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Mug shots of Giuseppe Zangara following his arrest.
|Born||September 7, 1900|
Ferruzzano, Calabria, Kingdom of Italy
|Died||March 20, 1933 (aged 32)|
Florida State Prison, Raiford, Florida, U.S.
|Criminal charge||First-degree murder|
Giuseppe "Joe" Zangara (September 7, 1900 – March 20, 1933) was an Italian immigrant and naturalized citizen of the United States who attempted to assassinate then-President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 15, 1933. During a night speech by Roosevelt in Miami, Florida, Zangara fired five shots with a handgun he had purchased a couple of days before. He missed his target and instead injured five bystanders, mortally wounding Anton Cermak, the Mayor of Chicago.
Zangara was born on September 7, 1900, in Ferruzzano, Calabria, Italy. After serving in the Tyrolean Alps in World War I, he did a variety of menial jobs in his home village before emigrating with his uncle to the United States in 1923. He settled in Paterson, New Jersey, and became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1929.
Zangara was a man with little education who became a bricklayer. He suffered severe pain in his abdomen, which doctors told him was chronic and incurable. In 1926 he underwent an appendectomy, but it was no help. If anything, it may have increased his pain. The doctors who performed his autopsy attributed his abdominal pain to adhesions they found on the gall bladder. In his prison memoir, Zangara himself attributed his pain to being forced to do grueling physical labor on his father's farm from an early age. He wrote that his pain began when he was six years old.
On February 15, 1933, Roosevelt was giving an impromptu speech at night from the back of an open car in the Bayfront Park area of Miami, Florida, where Zangara was working the occasional odd job and living off his savings. Zangara, armed with a .32-caliber US Revolver Company pistol he had bought for $8 (equivalent to $150 in 2017) at a local pawn shop, joined the crowd of spectators.
At only 5 feet (1.5 m) in height, he was unable to see over other people and had to stand on a wobbly metal folding chair, peering over the hat of Lillian Cross to get a clear aim at his target. After the first shot, Cross and others grabbed his arm, and he fired four more shots wildly. Five people were hit, including Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who was standing on the running board of the car next to Roosevelt, who was untouched. Roosevelt cradled Cermak in his arms as the car rushed to the hospital. After arriving there, Cermak spoke to Roosevelt and allegedly uttered the line that is engraved on his tomb: "I'm glad it was me instead of you." The Tribune reported the quote without attributing it to a witness, and most scholars doubt it was ever said. Roosevelt escaped injury, but had he been assassinated, then Vice President–elect John Nance Garner would have become president on March 4, 1933, pursuant to Section 3 of the recently ratified Twentieth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Zangara confessed in the Dade County Courthouse jail, stating: "I have the gun in my hand. I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists." He pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted murder and was sentenced to 80 years in prison. As he was led out of the courtroom, Zangara told the judge: "Four times 20 is 80. Oh, judge, don't be stingy. Give me a hundred years." The judge, E.C. Collins, replied: "Maybe there will be more later" in reference to two additional charges of murder that had been entered against Zangara in case one (or both) of his most severely injured victims, Cermak and local resident Mabel Gill, were to die.
Cermak died of peritonitis 19 days later, on March 6, 1933, two days after Roosevelt's inauguration. Zangara was promptly indicted for first-degree murder in Cermak's death. Because Zangara had intended to commit murder, neither the fact that his intended target may not have been the man he ultimately killed nor that Cermak's death was in part the result of medical malpractice was relevant. In either case, he would still be guilty of first-degree murder under the doctrine of transferred intent.
Zangara pleaded guilty to the additional murder charge and was sentenced to death by Circuit Court Judge Uly Thompson. Zangara said after hearing his sentence: "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!" Under Florida law, a convicted murderer could not share cell space with another prisoner before his execution, but another convicted murderer was already awaiting execution at Raiford. Zangara's sentence required prison officials to expand their waiting area, and the "death cell" became "Death Row".
