Feature Articles

April 2002

The Guns Of Zangara

Part Three of Three

By John William Tuohy

     On February 14, 1933, the day before the shooting, Zangara went to Davis Pawn shop in downtown Miami, and spent eight dollars on a .32 revolver and ten bullets.

     Gordon Davis, the Miami pawn broker who sold Zangara his gun along with ten bullets, admitted that he had a criminal record in Chicago and that he had known Zangara "for a long time." Gordon said he didn't ask Zangara why he felt he needed to purchase the revolver, "I ain't no wet nurse, Pal," he told a Secret Service investigator.

     While still in the store he placed five bullets in the chamber and kept five in his pocket.

     Then Zangara started stalking Cermak.

     On the day of the shooting, at about 11:30 in the morning, Zangara went to the Bostick Hotel at 217 South Miami Avenue near the park and rented a room. He paid a dollar for the night, and was assigned to room 4. Before he entered the room, Zangara asked to see all of the exits and entrances to the hotel, then he went to his room, left the door open, sat on the edge of the bed and stared down the hallway towards the front door of the hotel. By 6:30 that evening, Zangara was gone.

     What Zangara knew, although it has never been established how he knew, was that the hotel was owned by Horace and May Bostick, close friends to Anton Cermak and that they expected the Mayor to drop by that evening before going to greet the President.

     "Zangara's object in coming here," May Bostick later told the Secret Service, "was to kill Cermak."

     From the hotel, Zangara walked several blocks to cigar manufacturing plant owned by Andrea Valenti, an immigrant from Sicily who had once lived in Chicago.

     Zangara and Valenti left the plant at about 7:30 P.M., walking to Bayfront Park. With them was Steve Valenti and Lorenzo Grandi, all Sicilian immigrants. The Valentis and Grandi were arrested after the Cermak shooting, questioned, and released.

     With forty acres of Palm Trees and open lawns edged on to Biscayne Bay, Bayfront Park was a perfect place for a political rally and an assassination. At its south end, the park held an amphitheater, with some eight thousand seats. At the very end of the amphitheater was a flat bandstand and in back of that a stage where dignitaries, including Cermak, waited for the President-elect's arrival.

     By the time Zangara arrived, the park was jammed to a standing-room-only crowd of about 15,000 people. They had miscalculated badly. No one figured, not even the police, on such a large turnout. Desperate, Zangara, the Valentis and Grandi began to push, shove and kick their way through the crowd, so they could reach the bandstand.

     Anton Cermak wasn't feeling well that night. While in Chicago, some bad water from a nearby canal had seeped into his hotel's water reserves, and Cermak had drunk it, giving him a stomach infection. A lesser man would have canceled the night's engagement, but Tony Cermak had always been an extraordinary man. Yet, when a bodyguard handed him his bulky, black bulletproof vest, Cermak said he didn't want it. It was too humid outside and he was too weak to carry its weight.

     At 9:25 that evening, Roosevelt's car entered the park, and stopped next to the bandstand area, where Cermak and the other dignitaries were seated.

     It was warm that night. The humidity that hung in the air was almost stifling. The coconut trees and royal palms that covered the park were bathed in red, white and blue lights, giving the entire scene and eerie feel to it.

     At that same moment, Zangara and his party had pushed their way up to the second isle from the bandstand and were less then 35 feet away from Roosevelt's car, where Zangara had a clear view of FDR, whose back was to Zangara.

     Roosevelt was lifted out of his seat and slid on the top of the trunk. Dressed in a white suit, with a sole floodlight beaming down on him, he was the perfect target.

     He spoke to the crowd for about eight minutes, and when the speech ended, looked up, on to the reviewing stand and saw Cermak sitting in the front row, and waved for him, "Tony! Come on down here."

     Smiling broadly, Cermak stood from his chair, and walked down to FDR. As he did, his bodyguards rose with him and stepped up to join him, but Cermak told them to stay on the stage. It was, he said later, unseemly for the mayor of Chicago to have more bodyguards then the President of the United States.

