- 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
“I’m feeling fine and I’ve had a fine trip,” he said. Then (said the Times ) he “plunged immediately … into work.”
He returned to work with his personal prestige and his effectiveness as national leader greatly enhanced, Zangara’s mad act had given the populace opportunity to measure the quality of this man who was about to become President of a nation in peril—had given Roosevelt opportunity to demonstrate his utter fearlessness in the face of danger, his imperturbable “grace under pressure.” There really was steel beneath all that charm: and the consequence was, in Frank Freidel’s words, “a surge of national confidence in him” such as “none of his other actions since the election” had induced. Added weight was thus given to those brave and heartening (if also palpably false) words which he spoke to a frightened, demoralized country at his inauguration fifteen days later: ”… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Anton J. Cermak listened to those words over the radio in his Miami hospital room. During the preceding ten days he had suffered through colitis, then pneumonia; now he had gangrene in his punctured lung. Two days later (March 6, 1933), shortly before seven in the morning, he died.
Joe Zangara was then still lodged in the Miami jail.
He had been convicted and sentenced to eighty years imprisonment for the shooting of three of his victims but had not yet been tried for shooting Mrs. Gill, who remained in serious condition, nor for the shooting of Cermak. He now was rushed to trial on a charge of first-degree murder in the Circuit Court of Miami where, on March 9, before Judge Uly O. Thompson, he defiantly proclaimed his guilt in a statement shot out from the witness stand in machine-gun bursts of words. “I want to kill all capitalists,” he cried in his high-pitched voice. “Because of capitalists, people get no bread. … I feel this way since I fourteen years old. … I have stomach pains since I six years old. I mad at capitalists. They get education. My stomach hurts since I six years old. … I feel I have a right to kill him [Roosevelt]. … It was right. I know they give me electric chair, but I don’t care—I’m right.”
Next day, before pronouncing sentence, Judge Thompson took occasion to express his “firm conviction that the Congress of these United States should pass” strict gun-control legislation. “Assassins roaming at will through the land—and they have killed three of our Presidents—are permitted to have pistols. And a pistol in the hands of the ordinary person is a most useless weapon of defense. No one can foresee what might have happened had Zangara been successful in his attempt.” (One sure thing is that John Nance Garner would then have become President of the United States on March 4, 1933: the then-recently ratified Twentieth Amendment makes the Vice-President-elect the Chief Executive if the President-elect dies.) Judge Thompson then sentenced Zangara to death in the electric chair during the week of March 19. “You is crook man, too,” screamed Zangara at the judge. “I no afraid. You one of the capitalists.” He was taken, heavily guarded by a squad of machine gunners, to the death house on the Florida State Prison farm at Raiford where, on the morning of March 20, while the country’s attention remained focused upon the opening fireworks of Roosevelt’s Hundred Days, he was executed.
He remained defiant to the last. He contemptuously refused the proferred ministrations of the prison chaplain (“I no want minister, there no God”), walked with a firm pace (head high, shoulders back) to the electric chair, and lost his composure only when, seated, he looked around the death chamber and saw no photographers. “No cameramen?” he asked. “No movie to take picture of Zangara?” The prison superintendent said none was allowed. “Lousy capitalists!” screamed Zangara. “No picture—capitalists, no one here take my picture—all capitalists lousy bunch of crooks.” And he sagged in the chair. But he straightened up as the headpiece was placed over him, shouting, “Good-bye. Adios to all the world. ” Then, tauntingly, his voice muffled by the headpiece, he said, “Push the button.”
The sheriff of Dade County did so at precisely 9:15 A.M.