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Let’s go back to February 1933. The newly elected president, who had yet to take office, was relaxing in Miami. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made an appearance at a packed rally in Bayfront Park downtown with other elected officials.
The drama that unfolded, with bullets aimed for FDR, killed Chicago Mayor Anton “Tony” Cermak and wounded several others.
Here is a look through the Miami Herald archives at what happened in downtown Miami. And what happened to the shooter.
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Published Feb. 14, 2013
Giuseppe Zangara is not a household name. However, 80 years ago this week in Miami’s Bayfront Park the five-foot-tall Italian immigrant nearly changed world history as he stood on his toes atop a rickety metal chair and fired five shots from a silver .32 caliber revolver at the back of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt’s head.
Zangara was not a classic anarchist. Certainly, he despised capitalists, presidents, and kings for the way they purportedly treated poor people, but his primary hatred derived from the physical manifestations of pain he believed they caused to his stomach
For Roosevelt, who was vacationing and relaxing in Miami prior to undertaking the rigors of the presidency, their joint presence in Miami was an unfortunate happenstance.
Democratic party officials prevailed upon Roosevelt to address well-wishers on the evening of Feb.15, 1933. He rode into Bayfront Park in an open-air touring car with Miami Mayor Redmond Gautier seated to his left, propped himself on top of the rear seat, grabbed a microphone and spoke for a few minutes. Within seconds of finishing his speech, Zangara took aim and fired his gun
Immediately after the first shot, bystanders Lillian Cross and Tom Armour sprang into action. They grabbed Zangara’s arm and lifted it upwards saving Roosevelt’s life, but he continued to fire until each round was discharged. When the smoke cleared the would-be assassin had wounded five people: New York Police Officer William Sinnott, Mabel Gill (wife of the president of FP&L), Miami native and chauffeur Russell Caldwell, New Jersey resident Margaret Kruis, and Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak.
Police hustled Zangara from the scene, not just to incarcerate him, but to save him from those in the park who wanted to lynch him.
They placed him in a jail cell atop the “inescapable” Dade County Courthouse.
After a sanity commission declared Zangara sane, he pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted murder, including the attempted murder of FDR, before Judge E.C. Collins of the Court of Criminal Record for Dade County who sentenced him to 80 years in prison.
Thereafter, Mayor Cermak died from his wound and Zangara was charged with murder. He pleaded guilty and was summarily sentenced to death by Circuit Court Judge Uly O. Thompson.
A week and a half later, Dade Sheriff Dan Hardie turned a switch and executed Zangara. His last words, “Pusha da button! Go ahead, pusha da button!” It was one of the swiftest executions of the 20th century.
Historians often recount past events, put them in context, and look at trends. Sometimes, they engage in “what if” speculation by changing historical facts and then examining the possible outcomes. Had Zangara assassinated Roosevelt, under the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Vice President-elect John Nance Garner would have taken the presidential oath on March 4, 1933. Citizens, longing for relief from the Great Depression, would not have heard Roosevelt’s enduring words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Garner, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives and a long-time conservative Democratic congressman from Texas, is today best known for saying the vice-presidency is “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Though he supported the New Deal, had he been president it would not have been Roosevelt’s version. There were stark differences between the two men.
Garner was a fiscal tightwad whose own course towards economic prosperity would likely have excluded Social Security and any trappings of the so-called “welfare state.” Roosevelt was a champion of unions, New Deal liberalism, and court-packing; Garner was not. Garner, who was also known as “Cactus Jack,” was in some respects the antithesis of Roosevelt. He was hesitant and in some instances vehemently opposed to New Deal policies involving spending, unbridled New Deal liberalism, the National Recovery Act, the right of workers to unionize, and progressive taxation. Roosevelt was a transformational president and arguably one of our country’s greatest.
He led our country out of the Great Depression and on to victory in World War II. Many of the bills he signed into law and the programs he proposed during his presidency continue to shape our society.
Eighty years ago, the promise of the new Roosevelt administration nearly came to an abrupt end along the shores of Biscayne Bay. Fortunately, it didn’t.
– SCOTT J. SILVERMAN, retired Miami circuit court judge
PUSHA DA BUTTON!
