Truman assassination attempt
usinfo | 2014-07-04 16:02


The second of two assassination attempts on U.S. President Harry S. Truman occurred on November 1, 1950. It was carried out by two Puerto Rican pro-independence activists, Oscar Collazo and GriselioTorresola, while the President resided at the Blair House. Torresola mortally wounded White House Police officer Leslie Coffelt, who killed him in return fire. Secret Service agents also were involved and wounded Collazo. President Harry S. Truman was not harmed.


1947 incident

In an unrelated incident in 1947, the Zionist Stern Gang was believed to have sent a number of letter bombs addressed to the president and high-ranking staff at the White House pending the independence of Israel. This was during the period when the United Nations was reviewing the British mandate inPalestine, and Truman would support recognition of an independent Israel in 1948. The Secret Service had been alerted by British intelligence after similar letters had been sent to high-ranking British officials which the Gang claimed credit. The mail room of the White House intercepted the letters and the Secret Service defused them. At the time, the incident was not publicized. Truman's daughter Margaret confirmed the incident in her biography of Truman published in 1972. It had earlier been told in a memoir by Ira R.T. Smith, who worked in the mail room.

Puerto Rican independence movement

In the 1940s, the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico had little political power in the country, where voters had elected the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico (PPD) as the majority in the legislature. Nationalist believed that Puerto Rico still suffered from American colonialism and wanted independence. The Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico (PPD) was supporting negotiations with the United States to create a "new" political status for the island.
This led to the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party Revolts of the 1950s, an armed protest for independence by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party againstUnited States Government rule over Puerto Rico. The Party repudiated the "Free Associated State" (Estado LibreAsociado) status that had been enacted in 1950, as the Nationalists considered it to be a continuation of colonialism.
The revolts began on October 30, 1950, upon the orders of Pedro Albizu Campos, president of the Nationalist Party. Uprisings occurred in Peñuelas,Mayagüez, Naranjito, Arecibo and Ponce. The most notable uprisings occurred in Utuado, Jayuya, and San Juan. These were suppressed by strong military force, including the use of planes.

Plans for the assassination
Griselio Torresola

In New York City, the Nationalists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo developed a plan to assassinate the U.S. President, Harry S. Truman in order to demonstrate that the October 30 uprising had not been an "incident between Puerto Ricans" as described by President Truman, but rather was a sign of a war between two countries. They had learned that Truman was living at the Blair House, while the White House was renovated.
Oscar Collazo

The two men realized that their attempt was near-suicidal, and that they likely would be killed. Nonetheless, they wanted to bring world attention to the government killings of rebels and associates in Puerto Rico, and the need for Puerto Rican independence. Torresola, a skilled gunman, taught Collazo how to load and handle a gun. They took the train to Washington, DC to reconnoiter the area. On November 1, 1950, they attacked.

Blair House, site of the attempt, as it is today.

At the time, there were two guard booths in front, which are not present today.
Torresola approached along Pennsylvania Avenue from the west side, while his partner, Oscar Collazo, walked up behind Capitol police officer, Donald Birdzell, who was standing on the steps of the Blair House. While President Truman napped on the second floor, Collazo shot at Birdzell, but had failed to chamber a round in it, and the gun did not fire. After fumbling with it, Collazo fired the weapon just as Birdzell was turning to face him, and shot the officer in his right knee.

After hearing the gunshots, Secret Service agent Vincent Mroz ran through a basement corridor and stepped out of a street-level door on the east side of the House, where he opened fire on Collazo. Mroz stopped Collazo on the outside steps with a bullet to the chest. The incident has been described as "the biggest gunfight in Secret Service history." Two other officers took part in the shooting of the attackers.

Meanwhile, Torresola had approached a guard booth at the west corner and took White House police officer Leslie Coffelt by surprise, shooting at him four times from close range and mortally wounding him with a 9mm German Luger. Three of those shots struck Coffelt in the chest and abdomen, and the fourth went through his tunic.

Torresola shot police officer Joseph Downs in the hip, before he could draw his weapon. As Downs turned toward the house, Torresola shot him in the back and in the neck. Downs got into the basement and secured the door, denying Torresola entry into the Blair House.

Torresola turned his attention to the shoot-out between his partner Collazo and several other police officers. He shot officer Donald Birdzell in the left knee.
White House Policeman Leslie W. Coffelt

Birdzell could no longer stand and was effectively incapacitated (he would later recover).

Torresola stood to the left of the Blair House steps to reload. President Truman had awakened from a nap to the sound of gunfire and looked outside his second floor window. Torresola was 31 feet (9.4 m) away from Truman's window. Secret Service agents shouted at Truman to get away from the window.
At that same moment, Coffelt left the guard booth, propped against it, and fired his .38-caliber service revolver at Torresola, about 30 feet (10 m) away. Coffelt hit Torresola two inches above the ear, killing him instantly. Taken to the hospital, Coffelt died four hours later.

The gunfight involving Torresola lasted approximately 20 seconds, while the gunfight with Collazo lasted approximately 38.5 seconds. Only one of Collazo's shots hit anyone. Torresola did most of the shooting.


Coffelt's widow, Cressie E. Coffelt, was asked by President Truman and the Secretary of State to go to Puerto Rico, where she received condolences from various Puerto Rican leaders and crowds. Mrs. Coffelt responded with a speech absolving the island's people of blame for the acts of Collazo and Torresola.
Oscar Collazo was convicted in federal court and sentenced to death, which Truman commuted to a life sentence. While in prison, he gave an interview saying that his devotion to the Nationalist Party and Puerto Rican independence went back to 1932, when he heard Pedro Albizu Campos give a speech about American imperialism and the outrage of American doctor Cornelius P. Rhoads writing about killing Puerto Ricans in experiments. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter commuted Collazo's sentence to the time served, and the former revolutionary was released. He returned to live in Puerto Rico, where he died in 1994.

At the time of the assassination attempt, the FBI arrested Collazo's wife, Rosa, on suspicion of having conspired with her husband in the plan. She spent eight months in federal prison but did not go to trial. Upon her release, Rosa continued to work with the Nationalist Party. She helped gather 100,000 signatures in an effort to save her husband from an execution.

Acknowledging the importance of the question of Puerto Rican independence, in 1952 Truman allowed a plebiscite in Puerto Rico to determine the status of its relationship to the U.S. The people voted 81.9% in favor of continuing as a Free Associated State, as established in 1950.


Inside the Blair House, a plaque was installed to commemorate White House police officer Leslie Coffelt. The day room for the U.S. Secret Service's Uniformed Division at the Blair House is named for Coffelt as well.


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