By Brad Dison
In 1945, General inherited a large multilevel house which was in disrepair. The wooden structure was in danger of collapsing and the masonry was crumbling. The floors creaked and swayed, especially when walked on. The light fixtures in the lower rooms swayed when someone walked on the floors above. One light fixture in the house seemed to be lower with each passing day. General referred to the creaking and moaning of the house’s rotting timbers as ghosts. General had an architect inspect the house who remarked that “the beams [in the house] are staying up there from force of habit only.” The house was in danger of collapsing. The last straw came in June of 1948 when a leg of a piano crashed through an upper floor and through the ceiling of the dining room. In November of 1949, General moved into a residence nearby so that the house he inherited could be reconstructed. The house had too much sentimental value for it to be demolished.
Not everyone liked General. In fact, some people wanted to kill General, and he knew it. For this reason, General surrounded himself with bodyguards, some of which were police officers.
At about 2:15 on the afternoon of November 1, 1950, two men, Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, set a plan into motion to murder General. They had learned that General had moved into the temporary residence. Griselio approached the residence from the west side, while Oscar approached from the east. Police officer Donald Birdzell stood on the front steps of the residence. Oscar, with pistol in hand, snuck up behind the Birdzell and pulled the trigger. Snap!!! Oscar had forgotten to chamber a round in his pistol. Birdzell turned as Oscar chambered a round. Oscar fired the pistol and struck Birdzell in his right knee. As Oscar approached the steps which led to the front door, another bodyguard stepped out of the residence and shot Oscar in the chest. Oscar collapsed and writhed in pain at the foot of the steps.
Meanwhile, on the west side of the residence, Griselio shot police officer Leslie Coffelt four times at close range. He turned his pistol on policeman Joseph Downs and shot him three times. Griselio shot officer Birdzell in his other knee. Griselio had no more rounds in the gun and stopped to reload. General, who had been taking a nap on the second floor, peered out of a window directly over the front door to see what the commotion was. General was a First World War combat veteran and was not frightened by the gunfire. People yelled for General to get away from the window. He obeyed their command. At that moment, Coffelt, though severely injured, fired a single shot at Griselio before falling to the ground unconscious. The bullet from Coffelt’s pistol struck Griselio in the head and killed him instantly.
When the shooting was over, three guards were wounded including 40-year-old Leslie Coffelt, who died later that evening during surgery. Oscar survived and spent the next 29 years in prison. In an interview with Time magazine about the murder plot, General calmly said, “the only thing you have to worry about is bad luck.” General grinned and said, “I never have bad luck.” General remarked that he was unafraid because he “had been shot at by professionals” during the First World War.
Although the shooting lasted less than a minute, General survived a murder attempt in what was described as “the biggest gunfight in Secret Service history.” You see, the house General inherited was the White House. General was the Secret Service’s code name for… President Harry Truman.
- The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 2, 1950, p.1.
- Mahan, Sydney. “66 Years Ago Today, President Truman Survived an Assassination Attempt at Blair House.” Washingtonian. November 1, 2016. washingtonian.com/2016/11/01/president-truman-assassination-attempt-blair-house/
Photo caption: The entrance to General’s temporary residence (1) where one of the would-be assassins was wounded. The other tumbled into bushes (2), fatally shot. Shots were fired from sentry box (3) at the gunmen while two guards were wounded in the other box (4). A guard on duty at the entrance steps was wounded and stumbled into the street (5). General appeared at window (6).