Published Sept. 20, 2007
Long before Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan, there was Miami’s Guiseppe Zangara, a troubled man who nearly altered the course of U.S. history on a February night in 1933 when he arrived at a packed political rally at Bayfront Park with a .32-caliber pistol hidden in his pocket.
His target: President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
On the night of Feb. 15, 74 years ago, FDR’s life or death rested on the aim of Zangara, an Italian immigrant, an unemployed bricklayer and self-described anarchist itching to assassinate what he saw as a symbol of capitalism.
Zangara, who had purchased the pistol for $8 at a local pawnshop, mingled among a record crowd of 25,000 people who had come to catch a glimpse of the famed FDR.
The drama that unfolded on that night has been largely erased from the collective memory of much of Miami. Today, few recall that Chicago Mayor Anton “Tony” Cermak died from a bullet meant for FDR; four others were wounded by Zangara’s errant shots.
But tonight , the story of FDR’s visit to Miami will be retold at a symposium at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in downtown Miami, a stone’s throw from the courthouse where Zangara was sentenced to die.
“This is an important moment in history that has all but been forgotten,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Scott J. Silverman, fascinated by the case for years. “It’s one of the biggest ‘what ifs’ of the 20th century. What would have happened if FDR had died that day?”
Featured for the first time in decades: rare film footage of the assassination attempt.
“This is footage we had never seen before and had no idea even existed,” said Silverman, who located the black-and-white gem at the University of South Carolina’s film archives. The newsreel was donated by Twentieth Century Fox.
Silverman is founder and trustee of the 11th Judicial Circuit Historical Society, a new group created to preserve South Florida’s legal history. It is sponsoring the event.
Symposium goers will also hear a 1975 taped interview of Russell Caldwell, who survived the shooting after getting struck between the eyes by a bullet from Zangara’s gun that ricocheted back to the crowd. In 1975, Caldwell, who had kept the slug, donated it to the museum and sat down with museum officials and told his story.
Blaise Picchi, a Broward County attorney who in 1998 published the definitive book on the assassination attempt — The Five Weeks of Guiseppe Zangara: The Man Who Tried to Kill FDR — will be the keynote speaker.
“It’s one of the most fascinating cases in South Florida — and few know about it,” Picchi said.
FDR’s visit to Miami had been a last-minute thing, Picchi said. In early February 1933, as FDR planned his Cabinet, he decided to vacation in sunny Florida.
The popular president, he said, was to stop in Jacksonville for a rally and then board a yacht owned by his millionaire friend, Vincent Astor, for a two-week Caribbean vacation before his inauguration on March 4.
On the day of the shooting, Astor’s yacht docked at the city marina, where FDR greeted reporters and the mayor of Miami, Redmond Gautier, who escorted him to Bayfront in a green Buick convertible.
The polio-stricken FDR was driven to an elevated area of the band shell at the park at about 9 p.m.
Miami was abuzz about FDR’s visit, Picchi said. “This was a very big event; thousands were expected — and they showed up,” Picchi said.
Party bigwigs were coming to shake his hand. Among them: Joseph Gill, president of Florida Power & Light, and his wife, Mabel, and Cermak, in from Chicago to meet with his powerful friend.
Also on hand: several spectators who would become a footnote in history.
Caldwell, then 22, a private chauffeur for a local woman, arrived at the park about 5 p.m.
“My employer heard Roosevelt was going to be at Bayfront Park, and she wanted to see him,” Caldwell said in the 1975 interview. The two sat on the second row of benches. Zangara, all five-foot-one, was there, too, with a gun and a handful of bullets in his pocket.
FDR’s motorcade slowly moved through the crowd before coming to a stop. FDR hoisted himself atop the back seat.
FDR said a few words about enjoying his fishing vacation and promised to return. His breezy chat by the bay was over in less than five minutes.
Suddenly shots rang out in the night, followed by the screams and pandemonium.
Lillian Cross, a doctor’s wife, ended up standing near the would-be assassin. Photos show Zangara peering over her hat.
“The first shot he fired was so close to my face I got powder burns from it,” Cross told reporters. She tried to grab Zangara’s arm; other horrified spectators did the same, tackling him to the ground.
