Timeline of 1954 Shooting Events
On March 1, 1954, a group of armed Puerto Rican nationalists fired onto the House Floor from the public galleries wounding five U.S. Representatives. Within a matter of moments, normal House proceedings were thrown into chaos creating a scene etched into the memories of Members, staff, and Pages. This chronology features eyewitness accounts and newspaper reports from the time of the shooting and from the days that followed.
March 1, 1954
- On the morning of March 1, 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists—Lolita Lebron, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andres Figueroa Cordero, and Irving Flores Rodriguez—boarded a train from New York City for Washington, D.C. Since 1898, when the United States took control of Puerto Rico, the status of the island has been debated. Over time, three main viewpoints took shape concerning Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States: territory, state, or independent nation. The nationalists who traveled to the Capitol supported the most extreme interpretation of the latter—one which called for violence to draw attention to their goal of complete Puerto Rican independence from the United States.
- The House convened at 12:00 pm, with Speaker Joseph W. Martin of Massachusetts presiding. A roll call held shortly after the session opened indicated that 373 Members were present.
- Representative Leo Allen of Illinois introduced House Resolution 450, a measure calling for the re-authorization of a program allowing migrant Mexican farmers to work in the United States.
- During the debate, between 2:00 and 2:30 pm, a number of visitors entered Gallery 11 on the southwest side of the chamber, including the four Puerto Rican nationalists and a group of sixth-grade students from Maryland.
- Shortly before 2:30 pm, Representative John Chenoweth of Colorado moved that the House vote on the resolution. Representative Harold Cooley of North Carolina requested a quorum count; 243 Members were counted as present. The question was then put to a vote.
- At 2:30 pm, as Members waited to have their votes counted by Speaker Martin, Lebron began firing a .38 caliber German pistol while shouting about Puerto Rican independence. Her companions joined her, firing at the House Floor. Many witnesses initially mistook the shooting for firecrackers. “A lot of the Congressmen didn’t realize they were real guns,” recalled House Page Bill Goodwin. “A lot of the Congressmen just heard pop-pop-pop-pop going on, and they thought it was firecrackers. Everybody had different ideas. And I saw the gun. I knew they were shooting. They weren’t firecrackers.”1
- At 2:32 pm Speaker Martin declared the House in recess as he sought cover behind a marble pillar on the rostrum. While her companions continued to shoot, Lebron attempted to unfurl a Puerto Rican flag. During the next several minutes, some 16 shots were fired according to police records. Martin later recalled, “Bullets whistled through the chamber in the wildest scene in the entire history of Congress . . . ‘The house stands recessed,’ I declared, unhindered by any parliamentarian.”2
- Three of the shooters attempted to exit the gallery, but were overpowered by visitors, Capitol and Metropolitan police officers, House staff, and Representative James Van Zandt of Pennsylvania. The fourth shooter escaped in the chaos, but was apprehended later in the day.
- At 2:42 pm Speaker Martin called the House to order and at 2:43 pm the House officially adjourned.
- Five Congressmen were wounded in the shooting, including Representatives Alvin Bentley of Michigan, Kenneth Roberts of Alabama, George Fallon of Maryland, Ben Jensen of Iowa, and Clifford Davis of Tennessee. Bentley, the most seriously injured remarked, “I next remember being hit with what felt like a terrific blow on the chest. I didn’t realize it was a bullet. It felt more as if somebody had taken a club and socked me on the chest and knocked the wind out of me.”3
- Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Antonio Fernós-Isern, who could not vote, was in his office during the shooting. A trained doctor, he ran toward the Capitol after hearing about the attack to see if he could help the medical personnel. Capitol Police stopped him for security reasons, confining him to his office on the seventh floor of the New (Longworth) House Office Building. Fernós-Isern denounced the attackers as “communist dupes.” “Can it be the doing just of Puerto Rican Nationalists?” he asked a Baltimore Sun journalist rhetorically. “Who benefits? Certainly not Puerto Rico.”4
- Arthur Cameron, a House Page overseer, tried to convince various hospitals and ambulance services that a shooting had occurred at the Capitol. “I said, ‘There’s been a shooting in the House of Representatives. You got to send an ambulance.’ He said, ‘Kid, you shouldn’t joke about things like that,’ and hung up the phone.”5
- Members joined House Pages and staff in caring for the wounded Members. Pages William Emerson, Paul Kanjorski, and Bill Goodwin located stretchers and helped to carry the injured Representatives out of the Capitol. “We sort of took over, ordering the stretchers and getting people put together,” future Representative Kanjorski recalled. “And a group of maybe a half dozen of us really started getting the people put in the stretchers, identifying who they were, and by the time that the ambulances arrived, we were taking them out.”6
- Within minutes of the shooting, the police sealed off the Capitol and surrounding grounds. Guards were stationed at every exit of the Capitol, while police searched the building and established blockades throughout the city until the fourth suspect, Irving Rodriguez, was captured. “By that time guards were stationed everywhere with instructions to shoot to kill and ask questions afterward,” recalled Representative Barratt O’Hara of Illinois. “When I attempted to drive into the Capitol Grounds to attend the conference, a guard pulled a pistol on me. He was halted in firing by a scream from his back. The scream was directed at me, a notification that the conference had been called off.”7
- Shortly after recessing the House, Speaker Martin convened a meeting with House leaders Sam Rayburn of Texas and Charlie Halleck of Indiana, as well as Senate Majority Leader William Knowland of California to discuss emergency security measures.
