The Devil's Luck

An 1835 Engraving of Richard Lawrence's Failed Assasination Attempt.
An 1835 engraving of Richard Lawrence's failed assasination attempt of President Jackson.

The first attempt to kill a sitting U.S. President occurred on January 30th 1835. It happened just outside the United States Capitol Building and it's intended victim, Andrew Jackson, emerged miraculously unscathed.

As Jackson was leaving the Capitol, after the funeral of South Carolina Representative Warren Davis, Richard Lawrence, an unemployed housepainter from England, burst from the crowd. Standing three paces away, he aimed a small pistol at President Jackson and pulled the trigger.

Although a loud shot was heard - the derringer misfired. Lawrence, seemingly prepared for this unlikely eventuality, then pulled a second pistol and fired. This gun also misfired. It has been suggested that the moisture from the humid weather of the day contributed to both guns misfiring. Although no bullets were fired from the derringers - the explosions from the blasting caps drew the crowds attention.

Lawrence was quickly restrained, with legend saying that the President attacked Lawrence with his cane. Others present, including Representative David Crockett of Tennessee, disarmed Lawrence.

American Derringer photo courtesy of Paul M. Ambrose Antiques
One of a set of two 1850's era Derringer dueling pistols much like the pair Lawrence used. This gun fires .41 caliber bullets about the size of a nickel.

After the failure of the 1835 assasination attempt, would-be assassin Richard Lawrence gave the police and doctors several reasons for his actions. He had lost his job and somehow blamed Jackson. He claimed that with the President dead, "money would be more plenty" (referencing Jackson's fight with the Bank of the United States) and that he "could not rise until the President fell." Finally, Lawrence informed his interrogators that he was a deposed English King (specifically, Richard III, dead since 1485) and that Jackson was merely his clerk. Lawrence was deemed insane and institutionalized. He died in 1861, after spending the remainder of his life in asylums.

Although more assassinations and assassination attempts would occur, including those of Lincoln and Garfield, the U.S. Secret Service would not come into official existance until the 1901 assassination of McKinley.

In the 1930's, due to curiosity concerning the double misfires, researchers at the Smithsonian Institution tested and retested the pistols. Each time the pistols performed perfectly. It was later determined that the odds of both guns misfiring during the assassination attempt were 1 in 125,000.

The Cherokee nicknamed Jackson "Jack-Son-Nay", or Jackson-the-Devil, due to his uncanny luck on the battlefield and bitter treatment of Native Americans of the Cherokee settlements in Georgia.

Wikipedia, Andrew Jackson
American Heritage Magazine, The Attempted Assassination of Andrew Jackson

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