American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out That Stopped It

American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out That Stopped It

American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out That Stopped It

American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out That Stopped It


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A fast-paced, definitive, and breathtakingly suspenseful account of an extraordinary historical event—the attempted assassination of President Harry Truman in 1950 by two Puerto Rican Nationalists and the bloody shoot-out in the streets of Washington, DC, that saved the president's life.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winner and New York Times bestselling novelist Stephen Hunter, and John Bainbridge, Jr., an experienced journalist and lawyer, American Gunfight is at once a groundbreaking work of meticulous historical research and the vivid and dramatically told story of an act of terrorism that almost succeeded. They have pieced together, at last, the story of the conspiracy that nearly doomed the president and how a few good men—ordinary guys who were willing to risk their lives in the line of duty—stopped it.

It begins on November 1, 1950, an unseasonably hot afternoon in the sleepy capital. At 2:00 P.M. in his temporary residence at Blair House, the president of the United States takes a nap. At 2:20 P.M., two men approach Blair House from different directions. Oscar Collazo, a respected metal polisher and family man, and Griselio Torresola, an unemployed salesman, don’t look dangerous, not in their new suits and hats, not in their calm, purposeful demeanor, not in their slow, unexcited approach. What the three White House policemen and one Secret Service agent cannot guess is that under each man's coat is a 9mm automatic pistol and in each head, a dream of assassin's glory.

At point-blank range, Collazo and then Torresola draw and fire and move toward the president of the United States.

Hunter and Bainbridge tell the story of that November day with narrative power and careful attention to detail. They are the first to report on the inner workings of this conspiracy; they examine the forces that led the perpetrators to conceive the plot. The authors also tell the story of the men themselves, from their youth and the worlds in which they grew up to the women they loved and who loved them to the moment the gunfire erupted. Their telling commemorates heroism—the quiet commitment to duty that in some moments of crisis sees some people through an ordeal, even at the expense of their lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743260695
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 02/06/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 703,039
Product dimensions: 6.18(w) x 10.86(h) x 0.95(d)

About the Author

Stephen Hunter has written over twenty novels. The retired chief film critic for The Washington Post, where he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism, he has also published two collections of film criticism and a nonfiction work, American Gunfight. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

John Bainbridge, Jr., is a freelance journalist. A former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and legal affairs editor for The Daily Record (Baltimore), he is also a lawyer and former Maryland assistant attorney general. He lives near Butler, Maryland.

Read an Excerpt


November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican Nationalists named Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola pulled German automatic pistols and attempted to storm Blair House, at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., where the president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, was at that moment — 2:20 P.M. on an abnormally hot Wednesday — taking a nap in his underwear. They were opposed by a Secret Service security detail led by Special Agent Floyd M. Boring, consisting of Special Agents Vincent P. Mroz and Stewart G. Stout, Jr., and White House police officers Leslie W. Coffelt, Joseph O. Davidson, Joseph H. Downs, and Donald T. Birdzell. In the brief exchange — under forty seconds — between twenty-nine and thirty-one shots were fired in an area about ninety feet by twenty feet, though the exchange broke into two actions at either end of the property, where the ranges were much shorter. When it was over one man was dead, another was dying, and two more were seriously injured.

The story was of course gigantic news — for about a week. What's remarkable about it is not how big a story it was but how quickly it went away. Today, few Americans even remember it, or if they do, they have it mixed up with a later event. In 1954, four Puerto Rican Nationalists pulled guns and shot up Congress. Soon enough the two stories melded in the U.S. folk imagination under the rubric of stereotype: hot-tempered Latin revolutionaries, undisciplined, crazy even, pursuing a dream that made no sense at all, Puerto Rican independence.

Even those few North Americans who could distinguish between the two events couldn't prevent the actual thing itself from eroding, losing its detail and meaning and settling sooner rather than later into a kind of comforting folk narrative. For Americans, it always encompassed the following points:

The grievances Oscar and Griselio were expressing were fundamentally absurd: Puerto Rico had been given the gift of United States culture and political traditions and was rapidly becoming Americanized, as it should be. What was wrong with these two that they didn't understand how benevolently they had been treated?

Americans believed they were a little crazy. The evidence is clear: the assault was thrown together on the run by these two men of no consequence and no meaningful cause. One of them didn't even have a gun, so the other had to go out the day before and buy him one. They were upset by newspaper reports of what was going on in Puerto Rico, where an equally silly group of men were attempting a coup, like they do down there all the time, something equally stupid and futile.

In Washington, the two gunmen further expressed their deep state of mental disorganization by acting in strange ways.

On the morning of the attempt, for example, they went sightseeing. It turned out they thought Truman lived in the White House, and a cabdriver told them the president had moved across the street while the White House was being remodeled. Then, back in the hotel room, one had to teach the other how to work the gun.

One of them even went up to the hotel clerk on the day of the attempt as he was leaving and inquired about an extended checkout time.

And that was the smart one!

The dumb one was an unemployed salesman, a ladies' man, an abject failure in life. Nothing at all is known about this fellow, but why should it be, since he is so predictable: like so many disgruntled would-be assassins, this was his chance to count in a world that had denied his existence. They had no plan and no understanding of tactics.

In the actual fight itself, the Secret Service and the White House policemen essentially brushed them aside.

The two never came close to getting into Blair House. And even if they had, it would have made no difference, as an agent with a tommy gun was waiting just inside the door.

Harry Truman was never in any mortal danger.

In the end, many Americans concluded, it was more a joke, a farce, an opera buffa, than anything else.

There is only one trouble with assigning these meanings to the 38.5 desperate, violent seconds of November 1, 1950.

Every single one of them is wrong.

Copyright © 2005 by Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge, Jr.

Table of Contents


Authors' Note


1 A Drive Around Washington

2 Griselio Agonistes

3 Revolution

4 The Odd Couple

5 Mr. Gonzales and Mr. De Silva Go to Washington

6 Early Morning

7 Baby Starches the Shirts

8 Toad

9 The New Guy

10 The Buick Guy

11 The Guns

12 The Ceremony

13 Indian Summer

14 The Big Walk

15 Oscar

16 "It Did Not Go Off"

17 Pappy

18 The Next Ten Seconds

19 Resurrection Man

20 So Loud, So Fast

21 Upstairs at Blair

22 Downstairs at Blair

23 Borinquen

24 Oscar Alone

25 The End's Run

26 Good Hands

27 The Colossus Rhoads

28 Oscar Goes Down

29 The Second Assault

30 Pimienta

31 Point-Blank

32 The Man Who Loved Guns

33 The Dark Visitors

34 Mortal Danger

35 The Neighbor

36 American Gunfight

37 The Good Samaritan

38 The Policemen's Wives

39 The Scene

40 Inside the Soccer Shoe

41 Who Shot Oscar?

42 The Roundup

43 Taps

44 Oscar on Trial

45 Deep Conspiracy

46 Cressie Does Her Duty

47 Oscar Speaks

48 - - R - I - -

Epilogue: Destinies

Source Notes




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