How Many American Presidents Were Assassinated?

Nearly one in four presidents have endured attempts on their lives

Abraham Lincoln, Portrait
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th US president. FPG/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images

The story of America reads like an epic drama in places, particularly when you consider that we've had 44 presidents, including President Donald J. Trump, and four of them have died by gunfire while in office. Another six nearly perished in assassination attempts.

That's 10 of 44 presidents who crossed paths with nefarious individuals who were willing to do anything at all – even commit murder – to get them out of office. That works out to about 22 percent, almost one-quarter of them.

And yes, Donald Trump is our 45th president, but Grover Cleveland is counted twice, as both our 22nd and 24th presidents. Benjamin Harrison squeezed in there as #23 between 1889 and 1893. Cleveland lost that election. So, in total, 44 presidents have served. 

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was the first. He was attending a presentation at Ford's Theater – Our American Cousin – on April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth shot him in the back of the head. Booth was reportedly a Confederate sympathizer. The Civil War had ended just five days earlier with General Robert E. Lee's surrender. Lincoln survived until early the following morning. This was actually the second attempt on Lincoln's life in eight months. The first assailant was never identified. 

James Garfield

James Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881. He'd taken office a mere 200 days earlier. He was killed by Charles Guiteau, whose family had attempted to have him committed to a mental institution in 1875. Guiteau escaped. When he killed Garfield after stalking him for a month or so, Guiteau claimed that a higher power had told him to do so. Garfield was about to embark on his summer vacation from Sixth Street Station, a fact that was duly reported in numerous newspapers. Guiteau waited for him there and shot him twice. The second shot was fatal. 

William McKinley 

William McKinley was making himself publicly available, meeting with constituents at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York on September 6, 1901. It was reportedly something he loved to do. His secretary, George B. Courtelyou, had a bad feeling about the whole thing and tried twice to change the schedule twice, but McKinley changed it right back again. He was shaking hands with Leon Czolgosz in the reception line when the man pulled out a gun and shot him twice. The bullets didn't immediately kill McKinley. He lived another eight days, eventually succumbing to gangrene. He was barely a year into his second term. 

John F. Kennedy 

Much has been made of the coincidental similarities between John F. Kennedy's assassination and that of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was elected in 1860, Kennedy in 1960, both defeating incumbent vice presidents. Both of their own vice presidents were named Johnson. Kennedy was shot in the head on a Friday while in the company of his wife, and so was Lincoln. Kennedy's assassination occurred while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald pulled the trigger, then Jack Ruby killed Oswald before he could stand trial.

Presidents Who Survived Assassination Attempts

Attempts were made on the lives of another six presidents, but all failed. 

  • Richard Lawrence attempted to shoot Andrew Jackson on January 30, 1835. His gun misfired. This occurred 30 years before Lincoln was assassinated, so it was the first attempt on a president's life. 
  • Theodore Roosevelt became president when McKinley was assassinated. An attempt was made on his own life as he was engaging with the public, just as had happened to McKinley. John Schrank attempted to shoot in the heart and his aim was good, but the bullet hit the eyeglass case in the President's breast pocket, as well as a voluminous copy of the speech he was about to give, saving his life. 
  • Giuseppe Zangara attempted to kill President Franklin Roosevelt on February 15, 1933, just as the President wrapped up a speech in Miami's Bayfront Park. A total of five people were hit by the hail of bullets. Rumors ran rampant for a while that the actual target was Chicago Mayor Anton J. Cermak, who was in attendance, sustained a bullet wound and eventually died. 
  • Harry Truman's life was actually threatened twice, the second time on November 1, 1950. Two would-be assassins, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, both Puerto Rican activists, stormed the home where Truman was staying while the White House underwent renovations. The President was under heavy guard at the time and Torresola was killed. Truman was never harmed. 
  • Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme of Charles Manson family claim attempted to kill Gerald Ford on September 5, 1975, in Sacramento, California. Her reason? She was protesting environmental pollution. Her gun failed to fire although she was at close range. No one was hurt. 
  • "Honey, I forgot to duck." That's what President Ronald Reagan told his wife Nancy as he was being wheeled into an operating room after John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to shoot him outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. on March 30, 1981. Hinckley wanted to impress actress Jodie Foster. Reagan was shot in the chest and suffered a punctured lung, but he survived and went on to serve two terms. 
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Kelly, Martin. "How Many American Presidents Were Assassinated?" ThoughtCo, May. 22, 2018, Kelly, Martin. (2018, May 22). How Many American Presidents Were Assassinated? Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "How Many American Presidents Were Assassinated?" ThoughtCo. (accessed May 27, 2018).