The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara: The Man Who Would Assassinate FDR

Overview

In Miami, Florida, on February 15, 1933, Giuseppe Zangara, an unemployed bricklayer from Italy, fired five pistol shots at the back of President-elect FDR's head from only 25 feet away. While all five rounds missed their target, one of them found Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago, who died of his wound three weeks later. A scant two weeks after that, Zangara was executed in the electric chair. It was the swiftest legal execution in twentieth-century American history. With his death, Zangara took to the grave the ...

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Overview

In Miami, Florida, on February 15, 1933, Giuseppe Zangara, an unemployed bricklayer from Italy, fired five pistol shots at the back of President-elect FDR's head from only 25 feet away. While all five rounds missed their target, one of them found Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago, who died of his wound three weeks later. A scant two weeks after that, Zangara was executed in the electric chair. It was the swiftest legal execution in twentieth-century American history. With his death, Zangara took to the grave the answer to one of the most baffling unsolved mysteries in the annals of Presidential assassinations. Was FDR Zangara's real target? Or was he a mob hitman who actually intended to kill Cermak, as Walter Winchell believed? Was he a terrorist, as the LA police contended? Could he have been a member of La Camorra, as the prison warden insisted? Was he simply insane, as many at the time thought? Or was he really a martyr for the cause of the Common Man, as he himself proclaimed?

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A detailed and unnecessary look at a failed assassination. Picchi, a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, believes there is mystery surrounding Giuseppe Zangara's attempt to shoot Franklin Roosevelt shortly before his inauguration in 1932, but this premise seems overdrawn. The facts are straightforward. Zangara, an Italian immigrant, went to a Miami event at which Roosevelt was scheduled to appear and fired five rounds in an attempt to kill the president-elect. Zangara's short stature prevented a clear view of or shot at Roosevelt, leaving the intended victim unharmed but several bystanders injured. The most critical wound was suffered by Anton Cermak, mayor of Chicago, who eventually died. Zangara's arrest, initial trial and conviction for assault, subsequent trial and conviction for murder after Cermak's death, and finally his execution, all took place in the amazingly short time of five weeks. Everyone seemed intent on swift justice, including not only the court-assigned defense lawyers intent on doing the prosecution's job, but even Zangara himself. Prejudice against southern Europeans was clearly present, Zangara's sanity was too easily affirmed, medical incompetence probably caused Cermak's death, and the judicial proceedings were a mockery given the significance of the case. While there are grounds to give Zangara "his day in court" then, it is not clear what purpose it serves. Zangara's lack of remorse may have been unsettling and his ill-formed personal political philosophy, suggesting that leaders of all countries should be shot, unsatisfying as a motive. However, Picchi's account leaves little room to doubt that this is genuinely what Zangara believed, and that ifalive today he would welcome an opportunity to shoot the president. Although inexplicable in rational terms, this hardly constitutes a reason to reexamine the case, for in the end Zangara's behavior simply falls outside the realm of rationality and there is little more to be said. An interesting historical footnote that can be bypassed without severe costs. (b&w photos)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780897334952
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporate
  • Publication date: 8/28/2005
  • Pages: 287
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Blaise Picchi has served as state and county prosecutor, special public defender and criminal defense attorney in South Florida. He practices law in Ft. Lauderdale.

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First Chapter

Chapter One

"A SORT OF RECEPTION"


    At about seven o'clock on the evening of February 15, 1933, Vincent Astor's yacht, the Nourmahal, anchored at Pier One of Miami's municipal docks, near Bayfront Park. Vincent Astor, the son of John Jacob Astor--who had died in the Titanic disaster--was one of the richest men in America. The five-year-old German-made Nourmahal, 263 feet long, was one of the largest private yachts in the world. It had a cruising range of 19,000 miles and a maximum speed of sixteen knots. For twelve days, it had been leisurely cruising the Bahamas, stopping here and there for fishing and excursions while February snow covered the northern states and blizzards raged on the Great Lakes. Among the guests on board was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, in seventeen days, would succeed Herbert Hoover to become the thirty-second president of the United States.

