The online auction catalogue read like a prank, like a bad flashback, and it upended my morning. Then my year: Arthur Bremer’s gun was for sale.
A year ago this week, the Rock Island Auction Co. in Illinois took bids for the five-shot, snub-nosed .38 revolver that Bremer used to shoot Gov. George Wallace of Alabama on May 15, 1972, during a presidential primary campaign rally at the Laurel Shopping Center in suburban Maryland.
“Very fine ... minor edge and high spot wear with some scratches and scrapes on the side of the cylinder where it hit the ground when it was wrestled away from [Bremer]. ... A very unique and somewhat ‘infamous’ historic revolver.”
Somewhat? You don’t have to remember the attack that left Wallace paralyzed from the waist down to consider this weapon a startling relic of those tormented years, 1963 to 1981, when assailants opened fire on three presidents, two presidential candidates and two national civil rights leaders.
To prove the weapon was genuine, the gun was accompanied by a macabre scrapbook: pages photocopied from the Prince George’s County Police case file; Bremer’s receipt from a gun store in Milwaukee showing he paid $94.48; 18 frames of the television footage that captured Bremer lunging with the revolver and the first lady of Alabama throwing herself over the felled governor with a bloody hole in his torso.
The high bidder was an anonymous collector from outside the Washington region who had an idea of how much a piece of Arthur Bremer is worth: He paid $28,750.
County police learned of the auction after it was over. They had no idea the gun had strayed into private hands and are now trying to get it back.
“This item of evidence has historic significance not only to the police department but to our nation’s history,” says Capt. Marc Alexander, an investigator for police Inspector General Carlos Acosta.
I had thought we were all done with Bremer. His attempted escape into oblivion began the moment he was tackled by bystanders and police in the shopping plaza. He would speak just three sentences in public, at his 1972 trial in Upper Marlboro, and that would be it for more than 40 years.
After serving 35 1 / 2 years of a 53-year sentence, with 17 1 / 2 years knocked off for good behavior, he was released from prison in 2007. The news caused hardly a stir, even though he was one of few national attempted assassins in modern times to be set free.
A church-supported group helped Bremer settle in Cumberland, tucked in the mountains of Western Maryland, where he has lived in law-abiding obscurity ever since. He is 65.
Yet there’s something about Bremer — and us — that won’t let him slip away completely. He dwells at the blurry edge of memory, summoned back into focus whenever a turn in history or culture reminds us of his relevance.
I’ve had trouble accepting his silence for some time, ever since I read his journal, “An Assassin’s Diary,” which included about half of the 261 fevered pages he wrote in the 10 weeks leading up to the shooting. It was a long, loquacious cry for attention and legacy. The book made a small splash when it came out in 1973. Then it, too, disappeared for years, until, incredibly, the missing half of the diary was coughed up by the earth itself — like the revolver popping out of nowhere onto the auction block.
How could the voice of that diary just switch off? I wanted to hear how Bremer, now approaching old age, would reflect on his dark journey. Perhaps he could tell us about remorse and redemption. The price of infamy. And he might fill the blank pages of his life after he pulled the trigger.
I took the auction as a license — an excuse — to search for Bremer.
Now I start my diary of my personal plot to kill by pistol either Richard Nixon or George Wallace. ...How will the news associations describe me? An unemployed painter? An unemployed part-time busboy? A colledge (still can’t spell it) drop-out? ... I have it. “An unemployed malcontent who fancys himself a writer.”
— Arthur Bremer’s diary, March/early April 1972
Bremer was born into a quarrelsome household in Milwaukee, the son of a truck driver and a homemaker. He grew up socially awkward and lonely. He took photography classes at a technical college and worked as a busboy at an athletic club.
When he finally got a girlfriend, she was 16, he was 21. Soon his quirky, intense behavior became too much for her. She later told reporters she was embarrassed by the way he yelled and stamped his feet at a Blood, Sweat & Tears concert. She broke up with him.
Bremer was devastated. He shaved his head to get her attention and considered suicide, he wrote in his diary.
A couple of months later he hit the road in his 1967 Rebel Rambler with a .38 special and a Browning 9mm. Nixon, a Republican, was in the White House, plotting his reelection, and the Democratic presidential primary campaign was in full swing. What the candidates stood for seemed of little importance to Bremer. He briefly considered shooting Democrat George McGovern, who was vying with Wallace and others for the nomination.
