Panic broke out in the U.S. Capitol building on January 30, 1835, when an armed assailant tried to gun down President Andrew Jackson as he left a state funeral. “Old Hickory” emerged unscathed after the would-be killer’s pistols failed to discharge, but the assassination attempt—the first ever made against an American president—sparked widespread talk of a conspiracy on Capitol Hill.
On a dreary Friday in January 1835, a host of Washington, D.C. luminaries converged on the U.S. Capitol building to attend the funeral of South Carolina Representative Warren Davis. Most prominent among the top-coated and hoop-skirted throngs was Andrew Jackson, who had just entered his seventh year of a controversial presidency. At 67, “Old Hickory” was beginning to show his age. He was rail thin and pale, and his unruly hair had turned snowy white. The former general had only filed into the House chamber that day by leaning on the arm of Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury, and a witness would later write that he appeared “scarcely able to go through” with the ceremony. Many—Jackson included—were beginning to wonder if he would survive his second term in office.
As Jackson strained his way through the funeral, an impeccably dressed man named Richard Lawrence waited outside in a crowd that had gathered near the Capitol’s East Portico. Unlike most of the curiosity seekers, Lawrence was not there just to get a glimpse of the “Hero of New Orleans” as he left the ceremony. Over the last few years, the formerly mild-mannered house painter had grown increasingly unhinged. He had formulated the delusion that he was the unrecognized heir to the British throne, and he believed the U.S. government owed him a massive sum of money. Convinced the debt needed to be paid in gold or blood, he now stood with a pair of single-shot brass pistols concealed beneath his cloak. Only a day earlier, a witness had heard Lawrence repeatedly mutter to himself, “I’ll be damned if I don’t do it!”
At the close of the funeral, President Jackson exited the House chamber and made his way through the Capitol Rotunda. As he stepped onto the East Portico, he came face to face with Richard Lawrence, who had emerged from a crowd less than 10 feet away. Without uttering a word, the wild-eyed assassin raised one of his pistols, aimed at the president’s heart, and pulled the trigger. The gun’s percussion cap erupted with a loud crack, but the shot was a misfire—the powder had not ignited. Jackson reacted to the danger with startling ferocity. Amid shrieks from onlookers, the elderly president raised his walking stick and rushed headlong at the gunman. Moments before Jackson reached him, Lawrence produced a second pistol and fired again—this time at nearly point blank range. Again the percussion cap erupted, but again the powder failed to explode and launch its bullet. A Navy lieutenant promptly tackled Lawrence to the floor, and a group of spectators—among them frontier legend Davy Crockett, who was then a Congressman—helped subdue him. According to some accounts, President Jackson also got in a few wallops with his cane.
The attempted assassination stirred up a storm of debate and confusion on Capitol Hill. “Rumor is circulating a thousand stories,” wrote the Boston Morning Post. At the heart of the mystery were Lawrence’s guns, which had both misfired against seemingly impossible odds. “The pistols were examined,” U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton later wrote, “and found to be well loaded; and fired afterwards without fail, carrying their bullets true, and driving them through inch boards at thirty feet.” Most experts now believe the weather was responsible for saving Jackson’s life. The day of the funeral was unusually misty, and the powder in Lawrence’s pistols may have gotten just damp enough not to ignite. Even then, the president was incredibly lucky. The odds of both guns failing were later determined to be 125,000-to-1.
Supporters chalked “Old Hickory’s” survival up to divine intervention, but others were not so kind. Jackson was embroiled in a bitter dispute over his refusal to reauthorize the charter of the national bank of the United States, and he had earned his share of ill will among politicos. The New York Evening Post even wrote that some in Washington were sure to “grieve that the ball of the assassin did not perform its office.” Others believed the president had masterminded the entire incident to help swing public sentiment in his favor.
“Jacksonians,” as the president’s supporters were called, were also quick to smell a conspiracy. Shortly after Lawrence was taken into custody, accusations began to fly suggesting he was in cahoots with a seemingly endless list of the president’s political foes. Jackson was among the many who believed a plot was afoot—some reports have him yelling “I know where this came from!” during the attack—and he soon accused Whig Senator George Poindexter of having hired Lawrence to gun him down. “He would have attempted it himself long ago if he had had the courage,” he supposedly added. Jackson even produced affidavits from two men who claimed to have seen Lawrence visit the senator’s home, but both witnesses were proven unreliable. Poindexter was easily cleared of any wrongdoing, and Jackson’s opponents had a field day with what they considered a failed attempt to destroy a political rival. In a scathing report, Niles’ Weekly Register characterized the affair as the “foulest and filthiest tissue of wicked and willful falsehoods that ever was stewed-up to feed the morbid appetites of the basest of mankind…”
While pro- and anti-Jackson factions squabbled over their various conspiracy theories, further details emerged about Richard Lawrence’s questionable sanity. Family members and acquaintances told investigators that his behavior had become erratic in recent years. He often spent hours raving or staring into space; had threatened to murder several people; and had even received a warning from police after he threw a four-pound weight at his own sister. Strangest of all, Lawrence harbored the fantasy that he was the king of Great Britain and Rome and that the United States—along with the contents of its treasury—was his rightful property. He was furious at having been repeatedly rebuffed in his attempts to speak to Jackson regarding his claim, and even alleged that the president had murdered his father.
Evidence of Lawrence’s mental instability continued to mount in April 1835, when he finally had his day in court. During a trial prosecuted by “The Star-Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key, Lawrence repeatedly interrupted the proceedings with bombastic speeches and half-baked royal proclamations. During one such outburst, he confessed that he had tried to kill Jackson because the president’s attempts to dismantle the national bank hurt his chances of receiving his royal tribute. Lawrence’s defense attorneys later paraded a series of medical doctors before the court, each of whom testified that the defendant was clearly mad. It took the jury less than five minutes to find him not guilty by reason of insanity.
Following the court case, talk of a conspiracy on Capitol Hill largely died out. Some pro-Jackson newspapers argued that Lawrence had been inspired by the fiery rhetoric of presidential opponents like John C. Calhoun, but most accepted that the gunman was merely a mentally disturbed loner. “Hallucination of mind was evident,” Senator Benton later wrote, “and the wretched victim of a dreadful delusion was afterwards treated as insane…” The first man to attempt to assassinate a U.S. president was later confined to the District’s Government Hospital for the Insane (now known as St. Elizabeth’s Hospital), where he died in 1861.