Dramatic Attempt to Assassinate President Truman in Blair House

You may not know this, but there was a very public assassination attempt on a President very near the White House and it wasn’t that long ago. President Harry Truman was in the middle of his second term and his home was having under major renovations, forcing him to live in Blair House for several years.

It also might shock you to think about this, but he obviously commuted to work on a daily basis by walking across Pennsylvania Avenue, then a bustling main roadway through the heart of the city, surrounded by Secret Service and stopped for red lights.

Crowds gather outside Blair House
Crowds gather outside Blair House

An extremely brazen and violent assassination attempt occurred in front of Truman’s temporary residence on November 1st, 1950 in the middle of the afternoon with thousands of witnesses. The Washington Post wrote the following report the next day.

Hundreds of office and store employes, shoppers and pedestrians, cab and streetcar riders–perhaps as many as 2000–witnessed the gunfire battle yesterday between the Puerto Rican assassins and the White House police on Pennsylvania ave,. in front of Blair House.

Scores found themselves in the line of fire between the blazing pistols of Blair House guards and the attackers.

Two bullets hit shopper-crowded Whelan’s drug store, on  the southwest corner of 17th st. and Pennsylvania ave., half a block away from the site of the shooting.

One bullet smashed through a plate glass window, a second flew through the open door of Whelan’s and landed on the floor, it was reported.

Hayward Simmons, 22, of 600 Columbia rd., a porter at the store, was outside sweeping up when he heard shots. He looked up and “felt a bullet pass by my head” and smashed into the window. A splinter of glass plunged into his arm as Simmons plunged into the store.

Twenty to thirty persons, strolling across the busy 17th and Pennsylvania corner, or waiting on the platform for a streetcar, ran pell-mell for the comparative safety of Whelan’s, the Mills Building which houses the drugstore, and other buildings nearby. One woman was seen racing wildly from the east side of 17th st., stumble and fall, get up and keep on running, leaving a black pocketbook and sweater behind her in the middle of the street.

Pvt. Donna Jean Cole, 18, Wac driver attached to the Pentagon motor center, was transporting Lieut. Col. Clifford P. Hannum, 904 Potomac ave., Alexandria to old State Department Building. She was just turning the corner at 17th into Pennsylvania ave. when they hear the shooting. She said: “When I heard this shooting, I saw a man lying in the street looking wounded and another looking dead. ‘Get down!’ the colonel yelled at me and I stopped the car, and he pulled me down behind the dashboard. We stayed there a few minutes and then the colonel got out. I was very nervous. I just knew they were trying to assassinate the President, and oh, I was nervous.”

This took place at 2:20 p.m., while Truman was taking a nap in the front bedroom. In the assassination attempt, two Puerto Rican nationalists, down from New York — Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola — had attempted to shoot their way into Blair House, assassinate the president and kick off a revolution in the United States. Standing in the way of this plot  were three of the White House Police Force’s finest officers: Joseph Downs, Donald Birdzell and Leslie Coffelt.

Coffelt was stationed in the police guard house, positioned one building to the west of Blair House. Torresola walked up to the guard house, took aim and unloaded four bullets into the officer. Leslie was fatally wounded and bleeding to death in the booth.

With a gun battle blazing on Pennsylvania Avenue, Torresola headed east, just steps away from Blair House to reload his pistol. At the same moment, President Truman, startled by the sounds of gunfire opened, and looked out the window, in the line of sight of the would-be assassin. A nearby officer frantically waved and shouted for the president to get back.

As if on cue, Leslie Coffelt emerges from the guard booth, staggers to the side and leans up against it as he takes aim for Torresola. He fires one bullet, hitting him just above the ear, killing him instantly. Many speculate that Coffelt’s heroism and sharpshooting save the president’s life.

Blair House assassination diagram 1950
Blair House assassination diagram 1950
Secret Service agent Floyd Boring at Blair House steps with wounded would-be assassin Collazo
Secret Service agent Floyd Boring at Blair House steps with wounded would-be assassin Collazo

If you pass by Blair House, you will not notice a plaque on the right, commemorating the bravery of the fallen White House police officer, Leslie Coffelt, who died protecting President Truman. He remains the only officer to die defending the president in the line of duty.

IN HONOR OF LESLIE COFFELT

WHITE HOUSE POLCEMAN WHO GAVE HIS LIFE IN DEFENSE OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES HERE AT BLAIR HOUSE, NOVEMBER 1, 1950.

“FOR LOYALTY, BRAVERY AND HEROISM BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY”

Plaque commemerating Leslie Coffelt killed at the Blair House
Plaque commemerating Leslie Coffelt killed at the Blair House

Next time you walk by the house, take a minute to read the sign and pay tribute to Coffelt.

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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