For weeks Bremer stalked Nixon, following him to Ottawa. He finally gave up after being foiled by “hippie” demonstrators drawing extra security. He moved on to Wallace, fearing only that a Wallace assassination wouldn’t be important enough to create a historic sensation. Wallace was a populist best known for demanding “segregation forever” in the early 1960s and for trying to block the integration of the University of Alabama.
On the afternoon of May 15, Bremer listened to the candidate speak at Wheaton Plaza before heading to the rally in Laurel, where, on the spur of the moment, Wallace stepped off the platform to shake hands. Witnesses said Bremer called, “Over here, Mr. Wallace!” A moment later, he fired five rounds. In addition to Wallace, three others were shot, suffering less-serious wounds.
Bremer pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury took 95 minutes to find him sane and guilty.
Invited by the judge to make a statement, Bremer recalled the prosecutor saying that “he’d like society to be protected from someone like me. Looking back on my life, I would have liked it if society had protected me from myself.
“That’s all I’ve got to say.”
I can’t hit any thing at a 50 foot target range. I remember firing over 100 bullets, 99 missed the paper, some of those hit the cieling & downed plaster & dust, & one 10 ring hit. Still can’t believe it. How does anybody hit with one of those things? ... I have a date with history. But I can’t hit a thing more than 10 feet away.
— March/early April 1972
Bremer — or the idea of Bremer — started ricocheting almost immediately.
Paul Schrader was a young writer wrestling with alienation that summer after the shooting as he banged out the script for what would become the Martin Scorsese film “Taxi Driver” (1976), starring Robert De Niro as an existential loner who plans to shoot a candidate. It is not the Arthur Bremer story, Schrader emphasizes, but there are points in common, including a diaristic narration.
He wrote the script after Bremer’s deed, but “the diary had not yet been published, so I just kind of imagined it,” Schrader says. “And when the diary actually came out, I was surprised at the number of places where it lined up with what I imagined.”
A free-associative line connects Bremer to John Hinckley Jr. through “Taxi Driver.” Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to impress actress Jodie Foster, who starred in “Taxi Driver.” A copy of Bremer’s diary was found among Hinckley’s possessions.
Bremer became scriptwriters’ shorthand to sound a note of smart, slightly daft black humor.
“Neighbors” (1981), starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd: “We might have had a wonderful relationship. But then, as Arthur Bremer once said: ‘How many things go right in this crazy world?’ ”
In “Assassins,” the 1990 musical by Stephen Sondheim, the John Wilkes Booth character calls to the audience: “Is Artie Bremer here tonight? Where’s Artie Bremer?!”
Bremer also turned up on a Nixon White House tape released in 1997. The president wanted to cast suspicion for the crime on McGovern supporters.
“Is he [Bremer] a left-winger or a right-winger?” Nixon asked White House hatchet man and special counsel Charles Colson on the night of the shooting.
“Well, he’s going to be a left-winger by the time we get through, I think,” Colson said.
“Good,” Nixon said, chuckling. “Keep at that. Keep at that.”
Bremer’s disembodied presence over the years gave him a Forrest Gump-like quality — then he appeared in “Forrest Gump.” The makers of the 1994 movie inserted the television clip of Bremer shooting Wallace as part of Forrest’s journey through chaotic times.
A woman, middle age gave me an anti-war/anti-Nixon leaflet. I glanced it over & handed it back to her, politely. ... The hippie-types also tryed to give me this stuff. ... Were the cops really afraid of these people?! Was Nixon afraid, really scared, of them?! They’re nothing. They’re the new establishement. To be a rebel today you have to keep a job, wear a suit & stay apolitical. Now T H A T ’S R E B E L L I O N !
— April 22, 1972
I first read Bremer’s diary a few years ago when I became aware that he lived about two hours from my house. The cover has a Day-Glo portrait modeled on the chilling news photo of the grinning face in the crowd, ready to strike.
Bremer is a temperamental narrator of picaresque misadventures. He forgets the bag with his guns on an airplane, and — hearing his name over a loudspeaker in an airport restroom — retrieves the bag from the pilot himself. He loses the Browning 9mm for good when it falls deep into the chassis of his Rambler as he’s concealing it from Canadian border guards.
In many ways, he ventriloquizes the Great American Unhinged Voice that also howls through the works of doomed road-trip writers such as Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson. Bremer can’t control the voice, though. His observations are entertaining but seldom penetrating. Yet the work is still riveting, even given our repugnance, because the reader knows that, in the end, the narrator will break the frame of the page and come to lethal life.
Today the diary has an additional resonance: Bremer the diarist was a media-obsessed meta-assassin whose journal we could mistake as a treatment for a reality TV show that might be called “Going After the Governor.” The porous relationship between the screens of our devices and our identities is a media landscape that Bremer explored before there was anything personal about a computer.
