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Cheat sheet: Assassins 

Alice Nguyen

Fifty years have passed since Bobby Kennedy, brother of former US President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel ballroom in Los Angeles. On the eve of this anniversary, Sydney Opera House presents Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning musical Assassins. Set in a dazzling abandoned fairground shooting gallery, a group of time travelling misfits gather, bound together by their subverted versions of the American dream: to shoot the President of the United States. 

We take a look at a history of the American presidents targeted by the assassination attempts of nine different men and women (spoiler alert: some successful).

1865: President Abraham Lincoln

The 16th President of the United States was best known for abolishing slavery. He led the country through the American Civil War before being assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.

During the evening of 14 April 1865, Lincoln was accompanied by his wife and two guests to Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. for a production of Our American Cousin. Lincoln's bodyguard, John Parker left Ford's during intermission to drink at the saloon next door. With Lincoln now unguarded, Booth snuck into the Presidential Box, pointed a pistol at the back of the president’s head and fired. Jumping onto the stage Booth exclaimed “Sic semper tyrannis" (Thus always to tyrants), and escaped with a waiting horse.

Lincoln died the next morning surrounded by doctors, government officials and family.

In the Opera House production, David Campbell reprises his Sydney Theatre Award-winning role as John Wilkes Booth.

David Campbell as John Wilkes Booth in Assassins

1881: James A. Garfield 

The 20th President of the United States had the second shortest term in presidential history, assassinated just four months after his election. His killer, Charles J. Guiteau was convinced: “for the sake of harmony in the Republican Party, I had to kill him.” Guiteau purchased a short-barrelled British Bulldog revolver, which he thought would look good on display in a museum exhibition after the assassination. He stalked Garfield for months until 2 July 1881 when he snuck up behind the President with his gun and fired twice.

The injured Garfield was taken to the White House and was seen by more than fifteen doctors, each attempting treatments different from the last. They tried and failed to locate the bullet in his abdomen with unwashed fingers and medical utensils, even enlisting the help of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the first working telephone, to test his newly invented metal detector to locate the bullet. 80 days after the shooting, Garfield died from an infection.

Guiteau defended himself at trial, declaring that “the doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”

Charles J. Guiteau is played by Bobby Fox.

President James A. Garfield. Photo: Library of Congress
Bobby Fox as Charles J. Guiteau and Jason Kos in Assassins

1901: William McKinley

The 25th President of the United States died in a similar fashion to James. A. Garfield—from complications arising from an assassin’s bullet. Leon Czolgosz, a 28-year-old self-proclaimed anarchist, followed McKinley to Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition where he was due to front a record crowd of 116,000. Despite heightened security, Czolgosz walked straight up to McKinley, meeting the President’s smile and extended his hand before shooting him point blank. Despite promising signs from emergency surgery, McKinley’s health rapidly deteriorated and he perished from infection.

Leon Czolgosz is played by Jason Winston.

Walker, T. Dart. Assassination of President McKinley, photograph of wash drawing. Photo: Library of Congress Image: Library of Congress

1963: JFK

John F. Kennedy was the youngest president ever elected to the office—and the youngest to die in office. As his motorcade passed through the Texas School Book Depository, gunfire erupted throughout the crowd and Kennedy was struck in the neck and head. Less than an hour later, he was pronounced dead in hospital. His killer, Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested shortly afterwards and transferred from police headquarters to the county jail two days later. All across America, people watched live on TV as Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner, fired a fatal shot at Oswald.

Lee Harvey Oswald is played by Maxwell Simon.

President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, and Texas Governor John Connally in their Dallas motorcade moments before Kennedy was assassinated. Photo: Stringer-Reuters

1933: Franklin D. Roosevelt

On 15 February 1933, Roosevelt narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when Giuseppe “Joe” Zangara shot Anton Cermak, the Mayor of Chicago instead. Roosevelt had not been officially inaugurated at the time he delivered a short speech in Miami’s Bayfront Park from the back seat of his touring vehicle. Zangara was disgruntled that "too many people [were] starving”,  reflecting a general sentiment during the Great Depression. He detailed his plans in a jailhouse confession: “I have the gun in my hand. I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists".

When Cermak died 19 days later, his parting words to Roosevelt were inscribed on a plaque at Bayfront Park: “I’m glad it was me instead of you”.

Zangara was found guilty of murder and executed by electric chair on 20 March 1933.

He is played by Luigi Lucente.

1974: Richard Nixon

On 22 February 1974, Samuel Joseph Byck attempted to assassinate President Richard Nixon by hijacking an aeroplane at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. He shot and killed a police officer as he stormed through the airport and selected a Delta Airlines plane at random, simply because it was about to depart. Byck broke into the cockpit and demanded that the pilots take off. After being rebuffed, Byck grew frustrated and shot them both. Police boarded the aeroplane, shooting at Byck inside the cockpit before he turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.

Samuel Joseph Byck is played by Anthony Gooley.

Richard Nixon by William Coupon. Photo: National Portrait Gallery

1975: Gerald Ford

President Ford was the subject of two assassination attempts in one year. The first, on 5 September 1975, was concocted by Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who belonged to Charles Manson’s cult. Waiting for Ford in Sacramento’s Capitol Park, Fromme pointed a semi-automatic pistol at the President but it failed to fire. She was immediately seized by the Secret Service and later convicted of attempted murder, receiving a life sentence. She was released from prison in 2009 and now resides in Marcy, New York.

The second assassination attempt by Sara Jane Moore occurred just 17 days later in San Francisco. Moore fired a single shot at President Ford from a crowd using a gun she had purchased that morning. Missing the shot, Moore aimed again when a former Marine standing nearby grabbed her arm. She served a 32-year prison sentence, and was eventually released on 31 December 2007.

Lynette Alice "Squeaky" Fromme is played by Hannah Fredericksen.
Sara Jane Moore is played by Kate Cole.

Secret Service agents grab Gerald Ford seconds after Sara Jane Moore attempted to shoot him. Photo: Gary Fong / San Francisco Chronicle
Kate Cole as Sara Jane Moore in Assassins

1981: Ronald Reagan

On 30 March 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Reagan in a bid to impress actress Jodie Foster. He became obsessed with her after seeing her performance in the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver. Consumed by the idea that killing the president would impress her, Hinckley fired six bullets at Reagan and his entourage in Washington, D.C. One bullet ricocheted and hit Reagan in the chest, but he survived. Hinckley was arrested immediately and put on trial, where he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Confined to a psychiatric hospital, he later wrote that he was disappointed Foster didn’t return his love, saying it was "the greatest love offering in the history of the world".

John Warnock Hinckley Jr. is played by Connor Crawford.

President Reagan waves to crowd immediately before being shot by John Hinckley Jr., 1981. Photo: Wikicommons

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