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1954 Gunfire in the Capital - History

1954 Gunfire in the Capital - History

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Puerto Rico

(3/1/54) On March 1, three men and a women, all Puerto Rican nationalists, fired gunshots from the gallery of the House of Representatives, wounding five Congressmen.

The United States gained Puerto Rico from Spain as a result of the Spanish American War. The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party was founded in 1922, the party demanded that Puerto Rico become independent. Others on the island favored a form of autonomy under American control. The island had its own legislature that by the 1940’s were controlled by People’s Democratic Party. The PDP supported an act by Congress which established autonomy while the United States maintained responsibility for defense and foreign affairs..

The nationalist opposed the new arrangement and demanded independence. They ordered armed uprising in Puerto Rico starting in October 30,1950. Fighting broke out in a number of cities. Local forces with American support put down the revolt. 28 died and 49 wounded were wounded during the fighting. They also attempted to assassinate President Truman on November 1, 1950 when two Puerto Ricans attempted to gain access to Blair House, one was killed the other captured and sentenced to prison.

In 1952 a plebiscite was held in Puerto Rico where resident where offered a choice of continued rule as a colony or autonomy as a Free Associated State or Commonwealth. Puertoricans voted overwhelmingly for the Commonwealth (82%) but the nationalist boycotted the vote claiming it did not provide for full independence.

A decision was taken in 1954 to attack the Capital in Washington in with the hope that it would give the movement publicity. Four Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irvin Flores and Andrés Figueroa Cordero arrived on the capital on March 1, 1954 and entered the gallery of the House of Representatives. They opened fire with automatic weapons on the Congressmen below. Five Representatives were wounded. They were Alvin M. Bentley, Clifford Davis, Ben F. Jensen, George Hyde Fallon, and Kenneth A. Roberts. All recovered. The perpetrators were all sentenced to 80 years in prison. They were all pardoned by President Carter in 1979.

10 times the US capital weathered political violence

Today's storming of the Capitol is still a standout in history.

Washington, D.C., is home to the nation's capital, as well as the aptly named Capitol building where the U.S. Senate and House create, debate and pass bills and help to govern the country. On Wednesday (Jan. 6), a mob of supporters for President Donald Trump, who falsely claimed he had won the election, stormed the Capitol building. But this isn't the first time the capital of the U.S. has seen political violence. From violent attacks on politicians, to a raging fire, to explosions, to indiscriminate shooting, Washington D.C. has seen its share of darkness.

1954 Gunfire in the Capital - History

In 1814, the British burned the Capitol, the president&rsquos house, and other government buildings.

Over the following centuries, there were occasional shootings and bombings at the Capitol.

The breach on Jan. 6 was unprecedented in modern history. It involved hundreds of people who halted proceedings.

The United States went more than two centuries without an organized breach of its Capitol before Jan. 6, when supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the building as Congress met to certify electoral votes.

CNN hosts Wolf Blitzer and Erin Burnett aimed to put the unprecedented day of chaos in perspective by discussing a statement from Samuel Holliday, director of operations and scholarship at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. Holliday said it was the first time the Capitol had been breached since the British destroyed the Capitol in 1814 as part of the War of 1812.

Reached by PolitiFact, Holliday slightly adjusted his comparison: "I would say that this is the first time a malicious group has breached the U.S. Capitol since the British in August 1814."

During the Jan. 6 assault, rioters broke windows and loitered in chambers and offices. One woman was shot and died, according to reports. When lawmakers returned to a Capitol clear of rioters, they lamented what happened to their "temple to democracy," as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called it.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., drew comparisons to the breaches in 1814 and 2021: While one was another nation trying to challenge the U.S., he said, "this time we brought this hell upon ourselves."

During the War of 1812 against Great Britain, British troops battled their way to Washington in August 1814 and burned down the Capitol and other buildings.

