The U.S. Capitol’s turbulent history of bombings, assassination attempts, and violence

The storming of the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters is unprecedented. But the building has seen its share of skirmishes.

Published 7 Jan 2021, 11:45 GMT
A gunman opened fire in the U.S. Capitol in 1995, killing two Capitol Police officers who ...

A gunman opened fire in the U.S. Capitol in 1995, killing two Capitol Police officers who were defending the building. The pair were the first private citizens to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.

Photograph by JOE MARQUETTE/AFP via Getty Images

Yesterday's takeover of the U.S. Capitol by a mob supporting President Trump is unprecedented. But America’s seat of government has endured bombings, a presidential assassination attempt, and even its destruction by foreign forces. There have also been attacks from inside—including a near-fatal attack on one lawmaker by another.

Here’s a brief look at the threats to the Capitol over the years:

While still under construction, the British set the U.S. Capitol building on fire during the War of 1812.

Photograph by Universal History Archive, Getty Images

1814: British forces burn the U.S. Capitol

The U.S. Capitol was still under construction when it was torched by British troops who had invaded Washington, D.C. in one of the most famous skirmishes of the War of 1812. The troops “ignited a giant bonfire of furniture” in the Hall of the House of Representatives that was so intense it destroyed Giuseppe Franzoni's life-size marble statue of Liberty. Another bonfire was set in the Supreme Court Chamber, which at the time was housed in the Capitol building.

Upon surveying the damage, several members of Congress called to move the federal government to Philadelphia or another city that they thought might be more secure. (Ironically, Washington, D.C. itself had been established as the nation’s capital after a drunken mob of soldiers angry about unpaid wages stormed the Philadelphia State House in June 1783.)

1835: Attempt to assassinate President Andrew Jackson

On January 30, 1835, a thirtysomething British immigrant named Richard Lawrence attempted to assassinate President Andrew Jackson while he was leaving a congressional funeral at the U.S. Capitol. Fortunately, Lawrence’s attempt failed—twice. When the powder from his first pistol failed to ignite, Lawrence raised a second pistol but missed his target and was tackled by bystanders. It was the first known attempt to assassinate a U.S. president.

The assassination attempt came amid heightened tension among lawmakers after the president had vetoed a bill to reauthorise the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. But Lawrence—an unemployed house painter—was later found not guilty by reason of insanity: Not only did he claim that Jackson had killed his father, but he also said he was King Richard III and that the veto had denied him payments he was entitled to from the American colonies.

1856: Savage beating of Senator Charles Sumner

One of the most violent incidents at the U.S. Capitol came at the hands of one of its own legislators. In 1856, as tensions were running high over the fate of slavery in the U.S. in the lead-up to the Civil War, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks viciously beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the Senate Chamber for having delivered a speech against slavery. Sumner eventually recovered and Brooks resigned. Although Brooks was reelected, he died in 1857 before the new congressional term.

1915: Fourth of July bombing of Senate Reception Room

As the nation headed into the Fourth of July weekend in 1915, a former Harvard University professor named Erich Muenter exploded three sticks of dynamite in the Senate Reception Room. Muenter later explained that he was angry that American financiers were aiding the U.K. in World War I despite America’s official neutrality at the time. There were no injuries—the Senate was out of session—but the New York Times reported at the time that the explosion had shattered a chandelier, damaged the plaster on the room’s ceiling, and blew open doors—including one to the office of the vice president.

Four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire and waved their territoriy's flag in the House gallery in 1954.

Photograph by George Skadding, The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images

1954: Puerto Rican nationalist attack

In 1954, long before the Capitol had higher security, including metal detectors, four Puerto Rican nationalists entered the House gallery, took out guns, and began firing indiscriminately. One waved a Puerto Rico flag. Five House members were wounded in the protest aimed at independence for the commonwealth, which the United States seized from Spain in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. The attackers served long prison terms, which were commuted by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 after an international campaign.

Photograph by Bettmann Archive, Getty Images

Sen. Mack Mattingly, R-GA, looks at a 13-foot hole torn by a bomb that exploded 30 feet from the Senate chamber in November 1983.

Photograph by Bettmann Archive, Getty Images

1971: Weather Underground bombing

The violent antiwar Weather Underground planted a bomb in a bathroom on the Senate side of the Capitol. The explosion in the early hours of March 1, 1971 caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, but no casualties.

1983: Bomb goes off on the Senate side

There were no casualties either when a bomb hidden under a bench outside the Senate Chamber exploded, blowing the hinges off the door to the office of Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. A group calling itself the Armed Resistance Unit carried out the attack to protest the military's actions in Grenada and Lebanon. Seven people were charged in the attack.

1998: Gunman shoots two Capitol Police officers

An armed assailant stormed past a U.S. Capitol security checkpoint, killing Capitol Police officer Jacob J. Chestnut, Jr. and making his way toward the offices of the House Majority Whip, Tom DeLay. Detective John M. Gibson told others to take cover and exchanged fire with the assailant, Russell Eugene Weston, Jr., a 41-year-old man from Illinois. Though Gibson was killed in the exchange, his action enabled other officers to subdue the gunman. The slain officers were the first private citizens to lie in honour in the Capitol Rotunda.

Firefighters and emergency personnel investigate the scene of the crash of a United Airlines airplane near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 11, 2001. Hijackers had intended to crash the plane into the U.S. Capitol Building but were thwarted by passengers who had rushed the cockpit.

Photograph by David Lloyd, AP Photo, Tribune-Democrat

2001: Another 9/11 target

After the World Trade Centre collapsed and the Pentagon was in flames from coordinated suicide hijackings, a fourth hijacked airliner was headed toward the U.S. Capitol on the morning of the September 11th al Qaeda terrorist attacks on America. Flight 93 never reached its intended target, however; its passengers rushed the hijackers in the cockpit and the aircraft crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks later determined that the Capitol was indeed the intended target.

U.S. Capitol Police stand guard in the middle of Independence Avenue as people evacuate the Capitol Building after a shooting at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on March 28, 2016.

Photograph by Joshua Roberts, Reuters

2013: Woman breaches checkpoint, then is shot and killed

In October 2013, a woman was fatally shot by law enforcement on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol after attempting to breach a White House checkpoint and leading police on a 12-block chase through the city. Miriam Carey, an unarmed 34-year-old dental hygienist from Connecticut, had a one-year-old child in the backseat. An autopsy showed she was killed after five gunshots struck her from behind, one to the left side of the back of her head, three in her back and one to her left arm. Her family later filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Secret Service and Capitol Police, questioning whether it was an appropriate use of force.

2016: Shooting at U.S. Capitol Visitor Centre

In March 2016, a man pointed a BB gun at police officers as he attempted to enter the U.S. Capitol Visitor Centre. Police shot the 66-year-old man, Larry Russell Dawson of Tennessee, in the chest and thigh and charged him with assault. No one else was injured in the attack. The Washington Post noted at the time that Dawson’s motives were unclear but that he had previously been arrested for disrupting Congress by shouting that he was a “prophet of God.” Dawson was later sentenced to 14 months in prison.

Even with all this history, today’s violent takeover shocked Americans and people worldwide. Tweeted a German regional leader, Armin Laschet: “The attacks on the Capitol by fanatical Trump supporters hurt every friend of the United States.”

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