A historian explains how September has brought disaster for presidents and presidential candidates
An oddity of American history is that September is the most dangerous month for both Presidents and Presidential candidates.
More tragedy and turmoil have occurred in the month of September than any other month on the calendar. Here are the facts.
President James A. Garfield, who had been shot by Charles J. Guiteau at the Baltimore and Potomac railroad station in Washington, DC on July 2, 1881, died on September 19, 1881, of wounds sustained in that assassination attempt. But the medical treatment of Garfield was clearly inadequate, and many mistakes were made by self appointed chief physician D. Willard Bliss. Garfield went through terrible pain and suffering for 79 days, and was often in and out of a coma as the infection spread after it proved impossible to locate and remove the bullet. Guiteau, clearly insane, put on a dramatic performance at his trial, but was convicted and executed by hanging nearly a year after the assassination.
On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shot and mortally wounded by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, in Buffalo, New York, at the Pan American Exposition. He died on September 14th of his wounds. Czolgosz had a plan to kill the President, somehow escape and travel to Great Britain and assassinate King Edward VII, and then escape, and travel to Vatican City and assassinate Pope Leo XIII. He was brought to trial, convicted, and executed 45 days after McKinley’s death. It is judged that he was mentally ill, and in modern times, might have been placed in a mental institution rather than being executed by electric chair. This tragic event brought Theodore Roosevelt to the Presidency, transforming that office forever.
On September 1, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt avoided contact with a potential assassin, Henry Weilbrenner, at his Oyster Bay, Long Island home, Sagamore Hill. Weilbrenner showed up three times that evening without an appointment to see the President, and only the third time, did the Secret Service finally detain and search him, and discover firearms on his person. Weilbrenner said in court proceedings that he wanted to marry Alice, the 19 year old daughter of the President, and it was clear that he was mentally unstable. This was the first incident that the Secret Service had to deal with, as only in 1901, after President William McKinley’s assassination, had the agency taken on the protection of the President, in addition to its earlier mission of tracking counterfeit currency.
On September 8, 1935, Louisiana Senator Huey Long, who was exploring a Presidential candidacy against President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, was shot and mortally wounded by Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, at the state capitol building in Baton Rouge. After mishandled medical care he died of his wounds on September 10. Long had a group of bodyguards who opened up fire on Weiss, pumping him full of 61 bullets. The explanation for Weiss killing Long was that his father-in-law, a Louisiana judge, was facing attempts by Long forces in Louisiana to remove him from office, but there are remaining doubts that Weiss actually committed the crime, and he may have been only trying to speak with Long at the time of the tragic events.
On September 5, 1975, President Gerald Ford was faced with a potential assassination threat by Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson, in Sacramento, California, but fortunately, while she carried a weapon in her clothing, she never drew the weapon or fired it at the President. She had a grievance with Ford over the issue of the environment, and wanted to speak with him about it, but she clearly was involved with drugs and was mentally unstable. She served time in federal prison until 2009. This was the first time a woman had so directly threatened a President, but soon was repeated later in that same month.
On September 22, 1975, President Ford was threatened for the second time in 17 days, and again by a woman, Sara Jane Moore, who represented a more direct threat than “Squeaky” Fromme. She actually fired a weapon at the President, with the bullet deflected by a former Marine, Oliver Sipple, who was in the crowd at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, California, and lunged at her and knocked her arm. The irony was that the Secret Service had confiscated a firearm from her the day before, but thought she was no danger to the President. But Moore had been a mental patient, and had a tumultuous private life. She served time in a federal prison until 2007.
President Bill Clinton faced an assassination threat on September 12, 1994, when Frank Eugene Corder crashed a stolen Cessna 150 on the South Lawn of the White House, dying upon impact. It was revealed that Corder had mental issues, had an arrest record and drug problems, and wanted publicity and attention. The Clintons were not in the building, which was undergoing renovations, instead residing at the time at Blair House. But the fact that the plane had entered restricted air space demonstrated that the Secret Service had flubbed badly.
On September 11, 2001, while President George W. Bush was in Miami, Florida, al-Qaeda operatives sent at the direction of Osama bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Bush was traveling around the nation to avoid any chance of having Air Force One targeted, but was in theoretical danger, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney and other government leaders who were holed up deep underground in the White House. This threat should be seen as more indirect, but suggests the dangers Presidents and the top figures in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government face.
Finally, on September 19, 2014, Barack Obama was, fortunately, away from the White House when Omar J. Gonzalez jumped over the White House fence on the Pennsylvania Avenue side, and managed to enter the North Portico of the White House. He was able to run deep into the building into the East Room and the Green Room, not far from the stairs leading to the White House Private Quarters, a half floor above the main floor level. It was revealed that he had a knife on him, and could have, theoretically, been a suicide bomber, who somehow managed to evade the Secret Service. This spread a sense of alarm on the need to reorganize and reform the Secret Service, as nothing this brazen had ever happened before. It is, however, a reality that Barack Obama has faced more threats than any previous President, except possibly Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
So the month of September has been the most dangerous of all months historically, with two Presidents and one Presidential candidate dying; and five other Presidents facing threats that could have led to tragedy, with President Ford being challenged twice in the same month, for a grand total of nine incidents.
One must hope that the September “hex” is just one of historical curiosity, and that President Obama and Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein pass through September in safe condition.
Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, August 2015). A paperback edition is coming in March 2017.
This article was originally published at History News Network