Richard Lawrence gripped the two single shot pistols concealed in his jacket as he waited for the president to emerge from the Capitol Hill rotunda. Although he was planning to kill one of the most powerful men in the world, Lawrence was calm. As he saw it, the president deserved to die. Not only was he tyrant, but he 'd killed Lawrence 's father and stolen Lawrence 's inheritance. Sure, some people would be upset about the shooting, but Lawrence didn 't care. Everyone was below him. He was the King of England.
January 30, 1835 was a particularly cold, damp day for Washington D.C., and Andrew Jackson ached as he stepped into the open air. After a lifetime of fighting on the battlefield and off, the president 's body 'still carrying two bullets as tokens of a hard-lived past 'didn 't move like it used to. Humiliatingly, the man who earned the nickname 'Old Hickory ' for his strength and perseverance in the War of 1812 had to lean on his Secretary of Treasury just to walk a few feet.
Although his body was weak, Jackson mind remained sharp. Scanning the crowd outside of the capitol building, the president 's eyes locked on a short, mustachioed man with his hands in his jacket and a smirk on his face. When the man noticed Jackson staring in his direction, he averted his gaze. His smirk vanished. Jackson remained wary of the man, but didn 't regard him as a threat. The old soldier had enemies, but he felt they were too cowardly to attack him in person. They 'd rather snipe at him behind his back. Besides, Jackson thought, no one had ever tried to assassinate the sitting President of the United States.
Moments later, this would no longer be true. As Jackson approached the carriage that would take him back to the White House, he saw the mustachioed man taking something out of his pocket and walking in his direction.
Lawrence realized this would be his only chance for vengeance. When he came within eight feet of Jackson, he withdrew one of his pistols, aimed at the president 's chest, and fired. Smoke and noise filled the air. Jackson 's eyes grew wide.
What led Richard Lawrence to Capitol Hill that day? Why did he fire a gun at the President of the United States when he 'd likely be jailed or killed for doing so? What motivated America’s first presidential assassin?
The easy answer to these questions is insanity. Lawrence was insane. He was in a state of deep psychosis at the time of the shooting and likely suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. He 'd spent the past two years hearing and seeing people that weren 't there and had adopted a false persona. Instead of accepting a reality in which he was a moderately successful house painter, Lawrence had come to believe that he was the King of England and that President Jackson was the source of all of his problems.
Unfortunately, insanity alone can 't explain why Lawrence fired a gun at Jackson that day. If it could, then everyone with paranoid schizophrenia would try to kill the president. In reality, most people who are genetically predisposed to schizophrenia do not develop the disorder and those who do rarely try to murder another human being.
So why, then, did Lawrence develop this particular brand of violent, president-killing schizophrenia? Although the subject is still a matter of debate, recent research indicates that environmental and social factors can trigger the onset of schizophrenia and can alter the way the disease manifests itself in the inflicted. Lawrence 's particular set of life experiences, therefore, may have created an assassin.
Although Jackson didn 't intentionally provoke his assassin, he was responsible for creating one of the most hostile political atmospheres in American history, which may have led Lawrence to conclude that violence was an acceptable means of redressing grievances. Owing to his upbringing and military career, Jackson treated those who disagreed with him as enemies, an attitude he brought to the presidency. He saw members of the opposition party as traitors, threatened harm whenever he didn 't get his way, and used his office to punish those who’d wronged him.
As a logical reaction to the president 's attacks, political opponents demonized Jackson. They called him a tyrant and blamed him for the nation 's ills. Lawrence 's deranged mind accepted these portrayals as fact, and he grew to believe that he 'd be a hero for killing this man who 'd made everyone 's life miserable. One historian referred to Jackson as 'an obvious target for the demented in society. '
Here 's a look at the lives of the first presidential assassin and the man he hoped to kill.
People made fun of him
Like all who eventually succumb to paranoid schizophrenia, Richard Lawrence showed no symptoms of mental disorder in his early life. Born in England at the turn of the 19th century to a poor, nondescript family, Lawrence had little parental guidance growing up. His mother was not around during his childhood, his sisters were too young to provide maternal care, and his aunt went insane, became homeless, and died on the streets when Lawrence was a child. While Lawrence 's father was around for his son 's early life, he suffered from mental illness and would often sit alone, staring at a featureless wall for hours on end. It seems that this mental disorder affected his employment status. Lawrence remembered his father pushing a coal cart as a job, but the work wasn 't steady, he was often unemployed, and his family lived in poverty.
