According to Merriam-Webster, a rhyme is “one of two or more words or phrases that end in the same sounds.” Rhyming (but not exact repetition) in history is the central concept of The History Rhyme. To understand and appreciate the “rhymes” that are presented here, an in-depth understanding of the events is not required and perhaps may even be detrimental (due to preconceived notions). What is essential is an understanding of the meanings of the main concepts that are being rhymed. What is a crisis? Who was a Progressive? What is a pardon? If you do not know those meanings in the context of the times being discussed, you may not catch the rhyme.
If one does not understand how words can be interpreted differently by various audiences, the ability to see events in a wider context may be lost too. In our rhyme analogy, if we think that we hear the words “hare” and “pair” we get a very different understanding of the story than if we hear “hair” and “pare.” In the case of history, such limitation often comes into mind when divisive issues such as political views, nationality, gender or religion come into play. Was Robert E. Lee a patriot or a traitor? Was Joseph Stalin a great leader or a monstrous butcher? Was Tomás de Torquemada a defender of the Catholic faith or a persecutor of innocent people? In all of these cases, it all depends on the perspective of the viewer and his or her willingness to consider other meanings. What is really interesting when studying history is that sometimes the answer is that both meanings can be true.
With the lengthy preamble out of the way, we come to the history rhyme question of the month – when is a murder an assassination and when is it simply murder? To answer this question, we will look at a few events in American history where people both well-known and forgotten were murdered and try to determine if those deaths were assassinations. According to the Oxford dictionary (I would not want you to think that I only use Merriam-Webster), to assassinate is to “murder (an important person) in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons.” We will examine a few situations in the paragraphs below to see which of the murders described are “assassinations” and which are “simply murder.” In the end, we will undoubtedly see that the answer depends in some cases a lot on the audience’s perspective.
The first murder that we will examine is that of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. This example is the easiest to declare an assassination. Kennedy was “an important person” who was “murdered” in a “surprise attack for political reasons.” The only real question that remains in some people’s minds is who was the assassin and why they did it? It does not really matter if the assassin was Lee Harvey Oswald or if others were involved. It does not matter if Oswald was working for the KGB, the Cubans, the Mafia, the CIA or even (as some extreme theories suggest) Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson. Kennedy was killed because he was the President of the United States and his death has a tremendous impact on the political world.
A second murder that we will examine is an extension of the first – the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby on November 24, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. On the surface, it would be easy to say that the death of Oswald would be simply a murder, but that does not take into account some of the popular theories floating around the Internet. We could say that after Oswald was arrested in the hours following Kennedy’s assassination he did fit into a sub-category of “an important person” (of the infamous variety). We can more easily say that he was murdered “in a surprise attack” by Jack Ruby. The real crux of defining Oswald’s death is whether or not he was murdered “for political reasons.” If you believe in a wider conspiracy, then perhaps you might say that this was an “assassination” in order to shut him up before he talked. Even if I believed the theories floating around about Oswald and Ruby, I still would have a difficult time calling this murder an assassination. It stretches the limits of the definition we are using as a pivot point for this rhyme. Oswald’s importance was too brief for me to even consider that his death could be called an assassination.
A third murder that is sometimes called an assassination is that of John Lennon. On December 8, 1980 in New York, Lennon was shot outside his home by Mark David Chapman. While the generally accepted view of this event is that Chapman was insane, there are some who argue that the gunman had been hired by Yoko Ono, or Paul McCartney for personal or professional reasons. These theories do not fall into our discussion because there is no “surprise attack for political or religious reasons.” So, for most people the simple answer to whether John Lennon was assassinated would be “no.” However, if one believes the theories presented by Fenton Bresler in his 1989 book Who Killed John Lennon?*, then perhaps there might be a case for the “assassination” definition. He argues that Chapman had been brainwashed by the CIA or FBI to kill Lennon who was a magnet for leftist groups. If we were to agree with Bresler’s dubious theories, would this murder then be an assassination? The answer in such an extreme exercise in the suspension of reality is an extremely reluctant “I suppose so.” John Lennon was definitely an “important person” who was killed in a “surprise attack.” If the circumstantial evidence presented by Bresler is to be believed (e.g. Chapman was said by a New York police lieutenant to have looked “as if he could have been programmed” and the CIA had Lennon under surveillance), then there is a political reason for his killing. I will leave the final decision up to you.
