Have we ever had a killer in the White House?

October 29, 2004

Dear Cecil:

So I guess everyone's agreed that John Kerry personally blew away a VC in 'Nam 35 years ago. My question is, have we ever had a killer for president? I'm not talking about generals like Grant and Eisenhower, who were indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Confederates and Germans, or combatants using long-distance weapons like a Kennedy torpedo or a Bush Sr. bomb. I'm wondering about somebody getting whacked face to face, mano a mano, up close and personal, with a gun, knife, club, or pointy stick. Washington in the French and Indian War? Garfield in the Civil War? Didn't Andy Jackson fight a duel or two?

No offense, Gavin, but you sound like one of those guys who slows down to ogle car wrecks. However, now that you bring it up, the question does hold a certain grim fascination. Given the 250-year time span and the impossibility of counting undetected homicides, I don't claim the following list is complete. Still, I know of three U.S. presidents who killed people at close range, and one more accused of murder:

  • Andrew Jackson. No surprise here--the hot-tempered Jackson killed a man in a duel near Nashville in 1806 (not quite two years after Aaron Burr, then vice president, killed Alexander Hamilton in a similar confrontation). His opponent was Charles Dickinson, a young lawyer who had insulted Jackson's wife, Rachel, in a dispute over a horse-racing debt. Jackson issued a challenge, Dickinson accepted, and their seconds arranged the details: The two men would stand eight paces apart in a forest clearing, pistols pointed down, and shoot on command. At the signal Dickinson--by reputation the far superior shot--immediately raised his weapon and blasted away, striking Jackson near the heart. The wound was serious but not fatal; Jackson clapped his hand to his chest but otherwise remained motionless. Stepping backward, Dickinson exclaimed, "My God, have I missed him?" Ordered to return to his mark, the doomed man had to stand there while Jackson, who had purposely let his opponent shoot first so he could take more careful aim, raised his pistol and pulled the trigger. No go--the hammer stopped at half-cock. Jackson coolly--some would say cold-bloodedly--recocked the gun and tried again, this time successfully. Dickinson fell with a bullet hole in his gut and slowly bled to death. Many who heard of the incident felt that recocking the weapon was cheating; Jackson was unrepentant but remained under a cloud until his success in the War of 1812.
  • Grover Cleveland. Elected sheriff of Erie County, New York, in 1870, Cleveland was responsible for the hanging of condemned criminals. Believing this unpleasant chore was not one he could fob off on a hireling, Cleveland sprang the trap himself on at least two occasions. Political foes later called him "the Buffalo Hangman."
  • Teddy Roosevelt. During his famous charge with the Rough Riders up Cuba's San Juan Hill in 1898, Teddy was among the first to reach the enemy trenches as the Spanish were retreating. Two men shot at him; Teddy fired back, and one died. At least one historian doubts that in the chaos of battle anybody could know for certain who had fired the fatal shot, but Teddy was sure he had done it and the Medal of Honor citation he received 102 years later (long story) credits him with the death.
  • George Washington. Many U.S. presidents have been accused of capital crimes, mostly by opponents, but in Washington's case some reputable historians have pointed the finger. As an inexperienced militia officer in 1754 Washington led an ambush on a small French military detachment in the Ohio Territory in which the French commanding officer and nine others were killed. Indians in Washington's party then scalped the dead. France and England weren't at war at the time; the French were on a diplomatic mission to deliver a message telling the English to clear out of French territory. One French survivor claimed that his CO had been shot down as he attempted to read the message while surrounded by English troops. (Nobody says Washington killed the man himself, but he was there and nominally in charge.) Five weeks later the French captured Washington and made him sign a document describing the French officer's death as an "assassination." Washington later claimed he didn't understand what he was signing because of a poor translation; in any case, the incident caused an uproar and precipitated the French and Indian War. French historians have long regarded the incident as murder. Even if you don't buy the story that Washington's men blew away the defenseless emissary, a plausible argument can be made that our first president rashly concluded the French were up to no good and supervised the killing of ten people by mistake.
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