Perhaps hoping for a fresh start and better opportunities, in 1812, the elder Lawrence moved his family from England to Washington D.C., the recently constructed capital of the United States. The Lawrences arrived in their new home to find that their new country had just declared war on their old country–the War of 1812 would overshadow life in the U.S. capital for the next three years. Because of this, anti-British sentiment was high in D.C. Americans called recently arrived English immigrants 'traitors ' and politicians on nearby Capitol Hill debated whether or not to forcefully repatriate new arrivals like the Lawrences. In the midst of these deliberations, a British army invaded Washington D.C. and burned much of the city to the ground. This left British families like the Lawrences at the mercy of angry, vengeful D.C. residents. Lawrence gives no clue to the trouble he faced as a child except to say, 'people made fun of him. '
Life had already set Lawrence on a track to mental illness. Recent studies indicate that schizophrenia is more likely to manifests itself in persons who 1) were born into families with mental disorders 2) grew up in poverty 3) moved at a young, impressionable ages, 4) experienced discrimination in childhood, and 5) lived in urban areas. All of these things applied to Richard Lawrence. His father and aunt were mentally ill, he was raised poor, and he moved to a city full of people that hated him because of his nationality. It 's impossible to say that Lawrence would inevitably go insane, but it would be difficult to create a better cocktail of early life mental disorder determinants.
The same war that set Lawrence on a path to insanity brought his future target, Andrew Jackson, to national prominence. Born along the North Carolina-South Carolina border on March 15, 1767, Jackson was thirty-three years the elder of Lawrence. In spite of their age difference, the two men had similar childhoods. Jackson was born to poor immigrant parents, he lost his mother at a young age, and he moved early in life. And like Lawrence, Jackson was thrown into a war in adolescence. During the American Revolution, British soldiers captured thirteen-year-old Jackson as he was delivering letters between patriot forces. When a British officer demanded that Jackson clean his boots, the teenager refused to do so. The officer punished this impudence by slashing Jackson across the face with a cutlass.
Whereas Lawrence grew introverted in response to early-life torment, Jackson became indignant and came to regard anyone who disagreed with him as an enemy. This attitude led Jackson to challenge multiple men to duels. One time, rivals shot Jackson in a bar.
Like Lawrence, Jackson moved early in life, relocating from North Carolina to Tennessee, where he became a lawyer and served Tennessee in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. In 1803, he bought a farm and staffed it with African slaves. Jackson, however, would make his name as a soldier, beginning his military career as a member of the Tennessee militia. When the War of 1812 broke out, Jackson led the Tennessee militia in subduing the British-aligned Red Stick Creeks in Alabama. During the campaign, Jackson displayed little sympathy for his Indian enemies or his men. He demanded complete obedience. His hard nature earned him the name 'Old Hickory. '
Although his actions against the Creeks earned praise, Jackson cemented his legacy as one of America 's most famous generals in the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. Charged with defending New Orleans against 7,500 highly trained British soldiers, Jackson recruited Indians, pirates, freed people of color, and anyone else capable of shooting a gun into his army. When British forces marched on these rag tag defenders, Jackson ordered his men to fire cannons full of bits of metal into their lines. The attack was devastating, causing heavy casualties, and forcing the British to retreat. Newspapers throughout the United States carried news of the victory, launching Jackson to national prominence.
Jackson remained in the army following the end of the War of 1812 and he continued his no nonsense approach to discipline in spite of an end to hostilities. In one instance, he executed six militiamen who 'd mistakenly left the army when they believed that their enlistment was over. In 1816, Jackson 's forces invaded Spanish Florida to destroy a settlement of escaped slaves, and two years later, Jackson led his men into Florida, took over a Spanish city, and executed Englishmen he believed to be spies. Jackson 's brash actions displeased stodgy politicians in Washington, but the American public loved Old Hickory.
A Young Man of Excellent Habits
It would have been impossible to avoid news of Jackson 's exploits in Washington D.C., where Lawrence continued to live with his family until his father 's death in 1821. That year, Lawrence moved out and became an apprentice to one Mr. Clark, with whom he lived for three years while learning to paint houses and boats. It seems that Lawrence had a gift for at his new profession, with Clark noting that his apprentice 'was a young man of excellent habits, sober, and industrious. '
After completing his apprenticeship to Clark in 1824, Lawrence opened his own painter 's shop just outside Washington D.C. Owing to his training and impeccable work ethic, the business flourished and by 1828, Lawrence was one of the most sought after painters in the capital. Numerous congressional representatives even hired Lawrence to paint their homes, with one remarking that the young painter was an 'excellent workman ' whose conduct was 'correct and orderly. ' This reputation even earned Lawrence a job painting the White House, but no details of the visit survive.
Although Lawrence 's infectious personality, polite demeanor, and impeccable work ethic made him popular in D.C., the young man had few people that he could call a 'friend. ' He rarely went out on social occasions 'he seldom drank and never gambled. He sometimes studied the Bible, but Lawrence didn 't consider himself religious and rarely went to church. It seems, then, that for most of his youth, Lawrence 's only companions were his sisters, who described their brother as 'affectionate ' and 'kind. '
At some point in the early 1830s, Lawrence found a young woman that he felt that he could be himself around, and he began to court her. Details of their relationship are lacking, but it 's easy to see how the woman would develop an interest in Lawrence. He was young, intelligent, and, at a young age, already ran a successful business. It didn 't hurt that he was also handsome, possessing piercing dark eyes and jet black hair. Although short, the young painter dressed well, and he commanded attention whenever he entered a room.
