The Hinge of Fate: The Attempted Assassination of FDR in Miami

Today we bring you a guest post by R. Boyd Murphree, Project Manager, Florida Family and Community History, Digital Services and Shared Collections, University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries. He can be contacted at bmurphree@ufl.edu and is also on Twitter @boyd_murphree.

In his 1962 alternative history novel, The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick portrays the United States as a defeated country occupied by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the victorious powers of World War II. A crucial part of his premise is that President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt was assassinated on February 15, 1933, while on a visit to Miami. Instead of missing Roosevelt, the would-be assassin, Giuseppe Zangara, killed him, leaving the United States without Roosevelt’s leadership during the Great Depression and World War II. As one of Dick’s characters relates in her telling of an alternative history within an alternative history: “Roosevelt isn’t assassinated in Miami; he goes on and is reelected in 1936, so he’s President until 1940, until during the war. Don’t you see? He’s still President when Germany attacks England and France and Poland. And he sees all that. He makes America strong.”

The only Florida title available from 1933 in Chronicling America, the newspaper source for this blog, is the Key West Citizen. Although a small newspaper from a small town—the population was 12,831 in 1930—the Citizen covered Roosevelt’s February 1933 trip to Florida, Zangara’s attempt on FDR’s life, and the gunman’s trials and execution. This sequence of events began on February 4, 1933, when Roosevelt arrived in Jacksonville to launch a ten-day fishing trip along the state’s Atlantic coast with a stopover in the Bahamas.  The trip was designed to be his last vacation as president-elect—he was elected on November 8, 1932, and took office on March 4, 1933, a month after the beginning of his fishing excursion. Roosevelt arrived in Jacksonville by train and was driven through the city accompanied by recently inaugurated Florida governor David Sholtz before boarding the yacht Nourmahal, owned by tycoon Vincent Astor, a distant relative of FDR. Five days before the trip, another prominent politician entered office. Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. The target of dozens of assassination plots, Hitler’s time in office paralleled that of Roosevelt: both leaders came into power in early 1933 and died in April 1945.

FDR ended his vacation on the evening of February 15, when the Nourmahal docked in Miami. The president-elect was scheduled to make a brief speech a little after nine o’clock at Bayfront Park before boarding a train for New York. Three cars carried Roosevelt and his entourage to the park: FDR and Mayor Redmond Gautier of Miami sat in the back of the first vehicle, a convertible Buick, followed by a secret service car, and a car carrying a few of Roosevelt’s friends and associates. Roosevelt’s motorcade moved slowly through the city towards the park, which was located a few miles from the pier, and FDR waved to the large crowd that lined the streets—some 25,000 people. Once arrived at the park, Roosevelt’s car pulled up in front of the outdoor stage. FDR, disabled by polio, delivered his remarks from the Buick’s back seat. After his short speech, in which he joked about his fishing trip, dignitaries, who were seated on the stage, rose to greet Roosevelt, surrounding the Buick for a quick chat. Included in this party was Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago, who had travelled to Miami to discuss politics with the president-elect. As FDR and the dignitaries talked, Giuseppe Zangara, an alienated Italian immigrant, stood about twenty-five feet away—he later related that the crowd was too thick to get closer to Roosevelt—when he opened fire with a pistol in the direction of FDR’s car.

Zangara managed to get off five shots before he was subdued. Each of the bullets missed Roosevelt but struck five individuals, including Mayor Cermak. His wound and that of Mabel Gill, the wife of Florida Power and Light’s president, were the most serious. Mrs. Gill and three other victims, who received slight wounds, survived the shooting. Mayor Cermak did not. He died in Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital over two weeks later on March 6, 1933, two days after FDR was inaugurated. The morning after the attack, Roosevelt visited Cermak. Doctors told FDR that the mayor’s wound was serious but not fatal—they expected Cermak to recover—and FDR tried to cheer up the Chicagoan before moving on to visit other victims. He then boarded a train and headed back home to New York to prepare for his inauguration.

The Key West Citizen-February 21, 1933

Who was Giuseppe Zangara and why did he try to kill Roosevelt? Standing only five feet tall with a mass of curly black hair and a thick Italian accent, Zangara, who was thirty-two-years old in 1933, was an unemployed bricklayer who had been living in the United States since 1923; he became a US citizen in 1929. A native of the region of Calabria in Italy, Zangara drifted in and out of jobs in his home country all the while suffering from a painful abdominal condition that was never successfully treated. After arriving in the United States, Zangara lived in New Jersey, where his experience as a stone cutter in Italy landed him work as a bricklayer. He did well in his work during the economic boom of the 1920s, but like millions of other Americans during the Great Depression he lost his job and travelled around the county in search of work. He ended up in Miami in 1932. In January 1933, Zangara learned that Roosevelt would be visiting Miami in February—FDR’s itinerary was published in newspapers—and decided he would assassinate the president-elect. Zangara’s motive for the attack seems to have been a combination of depression and resentment about his poor lot in life and the ongoing stomach pain that he endured every day. Although he claimed the attack was due to his hatred of capitalism and capitalists, he was not associated with any leftwing political movements. He may have had a death wish. If he killed Roosevelt, his name, although infamous, would live forever and he would no longer be in pain after his inevitable execution.