"On Aug. 24, using torches and gunpowder paste, they burned the Capitol, the president&rsquos house, and other government buildings," according to a Senate history. "By the time a summer rainstorm doused the flames, the Capitol was barely more than a burned-out shell. The Senate&rsquos beautiful chamber, according to architect Benjamin Latrobe, was left &lsquoa most magnificent ruin.&rsquo"

Less than a month later, the Senate convened a new session in emergency quarters and considered whether the government should remain in Washington D.C. In 1819, the Senate occupied a rebuilt chamber with the mahogany writing desks still in use today in the modern Senate Chamber.

There have been other violent incidents, including shootings and bombings, at the U.S. Capitol since 1814.

July 2, 1915: A bomb went off in a Senate reception room on the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend shortly before midnight. No one was injured. A former professor of German at Harvard University, Erich Muenter, came to Washington to set off the package of dynamite. Muenter wrote that he hoped that the detonation would "make enough noise to be heard above the voices that clamor for war. This explosion is an exclamation point in my appeal for peace." Days later in jail, Muenter took his own life.

March 1, 1954: As House members gathered for an upcoming vote, four members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party entered the gallery armed with handguns, according to a House history.

"They indiscriminately opened fire onto the House Floor and unfurled a Puerto Rican flag in a violent act of protest meant to draw attention to their demand for Puerto Rico&rsquos immediate independence," states the House history website.

Five congressmen were wounded. House members, pages and police officers helped detain three of the assailants outside the gallery, while the fourth escaped the Capitol and was apprehended later that afternoon.

March 1, 1971: A bomb exploded in the Capitol building, causing damage but hurting no one. The Weather Underground claimed credit for the bombing as a protest of the ongoing U.S.-supported Laos invasion.

Nov. 7, 1983: At 10:58 p.m., a bomb tore through the second floor of the Capitol&rsquos north wing while the adjacent halls were virtually deserted. Minutes before the blast, a caller claiming to represent the "Armed Resistance Unit" warned the Capitol switchboard that a bomb had been placed near the chamber in retaliation for recent U.S. military involvement in Grenada and Lebanon. Five years later, federal agents arrested six members and charged them with the bombing. Three were later sentenced to prison while the court dropped charges against three co-defendants, already serving extended prison sentences for related crimes.

"The 1983 bombing marked the beginning of tightened security measures throughout the Capitol," states the Senate website. "The area outside the Senate Chamber, previously open to the public, was permanently closed. Congressional officials instituted a system of staff identification cards and added metal detectors to building entrances to supplement those placed at chamber gallery doors following a 1971 Capitol bombing."

July 24, 1998: Two Capitol Police officers, Officer Jacob J. Chestnut, Jr., and Detective John M. Gibson, were shot and killed when an armed assailant stormed past a U.S. Capitol security checkpoint. The shooter, Russell Eugene Weston Jr., was found incompetent to stand trial.

We asked Holliday why he considered the Jan. 6 breach the first one since 1814 in light of some of these other shootings.

He said none of the other incidents were similar to the scale of the Jan. 6 events.

"The 1954 shooting in the House galleries by a group of Puerto Rican nationalists has similar elements, but they smuggled their weapons inside the building before staging their attack," he said in an email. "The tragedy in 1998 involved a lone gunman who got inside the building. It&rsquos admittedly a fine distinction, but I think it&rsquos an important one."

1869 – 1902

Clark continued to hold the post of Architect of the Capitol until his death in 1902. During his tenure, the U.S. Capitol underwent considerable modernization. Steam heat was gradually installed in the Old Capitol. In 1873 the first elevator was installed, and in the 1880s electric lighting began to replace gas lights.

Between 1884 and 1891, the marble terraces on the north, west and south sides of the Capitol were constructed. As part of the grounds plan devised by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, these terraces not only added over 100 rooms to the Capitol Building but also provided a broader, more substantial visual base for the building.

On November 6, 1898, a gas explosion and fire in the original north wing dramatically illustrated the need for fireproofing. The roofs over the Statuary Hall wing and the original north wing were reconstructed and fireproofed, the work being completed in 1902 by Clark's successor, Elliott Woods. In 1901 the space in the west central front vacated by the Library of Congress was converted to committee rooms.