It 's unclear if the woman ever viewed the young painter as more than a friend, but, for his part, Lawrence was in love and even told his sisters that he planned to marry the woman. In preparation, he worked overtime, saved up $800 dollars, and bought an empty lot in the city. He told the woman that he planned to build her a home on the lot and asked for her hand in marriage. She declined. The news broke Lawrence 's heart, and he fell into a deep depression. He started frequenting a salon across from the empty lot and would stand for hours on end, staring across the street, imaging what could have been.
Like Lawrence, heartbreak would define Andrew Jackson. As a young man, Jackson fell in love Rachel Donelson Robards, and in 1790, he asked for the woman 's hand in marriage. Rachel wanted to marry Jackson, but she was already betrothed to an abusive husband. In order for the couple to wed, then, Rachel petitioned the Tennessee government for a divorce. According to the newlyweds, they waited for the state to grant the petition before marrying and moving in together. Unfortunately, it seems that in reality, Rachel and Jackson actually married before Tennessee granted the divorce. This would come back to haunt the couple when Jackson decided to run for President of the United States in 1824.
That year, Jackson ran as a member of the Republican Party against fellow Republicans John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. Owing to his famous reputation, Jackson easily won the popular vote, but he failed to gain a majority of electoral votes. This left the House of Representatives to decide who would be president. The House chose Adams after Clay dropped out of the race and told his supporters to vote for Adams over Jackson. When Adams then repaid Clay by making him his Secretary of State, Jackson grew incensed, claiming the two had made a 'corrupt bargain. ' Old Hickory then quit the Republican Party, formed the Democratic Party, and spent the next four years denouncing Clay and Adams. In 1828, Jackson once again ran against Adams for the presidency.
The 1828 election was one of the nastiest, dirtiest elections in American history. Jackson 's men accused Adams of being an elitist who had sold an American child to the Tsar of Russia as a sex slave. Adams claimed that Jackson had murdered six militiamen in the War of 1812. Nothing was sacred. When Adams 's supporters discovered that Jackson had married his wife before she 'd received a divorce, they began to call Rachel all manner of names.
The attacks had little impact on voters, who would elect Jackson over Adams by a large margin, but they upset Rachel and her health suffered for it. Shortly after the election, she died of a heart attack. Jackson blamed his political enemies for his wife 's death, and when he arrived in Washington in 1829, he was prepared to use the presidency to get vengeance.
Lawrence had a much less aggressive means of alleviating heartache. Shortly after having had his marriage proposal refused, Lawrence took up landscape painting. He began studying English artists John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, who had developed a new style of Romantic painting that forewent scenes cluttered with people and instead focused on landscape settings where the background told the story. Nature scenes with ominous clouds. City sketches with buildings as the focus. Isolation. Lawrence fell in love with this new style, and he began staying up late into the night painting the surrounding city and countryside on canvas.
It seems that Lawrence excelled as an artist, and in 1832, he decided to save up money, quit his job, travel to England, and enroll in an art school, where he could learn directly from the masters. Lawrence worked all hours to save for the trip; his regular customers even donating money to help the young man achieve his dream. In November 1832, Lawrence informed his sisters that he 'd saved enough money for his trip and was leaving for New York City, where he was going to catch the first boat to England. Shortly thereafter, the optimistic young painter packed his bags and departed, ready for the next phase of his life.
He returned to Washington the next month sullen and forlorn. He 'd never made it out of New York. When his family asked what happened, Lawrence replied that it was too cold to travel. When pressed on the subject, Lawrence mumbled that no one would give him passage because New York papers had written negative things about him. He claimed that he 'd have to get his own ship and crew to sail to England. His eyes appeared distant.
Lawrence started acting strange. After complaining that local tailors had intentionally made his suits ill fitting, he started wearing the clothes of an 'English dandy ' and grew a mustache. He stopped going to work and started spending the money he 'd saved for Europe on luxury items like saddles for horses he didn 't even own. He started hiring prostitutes to ride around town with him. At one point, after telling his family that he was leaving for England, Lawrence instead went to Philadelphia and stayed at an expensive hotel.
Although Lawrence continued to go to his paint shop, he rarely worked. When his regular customers employed him, they discovered that the painter left jobs early, painted sloppily, and disturbed fellow workers with nonsensical rants. Work soon dried up and formerly happy customers went out of their way to avoid Lawrence 's shop. They didn 't want to see the young man who 'd had so much potential standing in his shop door, wearing nothing but an open cloak in the bitter cold.
