Time Machine

Jan. 6 Capitol attack evokes memories of 1954 attack that wounded Iowa rep, 4 others

Puerto Rico nationalists opened fire in U.S. House

March 1, 1954, Gazette front page, after five congressmen were shot in the U.S. Capitol, including Ben Jensen of Iowa. (
March 1, 1954, Gazette front page, after five congressmen were shot in the U.S. Capitol, including Ben Jensen of Iowa. (Gazette archives)
/

Images of the violent Jan. 6 incursion of the U.S. Capitol, in which five people died, evoked recollections of previous brutal attacks at the congressional chambers — including one that badly injured an Iowa representative:

Almost 70 years ago, blood was shed in the U.S. Capitol when a national liberation group opened fire in the U.S. House, wounding five congressmen including the Republican who represented southwest Iowa.

It happened March 1, 1954, when four people from Puerto Rico, who were intent on gaining independence for the U.S. territory, entered the visitors’ gallery and fired automatic pistols at House members.

Three men and a woman fired at random from a corner of the gallery as House members were debating a Mexican farm labor bill. Twenty to 30 rounds from Lugers hit five House members while also nicking seats, walls, ceilings and plaster.

The barrage lasted for about a minute before Capitol Police subdued the shooters.

Of the five wounded, Rep. Alvin Bentley, R-Mich., and Rep. Ben Jensen, R-Iowa, suffered the most serious injuries.

Bentley was hit in the chest and lay on the floor near the speaker’s platform. He was taken to Casualty Hospital.

Jensen, a Marion native, was wounded in the back near his right shoulder. He was taken to Bethesda Naval Medical Center for surgery.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The other three House members — Reps. Kenneth Roberts, D-Ala., Clifford Davis, D-Tenn., and George H. Fallon, D-Md. — had leg or hip wounds.

The Gazette’s banner headline on the afternoon of March 1, 1954, read, “FIVE CONGRESSMEN ARE SHOT.”

“A group of men and women — shouting ‘Free Puerto Rico’ — fired automatic pistols from the House gallery at Congress members Monday and hit at least five,” the Associated Press reported.

Puerto Rico was under a new constitution in 1952 as a commonwealth, subject to the laws and government of the United States but without being able to participate in elections.

The country’s small Nationalist Party, long vying for independence, objected to that arrangement, spurring the attack on the Capitol.

Lolita Lebron, 34, the woman identified as the leader of the attack, yelled, “I want freedom for my country. My country must be freed,” as she shot her pistol erratically, then waved a Puerto Rican flag. She was dragged from the gallery.

Police doorkeepers grabbed the others and pinned them to the marble floor. One doorkeeper suffered a heart attack and was taken to a hospital.

The House recessed immediately, while the Senate directed spectators to leave its galleries.

In the wake of the shooting, 30 guards were added to the Capitol, and business resumed the next day.

All of the wounded congressmen recovered.

First attack

The 1954 attack was believed to be the first case of bloodshed during a session of the House or Senate.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Congressional leaders took immediate steps to increase security. No one was let into the visitor galleries without admission cards issued by members of Congress.

The next time there was a shooting in the U.S. Capitol was in 1998, when two Capitol policemen were killed. Officer Jacob Chestnut and Special Agent John Gibson, both 18-year veterans with the Capitol Police, were shot by Russell Weston of Montana, a former mental patient.

Puerto Rican shooters

Lebron and her accomplices — Rafael Concel Miranda, Andres F. Cordeo and Irving Flores — were charged with assault with intent to kill.

They were tried in federal court, convicted and received life sentences. President Jimmy Carter commuted their sentences in 1979 to time served, and they returned to Puerto Rico.

Their national group also was believed to have been associated with an attack on Blair House in 1950, when gunmen tried to shoot their way into the then-temporary White House while President Harry Truman was napping.

Jensen’s career

Jensen was first elected to represent the 7th District in Congress in 1938 and was reelected 12 times before losing a reelection bid in 1964, a bad year for Republicans on the ballot.

In 1958, Jensen visited Marion for the first time in nearly 30 years. He stopped at his childhood home, which was then the H.H. Simmons farm on Highway 13, 4 miles northeast of Marion. He also visited the rural Prairie Union School he attended in 1898 and the old well that was the source of drinking water when he was a boy.

Jensen donated his personal papers to the University of Iowa Library in 1965 and died of cancer in Washington, D.C., in 1970 at age 77. He is buried in Exira.

Diane Langton writes the Time Machine history column that appears in the Sunday Gazette. Comments: d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.