1814: British forces burn the U.S. Capitol

The U.S. Capitol was still under construction when it was torched by British troops who had invaded Washington, D.C. in one of the most famous skirmishes of the War of 1812. The troops “ignited a giant bonfire of furniture” in the Hall of the House of Representatives that was so intense it destroyed Giuseppe Franzoni's life-size marble statue of Liberty. Another bonfire was set in the Supreme Court Chamber, which at the time was housed in the Capitol building.

Upon surveying the damage, several members of Congress called to move the federal government to Philadelphia or another city that they thought might be more secure. (Ironically, Washington, D.C. itself had been established as the nation’s capital after a drunken mob of soldiers angry about unpaid wages stormed the Philadelphia State House in June 1783.)


1 Bill Goodwin Oral History Interview, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [October 20, 2005].

2 Joe Martin, My First Fifty Years in Politics as Told to Robert J. Donovan (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960): 217.

3 Alvin Bentley, “Exclusive: I Was Shot Down,” 20 June 1954, Los Angeles Times: J12.

4 “Communist Plot Charged,” 2 March 1954, New York Times: 19 “Attack Seen Red Inspired,” 2 March 1954, Baltimore Sun: 7.

5 Bree Hocking, “Together Again: 1950s–Era Pages Return to the Capitol, Full of Memories,” 20 September 2004, Roll Call: n.p.

6 The Honorable Paul Kanjorski Oral History Interview, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [October 26, 2011].

7 Congressional Record, House, 83rd Cong., 2nd sess. (9 March 1954): 2960.

8 John Harris, “Globe Reporter Describes Scene of House Shooting,” 2 March 1954, Daily Boston Globe: 1.

9 Congressional Record, House, 83rd Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1954): 2484.

10 William M. Blair, “Regrets Voiced by Muñoz Marín,” 3 March 1954, New York Times: 14.

11 Martin, My First Fifty Years in Politics: 220.

12 C. P. Trussell, “Four Are Indicted in House Shooting Plot Plans Bared,” 4 March 1954, New York Times: 1 "Puerto Ricans Get Maximum Terms," 9 July 1954, New York Times: 1 “Carter Grants Clemency to Puerto Rican Who Shot at Legislators in ’54 House Raid,” 7 October 1977, Los Angeles Times: B17 “Carter Frees Puerto Ricans Who Shot Five Congresmen,” 6 September 1979, Los Angeles Times: A1.

1954: Puerto Rican Nationalists Launch Assault on U.S. Congress

Associated Press Puerto Rican nationalists Lolita Lebron and Rafael Cancel Miranda are questioned by the press following their arrest.

On March 1, 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on the House of Representatives, injuring five congressmen.

Nationalists Attack Congress

Three members of the Puerto Rico Nationalist Party—Lolita Lebron, Irving Flores Rodriguez and Andres Figueroa Cordero—purchased a one-way train ticket from New York to Washington, D.C., on March 1, 1954, where they met colleague Rafael Cancel Miranda.

The four entered the gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives to view the 243 congressmen in session. After watching the proceedings for about a minute, they took out their German automatic pistols and began firing into the chamber, as Lebron shouted, “Puerto Rico is not free!” The bullets injured five congressmen, all of whom would survive. Alvin Bentley, the 35-year-old Michigan Republican, was hit in the chest and suffered the worst wounds.

The 34-year-old, attractive Lebron, wearing bright lipstick and “high heels, dangly earrings, a stylish skirt and jacket, a kerchief around her neck” waved a Puerto Rican flag and headed for the exit with the two other shooters, according to Washington Post Magazine. A clerk, a page boy and three congressmen helped apprehend and disarm the four perpetrators, who were all members of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, which was also involved in the attempted assassination of Harry Truman in 1950.

Police uncovered a handwritten note in Lebron’s purse that read: “Before God and the world, my blood claims for the independence of Puerto Rico. My life I give for the freedom of my country…The United States of America are betraying the sacred principles of mankind in their continuous subjugation of my country…I take responsible for all.”