By 1833, the shortage of work and the frivolous spending had left Lawrence penniless, his only remaining possessions his painter 's shop and the clothes on his back. Unable to afford rent, the painter moved in with his sister and her husband, Mr. Redfern.
Lawrence was likely displaying the first signs of paranoid schizophrenia, which usually manifests itself in persons in their late twenties and early thirties. Lawrence was 32 in 1832. In many instances, schizophrenia appears in sufferers after they 've experienced life changing events. Lawrence had just had his heart broken and had been planning to move to Europe.
Jackson in office
While Lawrence descended into madness, Jackson succumbed to anger. As president, he fired government officials who 'd supported Adams and hired his close friends in their stead. One of his first actions as president was to remove American Indians from their ancestral homeland in the Southeast on to reservations in Oklahoma. Having dealt with hostile Indians on the Tennessee frontier and the War of 1812, Jackson was unable to imagine a biracial society and wanted to keep Indians separate from whites. Indian removal upset many of Jackson 's friends, leading the president to ostracize them. Jackson upset others when he removed funds from the National Bank, owing, in part, to a personal disagreement with the bank 's president.
During his first term in office, Jackson even came into conflict with his own Vice President, John C. Calhoun. A state 's rights advocate, Calhoun felt that state governments could nullify national laws that they found unconstitutional. When Jackson discovered Calhoun 's stance, he saw it as a challenge to his presidential authority and excluded Calhoun from his political circle. Calhoun 's wife furthered the divide between President and Vice President by turning her nose up at Peggy Eaton, wife of Jackson Secretary of War, John Eaton. Calhoun 's wife refused to socialize with Peggy based on rumors of her infidelity. Jackson saw this treatment as comparable to what had happened to his wife during the 1828 election, so he sided with the Eatons over the Calhouns.
The Jackson-Calhoun relationship was severed forever in 1832. That year, Calhoun joined his home state of South Carolina in threatening to secede from the Union if the U.S. didn 't lower an international tariff. Jackson seethed and threatened to hang Calhoun from a tree. The only thing preventing him for doing so was a last minute compromise with South Carolina.
By 1832, much of Washington opposed Jackson. The president, however, continued to enjoy the love of the people. As such, when Jackson ran for president again in 1832, voters reelected him by a large margin.
I will put a ball through your head
While Jackson made life hell for his political opponents, Lawrence did the same for his family. He 'd spend days sitting alone in his room staring at the wall. Sometimes he sat in silence. Other times, he 'd carry on prolonged conversations with himself, which he punctuated with bouts of maniacal laughter. Lawrence 's sister and her husband grew concerned 'Redfern so much so that his wife had to talk him out of kicking her brother out of the house. She insisted that Lawrence would regain his senses if given time.
Unfortunately for all involved, she was wrong. Things only got worse. By late 1833, Lawrence began displaying signs of extreme paranoia. He 'd started making threats and accusing people of talking behind his back. When he thought that a housekeeper was laughing at him, he told her that he was going to 'blow her head off ' and 'cut her throat. ' When a man asked about some money Lawrence owed him, the painter acted as if the man wasn 't there. When the man then said that he 'd have Lawrence committed, the young painter turned, stared, and warned, 'I will put a ball through your head. '
Soon threats of violence turned real. Lawrence started hitting his sister, one of the few people who still cared about him. In a particularly brutal encounter, the future assassin threw his sister to the ground and tried to hit her over the head with a four-pound weight. The assault proved to be the last straw for Redfern, who insisted that the local constable throw his brother-in-law in jail.
Lawrence remained in the local jail until a Grand Jury decided against bringing him up on assault charges. It 's unclear why they did so, but it may owe to the fact that Lawrence 's case was the last on the day 's docket and the jury wanted to go home. While Lawrence would leave jail a free man, he would soon be homeless. Unwilling to endanger his wife further, Redfern informed Lawrence that he couldn 't return to his home.
Lawrence spent the following months moving from one boarding house to the next, staying until owners realized the painter couldn 't afford to pay rent. During this time, Lawrence continued to go to his paint shop in the morning, but he 'd leave before noon. He had found a new passion. For the first time in his life, Lawrence started paying attention to politics. As such, he began spending afternoons on Capitol Hill watching congressional debates 'the government allowed citizens to sit in on congress back then. Lawrence attended these debates so frequently that he came to the attention of a grounds attendant. When the man tried to speak to Lawrence, the painter refused to talk and sulked away.
A Caesar who ought to have a Brutus
While sitting in on Congress, Lawrence witnessed some of the most vitriolic debates in American history. By 1832, Jackson 's actions had earned him a number of enemies in Washington. So many so, that an entire political party, the Whigs, formed in opposition to Jackson (the Whigs took their name from a group who had opposed the King of England. Hence, the U.S. Whigs were opposing the American king, King Jackson). The Whigs included among their Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and John C. Calhoun. Although these men differed in their vision for the nation, a hatred for Jackson united them.
