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Top 10 Wildest Reasons People Tried to Kill a U.S. President

by Nora McCaughey
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

What would drive someone to kill the leader of the free world?

The answers may not be as political as you think. Not everyone has a statement to make or a human they want dead. Sometimes, the wrong people get a weapon in their hands and the right opportunity.

Although only four U.S. presidents have been assassinated, there have been attempts on dozens of their lives. Here are some of the weirdest reasons these criminals have given in their own defenses.

Related: Ten Ways Your Nurse Might Kill You

10 To Get Back at the FBI–Sara Jane Moore

Why she tried to kill the president

At first glance, Sara Jane Moore seems like any other single mother, working hard to support her children. Look a bit closer, though, and you’ll find a secretive and dynamic woman: So secretive, in fact, that she worked as an FBI informant.

Suddenly, the FBI cut off all communication with the 45-year-old woman. Paranoid, Moore immediately jumped to the conclusion that the FBI was planning to kill her. In a 1982 interview, seven years after Moore missed shooting Gerald Ford by a few inches, she claimed she thought she was “going to go down anyway.” She figured, “If the government was going to kill me, I was going to make some kind of statement.”[1]

9 He Was Trying to Break through the “Alien Mist”–Francisco Martin Duran

Fransisco Martin Duran

One of many attempts on the life of Bill Clinton was by Francisco Martin Duran, who opened fire on the White House lawn at a group of men, which, luckily, did not include Clinton. Though no one was harmed, the trial was elevated by Duran’s defense.

Pleading insanity, Duran spun a tale of trying to save the world from alien “mist,” which was connected by an umbilical cord to aliens in the Colorado mountains. Pretty insane, right?

Maybe too insane. Prosecutors claimed he was faking insanity in order to get a lighter sentence. Duran’s previous anti-Clinton statements were brought up by witnesses, and he was eventually found guilty and in his right mind. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison and is not eligible for parole.[2]

8 He Hated Catholics–Richard Paul Pavlick

The Suicide Bomber That Almost Killed Kennedy

There are a lot of reasons to be against a politician, but religion usually isn’t one of the common ones. Not so for Richard Paul Pavlick, who tried to kill John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Like many people who attempted to kill the president, Pavlick thought he was keeping the United States safe from “controlling ideologies foreign to the American way of life.” Unlike other assassins, Pavlick didn’t believe this ideology was communism or fascism; instead, it was Catholicism.

That’s right, the religion that now comprises almost 19% of the U.S. population was one so controversial as to drive a man to murder. Even odder, Pavlick grew up in South Boston, one of the most Catholic areas in the country.[3]

7 To Make Marijuana Legal–Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez

CBS Evening News – WH shooting suspect compares Obama to “Anti-Christ”

Though it only took place a few years ago, Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez’s attempt on President Barack Obama’s life probably doesn’t ring a bell for many readers.

This shooting was so low-key it’s barely considered an assassination attempt. As a matter of fact, it took the Secret Service four whole days to realize that bullets had hit the White House at all!

Ortega-Hernadez was able to land seven bullets on the second floor, but luckily no one was hit. Even if he had been able to aim for someone, it would haven’t been Obama: He was not at the White House at the time.

When asked for a motive, Ortega-Hernandez said that he believed that Obama was oppressing the citizens of the United States, particularly by “continuing to criminalize the use of marijuana.”

I thought weed was supposed to make people less violent.[4]

6 To Save the Trees–Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme

Ford recalls 1975 assassination attempt

Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme took the meaning “treehugger” to a whole new level.

Squeaky is more famous for her connection to the infamous Manson family than she is for her ill-fated attempt on President Gerald Ford’s life in 1975, but the two are inherently related.

When asked her motive, Squeaky responded that she was trying to bring attention to the environmental pollution Ford’s government was bringing to America, particularly on the California Redwoods, which she claimed were going to fall down soon. This is in line with ATWA, a belief system held by Manson himself, which claims that the environment holds the balance of the earth.

During the trial, Squeaky claimed, “I wasn’t going to shoot him. I just wanted to get some attention for a new trial for Charlie and the girls,” referring to Charles Manson and his female cult following.

So, to recap, her reasons were as follows: Promoting the cult leader and murderer Charles Manson and protecting the trees.

Maybe let the Lorax handle it next time.[5]

5 He Wanted a Job–Charles Guiteau

The Presidential Assassination Nobody Talks About

We all handle unemployment differently. Charles Guiteau handled it by using all his spare time plotting to kill the president, James Garfield.