The Attackers and Their Motives

Lebron was the leader of the mission. She became a follower of Harvard-educated Puerto Rican nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos while she was living in New York. Campos was arrested for masterminding the 1950 attempt on Truman’s life. The ire of the nationalists was amplified in 1952, when “Puerto Rico’s first elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marin, signed the island’s commonwealth pact with the United States, creating the much-debated political structure that still exists today,” according to the Post.

The United Nations officially stopped calling Puerto Rico a colony the next year. Miranda, one of the attackers, said that Puerto Ricans appeared like “happy slaves” in the eyes of the world.

At her trial, “Lolita testified that she aimed her gun at the ceiling, and the jury believed her,” according to the Post. The jury would acquit her of the most serious charge against her, “assault with intent to kill,” although she was convicted of others.

President Jimmy Carter freed the four in 1979 as part of an agreement with Fidel Castro to secure the release of American CIA agents imprisoned in Cuba.

Lebron’s religious faith deepened while in prison and reported having visions of Jesus. She did not see herself as a terrorist and “says she was horrified when planes slammed into the World Trade Center,” according to the Post. She died in 2010 at age 90.

At the time of the attack, police officials argued that bulletproof glass should be installed in the galleries of Congress, but congressmen rejected that idea because they did not want to become too separated from the public. Metal detectors were first installed in the mid-1970s following the explosion of a bomb in a Senate bathroom.

Sources in this Story

Background: Political Movements in Puerto Rico

When the Spanish-American War ended in 1898, Puerto Rico was annexed to the United States. It was given the right to elect its own governor, but could not participate in presidential elections.

From the start, the political climate of the island was one of unrest. Puerto Rico’s Republican Party wanted statehood but the Union Party favored greater autonomy. The Nationalist Party gained power in the 1920s and worked for immediate independence. Meanwhile, the pro-United States Socialist Party was focused on the laboring classes of Puerto Rico.

Violence was building in the first half of the 20th century. Pedro Albizu Campos, the Harvard-educated orator, rallied the island’s nationalists and advocated for violence as the most effective means of achieving independence. According to Time magazine, “After President Roosevelt’s visit in 1934, he [Campos] shrieked: ‘Cowards, you should have received Roosevelt with bullets but you greeted him with flowers.’”

Meanwhile, Santiago Iglesias ran the Socialist Party, which he organized in 1915 to campaign for statehood. Iglesias’ party sought autonomy, not independence, and focused on improving the “economic, political, industrial, and agricultural life of Puerto Rico,” according to the Library of Congress.

On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, tried to assassinate President Harry Truman in hopes of bringing their country closer to independence.

Secret Service agents intercepted Collazo and Torresola’s bullets, keeping Truman safe from harm. However, when the gunfire subsided, both Torresola and White House guard Leslie Coffelt lay dead at the steps of Blair-Lee House.

Later Developments: FALN

For the latter half of the 20th century, the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) fought for complete independence of Puerto Rico from the United States. The group was responsible for more than 120 bomb attacks between 1974 and 1983.

In 1999, President Clinton was criticized for offering clemency to members of FALN, which the FBI recognizes as a terrorist organization, under the condition that they renounce all acts of violence.

U.S. Capitol has had violent incidents in the past - a historical review

WASHINGTON -- In more than 220 years, the U.S. Capitol had seen nothing like what happened this week.

A violent mob forced its way past the Capitol's majestic marble columns, disrupting the passage of power, and desecrating the seat of the world's greatest democracy.

A woman was fatally shot by police, three people died from medical emergencies and a Capitol Police officer died of injuries sustained in the melee.

But this was far from the first time the Capitol has been scarred by violence:

1814: British forces in the War of 1812 tried to burn the Capitol down, along with the White House. The building was badly damaged but a sudden rainstorm prevented total destruction.

1835: A deranged house painter tried to shoot two pistols at President Andrew Jackson outside the Capitol building but the guns misfired and Jackson caned his assailant into submission.