Day after day on Capitol Hill, the Whigs would attack Jackson. They claimed that he was out to destroy the American republic in order to make himself a king. Whigs accused Jackson of corruption, incompetence, and ignorance and did everything they could to stop the president 's political agenda.
Jackson refused to compromise with his enemies and actually escalated matters by publishing physical threats to the opposition in his personal newspaper. Perhaps owing to this, Jackson received death threats and in 1833, disgruntled voter Robert B. Randolph punched Jackson in the face when he saw the president on a steamboat. In 1834, Jackson heard rumors that 5,000 men were gathering in Baltimore to stage a coup. Instead of thoughtfully deliberating on how to deal with the angry mob, the president simply threatened to march on Baltimore and hang the whole lot.
Threats of violence soon became the norm for both Jackson and the Whigs, with perhaps the most direct reference to using physical harm to achieve political ends coming on January 28, 1835. That day, former Vice President John C. Calhoun made a speech where he referred to Jackson as 'a Caesar who ought to have a Brutus. ' Brutus was the man who’d assassinated Roman Emperor Julius Caesar.
Damn General Jackson
Lawrence was in the audience for Calhoun 's speech, one of many anti-Jackson speeches the painter witnessed from 1834-1835. The rhetoric seems to have had an effect on Lawrence 's delusional brain. Over time, the speeches, memories of ill-treatment during childhood, and schizophrenic delusions collided in Lawrence 's brain. In a process that only schizophrenics can possibly understand, Lawrence grew to hate Jackson. He became obsessed with the president, and his deluded brain turned Jackson into a monster. He was the source of all of Lawrence 's misfortune and a plague on the American people. Someone that needed to be stopped.
Lawrence’s brain invented reasons to hate the president, retroactively blaming Jackson for everything that had gone wrong in Lawrence’s life. He couldn 't find work because Jackson had destroyed the national bank. Jackson had stopped Lawrence from traveling to Europe to become an artist. Jackson killed Lawrence 's father 'Lawrence even came to believe that his father was one of the six militiamen whom Jackson had executed for desertion.
When some part of Lawrence 's mentally ill mind reminded him that, as president of the United States, Jackson was powerful, the young painter developed a new persona. At first, he started to believe he was a royal heir with land titles in England who was owed a large inheritance by the U.S. Congress–Jackson kept Congress from repaying the debt.
By the end of 1834, Lawrence must have realized that he’d need to be someone more important than an heir to the throne to challenge Jackson, so his delusions grew. He eventually came to believe that he was the King of England.
As king, Lawrence felt it was his responsibility to kill the insubordinate Jackson. With Jackson out of the way, Vice President Martin Van Buren would assume the presidency, recognize Lawrence 's claim to the English throne, and authorize Congress to pay the millions it owed the painter. Lawrence could then take his inheritance, travel to England, and take his rightful place on the throne.
Acquaintances began to overhear Lawrence refer to himself as king and the president as 'damn General Jackson ' the 'tyrant. ' By the last months of 1834, Lawrence was telling anyone who 'd listen that he planned to 'put a pistol ' to Jackson. No one took him seriously. After all, plenty of people in Washington wanted Jackson dead.
In the first days of 1835, Lawrence armed himself with a pair of brass pistols that had belonged to his father, and he began practicing with the weapons in anticipation of shooting the president. He 'd stay up late into the night firing at imaginary targets from his bedroom window. During the day, he 'd set up a one inch plank outside his paint shop and use it as target practice. After testing his weapons, Lawrence determined that his bullets passed through the board at thirty yards but no farther. Therefore, he 'd have to be within this distance to ensure that Jackson died of his wounds.
Lawrence may never have tested this theory had he not had been sitting in the foyer of a boarding house on the evening of January 29, 1835. While warming himself by a fire, he overheard a fellow boarder mention that he 'd just finished building a coffin for recently deceased Congressman Warren Davis. Because Davis had been a Jackson ally, Lawrence perked up and asked the coffin maker if the president would be at the funeral. When the man answered in the affirmative, Lawrence nodded and went back to staring into the fire.
The next morning Lawrence went to his shop, sat on his workbench, and started reading a history of the British Empire. After reading a particularly poignant passage, he closed the book, laughed, and said to himself, 'I 'll be damned if I don 't do it! ' He then grabbed his two pistols, which he 'd cleaned and loaded just a few days before, stuffed them in his jacket, and headed to Capitol Hill. He was going to kill the President of the United States.
Jackson woke up that day as he had any other and dressed to attend the funeral of Congressman Davis on Capitol Hill. When he arrived, he found the funeral attended by almost every politician in Washington D.C. Jackson took his place at the front of the audience and sat listening to the preacher 's eulogy. It was long, the preacher droning on about the frailty of life. Jackson, always uncomfortable with formality, shifted in his seat, waiting for the service to end.