The diary also reads like a series of over-sharing Facebook posts. Self-deprecating confessions and humble-bragging, laced with hyper-awareness over how his words will be read and “shared,” make it clear: Arthur Bremer wanted us to “like” him.
After a month on the road, he buried the first 148 pages under a viaduct in Milwaukee. Wrapped in foil and tape inside a plastic briefcase, they chronicled March 2 to April 3, 1972, and, for a time, were lost.
The final 113 pages, April 4 to May 13, were found in Bremer’s car, parked at the Laurel Shopping Center. Bremer’s attorney, the late Benjamin Lipsitz, read them aloud at trial, thinking the diary might convince the jury that Bremer was insane.
Lawrence Freundlich, editor in chief of Harper’s Magazine Press, visited the jail to make a publishing deal for this section of the diary to cover legal expenses. He doesn’t recall specific sums but says his offer was in the range of a $10,000 advance and 10 percent royalties. He wrote the figures on a yellow legal pad and held it up to the visitors window so Bremer could see. Bremer countered with something like $12,000, 12 percent, Freundlich recalls.
“Bremer looked nutty as a fruitcake to me,” Freundlich tells me. “Then he comes up with this utterly sensible proposal.”
The book was published in 1973.
“Bremer’s brief vivid diary ... takes us, with no effort, inside a killer’s mind — and we find ourselves at home there,” Garry Wills wrote in his review for the New York Times. “His is the voice, not of evil’s banality, but of its plausibility. One fears with and for him in his scrapes.”
Fiction writer Ann Beattie told the Times that she counted Bremer’s diary among books that influenced her as a young writer. Gore Vidal paid Bremer the compliment of declaring that the diary could not have been written by a mere “busboy.” In the New York Review of Books, he spun out a conspiracy theory that E. Howard Hunt — who helped plan the Watergate break-in and was a thriller writer himself — wrote the diary.
“Bremer’s diary is a fascinating work — of art? ... There are startling literary references and flourishes,” Vidal wrote. “No matter who wrote the diary we are dealing with a true author.”
Sales were disappointingly modest, given all the publicity, Freundlich says. The book is long out of print.
Then, in 1980, a construction worker found the first half of Bremer’s diary under the Milwaukee viaduct. Bremer went to court to get it back, but a judge ruled it was finders keepers. The dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Medicine and some faculty members bought it for $5,350 because of its psychiatric interest and connection to Wallace.
Now the mud-spattered manuscript sits in a dark acid-free box, unread. But not quite forgotten.
This will be one of the most closely read pages since the Scrolls in those caves. And I couldn’t find a pen for 40 seconds & went mad. My fuse is about burnt. There’s gona be an explosion soon. I had it. I want something to happen. I was sopposed to be Dead a week & a day ago. Or at least infamous.
— April 24, 1972
In prison Bremer kept to himself and proved to be reliable in jobs including teacher’s aide. According to an account published in the Baltimore Sun, “during a riot that left the penitentiary filled with smoke, only one machine was still working, banging out license plates.” That was the machine run by Bremer.
He was denied parole in 1997, but by the fall of 2007, he had earned early release through good behavior, racking up “one of the largest totals of credits [for reduced time] that I’ve ever seen,” says David Blumberg, chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission.
Cumberland was a destination of last resort.
“They said no one would take him from Frederick or Hagerstown, and he couldn’t go near D.C.,” says Frances Jones, founder of the Restoration of the Heart ministry, which assists former prisoners’ transition to society. When she visited Bremer before his release, something about the laconic inmate with no place to go “caught my heart right from the beginning.”
After 35 years in prison, Bremer told Jones one of the things he wanted most: the ability to make toast.
He wouldn’t talk about the past.
“There’s going to come a day when you’re going to sit down and tell me the whole story,” Jones says she has told him.
That conversation has yet to take place.
S---! I won’t even rate a T.V. enteroption in Russia or Europe when the news breaks — they never heard of Wallace. If something big in Nam flares up I’ll end up at the bottom of the 1st page in America. The editors will say — “Wallace dead? Who cares.” He won’t get more than 3 minutes on network T.V. news.
— May 4, 1972
I started looking for Bremer three years ago after a friend gave me his address. My friend was mysterious about his source. I thought Bremer might open up to a journalist who was fascinated by his diary, with an angle about putting his life back together.