    The nation stood at a crossroads. In 1929, the booming U.S. stock market had suddenly collapsed, precipitating the worst depression in American history. Countless thousands of homeless men--"bindle stiffs" they called themselves--drifted from place to place, sleeping in "Hoovervilles": makeshift collections of lean-tos and tents in woods, dumps and near railroad tracks throughout the country. People were hungry and there was no organized method of feeding them: there were only bread lines where private charities and, to a lesser extent, local governments, doled out food.

    American intellectuals, as well as millions of workers and union members, had become convinced that capitalism was a failure. Some were looking with hope at Russia, where the Communist revolution was now fifteen years old. Others wanted an American Mussolini. Huey Long, "Kingfisher," had built a political empire in Louisiana on his motto of "Soak the Rich" and was working to establish a national constituency. Father Charles Coughlin, for one, was gaining a wide following by preaching his brand of fascism. Americans could not see a way out of the Depression. Some prominent business leaders were even suggesting that the new president take office with "dictatorial powers." In November 1932, the Great American Experiment was in deep trouble and many Americans were truly afraid. On election day that November, the people officially placed their hopes of salvation in the hands of the Democratic nominee for president, Franklin Roosevelt, and his running mate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Nance Garner of Texas.

    Roosevelt, born into a wealthy, aristocratic New York family, was a distant cousin of Theodore Roosevelt. He was not well known outside the northeast, although he had been elected governor of New York in 1930, had run in 1920 as the vice presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket with James M. Cox, and had served from 1913 to 1920 as assistant secretary of the Navy. When Cox lost the election to Warren G. Harding, FDR had retreated to his home at Hyde Park to assess his future. It was then that this young, physically active patrician was stricken with polio and lost the use of his legs. He rallied from this blow and began a regimen of physical therapy which included bathing in the hot pools of Warm Springs, Georgia, and reentered politics to win the governorship of New York.

    Everyone knew that Roosevelt was handicapped in Italy he was called "Il Paralitico" but Americans made very little of it, perhaps because they were never shown the extent of the paralysis. At that time, the country saw political figures only in newsreels in movie theaters: Roosevelt was never filmed in motion, nor was he photographed being helped to stand or "walk" by his son James, or by aides and Secret Service men. He was able to stand in public for posed shots and to "walk" to a podium with heavy leg braces hidden under his trousers, and with the help of these men. Roosevelt's affliction was known to the American public, but only as an intellectual abstraction..

    In early February 1933, the president-elect conferred with advisors at Warm Springs, preparing for his March fourth inauguration--the last time, incidentally, that a presidential inauguration would be held in March. His plan was to go to Jacksonville, Florida, for a rally and board the yacht Nourmahal there for a two-week fishing vacation in the Caribbean, after which he would return to Jacksonville where he would entrain for New York and finish work on his inauguration.

    Roosevelt traveled in his private railway car to Jacksonville. His party, in addition to his entourage of secretaries, aides and Secret Service men, consisted of four guests: Theodore Roosevelt's son Kermit, Judge Frederick Kernochan, George St. George and Dr Leslie Heiter. These were what the press called FDR's "boon companions." Roosevelt's reception in Jacksonville was enthusiastic: the newspapers had been heralding his arrival for days, describing in detail his itinerary and parade route. Thousands of citizens met him at the train station where he entered an open car with the city's mayor, John T. Alsop, Jr. who turned out to be FDR's distant cousin, and David Sholtz, the governor of Florida. The motorcade wound its way through the Riverside residential section to Hemming Park in the city's center; cheering crowds lined the route. A crowd estimated at 25,000 had gathered at the park; a police band and the American Legion drum and bugle corps played "Happy Days Are Here Again." The next morning Roosevelt delivered a short impromptu speech in front of the Windsor Hotel, thanking the citizens for their courtesy and praising the city. Then he was driven off to the docks to board the Nourmahal.