- Speaker Martin held a press conference to discuss the shooting and security measures. “They came in with the tourists in a section where no tickets are needed,” he noted. “We’re going back tomorrow, so that everyone will have to have a ticket. We’ll stop tourists till this is straightened out. We’ll have a new set of admission cards.”8
March 2, 1954
- Puerto Rican Governor Luis Muñoz Marín flew to Washington on March 2 to express his condolences. The governor visited all the wounded Congressmen, except Bentley, who was unable to receive visitors.
- When the House reconvened at noon, Resident Commissioner Fernós-Isern was the first to speak, walking to the well as his colleagues applauded. “Mr. Speaker, on no occasion could I address this House with deeper sorrow,” he intoned. “To add to my consternation, the name of the dear island of my birth was invoked by the reckless vandals who staged this terrible deed yesterday. . . . The bullets that were shot did not only sorely hurt five of our colleagues; they all hit the heart of Puerto Rico.”9 He submitted resolutions of condemnation from Muñoz Marín and from the Puerto Rican legislature.
- Governor Muñoz Marín stood in the well of the House, shook hands with Members, and received a standing ovation. Speaker Martin voiced his support for the Puerto Rican government. “A few gangsters can’t break up the friendship of great nations,” he said.10
- Presented with a range of new security options in the wake of the attack, Speaker Martin remained careful to balance safety with public access to the House of Representatives. “We did indeed tighten up the security arrangements a good deal,” the Speaker observed. “Nevertheless I rejected the most ambitious proposal, one that called for installation of bullet-proof glass around the front of the galleries. For one thing, I was advised that the weight of this glass would be too great for the galleries to support. For another, I felt that, danger or not, Americans do not want their Congress walled off from the people by glass.”11
- All five injured Members recovered from their wounds and returned to their House service. Congressman Bentley, the most seriously injured, continued serving in the House until 1961. Representatives Davis, Jensen, and Roberts served for a decade before leaving the House in 1965. Of the group, Representative Fallon remained the longest, serving until 1971 and chairing the Committee on Public Works.
- Page Bill Emerson later served as a congressional aide before winning election to the U.S. House as a Republican from Missouri in 1980; he served from 1981 until his death in 1996. Page Paul Kanjorski was elected to the U.S. House as a Democrat from Pennsylvania in 1984 and served from 1985 to 2011.
- The four Puerto Rican nationalists—Lebron, Miranda, Cordero, and Rodriguez—were indicted, tried, and convicted in federal court for their actions. They received sentences ranging from 16 to 75 years in federal prison. More than two decades later, President Jimmy Carter granted clemency to the shooters.12
1Bill Goodwin Oral History Interview, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [October 20, 2005].
2Joe Martin, My First Fifty Years in Politics as Told to Robert J. Donovan (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960): 217.
3Alvin Bentley, “Exclusive: I Was Shot Down,” 20 June 1954, Los Angeles Times: J12.
4“Communist Plot Charged,” 2 March 1954, New York Times: 19; “Attack Seen Red Inspired,” 2 March 1954, Baltimore Sun: 7.
5Bree Hocking, “Together Again: 1950s–Era Pages Return to the Capitol, Full of Memories,” 20 September 2004, Roll Call: n.p.
6The Honorable Paul Kanjorski Oral History Interview, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [October 26, 2011].
7Congressional Record, House, 83rd Cong., 2nd sess. (9 March 1954): 2960.
8John Harris, “Globe Reporter Describes Scene of House Shooting,” 2 March 1954, Daily Boston Globe: 1.
9Congressional Record, House, 83rd Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1954): 2484.
10William M. Blair, “Regrets Voiced by Muñoz Marín,” 3 March 1954, New York Times: 14.
11Martin, My First Fifty Years in Politics: 220.
12C. P. Trussell, “Four Are Indicted in House Shooting; Plot Plans Bared,” 4 March 1954, New York Times: 1; "Puerto Ricans Get Maximum Terms," 9 July 1954, New York Times: 1; “Carter Grants Clemency to Puerto Rican Who Shot at Legislators in ’54 House Raid,” 7 October 1977, Los Angeles Times: B17; “Carter Frees Puerto Ricans Who Shot Five Congresmen,” 6 September 1979, Los Angeles Times: A1.