     Cermak walked up to Roosevelt's side of the car, the side facing Zangara and the two politicians shook hands and chatted for about three minutes. They shook hands, and agreed to talk later.

     It was now about 9:35.

     Cermak stepped away from the car and turned to his right and briefly embraced Secret Service agent Clark with his left arm. Cermak and Clark had known each other when Clark was assigned to the Chicago Office of the Secret Service. There was a brief exchange, a quick joke between them, and then, for some unknown reason, Cermak walked towards the crowd to his left, away from the stage.

     Perhaps, as Judge Lyle suggested, Cermak spotted Harry Hockstien, the politician who was questioned in the Chicago train station with Nitti's shooters the night before.

     Harry Hockstien had grown rich enough off of city politics to afford a mini mansion in the upscale neighborhood of Riverdale, next to Frank Nitti's place. In fact, it was at Hockstien's home that the outfit meet in 1934, and decided to go through with the Brown and Bioff Hollywood extortion scandal and, a year later, in December, met there again and decided to kill union boss Tommy Maloy. Hockstien, it was widely known, was run by Frankie Rio.

     Whatever the reason, Cermak clearly took over a dozen steps away from the stage where he was sitting and walked toward the position where Zangara was standing.

     The very second Cermak stepped away from the car, a group of local businessmen, carrying with them an immense, imitation telegram welcoming FDR to Florida, surrounded the car, unknowingly forming a human shield around the President elect.

     At that moment, a tall blonde women, who had been sitting in the first isle, got up and left her seat empty. Zangara leaped up onto the empty seat, drew his revolver from his pant pocket and fired rapidly, letting off five rounds, pointing the gun to his left, at Cermak, and not to his right, at Roosevelt.

     The first bullet hit Cermak in the right armpit, causing Cermak to grab his chest with both arms, and slowly sink to his knees. Several other bystanders were struck by bullets as well.

     Zangara said, over and over again, and the Miami Police agreed, that he never got off more than three rounds from his pistol, furthermore, Zangara's pistol was manufactured to fire five rounds. Yet police recovered seven bullets from the scene of the shooting.

     The direction of Zangara's gun when he fired was almost the only point that eyewitnesses agreed on, Zangara was shooting Cermak, not Roosevelt. As United States Representative-elect from Florida, Mark Wilcox and Chicagoan Robert Gore, who were both standing only a few feet from Zangara, told a radio interviewer minutes after the shooting, "He was shooting at Cermak. There is no doubt about that. The killer waited until Mr. Roosevelt sat down and then fired."

     Reports went out of the wires at once that Cermak had been shot by Chicago gangsters. But after the first day, there were no other mentions of gangsters being involved in the shooting.

     Later, while Roosevelt waited in the halls of the Jackson Memorial Hospital where Cermak was being treated, he pointed out to his Secret Service detail, that not one of the six persons shot were near him when they were hit. In fact, he pointed out, they were at least thirty feet away from him, but only two or three feet away from Cermak, and, added Roosevelt, Zangara had not fired off a single shot at him while he had a full eight minute window during his speech. Roosevelt concluded that Zangara was "a Chicago gangster" sent to kill Cermak and said as much for the rest of his life.

     In 1957, Roger Touhy told the Illinois Parole Board that what really happened in Miami that night was that when Zangara started shooting, there was mass confusion. People were screaming and running, ducking and falling. Everything was happening just the way it was supposed to happen.

     Two Syndicate killers, Three Fingers Jack White and Frankie Rio, both wearing badges from the Cicero Police Department, waited until Cermak fell wounded, and then stepped out from the crowd, with their .45s at ready. In a few more seconds, uniformed police, Secret Service, plain clothes detectives and Cermak's hired private detectives would all have their weapons drawn, so White and Rio didn't stand out in the mob.

     They fired their .45 caliber guns towards Zangara, in an attempt to silence him, but the shots missed and nicked several bystanders instead. Then they slipped into the crowd of 10,000 confused and frightened onlookers and disappeared.

