Who was Giuseppe Zangara?
Giuseppe "Joe" Zangara was a convicted murderer who was executed for assassinating Anton Cermak, the Mayor of Chicago. However, his real target was then-President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. A native of the Italian region of Calabria, Zangara came to the United States in 1923, and obtained naturalized citizenship in 1929. His education was meagre, and he worked as a bricklayer. For most of his life, he suffered excruciating pain in the abdomen, which later turned out to be caused by adhesions in his gallbladder. On 15 February 1933, Zangara was doing occasional odd jobs in Miami, Florida, where Roosevelt was delivering an impromptu speech from the back of an open car in the Bayfront Park area. Zangara, a man of short height, stood on a wobbly chair and fired his .32-caliber US Revolver Company pistol. When the people surrounding him attempted to grab him, he shot four more bullets wildly. Five people, including Cermak, were hit, but Roosevelt escaped unscathed. Cermak passed away 19 days later, and Zangara was tried and convicted for first-degree murder. His execution was carried out in March 1933.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on September 7, 1900, in Ferruzzano, Calabria, Kingdom of Italy, Zangara was a veteran of World War I. He fought for Italy in the Tyrolean Alps. After the war, he held a series of menial jobs in his home village.
In 1923, Zangara, along with his uncle, moved to the United States and began living in Paterson, New Jersey. In 1929, he received naturalized citizenship of US.
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Attempt to Assassinate Roosevelt
At some point, Zangara relocated to Miami, Florida, in the early 1930s and began working odd jobs. However, they were not enough, and he had to rely on whatever savings he had.
On February 15, 1933, Roosevelt was delivering an impromptu speech at night from the back of an open car in the Bayfront Park area of Miami. Zangara had earlier purchased a .32-caliber US Revolver Company pistol for $8 (equivalent to $150 in 2018) from a local pawn shop. He assimilated into the crowd that was listening to Roosevelt’s speech.
Zangara was a short man (5 feet or 1.5 m), so he could not see over the people standing in front of him. He got a wobbly metal folding chair and climbed on top of it in his attempt to see the president over the hat of Lillian Cross. This gave him a clear view of his target.
After the gun went off the first time, Cross and others took hold of his arm. As a result, the next four bullets were shot wildly. Five people, Mrs. Joseph H. Gill, Miss Margaret Kruis of Newark, New Jersey, New York Detective/Bodyguard William Sinnott, Russell Caldwell of Miami, and Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, were wounded. Mrs. Gill’s injury was quite serious, but she managed to make a recovery.
Cermak had positioned himself on the running board of the car next to Roosevelt before he got shot. Zangara failed to hit his real target, Roosevelt, even once. Roosevelt held Cermak in his arms as the car raced to the hospital.
After they reached there, Cermak reportedly told the then president-elect, “I'm glad it was me, not you." This line was carved on his tomb. The quote first appeared on a report published by ‘The Tribune,’ but they did not mention any witness. Most scholars dispute its veracity.
Trial & Execution
Zangara gave his confession in the Dade County Courthouse jail, saying the following, “I have the gun in my hand. I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists.” After he pleaded guilty, he was given 80 years of a prison sentence.
While he was being taken out of the court, he said to the judge, “Four times 20 is 80. Oh, judge, don't be stingy. Give me a hundred years."
On March 6, 1933, 19 days after the incident, Cermak passed away due to peritonitis, which was caused by the bullet wound. This was two days after Roosevelt was sworn into office. Zangara was immediately charged with first-degree murder.
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It did not matter that he did not end up killing his intended victim or that Cermak’s death occurred partly due to medical malpractice. In either case, he would still have been convicted under the doctrine of transferred intent.
Once more Zangara pleaded guilty, and once more he was convicted of the charges he was being tried for. This time, he received a death sentence from the Circuit Court Judge Uly Thompson. He subsequently stated, “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!”
Florida law does not allow a convicted murderer to coinhabit a cell space with another before his execution. However, another convicted murderer was already residing at Raiford before his execution. After Zangara was sentenced, the prison officials were forced to make their waiting area bigger, effectively turning “Death Cell” into “Death Row”.
Zangara was kept on death row for ten days before his execution, which took place on March 20, 1933, in Old Sparky, the electric chair at Florida State Prison in Raiford.
He became angry when he realized that no newsreel camera was there to record his final moments. His final words were "Viva l'Italia! Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere!... Push the button! Go ahead, push the button!"
Family & Personal Life
Zangara did not obtain much education. While in US, he predominantly worked as a bricklayer. He experienced severe pain in his abdomen. When he visited the doctors, he was informed that it was chronic and incurable.
In 1926, he underwent an appendectomy, but the pain only worsened after that. After his execution, the doctors who performed his autopsy discovered adhesions in his gallbladder, which they said were the root causes of his pain.
Most scholars agree that Zangara’s main target was Roosevelt and that he killed Cermak and injured others by accident.
Sometime before 1999, a conspiracy theory developed in Chicago that revolves around the notion that Zangara was a hired assassin employed by Frank Nitti and Cermak was his intended target. Once one of the most trusted lieutenants of Al Capone, Nitti became the leader of the Chicago Outfit crime syndicate after Capone was incarcerated.
Non-fiction author John William Tuohy, who has written several books on organised crime in Chicago, after going over Secret Service records, offered in detail in a 2002 article his version of how and why Cermak was the real target, and the connection between the shooting and the uncontrolled gang violence in Chicago.
This theory has been emboldened by several researchers, who scrutinized court testimony and claimed that Cermak had issued an assassination order on Nitti only a few months earlier.
The conspiracy theorists speculate that Zangara had been an expert marksman while he was serving during World War I. However, they fail to address things like issues with Zangara’s progressive age, medical problems he had since the war, his short height that forced him to stand on a folding chair, and the fact that he was trained to shoot rifles and not pistols from a great distance. Furthermore, they overlook Zangara’s own statement on the matter.
Throughout the years, Zangara has been portrayed by several actors, including Joe Mantell in the ABC series ‘The Untouchables’ in 1960 and Eddie Korbich in the original 1990 Off-Broadway production of ‘Assassins’ by Stephen Sondheim.
He is a character in Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel ‘The Man in the High Castle’ and the Amazon series of the same name.