Despite having absolutely no political experience, Guiteau spent much of his free time (of which he had a lot: Remember, no job) campaigning for whichever politician he was rooting for at the time. In 1880, his interest peaked in the Stalwart party, resulting in his penning a speech in favor of Ulysses S. Grant called “Grant against Hancock.” When James Garfield ended up winning the Republican nomination, Guiteau literally just switched the name “Grant” for “Garfield” and read the speech out loud a few times to passersby.

For this labor, Guiteau felt he deserved part of the credit when Garfield became president. After deciding he wanted to be ambassador to France, Guiteau was able to speak to the Secretary of State, who promptly told him it wasn’t happening.

Angry at being stiffed by the politician he believed he had helped become president, Guiteau shot Garfield in 1881. But that’s not the end of the Guiteau saga.

Obsessed with himself, Guiteau genuinely believed that the country would love and admire him after murdering their new leader. He threw away any remaining dignity after the crime by representing himself in court and changing his motive every day.

Neck in the noose, for his final moments, Guiteau broke out in song, joyously claiming that he was “going to the Lordy.”[6]

4 To Impress a Girl—John Hinckley Jr.

How A Man Obssesed With Jodie Foster Nearly Killed The President (John Hinkley Jr) | Our History

Not just any girl, but blockbuster movie star Jodie Foster.

After seeing her in the movie Taxi Driver, John Hinckley Jr. became obsessed with the 12-year-old actress. After six years of stalking her, Hinckley became fed up with being a nobody and resolved to take drastic measures to change this.

Hinckley’s case is an interesting one because it has absolutely no political background. Hinckley didn’t care who he killed as long as it was someone important enough to get him on the news, where he could profess his love for Foster. This is so true that a few years prior to his 1981 attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life, he was actually planning on killing Jimmy Carter, the president before him. It made no difference to him.

Foster, who was only 18 at the time, did not comment on the crime and has seldom done so throughout the years.[7]

3 He Wanted to Be King—Richard Lawrence

The 1835 Assassination Attempt on Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson was sometimes called “King” Andrew, as a jab at his power in the U.S. meant to invoke feelings of hatred against the monarchy Americans had fought against fifty years earlier.

Richard Lawrence, however, didn’t have any negative connotations with the title. A humble house painter, Lawrence believed himself to be the rightful king of England. Furthermore, he thought that “King” Andrew Jackson was the only man standing in the way of the throne he was owed. Never mind the fact that they were both born in America.

Lawrence tried to shoot the former president on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, but his gun misfired. Before any officials could apprehend him, 67-year-old Jackson lifted his cane and started to violently beat Lawrence with it.

No wonder the Secret Service wasn’t established in Jackson’s time: He didn’t need them.[8]

2 He Had a Stomachache—Giuseppe Zangara

Assassination Attempt on FDR – 1933 | Today In History | 15 Feb 17

Giuseppe Zangara was a poor immigrant and a poor shot. He shot eight rounds from his gun, aiming for president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, and ended up hitting five people, none of them FDR.

Why did he feel the need to hurt one of the most beloved U.S. politicians of all time? Well, it really boils down to this: Giuseppe’s stomach hurt.

No, really. He had been suffering from chronic pain in his stomach for years, which doctors told him was incurable. Desperate to have someone to blame for his constant torture, Zangara reasoned that capitalism made him poor, forced him to do physical labor for money throughout his life, and that that labor was what caused the stomach pain.

If only they’d had Tums in 1933.[9]

1 A Ghost Told Him To—John Schrank

How Teddy Roosevelt Got Shot and Still Did an 84 Minute Speech

Many people know the story of the time Teddy Roosevelt was shot in the chest in the middle of a speech—and continued to finish the speech. Not as many know the story behind why Bavarian immigrant John Shrank shot him in the first place.

Maybe that’s because it’s a little… well… silly. Shrank claimed he tried to kill him because he had a dream where the ghost of former President William McKinley pointed to Roosevelt and told Shrank that Roosevelt had killed him and that Schrank needed to avenge his death.

In Shrank’s defense, there’s a bit of context to this. Roosevelt became president due to the sudden assassination of McKinley (by Leon Czolgosz, who is not on this list). After that, he served another term, and at this point in history, he was running for his third term. This would make him the first U.S. president in history to serve for three terms if elected.

Shrank felt Roosevelt was disrespecting a sacred American tradition, which is probably part of the reason he felt McKinley would have wanted him to take revenge.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen