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Monday, January 28, 2013


Andrew Jackson fought many fights; against the Indians, the British, and his political foes. He participated in barroom brawls and engaged in pistol duels. The life and career of “Old Hickory” was controversial and combative. But no story about this military hero and President is stranger than this one.

On January 30, 1835, the 68 year-old President Jackson was attending a memorial for a late congressman which was being held in the East Portico of the Capital. He left the ceremony and walked into the Rotunda followed by several associates. Jackson wore a heavy coat draped on his shoulders and carried his customary walking stick in his hand. A younger man approached the President from the front pulling a pistol from his coat. The man fired a shot from about eight feet away but in spite of the huge explosion the gun had misfired.

Witnesses were shocked and frozen but Jackson reacted as he had done so many times before. He strode toward his assailant, swinging his cane. The man then pulled out a second pistol and aimed point blank at the President, now within arm’s length. He pulled the trigger and a second explosion thundered, but amazingly this gun also misfired. Jackson was still standing.

The President repeatedly clubbed his young attacker. Others finally rushed forward to tackle the man. Accounts say that it was Congressman Davy Crockett who wrestled the man to the floor. Crockett and Jackson were political enemies but the future hero of the Alamo stepped in to save his President. It was the first attempted assassination of a U.S. President.

The would-be assassin was a young Englishman named Richard Lawrence. He was an unemployed housepainter. Lawrence was questioned and examined by physicians who concluded that he was mentally unsound. He claimed to be the reincarnation of Richard III, King of England in the 15th Century, and that Andrew Jackson was the reincarnation of Richard’s clerk. Lawrence contended that if he killed Jackson he would be returned to the throne. He was promptly institutionalized.

Lawrence went on trial in Washington shortly after the incident. The prosecutor, and Attorney General of the District of Columbia, was the veteran lawyer Francis Scott Key; the man who wrote the “Star Spangled Banner” twenty years earlier. His contention was that an attack upon the President was an attack upon America. He argued his case with great determination.

In a shocking verdict, the jury found that Lawrence was not responsible for his actions by reason of insanity. Key was profoundly disappointed. A national controversy ensued. Many people believed that insanity should not excuse a person from punishment for their crime. Just as many people contended that it was not justice to hang a man who was obviously mad. Legal clashes and appeals continued for years. The court’s verdict helped to establish the precedence of the insanity defense in American courtrooms, over 170 years ago.

So that’s the story. It included three famous Americans - President Andrew Jackson, the frontier hero Davy Crockett, and Francis Scott Key who wrote our national anthem. The assailant claimed to be the reincarnation of King Richard III. It also initiated a landmark legal case resulting in the establishment of the insanity defense. But most amazingly, how did Jackson survive two close range assassination attempts? Over the years since, Lawrence’s two pistols were examined many times and even test fired often. They were always found to be in perfect working order and properly loaded by Lawrence. Very strange indeed.

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