1933: Giuseppe Zangara, who is not on Sons of Italy posters

On this date in 1933, Giuseppe Zangara went to Florida’s electric chair for the murder of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak — the man he had accidentally shot while attempting to assassinate President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Zangara had to stand on a chair to take the shot: he was only five feet tall. This image is from Miami Police of Yesterday, a site by a descendant of one of the officers who arrested Zangara.

A strange and strangely forgotten man, the Italian immigrant came within inches of dramatically altering American history.

On February 15, 1933, at a Roosevelt speech in Miami’s Bayfront Park, Zangara perched himself on a metal folding chair within ten meters of the man who was then President-elect, but somehow managed to miss him. A bystander, Lillian Cross, grabbed his arm, and others in the crowd wrestled him down.

Certainly Zangara would be better remembered if he had shot Roosevelt (and Roosevelt would be very much less remembered), but his head-scratching persona accounts for at least some of his obscurity.

He’s sometimes called an anarchist — the early 20th-century equivalent of calling him a terrorist — and he talked the talk. Here, his last words:

You give me electric chair. I no afraid of that chair! You one of capitalists. You is crook man too. Put me in electric chair. I no care! Get to hell out of here, you son of a bitch [said to the chaplain] … I go sit down all by myself… Viva Italia! Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere!… Lousy capitalists! No picture! Capitalists! No one here to take my picture. All capitalists lousy bunch of crooks. Go ahead. Pusha da button!

Zangara was a working-class immigrant. But his specific motivation for murdering Roosevelt seems murky at best — there’s no clear subversive organization or cause with which Zangara seemed a dedicated fellow-traveler. The wikipedia page about him describes his lifelong stomach pains as the cause of his act, which seems a queer thing to make a fellow shoot a president.

The major conspiracy proposal, that the anti-mob mayor Cermak was the real target all along of a mafia-engineered hit (here (.doc) is a version) is highly speculative, to put it generously. (Update: More on this here, via Chicagoland) Certainly Zangara might have been, as he claimed and most believe, a lone nut — many have done worse for less cause.

The world didn’t have long to unravel this man’s mysteries; justice moved with a rapidity terrifying even by the standards of the time — as reflected in the title of one of the books about him, The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara.

Zangara had already been sentenced to a long prison term for the several bystanders his errant shots had struck when Anton Cermak finally succumbed — after 19 painful days — to a gut shot. Two weeks after that, his killer was dead, too.

During his first trial, the judge pressed him on his motivation, as reported in a press clipping that became part of Zangara’s FBI file:

Q. Have you ever been in jail before? Ever been in any trouble?

A. No, this is the first time.

Q. Did you ever hurt anyone before?

A. No, me no hurt anyone.

Q. Did you plan this shooting?

A. No.

Q. When did you decide to do it?

A. I got it in my mind capitalist hurt people. They are to blame for my stomach hurting. My stomach was hurting bad. It was like I was on fire. It burns my mind, I act like a drunken man. It came in my mind when I was suffering.

At this trial — the one before Cermak died — he pled unsuccessfully for execution: “I am sorry only because I did not kill. I am sorry about nothing. Put me in the electric chair.” It reads like “suicide by cop”.

Zangara might not be a name of Oswaldesque dimensions among the assassinariat, but he comes in for a scene in Stephen Sondheim’s strange musical theater, Assassins.

Officially, Zangara was punished for the man he killed, not the soon-to-be-President he was (presumably) aiming at. But such a close scrape for such a transformative American leader, a man sometimes credited with saving capitalism from itself in an age of crisis, has made Zangara’s one famous act fodder for alternative history that asks the question “what might have been?”

On this day..