I 'll be damned if I don 't do it
As Lawrence walked the streets of Washington 'which was particularly damp that day 'he ran through his plans in his head. He 'd wait outside the capitol building for Jackson to leave Davis 's funeral. When the president emerged, Lawrence would walk up to him and fire his first pistol into the president 's chest. Jackson would die instantly. Seeing this, onlookers would cheer Lawrence for ridding the nation of a horrible tyrant and would protect him from Jackson 's cronies. If one somehow got through, Lawrence would use his second pistol to defend himself. The assassin hoped he wouldn 't have to shoot his second pistol. He didn 't want to hurt anyone besides Jackson.
Upon arriving at Capitol Hill, Lawrence found the funeral still in progress. Peering through a window in the lobby, Lawrence saw the president seated with his back to the door. For a moment, Lawrence contemplated walking into the hall and shooting the president in the back of the head. Although he could have done so easily, Lawrence dismissed the idea. He didn 't want to interrupt the funeral. That would be rude.
Instead, Lawrence moved to the Capitol rotunda and took up a position just outside the door. He 'd shoot Jackson once he stepped out of the building on the way to his carriage. Lawrence held one pistol in his right coat pocket, one in the left, and waited.
Before long, people began streaming out of the Congressional Hall, signaling that the funeral had ended. Scanning the crowd, Lawrence located Jackson arm in arm with Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury. Hoping to gain an audience with the president, a throng of politicians gathered around the two. This presented a problem, as Lawrence didn 't want to hurt anyone besides Jackson. So the assassin decided to step to the right when shooting at the president. That way, when the ball passed through Jackson 's body, it would hit a wall, not the Secretary of the Treasury or an innocent bystander. With his plan in place, Lawrence watched as the president hobbled in his direction.
Although Jackson noticed the mustachioed man in the strange dress staring in his direction, he paid him little mind, having other matters to worry about. Leaning on his Secretary of Treasury for support, Jackson tried to make his way through the crowd to his awaiting carriage.
When the president came near, Lawrence stepped away from the wall and briskly walked toward him.
Jackson noticed the man coming in his direction, but before he could say or do anything, he saw the man stop at a distance of eight feet, reach into his coat pocket, and pull out a single shot pistol.
From this distance, Lawrence couldn 't miss and he knew that his shot would be fatal. So he leveled his pistol, aimed it at Jackson 's chest, and pulled the trigger. Smoke and noise filled the air. Everyone fell silent.
Lawrence knew that his aim had been perfect, but when he looked to Jackson, there was no evidence that he 'd been shot. No gaping bullet hole in his chest. Jackson looked shocked, but was uninjured. Lawrence was confused. There was no way he could have missed at this range. Not with how much he 'd practiced. The only explanation was that his gun must have malfunctioned. Although Lawrence had cleaned the weapon and loaded it with high-quality powder, the damp air must have caused it to misfire.
Whatever the case, Lawrence had a contingency plan: his second pistol. He calmly dropped his malfunctioned weapon, withdrew his remaining pistol, and fired it at Jackson. Once again, the gun went off, but once again Jackson was without bullet holes. The second pistol had also failed. Lawrence experienced an adrenaline dump. For all of his planning, he 'd failed because of humidity. It 's been estimated that the chances of two of Lawrence 's particular type of weapon failing at the same time were 125,000 to 1. Although the actual number is probably closer to 400 to 1, either way, Jackson was lucky. That or Lawrence was unlucky.
There 's a popular tale that following the second gun 's malfunction, Jackson lunged at Lawrence and beat him with his cane. This assertion is false, although Jackson would display amazing wherewithal during the encounter. After the first shot, most in the rotunda looked confused or fell to the ground to avoid bullets. The president, on the other hand, quickly realized what was happening and when he saw Lawrence reach into his pocket for a second weapon, he grabbed his cane and attempted to charge his assailant before he could bring the weapon to bear.
Although he wouldn 't reach the assassin before he was able to fire off his second pistol, the sight of the old man alarmed Lawrence. He thought Jackson 's cane might be concealing a sword, meaning the president could stab him before the audience had a chance to come to his rescue. Fortunately for Lawrence, he was able to easily dodge the president’s blow–the momentum of the swing sending Jackson tumbling away. Lawrence ducked a second attack from Secretary Woodbury. The assassin was unable, however, to allude Navy Captain Thomas Gedney who hit him from behind. Even then, Lawrence tried to get up to defend himself, but a throng of men 'including Davy Crockett, known for wrestling bears 'subdued him.
Lawrence struggled to understand what was happening. Why were these men holding him down? Why wasn 't the crowd coming to his rescue? Why did they, instead, look angry? Some were even shooting 'Kill him! Kill him! ' In fact, the only thing keeping the crowd from ripping Lawrence to pieces was Captain Gedney, who kept imploring the angry mob to leave the assassin alone so the law could determine his fate. Confused by his weapons ' failure and the crowd 's reaction, Lawrence submitted and allowed Gedney and the Capitol Hill Master at Arms to escort him to the local jail.