    During the voyage, Robert H. Gore, publisher of the Fort Lauderdale Daily News, suggested that, on the yacht's return, Roosevelt attend a grand rally in Miami, where the president-elect could meet influential party leaders and leave for New York from there instead of from Jacksonville. Roosevelt thought this was a good idea: the weather in Miami was balmy and he could use the elegant Coral Gables Biltmore Hotel as a base. Robert Gore had ruled out Fort Lauderdale as a site for the rally, because it could not accommodate large political events.

    The Jacksonville Florida Times-Union reported that Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago was one of the out-of-state politicians who planned to meet with Roosevelt in Jacksonville before the president-elect boarded the yacht. Cermak was not able to arrange this, but, since Roosevelt was now going to conclude his vacation in Miami, the mayor decided to travel there with James Farley, national chairman of the Democratic Party, who was soon to be named Roosevelt's Postmaster General.

    After twelve days of cruising, the Nourmahal sailed into Miami's Biscayne Bay just as the winter sun was setting. As the ship was tied up to the municipal docks, the passengers were enjoying a festive farewell dinner. Then, while the staff cleared the table, reporters were ushered into the dining room. FDR, in high spirits, told the press he had done "a lot of fishing and a lot of swimming and I didn't even open the briefcase!" They had visited a different place each day and he had spent a whole day bone-fishing off Andros Island. He had hooked "a whale of a fish" but lost it when it dived and the line broke. He had had twelve "perfectly grand" days, he said. But he did not want to talk about politics. He was asked whether Senator Carter Glass of Virginia was to be named Secretary of the Treasury; whether James Farley would be Postmaster General and Cordell Hull of Tennessee would become Secretary of State. Roosevelt said that he was holding to the tradition that presidents-elect did not name their cabinets until twenty four hours before inauguration.

    After the reporters left, Roosevelt conferred about his cabinet appointments with Professor Raymond Moley, his chief economic advisor. This was a quick conference, because Roosevelt had to leave shortly for "a sort of reception" at the Bayfront Park amphitheater. The mayor of Miami, Redmond Gautier, had come on board to escort FDR to the park. The city had planned a rousing welcome-home party with concerts, speeches and parades featuring the American Legion Honor Guard and the drum and bugle corps from the Harvey Seeds Post as well as a contingent of Shriners, units of the drum and bugle corps of the Miami Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Riverside Military Academy band. Roosevelt was to deliver a short, impromptu speech from the bandstand, as he had done in Jacksonville, and to accept a telegram signed by several thousand Miami well-wishers.

    After that he was to be driven to the train station several blocks west of the park, followed by a parade of the American Legion Honor Guard, the Shriners and the bands. From the rear platform of his railway car he would bid a brief farewell to the crowd: already 2,000 people had gathered at the station. Then, by ten P.M., he would be en route to New York. The local newspapers had been publishing the precise details for days: the times of the events, the convoy's route, which motorcar Roosevelt would be riding in and who would be riding with him. National political figures and presidential advisors would attend the festivities, as well as many members of the south Florida political establishment, including mayors and judges.

    This was an important event for Miami. In 1933, the city had existed as an incorporated entity for little more than thirty-seven years, having been carved from the wilderness in 1896 when Henry M. Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway first steamed into the settlement. The city's growth had been rapid, buoyed by a growing tourism base and the unbridled activity of real estate agents. Several presidents had visited the area on fishing holidays, but no official visit had been paid by an incumbent president. In January 1928, Herbert Hoover, then president-elect, had paraded in triumph down Flagler Street, the main thoroughfare: he was the first Republican to carry Florida in a presidential election. His opponent had been Al Smith, a Catholic, and the Republican campaign had profited from anti-Catholic sentiment.

