‘A Singular Historic Day’: Members Recall ’54 Shooting
Settling into an empty section of the House visitors’ gallery, Rep. Paul Kanjorski begins to illustrate a story he has been asked to repeat many times during the past 50 years.
In a hushed voice — the House is still in session on a recent weekday afternoon — the Pennsylvania Democrat recalls the afternoon of March 1, 1954, when as a 16-year-old page he witnessed four Puerto Rican nationalists release a hail of gunfire onto the chamber floor, wounding five Members.
“It was a political comment but it was an act of violence,” Kanjorski later notes of the attack, which marks its 50th anniversary today.
While evidence of the shooting is still visible — a desk drawer used by the Republican leadership remains disfigured by a bullet hole, although the desktop itself has been refurbished — the event has largely faded from Congressional memory.
Unlike the discovery of biological weapons in Congressional mail, the shooting of two Capitol Police officers in 1998, and the presumed Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Capitol — all of which spurred security changes in and around the Capitol — the 1954 shooting did not lead to any immediate reforms.
In recent interviews, Members of the 83rd Congress explained that while the event prompted the eventual professionalization of the Capitol Police and a short-lived debate over the addition of bullet-proof glass to the galleries, it otherwise had little significant effect. Kanjorski refers to the incident as “a singular historic day.”
Gunfire in the Chamber
That afternoon, as the House debated an immigration bill, Rep. Melvin Laird (R) escorted a group of his Wausau, Wis., constituents to the visitors’ gallery.
He would leave them not far from the southwest section, known as the “ladies gallery,” where four Puerto Rican nationalists had likely already entered.
As the Wisconsin lawmaker made his way to the House floor around 2:30 p.m. — where, according to the Congressional Record, a quorum call showed 243 Members present — the Puerto Ricans, lead by Lolita Lébron, would begin firing their weapons.
“I heard a loud crash. It sounded like a bunch of chairs falling down marble stairs, but it was gunfire from inside the chamber,” recalls Laird, who would go on to serve as Defense secretary in the Nixon administration.
Lébron, along with Andres Figueroa Cordero, Rafael Cancel Miranda and Irving Flores Rodriguez, fired more than two dozen bullets into the House chamber, as Lébron shouted “Viva Puerto Rico.”
The shots splintered wooden chairs, damaged the table shared by Majority Leader Charles Halleck (R-Ind.) and Rep. Leslie Arends (R-Ill.), and fractured a marble pillar behind Kanjorski, who had just begun to walk toward the front of the chamber. He remembers being hit by a “spray of stone.”
In the confusion — many Members initially assumed the noise came from firecrackers — five lawmakers were wounded: Reps. Clifford Davis (D-Tenn.), George Fallon (D-Md.), Ben Jensen (R-Iowa), Kenneth Roberts (D-Ala.) and, most seriously, Alvin Bentley (R-Mich.).
The following day, The New York Times noted in an article describing the incident that “It was only as they saw their colleagues falling about them that [Members] realized what was going on.”
In retrospect, several lawmakers acknowledge they remember little of the chaos, noting simply that they sought cover behind chairs or laid on the floor to avoid being hit.
“I remember nothing in particular, except I was a little worried about people shooting Members on the floor,” says then-Rep. Stuyvesant Wainwright (R-N.Y.), who found safety beneath a table.
Similarly, Michigan Rep. Elford Cederberg (R) says he had thought the bullets were blanks, until he noticed a wood chip on the floor in front of him.
“I immediately just fell down, went down on the floor,” remembers Cederberg, who would later contact Bentley’s wife with news of the shooting at his injured colleague’s request.
Even Fallon, one of the wounded, would later tell the Times: “I think I got hit before I heard the shooting.”
In the Speaker’s Lobby, just off the House floor, Laird recalled witnessing Jensen, who had been shot between the neck and left shoulder, lurch across a doorway.
“Blood was coming from his neck and drained on to the marble floor. I remember it quite vividly,” he said.
The sight alarmed several Members and prompted one to call out: “My God, they’re in here too. They’re in the corridor,” Laird adds.
Three of the four assailants — Lébron, Cordero and Miranda — were actually subdued in the House gallery. Rodriguez was arrested later at a nearby bus station.
According to published accounts, the trio were stopped by a mix of committee staffers, Doorkeepers and Capitol Police Officer Buck Rodgers, as well as Pennsylvania Rep. James Van Zandt (R), who reportedly crawled combat-style from the House floor, raced through the Democratic Cloakroom and up a flight of stairs into the visitors’ gallery.
‘Something Had to Be Done’
In the meantime, Rep. Walter Judd (R-Minn.), a physician, tended to the wounded on the House floor, assisted by the House pages, Doorkeepers and, later, the Attending Physician’s Office.
“We didn’t have a lot of professional people that were immediately available,” explains Kanjorski, who along with a fellow page, the late Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.), urged their companions to get stretchers into the chamber.
The Pennsylvania lawmaker, 66, notes that the “young age and inexperience” of the House pages proved beneficial during the incident.
“They didn’t seem to get terribly excited,” he said. “They had a good, high presence of mind that something had to be done and they set about doing it.”
The most seriously injured, Bentley, had been shot in the lung, liver and intestines. Although Judd “did everything he could,” Laird recalled, “he did not expect Bentley to live.”
The injured lawmaker would eventually be carried down the House steps on a stretcher carried by Kanjorski, Emerson and several others, and the moment would be captured in an infamous photo that now hangs in both the Democratic and Republican cloakrooms, as well as in Kanjorski’s personal office.
That evening, Laird said, Members would visit Casualty Hospital, where Bentley was admitted, to donate blood. Despite extensive damage to Bentley’s liver, he would survive.
In trials in the U.S. District Court later that year, all four Puerto Ricans would be sentenced to lengthy jail terms after being found guilty on five counts of assault with a deadly weapon.
Although her male counterparts would also be found guilty on five counts each of assault with intent to kill, Lébron would testify that she had aimed at the ceiling and had not intended to kill anyone.
Lébron served 26 years in a West Virginia facility before then-President Jimmy Carter pardoned the foursome in 1979. Lebron and Miranda, the group’s surviving Members, now live in Puerto Rico.
While Lébron is still active in the Puerto Rican independence movement, Kanjorski suggests the 1954 incident — despite receiving national press — failed to advance her cause and may have cost the support of some Members.
“It wasn’t until Bill and I went back to our rooming house and were sitting with our other friends … and they were running [on] the television [news] what had happened that we realized what a significant historical event we’d participated in,” he said.
“It would be the one day of our service that all of us would never forget, and quite frankly we haven’t. It’s indelibly pressed in my mind.”
Elizabeth Brotherton contributed to this report.