The President and the Madman

While last January 30 may have come and gone without any fanfare, it marked an anniversary of sorts.  It was on that day in 1835 that the first assassination attempt on a United States president occurred.  Even that in itself may not have been all that noteworthy given later U.S. history but it was memorable all the same. 

The would-be assassin,  Richard Lawrence was born in England in or around the year 1800 (the exact date is lost to history).  There is little available information concerning his early life, only that he was a completely unremarkable house painter who became increasingly unstable and unemployable as he grew older.  While the prevailing opinion was that he was schizophrenic, later sources have suggested that his psychiatric problems may have been related to chemical exposure from the toxic paints that he had used as a painter. 

In any event, what was not in dispute was that he had developed some extremely grandiose delusions.  Not only did he believe himself to be King Richard III of England, but that he had somehow been wronged by then-President Andrew Jackson.  Lawrence became convinced that President Jackson cheated him out of money in a conspiracy with steamship companies and had murdered Lawrence's father as well.  To avenge his father's murder and punish President Jackson, Lawrence went to America, purchased two pistols, and began watching the President's movements carefully.  He finally had his chance when President Jackson went to the U.S. Capitol to attend the funeral of a prominent Congressman.  Lawrence chose his spot carefully and waited for the President to pass as he was emerging from the Capitol rotunda.  As the opportunity came, Lawrence drew his pistol and aimed at the President before firing at point-blank range, and then...   

The pistol misfired. 

President Jackson, an old military man who no doubt felt that his days of facing enemy fire were long behind him, was quick to react.  He raised his cane but Lawrence drew his second pistol and fired.  That gun misfired too.  At this point, President Jackson managed to strike Lawrence several times with his cane and other funeral attenders (including then-Congressman Davy Crockett) wrestled Lawrence to the ground.    By this point, Lawrence, who was still stunned by the President's attack, likely hoped that the crowd would be rescuing him instead of his intended victim.   He was promptly taken into custody and treated for his wounds.

Lawrence was examined by two prominent American physicians who later testified as to his mental state. The guns that he had used were found to be in perfect working order.  It was determined that both pistols had been affected by the extreme humidity of the day.   There had been speculation that Lawrence had been part of a greater conspiracy organized by the President's opponents but no evidence for this could be found.   According to sources, President Jackson became somewht paranoid in his belief that a conspiracy was at work but things settled down eventually.  The trial was almost a foregone conclusion and it only took the jury a few minutes to find Lawrence Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity.  He was hospitalized and eventually died in the Washington, D.C. Government Hospital for the Insane in 1861.  It was this same hospital, later renamed St. Elizabeth's Hospital, where John Hinckley Jr. was committed after his trial for the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.

Would U.S. history have been altered if Lawrence had succeeded?  Probably.  Was anything learned from the nearly successful attack?  Not really.  It took three successful assassinations before the U.S. Secret Service was charged with Presidential security.  Richard Lawrence represents an early example of how easily a lone, mentally disturbed individual could commit violence against a prominent figure due to a personal grudge.  It is a theme that would be revisited time and again. 


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