1856: Congressman Preston Brooks attacked abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate after the senator gave a speech criticizing slavery. It took Sumner three years to recover and return to Congress. Brooks resigned - but was then re-elected.

1915: A German man who'd been a Harvard professor detonated a bomb inside the Capitol in an attempt to deter the United States from entering World War I. The bomber also murdered his pregnant wife and shot financier J.P. Morgan, Jr.

1954: Puerto Rican nationalists unleashed a barrage of shots from the Visitor's Gallery, wounding five congressmen, before unfurling the island's flag.

1971: The radical militant group known as The Weather Underground set off an explosive to protest the U.S. bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War.

1983: A Communist group bombed the Senate in response to the U.S. invasion of Grenada.

1998: A mentally ill man fired at a checkpoint and killed two Capitol Police officers. One of the dying officers managed to wound the gunman, who was arrested and later institutionalized.

Political extremists have attacked the U.S. Capitol before: A history of the violence

A mob of President Trump’s supporters stormed into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in an unprecedented breach of security.

Here are other instances of politically motivated attacks on the Capitol throughout history.

The War of 1812

Despite the name of the war, it lasted three years. And on Aug. 24, 1814, the British invaded Washington, leading to the infamous torching of the White House. The Capitol building — then much smaller and lacking its current dome, was also set alight. The British retreated after a huge storm struck the city — perhaps a hurricane or a tornado — quenching the fires.

A bomb ‘for peace’

In 1915, a German-born Harvard University professor planted dynamite near the Senate Reception Room. No one was injured when it exploded around midnight. The professor wrote to newspapers, saying he had done it as “an exclamation point in my appeal for peace.” He was later detained and committed suicide while in custody.

Attack by Puerto Rican nationalists

In March 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on the House floor from the visitor’s gallery above, wounding five members of Congress. The perpetrators were caught and imprisoned. One was released in 1978 the others were released the next year after President Jimmy Carter pardoned them.

The Weather Underground bombing

In March 1971, the extremist group set off a bomb inside a bathroom on the Senate side of the Capitol. No one was hurt, but it resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. The group claimed responsibility for multiple bombings in the late 1960s and 1970s, including at the Pentagon and a New York City police station.

The Armed Resistance Unit bombing

A decade later, in 1983, a leftist group protesting military action in Lebanon and Grenada set off a bomb inside the Capitol, this time blowing off the door of Sen. Robert Byrd’s office and shredding a portrait of Daniel Webster. After a five-year hunt, three women were charged and given lengthy prison sentences. After this incident, the House and Senate chambers added metal detectors and increased security, which the pro-Trump mob breached on Wednesday.

Rafael Cancel Miranda, Gunman in ’54 Attack on Congress, Dies at 89

He and three others opened fire on a crowded House chamber in the cause of Puerto Rican independence. Some saw him as a terrorist, others as a hero.

Rafael Cancel Miranda, the last survivor among the four revolutionaries who shot up the United States Capitol on March 1, 1954, in the name of independence for Puerto Rico, died on Monday at his home in San Juan, the island’s capital. He was 89.

His family announced his death in a statement, which said he had been hospitalized for several weeks with multiple health problems.

Mr. Cancel Miranda, a hero to many who favor independence for Puerto Rico but a terrorist to many others, was 23 when he and three companions attacked the Capitol, spraying gunfire from the gallery into the House chamber and injuring five congressmen as 243 House members were debating a bill involving migrant workers from Mexico.

The four — the others were Lolita Lebrón, Irvin Flores Rodríguez and Andres Figueroa Cordero — were not satisfied with the agreement that had made Puerto Rico a United States commonwealth in 1952, believing that it was a sham and that the island essentially remained an occupied colony.

Ms. Lebrón waved a Puerto Rican flag briefly and shouted about independence as the attack unfolded and House members sought cover. The four were overpowered and arrested.

