Perhaps inspired by my recent trip to Las Vegas (more on that soon) or quarter-long addiction to BCS rankings, I decided to take a look at something most sports bettors have never considered: who, in the long history of vicious attacks on the president, is history’s greatest presidential assassin? Who is the most despicable, most insane, most diabolical? Who is the biggest ass(assin)?
Here’s my seeded list, ripe for a single-elimination tournament:
- John Wilkes Booth. The actor and playboy-turned-sociopath takes the number one seed because the man was truly a pioneer in the field of being a murderous asshole. The first man to successfully assassinate a U.S. president, the first man to escape the scene of the crime, and the first man to do so sporting a totally bitchin’ mustache, he gets bonus points for killing Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest men to ever emerge from American politics, and doing so in an exceedingly dickish and underhanded way: sneaking up behind him while he enjoyed a fine theatrical performance of “Our American Cousin.”
- Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald misses the first seed simply because of lack of originality—John F. Kennedy was the fourth and, as of the date of publishing, last president to be assassinated. Oswald takes the second seed, however, due to his absolutely abhorrent success in destroying an American icon and the dreams of an entire generation, not to mention the fact that he managed to convince a sizable chunk of the population he was working with an accomplice. Two birds with one stone or one bird with two stones?
- Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz was an anarchist, likely from birth due to the refusal of his surname to adhere to any sort of sensible rule system for spelling or pronunciation. He was able to smuggle a concealed pistol to the Pan-American Exposition and attended a meet-and-greet with William McKinley, shooting the president twice when his turn came to shake his hand. McKinley was still standing after Czolgoszszszzsz was punched, subdued, and dragged away from the scene, but one of the two bullets was never found—despite one of the world’s first x-ray machines being demonstrated at the exposition—and McKinley succumbed to infection and gangrene six days later.
- Charles Guiteau. Many of the men on this list are insane, but few are as batshit insane as Charles Guiteau, who, after murdering a defenseless and bodyguard-less James Garfield, proceeded to deliver testimony in his trial in the form of epic poems while soliciting legal advice from random courtroom observers. During his trial (at which he was found incredibly guilty) he both penned an autobiography which concluded with a Craigslist-esque ad for “an elegant Christian lady” to be his wife and made plans to run for the presidency.
- John Schrank. Here was a man who did everything right, and yet still made one crucial mistake: he tried to kill Theodore Roosevelt. Nobody can kill Teddy Roosevelt. Schrank shot the man in the chest and the president guffawed (Teddy Roosevelt never simply laughed) and continued on with his 90-minute speech as planned before seeking medical attention, opening his remarks to the crowd by saying, “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot… The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.” As well executed as the shot was—Schrank followed Roosevelt around the country for weeks heeding the advice of William McKinley’s ghost—Schrank never had a chance.
- Sirhan Sirhan. While he didn’t kill a president, few assassins have potentially changed history as much as Sirhan, who murdered Robert Kennedy as the latter made a run for the presidency. Kennedy was gaining ground in the Democratic primary against sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey when Sirhan struck, and Humphrey went on to lose narrowly to one Richard Milhous Nixon. Had Kennedy survived and defeated Nixon as his brother did eight years earlier, the nation would not experience Watergate, Kent State, and a general air of sliminess, replaced instead with devilishly handsome good looks and more charisma than your level-eighty paladin.
- John Hinckley, Jr. Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan in order to win the heart of Jodie Foster. Reagan survived. Foster did not return Hinckley’s calls.
- Vladimir Arutyunian. In a rare attempt at double-president assassination, Arutyunian threw a live Soviet hand grenade at a podium where George W. Bush and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili (different kind of Georgian president than Jimmy Carter) were speaking. Probably because he used a live Soviet grenade, the explosive failed to, well, explode, but did manage to bruise the small girl Arutyunian hit with it.
- William Henry Harrison. Harrison finds himself seeded in the middle of our list because of the extreme dichotomy of his performance: he is the only assassin to kill a sitting U.S. president and suffer no legal consequences, but was only able to do so because of an extremely serendipitous combination of inclement weather, a verbose commander-in-chief, and insufficient raingear. Harrison’s weapon of choice was pneumonia, and he has a lasting legacy among this list for being the only assassin to have also been elected president.
- Giuseppe Zangara. As Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech in Miami, Zangara decided that, since he never had a chance to kill Hebert Hoover, one president was as good as another and pulled out his pistol. Unfortunately for him, Zangara stood a mere five feet tall and had to perch himself on a rickety folding chair to see over the crowd, causing all five of his shots to fly wildly astray.
- Lynette Fromme. A member of the Manson family, Fromme showed up in Sacramento to plead with president Gerald Ford about redwoods. While dressed as a nun. And carrying a .45 Colt pistol. Fromme was quickly subdued by the Secret Service.
- Richard Paul Pavlick. The simple case of a cold killer finding a conscience, 73-year-old Pavlick was set to ram his Buick full of dynamite into John F. Kennedy’s car when he noticed the president’s wife and kids were with him. Four days later, Secret Service agents found Pavlick in his car—still loaded with dynamite—and promptly arrested him.
- Richard Lawrence. Two flint-lock pistols, one fired from thirteen feet, one fired at point-blank range. If not but for the fickle hand of fate, Lawrence would find himself much higher on this list and Andrew Jackson—the first president to suffer an attack on his life—would find himself replaced on the twenty dollar bill by his vice president, John C. Calhoun. As history stands, Lawrence ranks near the bottom of our list because after two misfires Jackson beat Lawrence into submission with his cane, no Secret Service required.
- Samuel Byck. Byck’s plan to kill Richard Nixon involved a two gallon drum of gasoline, a lighter, and a hijacked DC-9 he intended to fly into the White House. The plane never left the runway, and the plot of the notably Caucasian Byck succeeded about as well as his attempt to join the Black Panthers.
- Sara Jane Moore. Let’s just say Gerry Ford was a ladies’ man.
- Frank Eugene Corder. Many people do stupid things when they drink. Few get drunk, then steal a Cessna and crash it into the South Lawn of the White House in an attempt to kill Bill Clinton. And only Frank Eugene Corder has done that on a night his target wasn’t even in the White House.