This Means Lore!

The housewife who saved FDR's life, the ghosts that roam Vizcaya, the sea serpent of Biscayne Bay, and other Miami legends, yarns, and flat-out lies

On the day he was scheduled to die, Giuseppe Zangara pushed past prison guards and entered the electrocution chamber of Raiford State Prison. He sat himself squarely in the chair, gave instructions about how to strap himself in properly, and said, "Push the button."

Five weeks earlier, on February 15, 1933, Zangara, an unemployed Italian-born bricklayer from Hackensack, New Jersey, pretty much guaranteed his own demise when he purchased a handgun for eight dollars from a Miami pawnshop and headed out to Bayfront Park to assassinate President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

FDR had come to South Florida for a fishing trip prior to his
March inauguration. Plans called for a brief appearance with Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, a political ally, in downtown Miami. Soon after the president-elect delivered his short speech, the diminutive Zangara stood up on a bench to get a better view and pulled out his pistol. A woman standing next to him on the bench screamed out, "Oh my God, he's going to kill Mr. Roosevelt!" The woman, a physician's wife named Lillian Cross, quickly switched her handbag to her left arm, grabbed Zangara's shooting arm with her right hand, and twisted it upward. Then, according to at least one bystander, the 100-pound woman clamped Zangara in a headlock and attempted to wrestle him to the ground.

Zangara managed to get off several shots and injured five people, including Cermak, who subsequently died of a collapsed lung and cardiac failure. The gunman was set upon by an angry mob, arrested, and eventually sentenced to die. He claimed he was trying to kill all the kings and presidents. Others have concluded that the attempted assassination of FDR was actually a planned hit on the Chicago mayor orchestrated by mob leader Sam Giancana.

Regardless, Mrs. Cross became a national hero. Roosevelt sent her a lengthy telegram of thanks. She was invited to the inauguration. She appeared on national radio shows and there was even a great deal of consideration that she be given the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism in a moment of crisis.

And that's how a quick-thinking housewife saved the New Deal and helped millions of penniless Americans out of the Great Depression. Or so the legend goes. The truth, of course, is probably something else altogether.

Recent research by Fort Lauderdale attorney Blaise Picchi suggests that it was a carpenter named Thomas Armour who actually saved the president-elect's life. Picchi admits that Mrs. Cross, by waving her arms and screaming nearby, may have pestered the gunman. But he concludes that it was Armour who grabbed Zangara's arm and blames a gullible national press -- and lazy historians -- for embellishing and perpetuating the falsehoods. "Armour played the bashful hero," notes Picchi, who recently completed an unpublished manuscript called The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara. "People wrote affidavits disclaiming Mrs. Cross and sent them in to senators and network executives, but the national news media kept ignoring it."

Picchi also discounts the theories that Zangara was a hired assassin for the mob. "He didn't have the credentials to be a hit man," the attorney asserts. "And mobsters don't commit assassinations in crowds." Then what was Zangara's motivation? "He was committing suicide. He was expecting to die." Of course that's just a theory, too. Picchi, who is 47, never interviewed Zangara, and the Secret Service file on the gunman has disappeared. So the real truth may be, as they say, history.

The stories that sprang from the Zangara shooting are among scores of legends that have become imbedded in accounts of Dade's past. In many cases the legends are largely fictitious, but all have at least some basis in fact. They concern people who lived or places that really existed or events that actually happened, to which tales have tenaciously clung. They are stories, either unverifiable or unverified, that are handed down by tradition and that have gained credence by the simple act of their retelling.

The legends we hear most often are of the modern urban variety, the kind that proliferate throughout school hallways and around the water cooler at the office. The rat served among the wings and drumsticks at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The doddering woman who, attempting to dry her sodden poodle, nuked little Fifi in the microwave. Sometimes the urban legend acquires a local angle. Remember the one about the alligators thriving in New York's sewers? Vacationers returning from Miami (of course) are said to have flushed their recently purchased reptilian pets down the toilet.

For as long as people have inhabited the territory we now know as Dade, legends have arisen and taken on lives of their own as they have ranged far from their original sources. They are part of the community's accepted beliefs and attitudes, and inevitably they provide some insight into human nature, revealing our concerns and fears and loves and hates, our prejudices. Above all, they reflect what we know and don't know -- or prefer to believe -- about our past. "We all have to be careful about perpetuating this stuff," remarks Paul George, assistant professor of social science at Miami-Dade Community College. "Legends are really just wonderful to tell." But therein lies the rub: In their telling they can quickly take on the ring of hard fact.

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