The Four Strangest Presidential Assassination Attempts In U.S. History

Published March 30, 2016
Updated September 22, 2020

Starting with the killer who tried to frame an Elvis impersonator, these are the weirdest presidential assassination attempts.

Presidential Assassination Attempts

The aftermath of an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, outside the Hilton hotel in Washington DC.

In 1981, John Hinckley tried and failed to assassinate Ronald Reagan. The incident left the president and press secretary wounded and was a huge embarrassment to actress Jodie Foster, who was the object of Hinckley’s obsession and his declared reason for shooting the president.

Predictably, the attempt sparked a national debate over mental health issues, and Hinckley’s successful insanity defense prompted Congress to tighten up laws regarding its use in court. In a way, it’s funny that Hinckley’s attempt sparked these changes, when there have been so many mentally distressed individuals, before and after him, who thought that killing the president would solve their problems.

These are the stranges presidential assassination attempts in U.S. history…

Presidential Assassination Attempts: “Genius” Tries to Kill Obama, Frames Elvis Impersonator

Presidential Assassination Attempts Obama

President Barack Obama has been the subject of one of the strangest assassination attempts yet.

President Barack Obama has been the subject of numerous death threats during his two terms in office. Most of the people sending these threats are venting misplaced anger, but some are seriously dangerous people who’ve spent a long time plotting to kill the president.

What’s really weird, and frankly unprecedented, is the serious threat who really does carry forward a plot against the president, but whose real goal is to spite a stranger in an online flame war. That was the case that unfolded in April 2013, when Secret Service agents discovered the poison ricin in letters that had been sent to various Washington addresses, including the Obama White House. This is undoubtedly one of American history’s strangest presidential assassination attempts.

The letters sent to the Capitol and White House also contained rambling, half-crazy notes, as per usual for this sort of attack. Other letters were sent to a Mississippi judge and contained enough evidence that authorities were able to sweep down on one man, Mississippi resident and professional Elvis Presley impersonator Paul Curtis.

Dumb Assassins Curtis Performing

Paul Curtis, Elvis impersonator. Image Source: Twitter

Upon closer examination, investigators were befuddled: What was the motive, and could Curtis have even made the ricin? According to federal investigators, Curtis’ home had no ricin in it, nor did he have any of the material necessary to make it (it wasn’t clear that he even had the technical know-how, what with being an Elvis impersonator rather than a chemist).

According to Curtis’ lawyer, however, he was mixed up in an online feud with a Tupelo, Mississippi man named Everett Dutschke. Dutschke was very proud of his status as a member of the genius group Mensa, and probably less proud of his criminal record. Ten days after Curtis was detained by the FBI, authorities raided Dutschke’s home and seized papers and equipment that pointed to him as the perpetrator of the attacks.

Apparently, Dutschke – who was a genius, remember that – cooked up the ricin and sent the letters in an effort to frame Curtis over some stupid argument the two were having in an Internet comment forum. In 2014, noted genius Everett Dutschke pled guilty to five counts of felonies and got 25 years in federal prison. Mr. Curtis remains available for events within 200 miles of Tupelo.

Presidential Assassination Attempts: Would-Be Assassin Hijacks 747 to Kill Richard Nixon, Fails to Take Off

Presidential Assassination Attempts On Nixon

In 1974, Richard Nixon was also subject to an assassination attempt by a man named Samuel Byck. Image Source: Stars and Stripes

Would-be presidential assassins have a fascinating internal landscape. According to a 1999 Secret Service study of people who tried to kill public figures, there’s no standard profile that fits every one of them, but many are motivated by an incredibly petty grievance against the government. Yes, presidential assassination attempts are often inspired by very small annoyances.

It’s typical of an assassin that, after a minor property tax hike or IRS audit, they spend months or years stalking a public figure they’ve identified as the enemy. Such people aren’t delusional, as some attempted assassins are, but most seem to think the government is out to get them specifically.

That description certainly fits Samuel Byck who, in 1974, hijacked a commercial passenger jet on the runway in an apparent plot to kill Richard Nixon. Byck was a 44-year-old truck driver who had grown up in extreme poverty. His wife divorced him in 1972, and shortly thereafter he was turned down for a small-business loan.