His errant bullets had missed FDR but fatally wounded Cermak, Mabel Gill and William Sinnott, a former New York police officer working security. Two others in the crowd who took bullets were Margaret Kruis, 21, a dancer from Newark, and Caldwell.
“The bullet hit me in the head, and it knocked me back in the seat,” Caldwell said. “I expected any minute to take my last breath.”
In the melee, FDR asked that Cermak be brought to his car for the ride to the hospital. “I said, ‘Tony, don’t move; keep quiet. It won’t hurt,’ “ FDR later told reporters. Cermak would die of peritonitis in 19 days.
FDR visited all the wounded. Caldwell said he wheeled himself into his room. “He didn’t have any high airs or anything. He was just real nice.”
At the jail in the Dade County Courthouse, Zangara confessed and expounded on his dislike for heads of state.
“I have the gun in my hand. I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists,” he said.
His first appearance in Courtroom 6-1 on the West Flagler Street courthouse was a worldwide sensation. But there would be no trial. Zangara pleaded guilty to the attempted murders of four people and was sentenced to 80 years by Judge E.C. Collins.
As he was led out, Zangara gave the judge lip in broken English: “Four times 20 is 80. Oh, judge, don’t be stingy. Give me a hundred years.”
Collins, fully aware Zangara would most likely be executed if Chicago Mayor Cermak didn’t make it, wryly responded:”Maybe there will be more later.”
Cermak died on March 6. He received a hero’s funeral and his words that night to Roosevelt — “I’m glad it was me instead of you” — are inscribed in a plaque at Bayfront Park.
The grand jury quickly indicted Zangara for first-degree murder in Cermak’s death. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to die.
Zangara smiled on his way out of the courtroom. Within days, he was at Raiford State Prison. On March 20 — after spending 10 days on Death Row — he was executed.
When it came time to die, Picchi said Zangara exploded when he learned no newsreel cameras would be allowed to capture his final moments, cutting short his 15 minutes of fame.
It put him in a foul mood.
So when asked if he had any final words: He spit back:
“Pusha da button!”
And someone did.
— LUISA YANEZ
HE TOOK A SHOT
Published Aug. 3, 1985
For years, Russell Caldwell’s face was marked by a small scar between his eyes. It was a constant reminder of a night long ago when he was hit by a bullet meant for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mr. Caldwell, the last survivor of five people shot by Giuseppe Zangara in Bayfront Park on Feb. 15, 1933, died Thursday of a brain tumor. He was 75.
As Roosevelt addressed a large audience from in front of the park band shell, Zangara, an Italian bricklayer, opened fire at the president-elect’s party. One of the bullets ricocheted off the band shell, or perhaps a vehicle, and struck Mr. Caldwell in the forehead.
Only 22 at the time, Mr. Caldwell described the incident for the papers the following day. “I didn’t know what hit me. It dazed me and I flopped back into my seat. Then I felt blood on my face. I never did see the gunman.”
Mr. Caldwell, who spent most of his life working in construction, was at the event as a chauffeur. He was standing next to the car he had driven when he was shot.
“He was just a kid at the time,” longtime friend Terry Sparks said. “He thought he was dead.”
Mr. Caldwell told friends of his ride to the hospital in what he believed was Roosevelt’s secretary’s car.
“They drove him to the hospital with policemen hanging on the car. One of them started pounding on the car because he had dropped his gun. They stopped the car so he could get it,” Sparks said. All the time, he thought he was dying.
But the injuries turned out to be not so serious.
The next day, Roosevelt sent Mr. Caldwell flowers and a note: “For Russell Caldwell, with my best wishes.”
Born in Adel, Ga., Mr. Caldwell moved to Miami as a child. A crane operator, he “worked on many of the old projects here in Dade County,” Sparks said.
In the 1930s, he operated a boom truck and wench, planting palm trees in Miami Shores. “He planted almost every tree that was planted in Miami Shores,” friend Carl Springfels said. Most of the trees have since been destroyed by blight.
A member of the Operating Engineers Local 487 since 1952, Mr. Caldwell served as the organization’s recording secretary for 25 years. He retired in 1975.
“He was a really fine person,” Springfels said. “A railroad train could run over his foot and he wouldn’t complain.”