he had remained passive in his misery upon a park bench, utterly alone in the crowd (in any crowd save when absorbed into it, his individual will and consciousness dissolved), this unemployed little man with a bellyache (actual, figurative) would have been both symbolic and representative of the Depression’s human waste. As it was—pain-wracked, desperate, a revolver in his pocket and murder in his heart, his brain a blazing coal of hateful rage—he signified the vast social danger inherent in Depression misery: he personalized, individualized a deadly sickness then spreading, horribly, terrifyingly, through all the civilized world. Hatred was the organizing principle of his life. It was the very core of his being. Born in Calabria in the first year of history’s bloodiest century, he had begun “to hate very violently” while he was yet “a little boy in school,” as he would say, speaking in abrupt spasms of words, within an hour after his violent act. He hated his “richer schoolmates, who had money to spend” and “privileges” denied him, and who later, when he was in his teens, “went to school while I worked in a brick factory … and burned myself.” By then his hatred was fused with the chronic pain of an ulcerated stomach (an autopsy would show that his ulcers caused serious adhesions) and had become focused upon kings, prime ministers, presidents (“no matter from what country”)—upon any and all who possessed official power, official authority, and were by that token, in his view, the torture agents of “capitalists. ” He would “kill them all” if he could.
Thus was prepared the fateful encounter between historic darkness and light, between nihilism and optimistic faith, which began when Roosevelt’s car came to a halt barely sixteen feet in front of Zangara at 9:30 P.M. The little man was then on his feet, wild-eyed and sweating, his drawn revolver at his side, fully prepared to kill (he had planned to kill) while the President-elect was speaking. Typically, he was frustrated by the people in front of him, all of whom now also rose to their feet. They formed a wall of humanity too high for him to see over (“I’m such a short fellow I didn’t have a chance”), until some of them sat down after Roosevelt, his little talk completed, had himself sat down on the car seat. Then Zangara sprang up onto the bench before him. He was wildly excited, his perceptions blurred. Afterward he remembered of that moment only that the bench he stood on was “wobbly,” that “the gun started to shake” when he “pointed it at Mr. Roosevelt,” that he “pulled the trigger anyway” (he couldn’t “remember how many times”), and that he was then on the ground, his breath knocked out of him by the frenzied, clothes-rending, pummeling men piled atop him.
He didn’t know until the next day, when the newspapers told him (as they told Roosevelt), that his aim had been spoiled by a woman who had seized his shooting arm and forced it upward.