That seems to have sent him over the edge. Byck started sending threatening messages to the White House. He also sent threatening recordings to a U.S. senator, polio researcher Jonas Salk, and composer Leonard Bernstein. Byck, a middle-aged Jewish man, also tried to join the Black Panthers.

Dumb Assassins Samuel Byck

Samuel Byck.

The Secret Service was aware of Byck’s antics, of course, but his rambling got lost in the many, many threatening letters Richard Nixon inspired. In what proved to be a major miscalculation, they wrote Byck off as harmless.

On the morning of February 22, 1974, Samuel Byck shot a police officer at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport. Then he stormed aboard the nearest plane that seemed ready to take off. According to his tremendously long and detailed audio diary, his plan was to fly the plane into the White House and kill the president.

Unfortunately for Byck, the Atlanta-bound DC-9 he took over wasn’t quite ready for take off, since it still had chocks under its wheels. When the flight crew told Byck about this, he shot both pilots — one of whom later died — grabbed a random passenger, and ordered her to fly the plane.

She didn’t have any more luck than the two trained pilots Byck had just shot. Before Byck could come up with a Plan B, police stormed the plane and shot him twice through a window. Byck ended the episode by shooting himself with a .357 Magnum he had stolen before the rampage.

Gerald Ford Had an Eventful Trip in California

Presidential Assassination Attempts Ford

Gerald Ford in Sacramento, CA. Image Source: Wikipedia

Two attackers tried to shoot Gerald Ford during his September 1974 visit to California. Together, they were the only two women in history known to have tried to kill a president. Both used pistols, both failed, and while there’s no reason to believe they were working together, both were foiled by their inability to properly operate the guns they were carrying.

The first attempt came on September 5, on the north lawn of the California State Capitol Building. There, Lynette Fromme, who was almost the last devoted member of the Manson Family, strolled right up to President Ford while wearing a bright red robe and carrying a 1911 .45cal automatic pistol with four rounds in the magazine.

None of the rounds were in the chamber, however, so Fromme’s attempt ended with a slight clicking sound and a dive-tackle by the Secret Service. Fromme actually got really close to Ford, and it’s likely she’d have killed him if she had thought to chamber a round before the attempt. According to her later statements, Fromme did it on behalf of California’s redwood trees.

Dumb Assassins Squeaky Swastika

A photo of Lynette Fromme, a would-be Ford assassin. Image Source: Pinterest

The second attempt came 17 days later, on September 22, in San Francisco. There, a woman named Sarah Jane Moore managed to get off a single shot that missed Ford by six inches. Moore was a huge fan of Patty Hearst — even working at a Hearst Foundation nonprofit — and well-known to authorities as a radical who moonlighted as an FBI informant.

In the run-up to the assassination attempt, Moore threw off as many warning signs as she possibly could. She said and did a lot of suspicious things and even had her gun confiscated by the police the day before. This was before waiting periods existed, so Moore just went out and bought a replacement .38cal revolver the morning of the attempt.

What Moore didn’t know was that the gun’s sights were misaligned, so her first shot went wide by half a foot. Before she could correct for the error, Moore was tackled by a retired Marine and hauled off to jail. The wild shot she fired on her way to the ground also missed and wounded a nearby cab driver.

Dumb Assassins Moore Car

Sarah Jane Moore, another would-be Ford assassin. Image Source: Wikipedia

The two women’s lives continued to parallel each other for decades. Both pled guilty and continued spouting radical politics from their cells. Both women briefly escaped from prison in the late 1970s, only to be picked up and returned after a few hours. Both were paroled a year or two after Gerald Ford died of natural causes in 2006.

Going by their public statements since being paroled, Moore came to regret trying to kill the president, while Fromme still believes Charles Manson is the Messiah.

After this presidential assassination attempts, view some of the most haunting Kennedy assassination photos that most people have never seen before. Then, see powerful assassination photos that document the most historic killings of the modern era.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.