     All eyes were on Zangara anyway, as the angry crowd leaped on him and before police could pull him to safety. The rabble had torn off most of the little man's clothes and beaten him badly on the face and chest. Yet Zangara never released his grip on the pistol despite the beating. When police were finally able to reach him, they disarmed him, handcuffed him and tossed into the trunk of a nearby truck, while three enormous Miami policemen sat on him all the way to the jail.

     The Chicago police department was certain that the shooting was a mob hit, and requested the Miami police round up eighteen Chicagoans, all known to be in Miami, twelve of whom were known syndicate associates, and hold them for questioning. However, the arrests were never made.

     When Chicago reporters followed the lead, it turned out that the request had been canceled by the syndicate's favorite State's Attorney, Thomas Courtney, who defended his actions with the confusing statement, "My only interests were to learn if there were any Chicago gangsters involved...apparently there were not."

     From his jail cell, Zangara told a Miami police detective that he "had to kill," but he wasn't specific on who he had to kill, because if he didn't keep quiet, he said, "my friends will kill me tomorrow."

     In sharp contrast to his lifelong behavior, after his arrest Zangara was voluble and excitable, shooting defiant looks into press cameras. At times, he was almost giddy with joy. The local jailers suspected he was having a mental breakdown, yet doctors who examined him that night declared that he was normal in every respect, even sane.

     Just hours into their investigation, the Secret Service was already convinced that Zangara was a communist and followed that lead, extensively and solely, even though when asked for his views on socialism, anarchism, fascism and communism, Zangara replied that they were all "foolish." Yet, despite the lack of evidence for it, the Government's investigators concluded that Zangara was motivated in the shooting by his political beliefs.

     From his hospital bed in Miami, Anton Cermak insisted that he was Zangara's target. When his secretary arrived from Chicago, Cermak said "So you're alive! I figured maybe they'd shot up the office (in Chicago) too."

     He rallied again when his family arrived and arose long enough to sign a 4.2 million teachers' payroll, but on February 27, Cermak caught pneumonia of the lungs which caused the area around the right lung to almost double in size. Up until he lapsed into a coma, Cermak believed that he would recuperate, but at 6:57 A.M., he died. In all, Cermak held out for 19 days in a heroic struggle against colitis, pneumonia and finally gangrene.

     Cermak didn't die from his bullet wounds, but it was close enough for Zangara to be placed on trial for murder.

     Represented by three court appointed lawyers who, although experts in their field of civil law, not one of them had ever tried a criminal case before a jury. The lawyers allowed their client to plead guilty to murder. When he did, the court sentenced him to death.

     Just sixty days after he was tried, Zangara strutted to the electric chair, which, when he sat in it, kept his feet from touching the floor.

     The guards placed a hood over his head, while Zangara gazed out at the room of reporters and state officials to ask, "No pictures? Well, Goodbye! Adios to the world! Go ahead push the button!�Viva Italia!"

     Just seconds before the switch was pulled Zangara turned to the prison's warden, Leo Chapman, and smiled. Chapman had been of one of Zangara's very few visitors in jail, and had become convinced that the tiny man wasn't insane at all, and that he was a member of "some sort of secret criminal syndicate."

     As Chapman had walked from the cell to the death chamber with Zangara, he and the Miami Police Commissioner asked Zangara if he was part of an organized group that plotted to kill Cermak. "No. I have no friends," he replied. "It was my own idea."

     But now, Zangara grinned slyly at Chapman and said, "Viva Comorra!" one of many Italian terms word for the Mafia.

     Then he leaned back in the chair and 2,300 volts snuffed out Zangara's strange life.

     When told Zangara was dead, William Sinnot, the New York policeman who was injured in the shooting said, "I still believe he was a member of some secret society. He was no more shooting at Mr. Roosevelt that night than I was...and should be investigated further."

     Ed Kelly was Chicago's next mayor. When reporters found Kelly to tell him he was Chicago's new Mayor, Kelly was gambling at a mob owned race track in Havana.

     When asked if he thought that the syndicate had anything to do with Cermak's killing, Kelly put down his racing form and said, "Boys, let's stop that. From now on, there's no such thing as organized crime in the city of Chicago."

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to

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