Failed Presidential Assassinations of the 19th Century

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Failed Presidential Assassinations of the 1800s

We all know that two presidents, Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield, were assassinated in the 19th century. But other presidents survived attempts to kill them, and conspiracy theories at the time, and surviving to the present day, surround some of those incidents.

There's no doubt that Andrew Jackson survived an assassination attempt, as the enraged president physically attacked the man who had just tried to shoot him.

Two other cases, which relate to tensions in the period just prior to the Civil War, are less clear. But people believed at the time that assassins had tried to kill James Buchanan in 1857. And it's conceivable that an attempt to kill Abraham Lincoln before he could take office was thwarted by some clever detective work.

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President Andrew Jackson Survived an Assassination Attempt

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson. Library of Congress

President Andrew Jackson, perhaps the most combative American president, not only survived an assassination attempt, he immediately assaulted the man who had just tried to shoot him.

On January 30, 1835, Andrew Jackson visited the U.S. Capitol to attend the funeral of a member of Congress. While on his way out of the building a man named Richard Lawrence stepped out from behind a pillar and fired a flintlock pistol. The gun misfired, making a loud noise but not firing a projectile.

As shocked spectators looked on, Lawrence pulled out another pistol and again pulled the trigger. The second pistol also misfired, again making a loud, though harmless, noise.

Jackson, who had survived countless violent encounters, one of which left a pistol ball in his body that wasn't removed for decades, flew into a rage. As several people grabbed Lawrence and wrestled him to the ground, Jackson reportedly struck the failed assassin several times with his cane.

Jackson's Attacker Was Put On Trial

Richard Lawrence was rescued from the hands of a very angry President Andrew Jackson, and was immediately arrested. He was put on trial in the spring of 1835. The prosecutor for the government was Francis Scott Key, a prominent attorney remembered today for being the author of the "Star-Spangled Banner."

Newspaper reports from the trial detail that Lawrence was visited by a doctor in prison, and the doctor found him to be suffering from "morbid delusions." He apparently believed he was the king of the United States and Andrew Jackson had taken his rightful place as the nation's leader. Lawrence also contended that Jackson had plotted against him in various ways.

Lawrence was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was kept in various mental institutions until his death in 1861.

Andrew Jackson had made many enemies in his life, and his presidency was marked with such controversies as the Nullification Crisis, the Bank War, and the Spoils System.

So there were many who who believed that Lawrence might have been part of some conspiracy. But the most reasonable explanation is that Richard Lawrence was insane and acted alone.

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Was President James Buchanan Poisoned at His Own Inauguration?

James Buchanan
James Buchanan. Library of Congress

James Buchanan was inaugurated on March 4, 1857, four years before the outbreak of the Civil War, but at a time when tensions in the nation were becoming very pronounced. The controversy over slavery had defined the 1850s, and violence in "Bleeding Kansas" had even reached into the U.S. Capitol, where a congressman had assaulted a senator with a cane.

A severe illness suffered by Buchanan at his inauguration, and some very strange circumstances surrounding it, made it appear that the new president had been poisoned.

Was President James Buchanan Deliberately Poisoned?

An article in the New York Times on June 2, 1857 made a case that the illness suffered by President Buchanan earlier that year was nothing ordinary.

According to the newspaper article, president-elect Buchanan first arrived at the National Hotel in Washington, D.C. on January 25, 1857. The very next day people at the hotel began complaining of symptoms of poisoning, which included inflammation of the intestines and a swollen tongue. Buchanan himself was affected, and, quite ill, returned to his farm in Pennsylvania.

After Buchanan left the National Hotel things returned to normal. No new cases of the apparent poisoning were reported.

Presidential inaugurations in the 19th century took place on March 4. And on March 2, 1857, Buchanan returned to Washington and again checked into the National Hotel.

As Buchanan returned, so did reports of poisoning. In the days surrounding the inauguration more than 700 guests at the hotel, or guests at Buchanan's inauguration parties, complained of illnesses. And as many as 30 people, including some of Buchanan's relatives, died.

Buchanan Survived, But Stories of His Death Circulated

James Buchanan was stricken and felt quite ill at his own inauguration, but he did survive. However, rumors of his death swept through Washington in the early days of his administration, and even some newspapers reported that the president was dead.

The explanation offered for all the illness and apparent poisoning was that it was all an exterminating job gone horribly wrong. Supposedly the National Hotel was infested with rats, and rat poison put out for them made its way into the hotel food. However, suspicions lingered throughout Buchanan's term that some dark conspiracy had tried to kill him.

Who Would Want to Kill President Buchanan?

There are, to this day, various conspiracy theories about who would have wanted to kill President Buchanan. One explanation was the southerners opposed to the federal government may have wanted to disrupt the inauguration and throw the country into chaos. Another theory is that northerners may have felt that Buchanan was too sympathetic to the South and wanted him out of the picture.

There were even conspiracy theories that Buchanan's poisoning was some evil plot hatched by foreign powers. An article in the New York Times on May 1, 1857 challenged a rumor that the poisoning at the National Hotel was the result of cases of poisoned tea having been sent to the United States by the Chinese.

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Abraham Lincoln Was the Target of an Assassination Plot in 1861

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln, who was murdered as part of a conspiracy in April 1865, was also the target of a suspected assassination plot four years earlier. The plan, had it succeeded, would have killed Lincoln while he was on his way to Washington, D.C. to take the oath of office.

Lincoln's election in 1860 prompted a number of southern states to secede from the Union, and there was a real threat that conspirators with loyalty to the South would try to murder the president-elect before he could even be sworn in.

Was Lincoln Nearly Killed in Baltimore?

Abraham Lincoln, as we all know, did survive the trip to his own inauguration. But we also know that he received a number of death threats after he won the election of 1860, and Lincoln and his closest advisers certainly believed that his life was in danger.

During his railroad journey in February 1861 from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. to take office, Lincoln was accompanied by Allan Pinkerton, a detective who had become known for solving notorious cases of railroad robberies in the Midwest.

Lincoln's journey to Washington would take him through several major cities, and Pinkerton's job was to assess the threat along the way and protect Lincoln. The city of Baltimore, Maryland appeared to be a particular danger spot as it was home to many who were sympathetic to the southern cause.

Presidents on their way to inaugurations would typically hold rallies or public events, and Allan Pinkerton decided that it was too dangerous for Lincoln to appear in public in Baltimore. Pinkerton's network of detectives had picked up rumors that assassins in the crowd would rush Lincoln and murder him.

To avoid giving the suspected plotters a perfect opportunity to strike, Pinkerton arranged for Lincoln to pass through Baltimore early and to quietly make the connection to proceed onward to Washington. And when people gathered at the train station on the afternoon of Feburary 23, 1861, they were informed that Lincoln had already passed through Baltimore.

Was Anyone Arrested for the Plot to Kill Lincoln in Baltimore?

A number of suspected conspirators were identified over the years, but no one was ever indicted or put on trial for the suspected "Baltimore plot" to kill Abraham Lincoln. So the question of whether the plot was real or a series of rumors was never definitively established in court.

As with all assassination plots, numerous conspiracy theories flourished over the years. Some even claimed that John Wilkes Booth, who would murder Abraham Lincoln more than four years later, was active in the plot to kill Lincoln before he became president.