In September of 1975, just weeks apart, there were two attempts on the life of President Gerald Ford. Neither was a success; the first would-be-assassin never even fired a shot, while the second’s shot went awry when a good samaritan intervened. But even so, these attempts were unique in the history of American political murder, as both assassins were women. And they were totally unconnected.*
Neither, by the way, had much of a beef with Gerald Ford personally. While John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald** held deep personal issues with their respective victims, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore were coming at Ford because of his position, not because of his policies. Ford was a hapless president, the only president not elected at all – he had been appointed Vice President by Richard Nixon after Spiro Agnew resigned, and he had ascended to the Oval Office when Nixon bugged out – and he was more of a blip in our history than anything else.
Squeaky Fromme was a familiar face when she was tackled by the Secret Service in Sacramento, California, on September 5. She had been a member of the Manson Family, and while she had not been charged in the Tate-LaBianca murders (she had not been present at either scene), she had been a daily presence outside the courtroom during Charlie’s trial. She was a go-to interview for reporters looking for colorful commentary from a member of the Manson faithful.
She had joined the Manson Family right out of high school, meeting Charles Manson in Venice. She had traveled the country with him, and then set up shop at the Spahn Ranch as Manson prepared his master plan for a race war. Squeaky was beloved of Charlie, and – in classic mentally ill, abused child fashion – she was devoted to him. After Manson was convicted she moved around the state in order to be near whatever prison to which he had been transferred at the time.
At some point after the Family was broken up (after she narrowly avoided ANOTHER murder rap that sent more of her friends to jail!) Squeaky got really into the environment. And as the Clean Air Act was being relaxed she began to feel that she was appointed to represent the trees, especially the redwoods. Her decision to kill Ford was not about his politics – although he had relaxed those regulations – but more about a symbolic gesture aimed at decapitating the federal government.
On September 5, wearing a red cloak, Squeaky came at Ford as he was in Sacramento meeting with Governor Jerry Brown (who is, believe it or not, California’s governor AGAIN today). She had acquired a gun from an old Manson hanger-on, and as she waded through the crowd of press around the president she pulled the trigger, only to be met with a metallic click.
“It did’t go off!” she cried as the Secret Service tackled her to the ground. As they held her down she kept saying “Can you believe it? It didn’t even go off.”
Apparently there was no round in the chamber; Squeaky didn’t know she had to chamber the bullet. Later a bullet was found on her bathroom floor and she would claim that she had purposefully left the chamber empty because she didn’t actually want to kill him.
Whatever the reason, it didn’t keep her out of jail. She was sentenced to life – a penalty put on the books after the Kennedy assassination – and ended her trial by giving a speech about the environment… and throwing an apple at the face of the prosecutor after he said she was “full of hate and violence.” Knocking his glasses off his face with fruit likely didn’t change his mind.
Seventeen days after Squeaky’s attempt Sara Jane Moore actually fired at Ford, and if she had been using her own gun, the tone of this piece might have been quite different. Ford was in San Francisco this time, and the gun actually discharged, with the bullet flying over his head thanks to the quick work of a bystander.
Sara Jane Moore did not look like a leftist radical, but that’s what she was. The 45 year old mother of four (three of whom has been adopted by her parents) had led a stormy life – five marriages – but on the say she shot at Ford she dressed in the tan pants and blue raincoat of a thousand moms picking up their kids after school.
Moore had found herself drawn to leftist politics after
Lydia Patty Hearst had been kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Her billionaire dad started a non-profit to assauge her daughter’s captors (and later co-soldiers in bank robbery), and that group, People In Need, handed out food to the hungry in San Francisco. Sara, after walking through one failed marriage after another, found herself in the radical world of the Haight, and she worked as a volunteer bookkeeper for the group.
While working there she became quickly radicalized, but even weirder, she started working for the FBI as an informant. The FBI urged her to infiltrate ever more leftist groups, and she did… but she also told the leftists about her FBI affiliation. She was playing both sides, and some of her radical friends even knew her as “FBI lady.”
Sara could be sweet and kind, but she could also turn on a dime into extreme anger. She would go cold in an instant. Perhaps it was that angry coldness that led her to decide to shoot Ford, an act that she reasoned would spark a socialist revolution. Like Squeaky, Sara thought that killing the president would be a good symbolic act, not necessarily a way of stopping an inherently bad man. “I finally understood and joined those who have only destruction and violence for a means of making change—and came to understand that violence can sometimes be constructive,” she said at her sentencing when asked if she regretted the act. She said she regretted only throwing her life away in a failure.
But Sara may have had her reservations in advance. It seems like she tried to not shoot Ford – she had warned her FBI handlers in advance that she was going to test Ford’s security detail, so they took away her gun. She bought a gun that morning, but then she drove over the speed limit to find Ford, hoping she would get pulled over and be stopped.
But she wasn’t stopped. And so she stood across the street from Ford and raised her gun and fired. She wasn’t used to this weapon, so her aim was already off. But on top of that, ex-Marine Oliver Sipple saw her raise the gun and knocked into her arm. The combo sent the bullet away from Ford.
(Side note: in the aftermath Sipple was outed as gay in the papers. The outing ruined his life, and he died an alcoholic at 47, his corpse found ten days after his death. He expressed regret at getting involved that day.)
Moore was defiant in the aftermath of the attempt. She said,“I didn’t want to kill anybody, but there comes a point when the only way you can make a statement is to pick up a gun.” But her tune changed after many years in prison; after being released in 2007, at the age of 77, Moore said that she was glad she had not actually killed the president.
Squeaky Fromme is also out of jail, released in 2009. Both women live quiet lives far from the spotlight. There have been no further women who have tried to kill a president.
*although, weirdly enough, Sara Jane Moore grew up quite close to Charles Manson
**if you believe such things.