“It sounded like a package of firecrackers were lit and set off, but with the ricochet, in my mind, it identified it as a shot, so I hit the floor very quickly,” then-House Page Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania recalled. When the House convened on March 1, 1954, no one would have imagined the danger awaiting Members and staff. Within a matter of moments, normal House proceedings turned to uncertainty and chaos. During the past decade, the Office of the Historian interviewed eyewitnesses to the House shooting. Sixty years later, we can glean what happened through the eyes of four of these interviewees.
With no warning, shots rang out in the House Chamber during a routine roll call led by Speaker of the House Joe Martin of Massachusetts. Seated above the Speaker’s Dais at the time of the shooting, Mike Michaelson of the House Radio-TV Gallery described the ensuing confusion in the chamber. “At the time of the shooting, it was bedlam on the floor. There was debris . . . everybody was screaming and yelling, and ducking.” Many people, including Speaker Martin, thought that fireworks had been set off in the gallery. Even when it became clear that a harmless prank had not caused the furor, Members, staff, and spectators grappled with the reality of what was transpiring. House Page Bill Goodwin expressed shock and dismay that the House could be under fire. “In the meantime, while all the shooting was going on, I remember just standing there in the archway too dumb to drop to the floor and hide, and too surprised. I could hear those bullets going alongside me phht-dut, phht-dut, phht-dut.” Joe Bartlett, one of the House reading clerks, left the chamber right before the shooting began. When he heard the commotion, he returned to the House Floor. “Well, I immediately wheeled right back into the door and things were chaotic. It’s funny the emotions that come to people at a time like that. Most common was the emotion of anger. How dare they do this? Look what they’ve done to our friends and colleagues.”
Ultimately, the authorities determined that four Puerto Rican nationalists, armed with handguns, opened fire onto the House Floor from the south gallery. Part of an organization demanding Puerto Rican independence from the U.S., the group staged the attack to draw attention to their cause. As the event unfolded, some eyewitnesses remembered seeing the shooters.
Lolita Lebron, later remembered for her impeccable dress and bright red lipstick, attracted the most attention from the people present in the chamber. “So she shouted out something, and I learned later that I think it was something like ‘Viva la Puerto Rico!’ or something like that,” Goodwin said. “She waved the Puerto Rican flag like this; she just shook it, like you would shake a rug, you know. Then she threw it down to the ground and somebody wrestled her to the floor.”
The shooters wounded five Members, one critically (Alvin Bentley of Michigan). While the police and visitors subdued the assailants, the Pages took the lead on the House Floor. “I was aware that there were Members shot, so I got up immediately and went down to check on who was the most serious,” Kanjorski observed. Kanjorski, Goodwin, and the other Pages assisted the injured Members, brought stretchers to the floor, and carried people to the waiting ambulances. Bentley and the other injured Members recovered from their injuries.
In the wake of the shooting, protecting the House became a top priority. “After the shooting, there was all kinds of hoopla about getting glass enclosures, putting glass in front of the visitors, and so forth,” Michaelson remembered. “And that was overruled, and they said, ‘No, this is the People’s House, and it’s got to be opened up. We can’t do that.’” Security around the chamber and the Capitol tightened, but the House remained open to the public and free of barriers in the gallery.
Despite the violent, unexpected attack, the House quickly returned to business. Kanjorski marveled how the Pages—teenage boys most of whom lived away from home—dealt with the tragedy.
On a day filled with much panic and uncertainty at the U.S. Capitol, eyewitness recollections play an instrumental role in piecing together the event and the reaction of Members, staff, and other bystanders. A major theme emerged from the interviews: although the House suffered an unprecedented attack, the institution continued its work, and remained a symbol of democracy.
View the Universal-International News report on the March 1, 1954, attack in the chamber. And access a chronology of the events of that day and its aftermath.
Sources: The Honorable Paul Kanjorski Oral History Interview, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [October 26, 2011]; Bill Goodwin Oral History Interview, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [November 2, 2009]; Joe Bartlett Oral History Interview, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [October 12, 2006]; Mike Michaelson Oral History Interview, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [May 14, 2009].