- 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
She was Mrs. Lillian Cross, wife of Dr. W. F. Cross, physician and surgeon, who lived at 1069 Northwest Second Street in Miami—a no-nonsense woman of middle age (she was forty-eight), physically small (though a bit taller than Zangara, she weighed only one hundred pounds), with remarkably swift reflexes. Because of her shortness she had clambered up onto the bench where she’d been sitting “to get a better look” at the President-elect after he sat down; she was standing there when Zangara jumped up behind and a little to the right of her. He almost toppled her to the ground. She turned to protest just as he raised his pistol, aiming it over her right shoulder. “My mind grasped immediately what he was up to,” she told reporters an hour or so later. “I said to myself, ’Oh! He’s going to kill the President!’ ” Horror of the kind that freezes many people had upon her a galvanizing effect. Her handbag was in her right hand but in an eye-wink’s time she had “switched it to my left hand and caught him by the arm” just as he pulled the trigger. The firing, within an inch or two of her right ear, deafened that ear temporarily and smudged her cheek with gunpowder, “but I held on. …”
And so Roosevelt lived on. When his valet, Irvin McDuffie, brought to him, that morning of Thursday, February 16, the tie rack from which he selected each day the tie he would wear, he reached out for the same one he’d worn the day before. McDuffie shook his head. “This morning,” said he firmly, “we won’t put the red tie on.” Whereupon, as McDuffie remembered long afterward, Roosevelt “laughed and laughed,” then accepted the tie McDuffie chose for him. Soon afterward he left the Nourmahal for the railway station, stopping on the way at Jackson Memorial Hospital to visit the shooting victims—all of them save Mrs. Gill, whose condition, though she eventually recovered, remained that morning too critical to permit her seeing anyone. With Cermak (“I’m glad it was me instead of you,” said Cermak) he talked optimistically for several minutes about the possibility of federal aid for Chicago’s schoolteachers. With Bill Sinnott, whose head wound (it was now evident) would not be fatal, he was jocular. “I… told him that they couldn’t hurt him with a bullet in the head. I left orders for them to starve him and take off at least twenty pounds.”
And throughout that day, and the next, with almost his every word and gesture reported by press and radio to a shocked, closely attentive nation, the President-elect continued perfectly exemplary in the cool disdain, the cheerful contempt for danger, the manifest faith in Divine Providence, with which he reacted to his close brush with death. (In his soon-dispatched telegram of thanks to Mrs. Cross he spoke of the “Divine Providence” whereby “it now appears that… the lives of all the victims of the assassin’s disturbed aim will be spared. ”) He continued concerned about those who suffered from bullets meant for him; otherwise, on the evidence, the incident seemed to have been dismissed from his mind.
His train left Miami at 10:15 A.M. After lunch he napped for a couple of hours in his stateroom, to make up for sleep lost when he went to bed late the night before. In the early evening, at Jacksonville, where Houston banker Jesse Jones of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation boarded the train for conference with him, he had a phone brought aboard so that he could talk to Miami doctors about Mrs. Gill’s condition, and Cermak’s. With Jones he later talked about the possible RFC loan to Chicago, and about the Michigan bank holiday and the rapidly developing national banking crisis.
At 8:10 the following morning (Friday, February 17), in Richmond, Roosevelt turned out of his stateroom in pajamas to shake hands with Virginia’s Governor John Garland Pollard, come to pay a courtesy call, and with Tennessee’s Senator Cordell Hull, slated to be his Secretary of State, who would ride with him to Washington. At the capital, Virginia’s Senator Carter Glass (he had refused the post of Secretary of the Treasury; Roosevelt felt obliged to ask him to reconsider) and New Mexico’s Senator Bronson Cutting (he was considering the offer to become Secretary of the Interior) boarded the train for a brief conference. It ended in Baltimore, where the two got off. At Philadelphia, son Elliott and daughter Anna, and Roosevelt’s long-time personal secretary, Marguerite (Missy) LeHand, came aboard to accompany him on the last leg of his journey. He arrived at 4:00 P.M. in Jersey City where he was met “by one of the most elaborate police guards ever accorded an individual,” as The New York Times reported. Upward of a thousand police, detectives, and Secret Service men surrounded him at the station; during the drive to his home, where he arrived shortly after five o’clock, his car, itself carrying several bodyguards, was preceded by seven and followed by seven that were wholly filled with more.
At his home, to reporters who found him “bronzed, vigorous, and smiling,” he said he planned no future curtailment of his public appearances but made no specific mention of the Miami incident.