The 6 unlikeliest heroes to save the President’s life, including a handkerchief
Assassination attempts are scary, no matter how far they get. But we tend to hear about history’s successful attempts rather than the failures, even though the foiled attempts can be just as fascinating—especially when you consider who (or what) stopped them.
These Presidential assassination attempts were stopped by some incredibly unlikely heroes.
1. A stovepipe hat
Before President Lincoln was killed in a theatre, his trademark hat may have saved his life.
As described in 1864: Lincoln At The Gates Of History, Lincoln was riding his horse one night alone (his horse, by the way, was called “Old Abe.” Yes, Lincoln rode a horse named after himself) when Lincoln heard a shot. The horse rushed away and Lincoln realized he was bareheaded.
Lincoln thought that Old Abe’s escape had caused the hat to fall off, but the next morning Lincoln’s aides recovered the hat and found two bullet holes. It had been shot, raising speculation that Lincoln’s hat threw off the attacker’s aim and saved the President’s life. Lincoln kept the incident quiet to keep up morale.
2. A really long speech
During a speech in Milwaukee, a mentally ill man named John Schrank believed the ghost of William McKinley wanted his assassination avenged. The target? Teddy Roosevelt.
Schrank shot Roosevelt successfully before being stopped, but the bullet didn’t kill TR. The bully President was saved by the lengthy folded over speech in his pocket, a glasses case, and his own chest (where the bullet stayed until Roosevelt’s death). Roosevelt didn’t shrink away from the challenge, either—saved by his speech, he showed off the improvised body armor to reporters and continued to perform for the crowd.
3. The power of family
On December 11, 1960, a man named Richard Pavlick targeted the soon-to-be President Kennedy with a dynamite-loaded car. The thing that stopped him? Seeing Kennedy with his family caused Pavlick to reconsider.
It’s a rare stroke of sentimentality in a group of assassins plagued by mental imbalances and extreme prejudices. According to the Toledo Blade, Pavlick didn’t want to hurt Kennedy’s wife and children. He was later arrested.
4. Wheel blocks
Decades before 9/11, a man named Samuel Byck wanted to crash a plane into the White House and kill Richard Nixon. The thing that stopped him? Wheel blocks.
On February 22, 1974, Byck hijacked a 747 in Baltimore. He proceeded to shoot members of the crew and demand the plane take off, but it couldn’t because the wheel blocks were still in place on the ground. Byck was shot from outside the plane and killed himself before he could be apprehended. The incident was later mentioned in the report by the 9/11 Commission.
5. Nuclear bombs and Assad
This is a stretch, but it provides some astounding historical irony: nuclear bomb negotiations and a meeting with President Assad may have saved Bill Clinton’s life.
In 1994, a man tried to kill the President. An unemployed limo driver went to Washington from January 11th to 17th and planned to shoot Clinton during one of his morning jogs, but Clinton was in Europe. It’s impossible to know if the assassination would have been successful if Clinton had been in the country, but we do know why he was abroad: his itinerary included nuclear disarmament agreements with Ukraine and a meeting with President Halfez al-Assad, father of Bashar al-Assad.
6. A handkerchief
In 2005, President George W. Bush was giving a speech in Georgia when a man threw a live grenade at the podium. The only reason it didn’t detonate was because a red handkerchief was tightly wrapped around it and kept the pin from firing (the handkerchief also cushioned the blow).