The fourth murder that we will examine is that of Anton “Tony” Cermak who was shot in the lung on February 15, 1933 in Miami, Florida. At the time of the shooting (which would take his life on March 3, 1933), Cermak was the mayor of Chicago, a prominent member of the Democratic party and a powerful influence at the Democratic convention which had been held in his city the year before. He had sought to prevent Franklin D. Roosevelt from getting the nomination, but failed. He was shot by Giuseppe Zangara during an impromptu political speech from the back of an open car. Zangara told police that he shot because “I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists.” If we stopped at this point, the obvious verdict on whether or not this murder was an assassination would be “yes.” However, this was not the whole story. The important missing fact is who Mayor Cermak was standing next to who was actually giving the impromptu speech – then president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. Zangara’s target was not Cermak (although there were some theories at the time that disputed that point). The would-be assassin was simply too short to see clearly where he was aiming. After his first shot, his arm was deflected by a member of the crowd. So, instead of hitting Roosevelt he shot Cermak and four other people – including a woman who later died. While there are still articles on the Internet about the “assassination” of Anton Cermak, his death does not fit our full definition of that crime. Cermak was the target of those bullets no more than the poor woman who also died. Yet, nobody talks about Zangara assassinating two people. Was Tony Cermak assassinated? Clearly the answer is “no” (as long as you don’t believe the conspiracy theorists) and that it was really more of a case of a series of unfortunate events that lands the mayor in this rhyme.
The final death we will example in our discussion of the point of when a murder becomes an assassination is the most obscure on the list – that of David Fulton Rice on February 28, 1929 in Centerville, Iowa. You may ask why I have chosen such an obscure death among the list of more well-known people. The simple answer is that Mr. Rice’s story caught my eye while looking through a fascinating website for political historians called “The Political Graveyard” (http://politicalgraveyard.com). I also chose it because it occurred in Centerville – the town where my mother was born and my grandparents lived. My grandfather was 20 years old at the time of Rice’s death and thus may have been aware of the murder. Unfortunately I was not thinking of these things while he was still alive in 1979. Nine-year-olds make such terrible historians. Anyway, why would this murder possibly be considered an assassination? First, Mr. Rice was a political figure in Centerville who had been elected to the Iowa state house of representatives for 1925 and was a member of several community organizations (Knights of Pythias, Freemasons, and American Legion). In the context of Appanoose County, Iowa, Representative Rice would most likely have been considered “an important person” and his death was a newsworthy event. Second, Mr. Rice was shot and killed by George Domyancich as Rice was leaving the Appanoose County courthouse. That certainly sounds like a “surprise attack” to me. The main tipping point is whether we can consider this murder to have been “for political or religious reasons.” According to The Political Graveyard, Domyancich was a “disgruntled law client” of his victim. On the surface, that would not seem like a political motivation. Yet, considering Rice’s seemingly prominent role in the community, more investigation will be required before we can be sure. Sounds like a trip to Centerville may be in my future to see if there might be more to the story than we now know. I will not go so far as to say there is more though. To do so would make me no better than those who throw around conspiracy theories so nonchalantly. So, for now, I will leave the verdict on this case as a “maybe.”
Looking at these varied murders and the circumstances, what can be said about the difference between a “murder” and an “assassination.” If we are to follow the Oxford definition used throughout this essay that to assassinate someone is to “murder (an important person) in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons” then the example of President John F. Kennedy is the only one we can say with certainty was an assassination. John Lennon and Lee Harvey Oswald were famous (or infamous) and their deaths were certainly a shock to the nation. However, it is only the conspiracy theorists that are pushing hard for the idea that these deaths were for political reasons. Tony Cermak was a known national political figure and his murder was sudden and shocking. However, since he was not believed to be the assassin’s target, it is not really what would be called an assassination. Finally David Fulton Rice was well-known in his community and having a prominent lawyer gunned down at the courthouse is certainly shocking, but we do not know if the motive of the gunman was political in origin. It may have been but we will have to wait and see on that one.
Regardless of the final verdict on whether any of these murders were actually assassinations, they are an interesting exercise in looking at the rhymes that weave their ways throughout the past. In this way, the death of a popular American president and a now-obscure politician from Centerville, Iowa can be discussed in the same breath. Are the two events similar? Not really. Yet, by looking at how someone might define their deaths they now are. That is why I enjoy history so much and why there will be many more rhymes to share in the year to come. Until next month…
*Please note that I am merely presenting Fenton Bresler’s book in order to discuss our assassination definition. There are few who agree with Mr. Bresler’s main arguments and it is an interesting example of what can only be called scathing criticism in the professional reviews of these books. Publishers Weekly called it “an entirely circumstantial case without a shred of hard evidence” while the Library Journal said the book lacked “a jot of evidence to support this outlandish hypothesis.”
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