19 Apr 2021

History:

Lost Capitol Hill: An Attempted Assassination at the Capitol

Richard Lawrence

I am always on the lookout for unusual occurrences here on the Hill, and especially at the Capitol. And shootings definitely count. Even attempted shootings.

This particular event was also the very first of a woefully long list— attempted assassinations of US Presidents. It took place on January 30, 1835, a cold and damp day. President Andrew Jackson was at the Capitol for the funeral of Warren R. Davis.

Davis had been representing South Carolina 6th District for some eight years, and was in Washington prior to being sworn in to his fifth term when he quite suddenly died. The funeral was at the Capitol the following day. The Alexandria Gazette tells the story:

Yesterday, as the funeral procession of the late Mr. Davis was moving from the Rotunda of the Capitol, a man advanced, and, within eight or nine feet of the President, deliberately drew a pistol and attempted to shoot him with it. The pistol snapped – when he drew and levelled another, and that snapped also. – He was instantly seized, thrown down and disarmed.

The Washington Globe added that, even as the assassin raised his second pistol, the President had “raised his stick and was rushing upon him.” Two bystanders attempted to apprehend the assassin, who fled through the crowd and was knocked down. The Globe continues: “The President pressed after him until he was secured.”

The thwarted assassin was taken before local magistrate Judge Cranch, where he said that his name was Richard Lawrence, a house painter originally from England, and a resident of Washington. When asked why he had done what he did, he answered “The President killed my father.”

The man to whom Lawrence had been apprenticed to vouched for the assassin’s character, that he was “a man of excellent habits, sober, and industrious.” However, he had been told that, of late, “he was quarrelsome among his friends and treated one of his sisters badly.”

On this evidence, and the utter lack of any motive, the Globe indicated suggested insanity as the reason. However, they added that the prisoners “demeanor” both during the act and in court suggested otherwise. One witness, the keeper of the Rotunda, gave a brief statement, which the Globe then turned into a full-fledged theory:

[He] had frequently observed this man about the Capitol – so frequently that he had become an object of curiosity to him – that he had endeavored to draw him into conversation, but found him taciturn and unwilling to talk. If no secret conspiracy has prompted Lawrence to the perpetration of the horrid deed, we think it not improbable that some delusion of intellect has grown out of his visits to the Capitol, and that hearing despotism and every horrid mischief threatened to the republic, and revolution and all its train of calamities imputed as the necessary consequences of the President’s measures, it may be that the infatuated man fancied he had reasons to become his country’s avenger.

The judge listened to all this and set the bail at $1000, the District Attorney in the person of Francis Scott Key demanded it be set higher. Cranch agreed, and raised it to $1500.

Next week: More evidence and the trial


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