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1835, January 30: Andrew Jackson’s Remarkable Luck

It was a gloomy day, both weather-wise and emotionally.

        Warren R. Davis, a popular house member from South Carolina who was well known for his wit and friendliness, and who was a distinguished poet and scholar whose works were known in Europe as well as in the United States, had died a few days earlier... and January 30, 1835, was the day memorial services and a funeral were being held in his honor near the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC. Because of Davis' popularity, an unusually large crowd had gathered for the services, and both the senate and the house had adjourned for the day rather than do further work after.

Andrew JacksonPresident Andrew Jackson, ca. 1837 [Larger version here]

        Andrew Jackson, 67 years old and then the president of the United States, had attended the services. As the crowd started to break up and disperse, Jackson walked back to the capital building accompanied by the secretary of the treasury, Levi Woodbury, and Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney of the Navy. Jackson was headed for his carriage parked at the steps of the East portico... when, among the crowds, a man stepped away from one of the columns and approached Jackson. At a distance of about two and a half yards from Jackson, the man pulled his hand from his coat and extended a revolver, aimed directly at the president's chest; the weapon sounded as the percussion cap was ignited, alerting everyone to the fact a gun had been fired.

         Yet Jackson was unharmed. The gun had failed to actually fire a bullet.

        Jackson raised his cane and started to rush the man, and Gedney and Woodbury also sprang to action; but the man immediately dropped the gun and grabbed a second he had in his left hand, again leveling his aim at jackson's chest. The crack of the gun once again sent fear rolling through the gathered throng.

        The second gun, too, failed to fire the bullet.

        The man, later to be identified as Richard Lawrence, a painter living in Washington for some three years, dropped the gun and ran into the crowd. He was quickly tackled by his pursuers, and restrained until help arrived. The guns were examined later that day at the courthouse Lawrence had been taken to, and they were found to be properly loaded... there appeared to be no reason the percussion caps would not have ignited the powder in them and launched the bullets, but that's what happened, twice.

        It would seem it just wasn't the day for Jackson to die.   

The Story Grows... just a little

        The account above is compiled from newspaper reports made the day after the occurrence; so, though remarkable, there's really no denying the events happened as described. One possible explanation for the two guns misfiring -- and really the only one other than just 'luck' -- is that maybe Lawrence got a batch of bad gunpowder that wouldn't ignite when the caps popped.

        The guns Lawrence used were loaded by placing a ball (or bullet) into each chamber, with some gunpowder packed behind each ball; the gunpowder was then ignited by a 'cap,' a small packet that produced the initial spark that ignited the gunpowder, which then launched the ball. It's clear from descriptions that the caps in both guns discharged, making a loud enough noise to tell people a gun had been discharged... so the gunpowder is what has to be suspected of being bad. If both guns were loaded with bad powder, they would look properly loaded on later inspection yet both fail to fire. Of course, the odds of Lawrence getting bad gunpowder at this particular moment in time are probably just as remote as the odds of both guns misfiring for no particular reason; in both cases Jackson was the luckiest man alive on that day!

        Perhaps this sort of speculation is why a change cropped up in the initial story, and started to be repeated as part of the 'facts' of the event. In reality, this new detail was first reported in 1854, about twenty years after the incident, so needs to be looked at closer. The new claim turned up in the book Thirty Years' View, by Thomas Hart Benton, who served as senator for Missouri for five terms (the first person to do so, by the way). Benton had been one of the senators attending Davis' services on January 30, 1835, so had been in the crowd when Jackson was attacked, though, he admitted, he was nowhere near the actual occurrence. He does claim to have been at the courthouse later though, and present for the initial examination of Lawrence and his guns. I quote from Benton's book:

"The pistols were examined, and found to be well loaded; and fired afterwards without fail, carrying their bullets true, and driving them through inch boards at thirty feet distance; nor could any reason be found for the two failures at the door of the rotunda."

So Benton expands on the initial reports that simply claimed the guns were inspected to confirm they were loaded right, to now state they were tested and found to function right, with deadly power... which would kill speculation about the gunpowder possibly being a bad batch. Of course, there are two strikes against Benton's version of the tests; first, that the claim was made twenty years after the fact, and second, the newspapers at the time failed to report said testing, when they were reporting every other detail of the moment. Nonetheless, many historians started to report that the guns had been fully tested at the time as part of their summaries of the account.

        Related to this, yet more recent, a History Channel webpage -- "This Day in History, January 30" -- made a further claim that around a century after the incident (so, around 1935) that:

"... Smithsonian Institute researchers conducted a study of Lawrence’s derringers, during which both guns discharged properly on the test’s first try."

I have been unable to find any evidence that such a test ever occurred. In fact, I have no evidence that the weapons Lawrence used were preserved at any time. Oh, and derringers were first used around 1852, about 18 years after the attack on Andrew Jackson.