Assassination is a tragedy; fortunately for American history, the killing of a top elected official has been rare over the United States' 237-year history.
The first high-profile death in American government resulted from a duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804. The two bitter enemies had been political rivals since 1791. Hamilton was the former Secretary of the Treasury. Burr was the sitting vice president under Thomas Jefferson. The two men couldn't settle their political differences amicably and challenged each other to a duel at Weehawken, N.J. Hamilton's shot missed. Burr mortally wounded his opponent, and Hamilton died the next day. Although not technically an assassination since Hamilton wasn't in office, the duel resulted in Burr's downfall from politics after he was charged with murder.
Lincoln's tragic death
Lincoln served during what was arguably the most tenuous time in American history. For all but a few months of Lincoln's time in office, he presided over the U.S. Civil War (1861 to 1865). While attending the play "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, the president was shot in the head by a single round from actor John Wilkes Booth. His death occurred just days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Va., ending the bloody conflict.
President James Garfield was a "dark horse" candidate who won the Republican nomination on the 36th ballot at the party convention in June of 1880. While on a train station platform in Washington, D.C., Garfield was shot twice in the back by Charles Guiteau, a despondent office-seeker, on July 2, 1881. Garfield died two months later as a result of his wounds.
President William McKinley was attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., when anarchist Leon F. Czolgosz shot him on Sept. 6, 1901. McKinley died on Sept. 14, 1901 -- eight days after he was shot. Ironically, Abraham Lincoln's only surviving son, Robert, was near both Garfield and McKinley at the times of their shootings.
John F. Kennedy
Perhaps the most widely publicized assassination in American history was that of President John F. Kennedy, when he was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas. The famous Warren Commission concluded Oswald acted alone. American jurisprudence never determined whether Oswald was truly guilty of the crime as he was killed himself just days after Kennedy when Jack Ruby killed the alleged shooter in revenge before he was brought to trial. The death of Kennedy was the first one recorded on video and was a first in the modern era of television broadcast news.
Ronald Reagan's near-death experience
President Ronald Reagan is the only chief executive survive an assassin's bullet. John W. Hinckley, Jr., a crazed fan of Jodie Foster, shot the president in the chest after he came out of a Washington, D.C., hotel on March 30, 1981. According to Britannica.com, six shots were fired. The bullet in Reagan lodged one inch from the president's heart after puncturing a lung. After the shooting, Reagan joked with his wife, Nancy, saying, "Honey, I forgot to duck."
"Killing Lincoln" airs Sunday, 2/17 at 8 PM ET on National Geographic Channel.