Peoples and Nations

Assassinated Presidents: Profiles of Them and Their Killers

Assassinated Presidents: Profiles of Them and Their Killers

The following article on assassinated presidents is an excerpt from Mel Ayton's Hunting the President: Threats, Plots, and Assassination Attempts-From FDR to Obama.


The list of assassinated presidents receives a new member approximately every 20-40 years. Here are those who were killed while serving in the office of the United States presidency.

  • Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865)
  • James A. Garfield (July 2, 1881)
  • William McKinley (September 6, 1901)
  • John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963)

ASSASSINATED PRESIDENTS AND PROFILES OF THEIR KILLERS

Nearly all assassins and would-be assassins were, to put it plainly, failures. “We got this psychological profile that was supposed to help us spot a would-be assassin,” former Secret Service agent Marty Venker once wrote. “It was distilled from the profiles of everybody from John Wilkes Booth to Sirhan Sirhan. History's most famous failures-you got to know their miserable lives by heart.”

Most were also motivated by real or imagined grievances and saw killing “the leader of the free world” as a way to catapult into the history books. Leon Czolgosz, a man who despaired of his lowly position in life and who assassinated President McKinley in 1901, had an alias, “Fred C. Nieman” (literally Fred “Nobody”). James Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau, “had failed at everything he ever tried,” author Candice Millard wrote, “and he had tried nearly everything.” Both Kennedy assassins, Oswald and Sirhan, had been fired from jobs because of their disagreeable personalities. Would-be Nixon assassin Samuel Byck blamed political corruption, and Nixon in particular, for his marital and financial problems. Arthur Bremer, who first stalked Nixon before targeting Governor George Wallace, was a disgruntled busboy and janitor and a failure in his personal relationships. “Life has been only an enemy to me,” he wrote in his diary. John Hinckley, another failure, lived in the shadow of his successful father. He failed to hold down a job and was an unsuccessful student. Australian opposition leader Arthur Caldwell's would-be assassin expressed it best when he said, “I realized that unless I did something out of the ordinary, I would remain a nobody.”

Gerald Ford's would-be assassins, Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, were also failures in life. By 1975, Moore had suffered five broken marriages and borne four children, three of whom had been adopted by her parents. Lynette Fromme was a high school dropout who never worked a day in her life except to try to persuade the authorities to release her hero, Charles Manson, from prison.

Many presidential threateners also believed that they had exceptional qualities that society failed to recognize. Guiteau believed he was “a man of great distinction and promise.” Bremer believed he was “as important as the start of World War II” and that his diary “will be among the best read pages since the scrolls in those caves.” Oswald imagined his future involved becoming a famous revolutionary and future prime minister of Cuba.