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Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Paths of Legends

This past week I finished the book That's Not in My American History Book by Thomas Ayres. It was very interesting and had many stories -- some that were familiar and some that were new to me.  Here is one I didn't know.

Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, was the first president to have an assassination attempt on his life. It happened on January 30th, 1835. President Jackson had just attended a congressional funeral held in the House Chamber of the Capitol. As he exited, Richard Lawrence, an unemployed house painter, pointed a pistol at Jackson and fired.  The percussion cap exploded, but the bullet did not discharge.

Jackson moved toward Lawrence and started beating him with his cane. During the ensuing scuffle, Lawrence took another pistol out of his pocket and pulled the trigger. But that gun also misfired. Bystanders joined in, wrestling Lawrence to the ground and disarming him. One of them was Rep. Davy Crockett of Tennessee. (For those of you over a certain age, now is the time to start singing, "Davy, Davy Crockett. King of the wild frontier!")

About a hundred years later the Smithsonian Institute examined both of these guns and couldn't find anything wrong that would have made them misfire.

Richard Lawrence was mentally ill. He believed that he was Richard III, rightful heir to the throne of England and that President Jackson was keeping him from it.

The case went to trial. The prosecuting attorney wanted Lawrence to get the death penalty because, he said, any attack on the president of the United States is an attack on the United States. The defense attorney used the reasoning, for the first time in a court of law, that the prisoner should be found not guilty for the reason of insanity.

The jury deliberated for a very short time.  They bought the argument of the defense attorney.  Richard Lawrence spent the rest of his life in mental institutions.  

The prosecuting attorney was very disappointed.  He was the man whom you know as the author of The Star Spangled Banner, written twenty-one years earlier. It was Francis Scott Key.

Now you have heard something interesting.

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