The least disturbed person in the room
Jackson appeared unfazed by the assassination attempt. Not only did he personally tried to disarm Lawrence, but after the crowd subdued the assassin, the president tried to push through the mass of bodies to beat the downed young man. Attendants had to forcefully restrain Jackson and escort him to his carriage.
After leaving the scene, Jackson 's anger subsided and the president displayed no sign that he 'd almost lost his life. He said nothing on the trip to the White House and once there, he went about his day as if nothing had happened. He held meetings and played with his nephews. When Vice President Van Buren visited, he found Jackson 'the least disturbed person in the room. ' Another visitor described the president as 'cool, calm, and collected. '
He would not remain so. In the days that followed, Jackson 's demeanor reverted to anger. As he 'd done throughout his life, he would come to believe that Lawrence had been a part of a plot to destroy him. Jackson became paranoid.
He could not rise unless the president fell
Locked in the local jail, Lawrence paced his cell as Nathaniel Causin and Thomas Sewall, two of Washington D.C. 's most prominent doctors, interviewed him. Lawrence fascinated the two men. They found the failed assassin to be in excellent physical shape, thoughtful, polite, and, when speaking on certain subjects, coherent and intelligent. But when the subject of Jackson arose, the doctors observed Lawrence grow nonsensical. One minute, he 'd rant that Jackson was an evil tyrant. The next, he 'd act as if the president were insignificant, below him, and unworthy of discussion.
When Causin and Sewall tried to determine motivation behind the crime, it became clear that Lawrence was delusional. Asked why he 'd tried to kill Jackson, Lawrence replied that 'he could not rise unless the president fell. ' In addition, with the president dead, the national bank would return, 'money would be more plenty, ' and people would have work. Although Lawrence refused to say whether anyone had put him up to the assassination attempt, the doctors determined that the man was insane and had acted alone.
The American public read Causin and Sewall 's assessment, but were hesitant to believe it. It seemed impossible that a man of so little significance could come that close to killing the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Developments confirmed their disbelief. When Lawrence was called to testify before a Grand Jury on February 1, he acted cool and confident, displaying no hint of the insanity to which Causin and Sewall had alluded. When a newspaper interviewed Lawrence in his jail cell a few days later, he, again, showed no sign of delusion.
Lawrence 's change in behavior led many to conclude that the assassin was in full control of his faculties when he attempted to assassinate Jackson. Instead of delusional mad man, he was a Whig assassin. He 'd been paid or coerced into shooting Jackson. Calhoun was the main suspect to these conspiracy theorists.
Jackson counted himself among the conspiracy theorists, but he believed the assassination to be 'a damned Poindexter affair. ' Senator George Poindexter of Mississippi and Jackson had been friends early in life. They 'd served together in the Battle of New Orleans and Poindexter had defended Jackson 's decision to invade Florida. By 1835, however, the two men had grown apart, Poindexter growing increasingly unhappy with the president 's policies. Jackson saw this change in attitude as a betrayal, and he started treating Poindexter as an enemy. Poindexter responded in kind, becoming one of Jackson 's most ardent critics.
To Jackson’s paranoid brain, it made sense that Poindexter had put Lawrence up to the shooting. He believed that his enemies would go to no ends to destroy him and was unwilling to accept that a demented man was responsible for the assassination attempt. When someone mentioned Lawrence 's delusions in the president’s presence, Jackson charged that there 'was no insanity in the case. ' Lawrence was, instead, a 'tool ' and 'there was a plot. ' Jackson let the press know his beliefs and asked the public to provide evidence of a conspiracy.
Circumstantial evidence poured in. It was soon revealed that Senator Poindexter had paid Lawrence to paint his home a few months before the shooting, and two witnesses claimed to have seen Poindexter enter into the boarding house Lawrence was staying at shortly before the attempted assassination. This proved to be enough evidence for Jackson. He wanted Poindexter brought up on charges.
The accusations flabbergasted Poindexter. He argued that while it was true that he had hired Lawrence, so had many on Capitol Hill. It didn 't mean he was a friend to the assassin. As for the two witnesses, they turned out to be notorious criminals who couldn 't identify Lawrence 's home or what Poindexter looked like. In light of these revelations, a congressional committee exonerated Poindexter of any wrongdoing. The ruling did little to convince Jackson. He continued to believe that his political enemies had hired Lawrence to kill him.
The president wasn’t alone in believing that Lawrence had been a part of a conspiracy. Anti-Jackson congressmen alleged that the assassin was, in reality, a Jackson plant. The president had recruited Lawrence and given him rigged guns to use in a fake assassination. As evidence of this, Whig politicians noted that Jackson 's friend Andrew Donaldson had violated court orders by taking the weapons from police custody. Why would he tamper with evidence?
