Four American presidents were assassinated in office—Abraham Lincoln (1865), James Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901) and John F. Kennedy (1963)—while a number of lesser-known elected officials also have died in the line of duty. Get the facts on six public servants whose murders may surprise you.
Bent, a frontiersman who built a trading empire across the West and was named the first civilian governor of New Mexico when it came under American rule, was attacked and scalped by a group of Hispanic and Indian rebels at his Taos home on January 19, 1847. Soon after the Mexican-American War began in the spring of 1846, American forces occupied New Mexico, which had been a Mexican territory, and Bent, who had lived in Taos since the 1830s, was appointed governor. Unhappy with the American occupation, a group of Mexicans and their Indian allies launched a rebellion by killing the 47-year-old Bent and other Anglo-Americans in Taos. The U.S. military soon quashed the revolt and a number of leaders of the uprising were captured and executed. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which officially ended the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded a large portion of the present-day Southwest to the United States , including New Mexico.
On May 21, 1870, Stephens, a Republican state senator who advocated for the rights of African Americans, was murdered in the Caswell County Courthouse in Yanceyville, North Carolina, by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Stephens’ assassination was part of a terror campaign being carried out by the Klan across North Carolina. That July, in an effort to stop the violence, Governor William Holden declared martial law in Caswell County and nearby Alamance County. In what became known as the Kirk-Holden War, the governor also suspended the writ of habeas corpus and brought in former Union officer George Kirk to head up a militia and maintain order. The militia arrested some 100 men with suspected ties to the Klan. Holden was impeached and removed from office in 1871. More than a century later, in 2011, the North Carolina Senate pardoned him.
In November 1899, Goebel, a Democrat and Kentucky state senator, narrowly lost the election for governor to his Republican opponent William Taylor. The Democrats challenged the election results, alleging voter fraud, but Taylor was sworn into office that December. On January 30, 1900, with the disputed election results still under investigation, Goebel, a controversial figure who in 1895 killed a political rival in a gunfight, was shot by an unidentified assailant while walking toward the state capitol in Frankfort. The next day, the Democratic-controlled Kentucky legislature invalidated enough votes to proclaim the wounded politician the governor and, over protests by Republicans, he was sworn into office. However, on February 3, the 44-year-old Goebel died from his injuries. Taylor then lost a court battle to regain the governorship, which went to Goebel’s lieutenant governor, J.C.W. Beckham. Afterward, Taylor, suspected of being a conspirator in Goebel’s assassination, fled the Bluegrass State to avoid arrest. Several men eventually were convicted in the case but later pardoned, and the answer to who killed Goebel remains a mystery.
On February 15, 1933, president-elect Roosevelt gave a brief speech at a rally in a Miami, Florida, park then sat in his convertible and spoke with Cermak, who had served as mayor of Chicago since 1931 and was credited with building the city’s Democratic Party into a powerful organization. As the two men talked, Giuseppe Zangara, an Italian-born, unemployed bricklayer who disliked government leaders and likely suffered from mental-health issues, began shooting at them. Roosevelt was Zangara’s alleged target, but instead he hit Cermak and four others. Rushed to the hospital in Roosevelt’s car, the mayor, a native of the present-day Czech Republic, reportedly told the president-elect, “I am glad it was me instead of you” (a quote eventually engraved on Cermak’s tomb). The 59-year-old Cermak died on March 6, 1933, two days after Roosevelt was sworn in to the first of his four terms in the White House. Zangara, who confessed to his crime, was executed at a Florida state prison just two weeks later, on March 20.
In November 1978, Ryan, a U.S. representative from California, traveled to the South American nation of Guyana to investigate reports of abuse and people being held against their will at Jonestown, a settlement established by members of an American cult called the Peoples Temple. Jim Jones founded what became the Peoples Temple in the 1950s as a religious organization. In the 1970s, following a spate of bad press (former Temple members described being subjected to physical and mental abuse), the charismatic, controlling Jones relocated with some 1,000 of his followers to the Guyanese jungle, where he promised they would establish a utopian community. Instead, Temple members endured various forms of mistreatment there. On November 17, Ryan and a small delegation made a fact-finding visit to Jonestown, where they were received cordially. However, the following day, as the congressman was waiting at a nearby airstrip along with his group, which by then included some Temple members who wanted to defect, they were ambushed by gunmen sent by Jones. The 53-year-old Ryan was killed, along with four others in his party. Later that day, Jones led his followers in a murder-suicide in which more than 900 people died. It was the single largest loss of U.S. civilian lives in a non-natural disaster prior to the 9/11 attacks. In 1986, Larry Layton was convicted of conspiracy to murder Ryan. The only Temple member convicted in the U.S. in conjunction with the case, he was released from prison in 2002.
In November 1977, Milk became one of the first openly gay people elected to public office in America when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. A year later, on November 27, the 48-year-old Milk was assassinated at San Francisco’s City Hall by Dan White, a city supervisor who had resigned from the board earlier that same month then decided he wanted his job back. When Mayor George Moscone, prompted by Milk and others, decided not to reinstate White he became furious and snuck into City Hall, where he fatally shot the mayor and Milk. White, a former police officer and firefighter, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and served five years of a seven-year sentence before being paroled in 1984. The following year, he committed suicide.