After spending only 10 days on death row, Zangara was executed on March 20, 1933 in Old Sparky, the electric chair at Florida State Prison in Raiford. Zangara became enraged when he learned no newsreel cameras would be filming his final moments. Zangara's final statement was "Viva l'Italia! Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere!... Push the button! Go ahead, push the button!"
While most accounts for years repeated that Cermak was the unintended victim of an attempt to assassinate Roosevelt, more recent theories, especially in Chicago, assert that Zangara was a hired killer working for Frank Nitti, who was the head of the Chicago Outfit (Chicago's largest organized crime syndicate). John William Tuohy, author of numerous books on organized crime in Chicago, after reviewing Secret Service records, described in detail how and why Cermak was the real target and the relationship of the shooting to the rampant gang violence in Chicago. Numerous researchers, citing court testimony, assert that Cermak had directed an assassination attempt on Nitti less than three months earlier.
Raymond Moley interviewed Zangara and believed he was not part of any larger plot, and that he had intended to kill Roosevelt.
In popular culture
In the original Off-Broadway production of Assassins by Stephen Sondheim, Zangara was played by Eddie Korbich. In later productions, he was played by Paul Harrhy in London and by Jeffrey Kuhn in the show's original Broadway production. Appearing in several songs from the musical, he has a major solo in the number "How I Saved Roosevelt."
In 1960, in a two-part story line titled 'The Unhired Assassin' on the TV show The Untouchables, actor Joe Mantell played the part of Giuseppe "Joe" Zangara. This episode, while depicting Zangara's story throughout, focuses mostly on Nitti's plan to kill Mayor Cermak with an initial (fictionalized) attempt in Chicago that is foiled by Ness and his agents at the end of part one. In part two, another attempt is made using a contract hitman, an ex-Army rifleman in Florida, which again fails thanks to Eliot Ness (played by Robert Stack). But Ness's successful prevention of Nitti's assassination plot is quickly undercut when Zangara does the deed. Zangara is depicted as having nothing to do with Nitti's plot and as being obsessed only with killing Roosevelt. The shows were originally aired February 25 and March 3, 1960. This two-part story was later edited together as a feature-length movie retitled "The Gun of Zangara."
Zangara plays a significant role in the background provided for Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. The 1962 alternate history novel, set after an Axis victory in World War II, uses the premise that Zangara succeeded in assassinating FDR as its point of divergence. (The death of FDR is later said to have happened after he was president for one year; this may be an error on Dick's part or a sign of additional divergences in the timeline.) The same premise is used in Eric Norden's The Ultimate Solution (1972) and the GURPS Alternate Earths role playing game's "Reich 5" alternate universe.
Max Allan Collins' 1983 novel True Detective, first in the Nathan Heller mystery series, features Zangara's attempted assassination of Roosevelt, positing it as an actual attempt on Anton Cermak, Chicago's mayor at the time. The novel won the 1984 Shamus Award for Best P.I. Hardcover from the Private Eye Writers of America.
The 2011 fantasy noir novel Spellbound by Larry Correia features Zangara's attempted assassination of FDR. Zangara is magically enhanced in a plot to inflame bigotry and curtail the civil rights of the magically gifted protagonists of the Grimnoir Society. Instead of using a small-caliber handgun, Zangara is made into a living cannon or bomb and kills nearly 200 onlookers, including Mayor Cermak, and cripples Roosevelt.
In the second season of the HBO drama The Newsroom, lead character Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) uses Zangara's attempt to assassinate Roosevelt as an example of how one thing can change everything. He describes how if the chair Zangara had been using had not been wobbly, he would have succeeded in killing Roosevelt. Roosevelt's running mate, John Nance Garner, who opposed the New Deal, would have been elected. Thus, the drama suggests, if not for a wobbly chair, America would not have survived the Great Depression.
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Chicagoans don't believe in coincidences ... when coincidences involve Chicago politics and the Chicago Outfit
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