To these conspiracy theorists, Jackson had staged a fake assassination attempt in order to gain public sympathy and political capital. At the same time, Jackson could then blame his opponents for the assassination, which would lead to jail terms or at least public hatred. The failed assassination would make also Jackson appear divine 'in fact, many would come to believe that providence had stepped in to make the guns misfire 'and therefore 'whatever Jackson did had the support of God. ' In fact, much of the public did come to see divine intervention as having spared Jackson, which further fueled Whig conspiracy theorists. The president himself encouraged this line of thinking by saying 'a kind of providence ' had done something 'to shield me. '
Was it possible that Lawrence was part of some grand conspiracy? Did a Whig politician put him up to the assassination? Did Jackson himself?
No. Lawrence was insane, something that the public and the many doctors who would treat him would come to understand. Because Lawrence survived the assassination, he would demonstrate this insanity countless times. Yes, Lawrence occasionally displayed coherence after the assassination, but deeply disturbed individuals can appear sane for short periods of time. Had Lawrence died on the day of the assassination or had he been killed in the days after (like JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald) it 's likely that many historians would conclude that the assassination was a conspiracy.
Lawrence demonstrated his insanity by wearing English royalty clothes to his criminal trial on April 11, 1835. This may have been intentional because Lawrence 's lawyer planned to argue that his client couldn 't be convicted or murder based on reasons of insanity. He was incapable of understanding the gravity of his actions. It would be the prosecution attorney 's job, then, to prove that Lawrence understood what he was doing (The prosecution attorney just happened to be Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner).
As soon as the court session opened on April 11, 1835, Lawrence stood, addressed himself as King Richard, and informed the jury 'you are under me. ' He continued ranting throughout the trial, standing whenever he found something objectionable. When a member of the court asked Lawrence to take his seat after one of his outbursts, the would-be assassin replied, 'mind your business or I 'll treat you with severity. ' Although the prosecution asked for Lawrence to be removed from the court, the defense successfully fought the motion.
Family, friends, and clients were paraded before the courtroom to testify about the change in Lawrence 's behavior over the past two years. Doctors testified that Lawrence was demented, no longer had a grasp on reality, and was unable to tell right from wrong. The outbursts and witnesses testimony left little doubt about Lawrence 's sanity in the jury 's mind. They deliberated for less than five minutes before declaring Lawrence not guilty by reason of insanity. Lawrence was removed from the courtroom and escorted to a newly constructed mental institution.
In spite of the verdict, Jackson continued to believe that his enemies had put up Lawrence to the assassination. So did voters in Poindexter 's home state of Mississippi. He lost his next election for senator.
Although Jackson would finish out the remainder of his presidency, he spent the rest of his life paranoid that his enemies were after him. This, however, did nothing to stop his violent political rhetoric. When asked if he had any regrets from his presidency, Jackson replied that he had two. He 'd 'been unable to shoot Henry Clay or hang John C. Calhoun.” Jackson died of natural causes on June 8, 1845.
The assassination attempt may have been the best thing to happen to Richard Lawrence. After the trial, he was committed to a mental institution in nearby Baltimore, where he remained for the rest of his life. According to a reporter who visited the would-be assassin, Lawrence 's pseudo-celebrity made him popular among fellow patients: they’d constantly ask the self-proclaimed King of England for land and titles, which Lawrence would happily grant. It seems that Lawrence was finally able to devote his attention to his passion in life, landscape painting. The would-be assassin painted every day until his death on June 13, 1861.
Richard C. Rohrs, 'Partisan Politics and the Attempted Assassination of Andrew Jackson, ' Journal of the Early Republic , Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), pp. 149-163.
James W. Clarke American Assassins: An Alternative Typology British Journal of Political Science , Vol. 11, No. 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 81-104
Adam Hedgecoe Schizophrenia and the Narrative of Enlightened Geneticization Social Studies of Science , Vol. 31, No. 6 (Dec., 2001), pp. 875-911
Marco M Picchioni and Robin M Murray Schizophrenia BMJ: British Medical Journal , Vol. 335, No. 7610 (14 July 2007), pp. 91-95
Herbert Heaton The Industrial Immigrant in the United States, 1783-1812 Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society , Vol. 95, No. 5 (Oct. 17, 1951), pp. 519-527
February 9, 1835 - Times (Hartford, CT)
February 4, 1835 - Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, MD)
February 16, 1835 - Connecticut Courant (Hartford, CT)
January 31, 1814 - Federal Republican (Georgetown, DC)
February 17, 1835 - Paper: Gloucester Democrat (Gloucester, MA)
February 14, 1835 - Paper: Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics
February 6, 1835 - Paper: Newburyport Herald
March 2, 1835 - Paper: Richmond Whig (Richmond, VA)
February 9, 1835 - Paper: Newark Daily Advertiser
February 9, 1835 - Paper: Times (Hartford, CT