On this day in 1950, Harry Truman recovers from an attack on his life. Just one day earlier, Puerto Rican nationalists had stormed the grounds of the Blair House, hoping that an attack on Truman would raise awareness for the cause of Puerto Rican independence.
The Trumans weren’t then at the White House, as one might expect. They’d moved out in 1948 and had been at the Blair House ever since. Massive White House renovations were underway (pictured) and would not be completed for several years.
Would you believe that a cab driver told the two Puerto Ricans where Truman was? Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo had no idea that the Trumans had moved.
In fact, Torresola and Collazo might have succeeded had they known just a bit more about Truman and his schedule. They attacked the Blair House half an hour before Truman was supposed to leave anyway. Had they waited, Truman would have walked out of the house, in plain sight of the assassins.
They would have had a clear shot.
Instead, the two men’s only recorded strategic planning occurred after they arrived at a hotel in Washington, D.C. “They sat in Oscar’s room and pulled out the telephone directory with a map, on which they located the White House,” one historian writes. “A map. That’s all, a map in a phone book in a cheap hotel.”
Nor was that their only hiccup. One of the assassins had no idea how to work his gun. He learned how to use it mere hours before the intended attack.
On the afternoon of November 1, President Truman was in an upstairs bedroom at the Blair House. He was taking a nap. Little did anyone know that Torresola and Collazo were headed his way.
The two nationalists approached the Blair House from opposite sides. Their plan was to surprise and overwhelm the guards before anyone realized what was going on. If they could take out the guards, then it would be an easy matter to burst into the Blair House and find the President.
Nothing went as they planned. Collazo was to take the first shot, but he was also the one who was inexperienced with guns. His first shot, aimed at Officer Donald Birdzell, did not go off. Was it a misfire? Inexperience? No one really knows. Either way, Birdzell survived. But a firefight soon started outside the front gates of the Blair House.
The gun fight was quick—about 40 seconds. During that brief interval, at least 29 shots were fired. Torresola got several shots off, including multiple shots aimed at White House police officer Leslie Coffelt. The shots fired at Coffelt were mortal wounds. Nevertheless, as he was dying, Coffelt managed to get off a shot at Torresola. He shot Torresola just as the nationalist was reloading with a clear view of Truman. The President had woken up and rushed to the window to see what was happening.
Torresola was killed instantly. In all likelihood, the dying Coffelt saved the President’s life.
The gunfight was over, and the President was safe. Torresola and Coffelt had been killed, while a few others were wounded. Collazo had been shot, but he survived. Collazo was later sentenced to death, but Truman commuted his sentence to life imprisonment as a gesture of good will toward the people of Puerto Rico. Several decades later, President Jimmy Carter would free him from prison.
All in all, it was an uncomfortably close call—and a situation that could have ended differently but for Coffelt’s bravery.
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Nelson A Denis, War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony (2015)
Ronald L. Feinman, Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (2015)
Scott P. Johnson, Trials of the Century: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture and the Law (2010)
Stephen Hunter & John Bainbridge Jr., American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill President Truman–and the Shoot-out That Stopped It (2005)
Willard M. Oliver & Nancy E. Marion, Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief (2010)