Richard Lawrence, a painter, having been exposed to noxious chemicals for much of his working life, suddenly began to exhibit a change in his personality. Even his appearance changed. He had previously dressed rather conservatively, but abruptly altered his style and began dressing with more flair, even growing a mustache. Born in England, he began to believe that he was heir to the British throne and would take his seat as King Richard III (Richard the III died in battle during the War of the Roses in 1485). The mad painter also believed that the only thing preventing his rightful rule in Great Britain was the President of the United States.
Lawrence quit his job, telling anyone who would listen that the American government owed him recompense for his father’s death, and therefore he had no need to work. In fact, the erstwhile painter thought the President himself had killed his father even though his father had never even set foot in America. None-the-less, the demented man moved to America with the intent that he would right the wrongs he perceived had been done to him.
After purchasing a pair of pistols he began to shadow the president to learn of his movements. Observers would have seen him out and about, talking to himself and laughing.
The President was leaving the funeral of South Carolina congressman Warren Davis, which had been held in the house chamber of the Capitol.
The “handsome…well-dressed” painter could not get close enough to the President as he walked into the service, so he lurked behind a pillar nearby where the president would later walk. As the exiting and unsuspecting President passed, Lawrence jumped in front of him, and from less than ten feet away, fired his pistol. The cap exploded but the powder failed to ignite and propel the bullet. The President, being accustomed to the onset of violence, perceived the threat to his life and charged his attacker, raising his cane in angry defiance. Onlookers, realizing what was happening, joined the melee. One of them was the legendary Tennessean, Davy Crockett.
In the midst of the ensuing scuffle, the out of work painter took out a second pistol and fired it. But like the first, it also failed to discharge. The astonished president, even though 67 years old at the time, used the moment of confusion to his advantage and repeatedly struck his would-be assassin with his walking cane. At first, Lawrence seemed to the President “firm and resolved” but with the beating, the deranged man “seemed to shrink.” A navy lieutenant in close proximity to the assailant knocked him down while Crockett and others pounced. All the while, the aged but battle-hardened President, continued his thrashing.
The President firmly believed that the assailant had been hired to kill him by the political opposition in an effort to thwart his dismantling of the Second Bank of the United States. The President was certain that the bank was a main source of political and economic corruption.
The President specifically thought a political rival was behind the attempt on his life. He accused the former Vice President who then took to the floor of the Senate and vehemently denied his involvement. He accused a former friend and Senator from Mississippi, George Poindexter of connections to the assailant, having been informed that the Senator had employed Lawrence to paint his house.
Richard Lawrence was brought to trial six weeks after his attempt on the Presidents life. It is believed that he was the first to target a U.S. President for assassination. The prosecuting attorney was the renowned Francis Scott Key who is perhaps better known for writing the lyrics of the National Anthem. The jury in the case found the demented painter guilty of attempted murder by reason of insanity, after deliberating for just five minutes. “King Richard III” spent the rest of his life in an insane asylum, his kingdom a small padded cell.
The fact that two perfectly normal pistols misfired on that day was not lost on those present. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, former antagonist turned friend of the president put it this way. “The circumstances made a deep impression upon the public felling, and irresistibly carried many minds to the belief in a superintending Providence, manifested in the extraordinary case of two pistols in succession – so well loaded, so coolly handled, and afterwards fired with such readiness, force and precision – missing fire, each in its turn, when leveled eight feet at the President’s heart.”
It was later calculated that the odds of both of Lawrence’s two guns failing to discharge at the same event were 125,000 to 1. A century later the very guns that Richard Lawrence attempted to use that day were test fired. Each of them discharged perfectly the first time.
Historians believe it was the extreme humidity that providentially caused the misfiring of the guns; but that is not the whole of the story. Congress planned that the great George Washington’s remains be entombed in the rotunda of the Capitol. They were so confident that his heirs would approve that a hole was dug in preparation. As time passed without approval for the burial, the hole remained unfilled. The moisture from the water table below helped create the excessive humidity, which likely explains why the gunpowder in Lawrence’s guns failed to ignite. A special reverence for George Washington may well have saved the life of the President.