[On April 26th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was killed after a nearly two-week manhunt following his assassination of Abraham Lincoln. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of different assassinations and their contexts!]
On the silliest and yet the most serious would-be political assassin in American history.
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme’s famous nickname is only one of many silly details about President Gerald Ford’s unsuccessful 1975 assassin. Fromme wore a flowing red robe and elfin red hat to Sacramento’s Capitol Park, where Ford was holding a televised event; she carried a pistol with no round in the chamber, and when she was immediately restrained by the Secret Service after pointing the gun at Ford, she emphasized to the cameras that the gun “didn’t go off.” Later she would tell the court during her trial that she “was so relieved not to have to shoot it, but, in truth, I came to get life. Not just my life but clean air, healthy water, and respect for creatures and creation.” When the prosecuting attorney recommended a harsh sentence, Fromme threw an apple at him (drawn from the folds of another flowing robe) and knocked off his glasses (“Sandy Koufax couldn’t have thrown a better pitch,” her defense attorney noted when asked about the incident). Much of Fromme’s assassination story reads more like a minor Wes Anderson film than an act of attempted political violence.
Yet there’s a problem with that image, and it has to do with how Fromme spent the eight years prior to her pseudo-assassination attempt. In 1967, when she was only 19 years old and a homeless Junior College dropout, she met Charles Manson on Venice Beach, and quickly fell under the psychotic cult leader’s spell. Although she was not charged with taking part in the Manson Family’s brutal 1969 murder spree, she and other followers camped outside the trial, carving X’s in their foreheads when Manson did so and working to prevent other Family members from testifying against Manson. When Manson was sentenced to life in prison, Fromme and others continued the Family’s legacy of violence as well as its relationship with the Aryan Brotherhood, and she (along with other Family and Aryan Brotherhood members) played some role in the brutal murder of a young married couple (James and Lauren Willett) in Stockton (CA) in the fall of 1972. Although she was not connected to any crimes between 1972 and 1975, she was living with another Family member throughout this time, and the red robe she was wearing at the time of her assassination attempt was in honor of Manson’s nickname of “Red” for her.
None of those histories necessarily mean that Fromme was really trying to assassinate Ford in 1975, but they do significantly change any image of her as a silly environmental activist or performance artist or the like. Indeed, the question I raised about Leon Csolgosz in Wednesday’s post—where was he or she radicalized?—has a crystal clear answer for Lynette Fromme, and that answer is “In the midst of one of the most brutal and horrific cults in American history.” Given that, I can’t help but wonder if some of the sense of silliness (which to be clear I’ve given into myself) is a form of white privilege, an inability to see a petite white woman as part of a group of bigoted, violent killers and criminals. Yet that’s precisely what Fromme was, and what she apparently remained throughout her three-plus decades in prison: a disciple and devotee of one of the most despicable figures in American history. Fortunately she was not able to commit an act of political violence in service of those beliefs, but she quite possibly took part in—and at least overtly condoned and supported—multiple, far more violent acts against innocent, private people. This is not a would-be assassin to laugh at.
April Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other assassination contexts or connections you’d highlight?
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