Original publish date: January 24, 2014
Who is Richard Lawrence and why should you care? In the next few minutes I’ll introduce you to him, but as for caring, I’ll leave that up to you. Richard Lawrence was a house painter by trade. More importantly, he was the first known person to attempt to assassinate a President of the United States. Still doesn’t ring a bell? Don’t feel bad, the attempt came 179 years ago this week and the President in question was “Old Hickory”, Andrew Jackson. President Andrew Jackson did not know him, which comes as no surprise when you realize that , at the time of the assassination attempt Lawrence did not even know himself. He believed himself to be King Richard III of England who died some 350 years before. Lawrence was born in England sometime around 1800-1801. His family emigrated to America when he was 12-years old and settled in Virginia near Washington, D.C. Lawrence’s childhood and early adult years were apparently normal. Until January 30, 1835, when Lawrence attempted to shoot Jackson outside the United States Capitol, his life was an unremarkable one. Most of what we know of him comes from testimony at his trial. He was described by relatives and acquaintances as a “relatively fine young boy…” who was “reserved in his manner; but industrious and of good moral habits.” Historians speculate that exposure to chemicals contained in the house paints may have fried his brain.
In November 1832, Lawrence announced to his family that he was returning to England. He left Washington, D.C. only to return a month later claiming that he decided not to go because it was too cold. Within weeks, he changed his mind and told friends & family that he was returning to England to study landscape painting. Lawrence left once again and got as far as Philadelphia before returning home. He told his family that the U.S. government had prevented him from traveling abroad and barred his planned return to England. He further claimed that while in Philadelphia, he read several newspaper stories about himself that were critical of his travel plans and his character. Lawrence told his family that he had no choice but to return to Washington, D.C. until such time as he could afford to hire his own ship and captain and sail away to England.
Oh yeah, he also quit his job. When questioned by his sister and brother-in-law with whom he was living, Lawrence stated that he did not need to work because the U.S. government owed him a large sum of money. Lawrence, now claiming to be King Richard III of England, believed he was owed money on two English estates that he owned. In time, Lawrence became convinced that President Jackson’s opposition to the establishment of a national bank was delaying payment on this imagined debt. He felt that if Jackson was no longer in office, Vice President Martin Van Buren would establish a national bank and allow Congress to pay him the money for his English estate claims.
Lawrence’s personality and outward appearance changed dramatically around this point. The once conservatively dressed Lawrence began buying expensive, flamboyant clothing which he changed three or four times a day. Lawrence also took to standing in the doorway of his home for hours staring blankly out into the street. Neighborhood children would jokingly address him as “King Richard”. This typically pleased Lawrence who failed to realize the children were making fun of him. He also became paranoid and hostile towards others. On one occasion, he threatened to kill a maid who he thought was laughing at him.
Lawrence also began verbally and physically abusing his family, mainly his sisters, over imagined slights. In one instance, he threatened to hit his sister with a paperweight because he believed she had been talking about him. At Lawrence’s trial, witnesses described the bizarre behavior he exhibited during this time. Several people testified that Lawrence would engage in nonsensical conversations with himself while others claimed he was prone to laughing and cursing fits.
In the weeks leading up to the assassination attempt, Lawrence began stalking Andrew Jackson. Witnesses often saw Lawrence sitting in his paint shop muttering to himself about President Jackson. On the day of the attempt, he was seen sitting in his shop reading a book and laughing. Lawrence suddenly got up and left the shop with a smile stating, “I’ll be damned if I don’t do it.”
On January 30, Jackson was attending the funeral of South Carolina congressman Warren R. Davis at the U.S. Capitol. Lawrence’s plan was to shoot Jackson as he entered the service but he was unable to get close enough to the President. However, as Jackson left the funeral, Lawrence positioned himself aside a pillar on the East Portico that Jackson would soon pass by. As Jackson passed, the slender man with a thick black beard stepped from behind the pillar, pointed a one shot Derringer pistol at Jackson’s heart from six feet away and pulled the trigger. A shot was heard, but the bullet never left the chamber.
It was later determined that the percussion cap exploded, but the bullet did not discharge. Now, the deranged house painter found himself face-to-face with a formidable opponent. While everyone else ducked and covered, the enraged Jackson headed straight towards his attacker while raising his walking cane to throttle his attacker. Lawrence dropped the first gun, immediately pulled out a second gun, and again fired at the President’s heart. This time Lawrence squeezed the trigger at point blank range, but it also misfired. This second shot reportedly went off like the first, with a loud bang, but again no bullet exited the chamber.
Jackson’s aides quickly wrestled Lawrence away from the president, leaving Jackson unharmed. It was probably a good thing for Lawrence that the sides pulled the hero of the battle of New Orleans off of him. Andrew Jackson is said to have killed 13 men in duels and had 3 bullets in his body to prove it. Ironically, one of those who rushed to the President’s aid that day was Congressman Davy Crockett, a staunch political enemy of Jackson, who nevertheless helped restrain the would be assassin. Crockett later said. “I wanted to see the damnedest villain in the world-and now I have seen him!” Witnesses claim that Jackson had to be pulled off of his attacker again-and-again as he continued to beat him with his hickory cane even after Lawrence was down and completely subdued. Witnesses claimed that Jackson was shouting “Let me alone! Let me alone! I know where this came from!”
