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1950s / Harry Truman Assassination Attempt
An assassination attempt on President Harry Truman occurred on November 1, 1950. It was perpetrated by two Puerto Rican pro-independence activists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola. It occurred while Truman was residing at Blair House during extensive White House renovations. The attempt resulted in the deaths of White House police officer Leslie Coffelt, and Torresola. Truman was unharmed. Torresola walked up Pennsylvania Avenue from the west side while his partner, Oscar Collazo, walked up to Capital police officer Donald Birdzell on the steps of Blair House. Approaching Birdzell from behind, Collazo pulled out a handgun, pointed it at the officer's back, and pulled the trigger. Since he had failed to cock it, nothing happened. Collazo managed to fire the weapon just as Birdzell was turning to face him, striking the officer in his right knee. Secret Service agent Floyd Boring and White House police officer Joseph Davidson heard the shot and opened fire on Collazo. Collazo returned fire and soon found himself outgunned as the wounded Birdzell joined the shootout. Soon after, Collazo was struck by two rounds in the head and right arm, while other officers joined the gunfight. Torresola approached a guard booth at the west corner of Blair House where an officer, Private Leslie Coffelt, was sitting inside. Torresola quickly pivoted from left to right around the opening of the booth. Coffelt was taken completely by surprise. Torresola fired four shots from his Luger at close range. Three shots struck Coffelt in the chest and abdomen, a fourth went through his tunic. Coffelt slumped in his chair, mortally wounded. Torresola turned his attention to plainclothes White House policeman Joseph Downs. Downs, who had just chatted with Coffelt, proceeded down the walkway to the basement door at the west end of the Blair-Lee house when he heard shots. Downs noticed Torresola, but he was shot in the hip before he could draw his weapon. Downs turned back towards the house, and was shot twice more by Torresola, once in the back and once in the neck. Downs staggered to the basement door, opened it, slid in, and then slammed the door behind him, denying Torresola entry into Blair House. Torresola turned his attention to the shoot-out between his partner, Collazo, and several other law enforcement officers. Torresola saw wounded policeman Donald Birdzell aiming at Collazo from the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Torresola aimed and shot Birdzell in the left knee from a distance of approximately 40 feet. Now shot in both knees, Birdzell was effectively incapacitated. (He would later recover.) Soon after, the severely wounded Collazo was hit in the chest by a ricochet shot from Davidson and was incapacitated too. Torresola stood to the immediate left of Blair House steps while he reloaded. At the same time, Truman, who had been napping in his second-floor bedroom, was awoken by the gunfire. Truman went to his bedroom window, opened it, and looked outside. From where he stood reloading, Torresola was 31 feet away from that window. It is unknown whether either man saw the other. At the same time, the wounded Coffelt staggered out of his guard booth, leaned against it, and aimed his revolver at Torresola, who was approximately 30 feet away. Coffelt fired, hitting Torresola two inches above the ear, killing him instantly. Coffelt himself died four hours later. Officer Coffelt's widow, Cressie E. Coffelt, was asked by the President and the Secretary of State to go to Puerto Rico, where she received condolences from various Puerto Rican leaders and crowds. Mrs. Coffelt always absolved the island's people of blame for the acts of the two gunmen. A plaque at Blair House commemorates Coffelt's sacrifice and heroism. The day room for the U.S. Secret Service's Uniformed Division at Blair House is also named for Coffelt.