    The population of southern Florida was white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in religion and Democratic in politics. There were few Jews, Hispanics or Republicans, and blacks did not vote. Some beach hotels were openly "Gentiles Only" and all public accommodations were labeled for "Whites" or "Coloreds." Since 1921, the Ku Klux Klan had been a force in Miami, cooperating with police and "guarding" the city against Bolsheviks, Socialists, labor leaders, Jews, Catholics and foreigners in general. Columns of hooded, robed Klansmen marched for blocks during parades, funerals and other public displays in the city. Many prominent citizens are believed to have belonged to the Klan in the 1930s, including high-ranking public officials and at least one chief of police.

    In 1931, after one of the wildest sessions in its history, the Florida legislature voted to permit on-track gambling at horse and dog races. The conservative governor, Doyle Carlton, Sr., raised in a strict Protestant family in this Bible-belt state, considered this legislation immoral and vetoed it, but his veto was overridden. The conservative northern counties had originally backed the governor, but they accepted a compromise: all of the state gambling revenue would be distributed equally to each of Florida's sixty-seven counties. Thereafter, for decades, some rural Florida counties would impose low taxes or none at all, supporting themselves entirely on income from the southern Florida racetracks. So, with its sandy beaches, luxurious hotels, warm winter weather and racetrack gambling, Miami in 1933 was already one of the country's most popular tourist meccas. The permanent population of the county was only about 150,000, but one million visitors were said to have come to the city in that year. Nineteen-thirty-three was, in fact, a particularly busy tourist year; rents had been lowered to a quarter of their pre-Depression rates.

    On that balmy February evening, newspapers advertised four-day tours of Havana, Cuba, for $42.50, including hotel, meals, sightseeing in new Packard automobiles and excursions to the Prado and Sloppy Joe's. For twenty-five cents, one could attend Elizabeth Van Dyke's lectures on feminine hygiene, including herb formulas and beauty tips, and there was "nude sunshine bathing" in a private solarium at the Dallas Park Hotel on the Miami River. Sears Roebuck was selling ladies' silk dresses for $2.95, spring hats for $1.00 and a genuine two-point diamond ring mounted in fourteen karat white gold for $1.98. A carton of Old Gold cigarettes cost ninety-nine cents.

    In the second race at Hialeah that day, "Roosevelt" came in first, paying $3.35. In local news, Edward W. Overmiller pleaded guilty in court to possessing two barrels of moonshine at his Brickel Avenue home; he was sentenced to a $500 fine or six months in the county jail. He did not have $500. Morning radio featured "Little Jack Little" on the CBS affiliate WQAM and "Betty Crocker" on NBC's WIOD. Each evening at six P.M., H.V. Kaltenborn read the news for CBS. And Miami radio signed off at one A.M. after each day of offering fare like "Amos `n' Andy," "Spy Story," "Buck Rogers in the 21st Century" and "Just Plain Bill."

    Then there was the Olympia, the most impressive movie palace ever built in Miami, with Elizabethan balconies and rococo appointments, housed under a celestial ceiling sparkling with stars when the lights were turned down. And it was air conditioned at a time when air conditioning was a rare luxury. The Olympia stage offered vaudeville acts and big bands along with movies. That February day, Eddie Cantor and George Jessel performed to a packed house, "Even if you don't understand Jewish you'll gurgle with merriment," a reviewer wrote the next morning. Films playing that evening were Hard to Handle starring James Cagney, and 42nd Street with Warner Baxter, George Brent, Ruby Keeler and 150 Busby Berkley chorus girls.

    But that night most people were not at the movies. They were gathered at Bayfront Park, a forty-acre strip of land about a hundred yards wide and a quarter of a mile long, sandwiched between Biscayne Bay on the east and Biscayne Boulevard, lined with palm trees, on the west. The park had been created from Biscayne Bay in the late 1920s at a cost of $2.5 million. The mouth of the Miami River lies a few hundred yards to the south of the park; parking lots for fishermen and docks for yachts formed its northern boundary, and just across Biscayne Boulevard stood the eastern edge of the downtown business district.

