Richard Lawrence (failed assassin)
|Died||June 13, 1861 (aged 61)
|Known for||Attempted to assassinate Andrew Jackson|
Richard Lawrence (c. 1800 – June 13, 1861) was a house painter and the first known person to attempt to assassinate the President of the United States. Lawrence attempted to shoot President Andrew Jackson outside the United States Capitol on January 30, 1835.
Lawrence was born in England, most likely around 1800 or 1801. His family emigrated to the United States when he was 12 years old and settled in Virginia near Washington, D.C. Lawrence's childhood and early adult years were apparently normal. At his trial, he was described by acquaintances and relatives as a "relatively fine young boy..." who was "reserved in his manner; but industrious and of good moral habits." Lawrence later found work as a house painter. Historians have speculated that exposure to the chemicals in his paints may have contributed to the mental issues that arose in his 30s.
By November 1832, Lawrence's behavior and mental stability inexplicably changed. He announced to his family that he was returning to England and left Washington, D.C. shortly thereafter. He returned a month later and told his family he decided not to travel abroad as it was too cold. Shortly after returning, he again announced to his family that he was returning to England to study landscape painting. Lawrence left once again and briefly stayed in Philadelphia before returning home. He told his family that unnamed "persons" had prevented him from traveling abroad and that the United States government also disapproved of his plan to return to England. He also claimed that while he was in Philadelphia, he read several stories about himself in the newspaper that were critical of his travel plans and his character. Lawrence told his family that he had no choice but to return to Washington, D.C. until he could afford to hire his own ship and captain which would allow him to sail to England.
Around this time, Lawrence abruptly quit his job. When questioned by his sister and brother-in-law with whom he was living, Lawrence claimed that he did not need to work because the United States government owed him a large sum of money. Lawrence believed he was owed money because he was King Richard III of England and owned two English estates. Lawrence became convinced that he was not receiving any money because of President Andrew Jackson's opposition to the establishment of a national bank. He felt that if President Jackson was no longer in office, Vice President Martin Van Buren would establish a national bank and allow Congress to pay him the money for his English estate claims.
Lawrence's personality and outward appearance changed dramatically around this point. The once conservatively dressed Lawrence grew a mustache and began buying expensive and flamboyant clothing which he would change three or four times a day. Lawrence also took to standing in the doorway of his home for hours gazing out into the street. Neighborhood children would jokingly address him as "King Richard". This typically pleased Lawrence who failed to realize the children were teasing him. He also became paranoid and hostile towards others. On one occasion, he threatened to kill a maid who he thought was laughing at him. Lawrence also began verbally and physically abusing his family, mainly his sisters, over imagined slights. In one instance, he threatened to hit his sister with a paperweight because he believed she had been talking about him. At Lawrence's trial, witnesses described the bizarre behavior he exhibited during this time. Several people testified that Lawrence would engage in nonsensical conversations with himself while others stated that he would have laughing and cursing fits.
In the weeks leading up to the assassination attempt on President Jackson, Lawrence began observing Jackson's movements. Witnesses later testified that Lawrence was often seen sitting in his paint shop muttering to himself about President Jackson. On January 30, 1835, the day of the assassination attempt, Lawrence was seen sitting in his paint shop with a book in his hand while laughing. Lawrence suddenly got up and left the shop with a smile stating, "I'll be damned if I don't do it."
On January 30, Jackson was attending the funeral of South Carolina congressman Warren R. Davis at the United States Capitol. Lawrence originally planned to shoot Jackson as he entered the service but was unable to get close enough to the President. However, when Jackson left the funeral, Lawrence had found a space near a pillar on the East Portico where Jackson would pass. As Jackson walked, Lawrence stepped out and fired his first pistol at Jackson's back; it misfired. Lawrence quickly made another attempt with his second pistol but that also misfired. It was later determined that the weapons he had chosen were noted for being vulnerable to moisture and the weather on that date was extremely humid and damp.
Lawrence's unsuccessful attempts were noticed by Jackson, who proceeded to beat him down with his cane. The crowd (which included Congressman Davy Crockett) eventually intervened and wrestled Lawrence into submission.
Trial and commitment
Lawrence was brought to trial on April 11, 1835 at the District of Columbia City Hall. The prosecuting attorney was Francis Scott Key. At his trial, Lawrence was prone to wild rants and he refused to recognize the legitimacy of the proceedings. At one point he said to the courtroom, "It is for me, gentlemen, to pass judgment on you, and not you upon me". After only five minutes of deliberation, the jury found Lawrence "not guilty by reason of insanity."
In the years following his conviction, Lawrence was held by several institutions and hospitals. In 1855, he was committed to the newly opened Government Hospital for the Insane (later renamed St. Elizabeths Hospital) in Washington, D.C. where he remained until his death on June 13, 1861.
As with later assassinations, there would be speculation that Lawrence was part of a conspiracy. While nobody denied Lawrence's involvement, many people, including Jackson, believed that he may have been supported or put up to carrying out the assassination attempt by the President's political enemies. Senator John C. Calhoun made a statement on the U.S. Senate floor that he was not connected to the attack. Jackson believed Calhoun, an old enemy of his, was at the bottom of the attempt.
Jackson also suspected a former friend and supporter, Senator George Poindexter of Mississippi, who had used Lawrence to do some house painting a few months earlier. Poindexter was unable to convince his supporters in Mississippi that he was not involved in a plot against the President, and was defeated for reelection. However, no evidence was ever discovered that connected Lawrence, John C. Calhoun or George Poindexter in a plot to kill President Jackson.
- Clarke 2012, p. 236
- Johnson 2010, p. 38
- Clarke 2012, pp. 236–237
- Clarke 2012, pp. 237–238
- Clarke 2012, p. 238
- Clarke 2012, pp. 238–239
- Bartee, Wayne C.; Fleetwood Bartee, Alice (1992). Litigating Morality: American Legal Thought and Its English Roots. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 91. ISBN 0-275-94127-2.
- Regan 2008, p. 31
- Oliver & Marion 2010, p. 13
- Barbour, John (November 18, 1982). "Troubled minds pass through St Elizabeths Hospital". Gettysburg Times. Associated Press. p. 23. Retrieved February 5, 2013.
- Knight, Peter, ed. (2003). Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 362. ISBN 1-576-07812-4.
- Clarke, James W. (2012). Defining Danger: American Assassins and the New Domestic Terrorists. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4128-4590-8. OCLC 743040369.
- Johnson, Scott Patrick (2010). Trials of the Century: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture and the Law, Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-59884-261-6. OCLC 702674902.
- Oliver, Willard M. & Marion, Nancy E. (2010). Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-In-Chief. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-0-313-36474-7. OCLC 733346450.
- Regan, Chris (2008). Mass Historia: 365 Days of Historical Facts and (Mostly) Fictions. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7407-6869-9. OCLC 172521785.