His appointment with Florida’s electric chair came soon enough. After his arrest, Zangara was questioned by the Secret Service, the county sheriff, and reporters. He expressed no remorse for the attack, except his sorrow that he had not killed Roosevelt. Court appointed psychiatrists deemed Zangara unstable but could not definitively state that he was insane. Zangara was determined to accept full responsibility for the attack and would not accept advice that he plead insanity. He was arraigned on four counts of attempted murder for trying to kill Roosevelt and bystanders William Sinnott, Russell Caldwell, and Margaret Kruis. The judge also empaneled a grand jury in the event that Cermak or Mrs. Gill died, in which case Zangara would be tried for murder. Florida governor Sholtz, the press, and the public clamored for a quick resolution of the case. On February 20, only five days after the shooting, Zangara was tried in a Miami courtroom. Questioned at length by the judge, Zangara again admitted that he had done the shooting, and wished that he had killed Roosevelt. Judge E. C. Collins then sentenced Zangara to eighty years in the state prison—twenty years for each of the four victims. According to the Key West Citizen, Zangara said to the judge, “Don’t be stingy—give me 100 years.”

On March 6, Mayor Cermak died. His death meant that Zangara, who was still in jail in Miami, would be tried for murder. The grand jury indicted Zangara on the same day that Cermak died. His trial began on March 9 and concluded a day later. The judge, after hearing Zangara’s rambling account of his reason for trying to kill Roosevelt—Zangara repeated his previous statements that he committed the act because he hated capitalism—sentenced Zangara to be taken to the state prison at Raiford, where, after receiving the governor’s warrant, he would be electrocuted. In response to his sentence, Zangara yelled, “Well, I no scared of electric chair because I am thinking I am right to kill the president. Because it is capitalists, for the crooked government.” Governor Sholtz wasted no time issuing Zangara’s death warrant, signing the document on March 13. On March 20, Zangara was led to the death chamber and executed. During Zangara’s short stay at Raiford, the prison warden, Leonard F. Chapman, took up a lot of time with his death row’s most famous resident. Chapman wanted to know for sure if Zangara was sane and confirm his reason for trying to kill Roosevelt. He allowed Zangara to write a memoir, which the prisoner composed in Italian. The memoir reinforced what Zangara had said about his life, his reason for attacking Roosevelt, and his own wish to die. His memoir, which has been translated into English, is stored among Warden Chapman’s papers in the State Archives of Florida in Tallahassee.

While it is impossible to say what the history of the twentieth century would have been had FDR died that night in Miami, there is no doubt the federal response to the Great Depression would have been much less active—Vice President-elect John Nance Garner, the man who would have become president, was a conservative Texas Democrat rather than a liberal New Dealer. Without Roosevelt’s resolve to bring the United States out of its strict neutrality in foreign affairs, isolationism might have triumphed. It is unlikely that Congress would have passed the Lend-Lease Act, which was vital in aiding Britain and the Soviet Union against Germany. Without naval cooperation between the United States and Britain, it would have been much easier for Germany’s U-boats to win the Battle of the Atlantic by cutting off supplies to the British Isles. With Britain defeated and America far away and withdrawn, Hitler’s attempted conquest of Russia might have been successful. The United States would have faced the prospect of fighting Germany and its ally Japan without the crucial help of the British and the Russians: The Man in the High Castle’s horrendous vision of the outcome of World War II becomes more plausible.

In his classic six-volume history of the war, Winston Churchill titled the fourth volume, The Hinge of Fate, to capture the monumental importance of the year 1942: “I have called this volume The Hinge of Fate because in it we turn from almost unmitigated disaster to almost unbroken success. For the first six months of this story all went ill; for the last six months everything went well. And this agreeable change continued to the end of the struggle.” If Giuseppe Zangara’s bullets had struck and killed FDR the fate of the world might have turned in a very different and dark direction.

Citations and Additional Sources:

Churchill, Winston S. The Hinge of Fate, vol. 4 of 6 of The Second World War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. Mariner Books edition, original edition, 1962. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2011.

Florida Memory at https://www.floridamemory.com/.

Picchi, Blaise. The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara: The Man Who Would Assassinate FDR. Academy Chicago Publishers, 1998.

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