    At the southern end of the park was the amphitheater and bandstand: an elevated stage with a concave back wall. These structures were, in a time before the perfection of microphones and amplifiers, useful venues for concerts and political speeches. The Bayfront Park bandstand was exceptionally ugly: a gaudy three-story yellow stucco structure with a concrete open-air stage protruding from its front and center, facing north. About four feet above this outdoor stage was an interior stage, extending into the building. Overhanging the protruding stage was a large, cumbersome portico painted green, yellow, orange, silver and red. From the center of the stage, steps descended to a semicircular paved area, and it was on this pavement that Roosevelt was to speak from his car, which was parked parallel to the bandstand and facing west.

    Topping this architectural nightmare were three onion domes, one on each end of the roof and the third on top of the portico. The amphitheater had been constructed in the 1920s for a Shriner's convention, which might explain the intended Oriental look of the building, although Byzantine buildings were popular in Miami at that time. Opa Locka, a suburb to the north of Miami, consisted of structures with onion domes, minarets and balconies on streets named Ali Baba and Schaharazade.

    There were semicircular rows of seats facing the amphitheater on a slightly inclined concrete apron. These slatted wood and metal folding seats, which could accommodate 7000 people, were permanently fastened to each other and to the ground.

    At nine in the evening, Roosevelt's party left the yacht and boarded three waiting vehicles: two open police cars and a small sedan. Hatless, wearing a grey suit, FDR was helped down the gangplank and into the lead car, a big open Buick, by his private aide and bodyguard, Gus Gennerich. For these public appearances, Roosevelt wore ten-pound leg braces which allowed him to walk with canes and assistance while the knee hinges were locked, and to sit when the hinges were unlocked. After helping FDR into the back seat, next to Miami mayor Redmond Gautier, Gennerich got into the car along with Secret Service agent Robert Clark and Marvin McIntyre, who was to be the president's appointments secretary. The driver was Fitzhugh Lee, a Miami policeman. The second vehicle, also a convertible, held several Secret Service men, and in the last car were Roosevelt's associates: Raymond Moley, Vincent Astor, Judge Kernochan and Kermit Roosevelt.

    By ten minutes after nine, the small motorcade had driven the hundred or so yards to Biscayne Boulevard, a wide highway divided by a large median with parking for hundreds of cars. As the motorcade proceeded, it was joined by several other vehicles occupied by prominent people. The parking areas in the median and on either side of the boulevard were filled. People had begun to gather in the park since six P.M. and by seven o'clock there was standing room only. Hundreds of people were still walking toward the bandstand as Roosevelt passed slowly in his open car, waving and smiling, greeted by cheers and applause. Roosevelt had told the national press corps that his comments would be inconsequential, so most of them had decided to skip the park rally and go directly to the depot to wait for him. Consequently, there were only local reporters at the bandstand, along with a few wire service stringers and one newsreel team.

    Roosevelt's green Buick convertible began slowly nosing its way through the largest crowd assembled in the history of the city, estimated at 25,000. Vincent Astor, riding in the last car, commented that this was a dangerous situation. There was the president-elect, exposed in the rear seat of an open car that was moving at walking pace through a massive crowd. Moley agreed, but noted that the situation was better now than it had been during the campaign, when they had had to rely only on local police and Roosevelt's personal bodyguard. At least now, Moley said, the president-elect was protected by the Secret Service.

    In fact, according to best estimates, the president-elect had six Secret Service operators with him, together with several dozen policemen, acting as motorcycle escort, drivers and crowd control. This contrasted with protection afforded outgoing President Herbert Hoover who, two days earlier, had attended a political dinner in New York City with an entourage of eight hundred Secret Service agents and local police.

    This would be the last time FDR was to have such relatively scant protection. When he returned to New York from Miami he was met by a thousand-man police guard.

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