Although the scene was chaotic, Mr. Cancel Miranda, at least, was convinced that most of those injured “got hurt by my gun,” as he put it when he was freed in 1979.

“No congressman in particular was the target,” he said then. “It was just an effort to shoot up the place. If we aimed to kill, believe me, that would have happened.”

All four served lengthy prison sentences. During his incarceration, Mr. Cancel Miranda spent time in Alcatraz in San Francisco, Marion Penitentiary in Illinois and Leavenworth in Kansas — “the Harvard, Yale and Princeton of American prisons,” as he put it in a 1998 interview with The Houston Chronicle.

In 1977 President Jimmy Carter commuted the sentence of Mr. Figueroa Cordero, who had cancer and died in 1979. President Carter freed the other three in 1979, though they had never sought clemency, considering themselves political prisoners.

Mr. Cancel Miranda and the others returned to Puerto Rico to a cheering crowd. He continued to speak out about independence in subsequent decades and did not regret the passion he had brought to the cause as a youth.

“That youth is alive, with gray hair and six grandchildren,” he told The New York Times in 1990 in an interview in Puerto Rico. “If this is still a colony, why should I change?”

Rafael Cancel Miranda was born on July 18, 1930, in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, to Rafael Cancel Rodríguez, a businessman, and Rosa Miranda Pérez. Both parents were active in the nationalist movement. A formative moment for Rafael came in 1937, when his parents participated in a nationalist demonstration in the city of Ponce police officers opened fire on the marchers, and about 20 were killed.

“My mother went there dressed in white and returned dressed in red,” he told the socialist weekly The Militant in 1998, “covered in the blood of the dead, whose bodies she had to crawl over as the bullets flew overhead.”

He often said that his first act of protest had come days later, when he refused to pledge allegiance to the American flag. He was sent home from school.

In 1949, Mr. Cancel Miranda drew a two-year prison sentence for refusing to be drafted into the United States military.

“To me, it didn’t make sense to be in the same army that invades your country and massacres your people,” he said. “If you’re going to fight, you should fight them.”

After his release, he spent time in Cuba, then settled in Brooklyn, where he worked at a shoe factory. There he met the other three people who would join in the Capitol attack.

Mr. Cancel Miranda’s job was supposed to be to act as just a scout, his son Rafael Cancel Vázquez said in a phone interview. Mr. Cancel Miranda had traveled to Washington and made maps that were to be used in the attack. But, his son said, his role was changed at the last minute, and he joined the other three on the mission.

The three men were sentenced to 75 years each Ms. Lebrón to 50 years. At a later trial, six more years were added to those sentences when the four were convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the United States government, something Mr. Cancel Miranda found ridiculous.

“Can you imagine us thinking we could overthrow the U.S. government with little pistols?” he told The Militant. “I wish I could!”

He referred to the attack as “an armed demonstration.”

“We knew that if we went with signs, we weren’t going to get attention,” he said.

By 1977, four former governors of Puerto Rico were calling for the four to be freed. But among those who disagreed with Mr. Carter’s commutation was Puerto Rico’s governor at the time, Carlos Romero Barceló, who said the release would encourage terrorism and “constitute a menace to public safety.”

Mr. Flores Rodríguez died in 1994. Ms. Lebrón died in 2010. After he was freed, Mr. Cancel Miranda ran a family furniture store, which he had inherited from his father. He also wrote frequently, both essays and poetry. His latest book, a collection of thoughts, anecdotes and verses, was published just weeks ago, his son said.

In addition to his son Rafael, from his current marriage, Mr. Cancel Miranda’s survivors include his wife, María de los Ángeles Vázquez two sons from an earlier marriage and a number of grandchildren.

In a 1997 interview with The Associated Press, Mr. Cancel Miranda said that the passage of years had changed his perspective, but not his commitment.

“I was more convinced about what I could affect when I was young,” he said. “But I am now more convinced that I was fighting for the right thing.”

Watch the video: Εικόνες που συγκλονίζουν από την εκταφή των Ελλήνων πεσόντων στο Τεπελένι (July 2022).


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