Years earlier Jackson had advised a young man on how to wield a cane in combat. He warned that “a cane swung at head level was easy to deflect; rather one should take the stick so [held like a spear] and punch him in the stomach.” He described having once fought a man that way in Tennessee: “Sir, it doubled him up. He fell at my feet, and I stamped on him.” Richard Lawrence later told investigators that he only time he ever felt genuine fear was when he saw the 67-year-old President charge at him.
Needless to say, Jackson didn’t take kindly to this assassination attempt, but instead of getting angry he got paranoid. At the time, Jackson’s Democrats and the Whigs were locked in a battle over Jackson’s attempt to dismantle the Bank of the United States. Old Hickory was not alone in his paranoia as his vice president, Martin Van Buren, thereafter carried two loaded pistols with him when visiting the Senate. Although Lawrence was found to be a mentally unstable individual with no connections to Jackson or his political rivals, to his dying day, Jackson believed that Lawrence had been hired by his Whig Party opponents to assassinate him.
Jackson also suspected a former friend and supporter turned adversary, Senator George Poindexter of Mississippi, to be involved in the murder for hire. He had hired Lawrence to paint his house just a few months before. Poindexter was unable to convince the voters back home in Mississippi that he was not involved in the plot. When his constituents left, many of his biggest supporters withdrew their support and he was unable to get re-elected. Jackson believed Senator John C. Calhoun was the main person behind the attempt, prompting Calhoun to make a statement on the U.S. Senate floor disavowing connection to the attack. Oddly, nobody ever denied Lawrence’s involvement in a plot, including the gunman himself.
Lawrence was brought to trial on April 11, 1835 at the District of Columbia City Hall. The prosecuting attorney was Francis Scott Key, author ot the Star Spangled Banner. After only five minutes of deliberation, the jury found Lawrence “not guilty by reason of insanity.” In the years following his conviction, Lawrence was held by several institutions and hospitals. In 1855, he was committed to the newly opened Government Hospital for the Insane (later renamed St. Elizabeth’s Hospital) in Washington, D.C. There he remained until his death on June 13, 1861, almost 16 years to the day after his nemesis, Andrew Jackson, died on June 8, 1845.
Strangely enough, not only was Andrew Jackson our country’s first commander in chief to be chased by a nut with a gun, he was also the first president to be attacked physically. A year and a half before Lawrence jumped from behind that pillar to fire upon his president, Jackson ordered the dismissal of Robert B. Randolph from the Navy for embezzlement. On May 6, 1833, Jackson sailed on USS Cygnet to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he was to lay the cornerstone of a monument near the grave of Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother. During a stopover near Alexandria, Randolph appeared and struck the President, drawing a trickle of blood from the President’s mouth. Jackson was seated behind a table at the time, which no doubt lessened the affect of the attack (for both Jackson and his assailant). Randolph fled the scene chased by several members of Jackson’s party, including the well-known writer Washington Irving. Randolph ended up getting away scot-free when Jackson decided not to press charges.
While the finest doctors in Washington were busy listening to Lawrence’s claim to be the king of England, the police were testing “his majesty’s” misfired pistols. They worked perfectly. Astonished witnesses watched as bullets once intended for the President now plowed through inch-thick wood planks at 30 paces. It was later determined that the weapons Lawrence had chosen were known for being vulnerable to moisture and the weather on that date was extremely humid and damp. A century later, Smithsonian researchers conducted a study of Lawrence’s derringers, during which both guns discharged properly on the test’s first try. It was later determined that the odds of both guns misfiring during the assassination attempt were one in 125,000.
Many of Jackson’s contemporaries believed that Old Hickory had been protected by the same “Divine Providence” that protected the fledgling nation. This national pride was a large part of the Jacksonian cultural myth fueling American “Manifest Destiny” expansion in the 1830s. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who had also once shot at Jackson himself, reflected that “two pistols-so well loaded, so coolly handled, and which afterward fired with such readiness, force, and precision-missing fire, each in its turn, when leveled eight feet at the President’s heart . . . made a deep impression upon the public feeling, and irresistibly carried many minds to the belief in a superintending Providence.” To many Americans, Jackson’s survival could be nothing but the work of a higher power.
Ironically, after the attack, Jackson returned by carriage to the White House and got back to business immediately. Several concerned citizens rushed to the President only to find him “calm, cool and collected, as if nothing had happened.” Another visitor arrived an hour later to find Jackson bouncing a child playfully on his knee while discussing the incident with General Winfield Scott. That evening, a thunderstorm swept the D.C. area blanketing the Capitol in thunder, lightning and sheets of rain. Conversely, most Washingtonians never realized the storm they had just averted. Had those pistols met their mark, a literal firestorm would have swept our young nation. Eventually, the incident fed the legend that became Old Hickory. Love him or hate him, there are no gray areas with Andrew Jackson. He was a true American original.