He didn’t answer a letter I sent, so I eventually knocked on his door. When he opened, his face was elfin, retaining a faint impression of the notorious, grinning visage. He had white hair and a beard and wore a heavy plaid shirt. He looked like a dazed camper.
I introduced myself and said I had been trying to find him.
“What for?” he said sharply.
The word “reporter” made him recoil. His shaking hands could hardly slam the door fast enough.
“I’m not trying to bother you,” I pleaded through the door. “I just wanted to ask if you’d let me tell your story.”
I put another letter in his mailbox.
After that, I figured I would just let him continue his drift toward oblivion — until the business about the gun auction made me realize he can never escape history.
Like a novelist who knows not how his book will end — I have written this journal — what a shocking surprise that my inner character shall steal the climax and destroy the author and save the anti-hero from assasination!!
— May 4, 1972
Bremer found the perfect place to start over in Cumberland, a picturesque post-industrialcity conjured amid the great outdoors. Freight cars laden with molten sulfur and new autos rumble through town while cyclists adorned as brightly as the fall foliage pedal under the riverfront arch that marks the terminus of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, 185 miles northwest of Georgetown.
I walk the brick sidewalks, asking people if they know of him.
“Not in the slightest.”
“Is he an artist?”
When I fill in the blanks, the story is so remote and distasteful that people flinch and eye me strangely. Yet Bremer is visible to those looking with a certain compassion and curiosity: a bearded ghost of another era walking among them, silent and wary.
“You’ll see him every once in a while going in a store,” says Tina Lee, a photographer. “I believe he deserves a second chance. That’s what the people of Cumberland are doing for him.”
A few years ago he visited the Allegany Museum to learn about this corner of Maryland in which he may live out the rest of his days. At first museum director Gary Bartik didn’t know who the intelligent-sounding stranger was. Bartik started mentioning historic highlights: George Washington’s visits, Cumberland’s vital role as the “gateway to the West.”
“We got halfway through it, and he said, ‘I’m Arthur Bremer. Do you know who I am?’ ” Bartik recalls.
“I said, ‘Well, if you’re really Mr. Bremer, you are the person who shot Gov. Wallace.’
“He said, ‘Yes, I did.’
“He said, ‘I regretted that happened.’ He didn’t elaborate on it.”
Hey world! Come here! I wanna talk to ya!
— May 8, 1972
The people who know Bremer best are ambivalent protectors of his silence because they think his story is worth telling. Forty-three years — 35 behind bars, eight in freedom — of patiently, painstakingly, peacefully moving forward is notable, we all agree.
“A person shouldn’t be defined by the worst thing he ever did,” says Christopher Moore, chairman of Restoration of the Heart.
The Restoration board members are unfamiliar with Bremer’s diary. If he stands for anything to them, it is the possibility of redemption, and the unglamorous and underfunded challenge of supporting the return to society of people who were in prison.
The work exercises “the capacity of religion to instill love, compassion and forgiveness,” Moore says. “The more notorious the crime, the more this capacity is tested. ... Perhaps some, like Arthur, are sent to teach such values.”
At a social gathering organized by Restoration of the Heart several months after he was released, Bremer was introduced to Michael McKay, a Cumberland businessman known for his religiously motivated social conscience. McKay offered Bremer a job at his cleaners and home restoration business.
“He’s been a blessing to us,” McKay says. “I think what has made it work is not anything Mike McKay has done. I think, honestly, it has to do with his willingness to hit the reset button and really work on that.”
McKay picks up Bremer every day at 5 a.m. for work, since the buses don’t run that early.
“He has a good attitude and works well with the other employees,” McKay says. “He’s as loyal as they come.”
McKay showed how far he would go to repay Bremer’s loyalty several years ago when he was contemplating a run for county commissioner. Conditions of Bremer’s release — which he must follow until 2025, when the full 53 years are up — include staying away from elected officials.
“I said to the Secret Service, ‘If that’s a problem, I’m not interested in running,” McKay says.
Permission was granted, and McKay won the election. His political career blossomed, and last year, McKay was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates (R-Allegany). Once again Bremer was granted permission to continue his relationship with the public official.
My cry upon firing will be, “A penny for your thoughts.”
— final words in the diary, May 13, 1972
The day after the shooting, Wallace handily won the Maryland Democratic primary. He went on to experience a remarkable personal and political transformation, serving two more terms as governor while renouncing segregation and winning the support of many African American voters. He died in 1998 at the age of 79.
He spent the last 26 years of his life not just partially paralyzed but in pain from nerve damage. Yet he spoke often of his forgiveness of Bremer.
“I am a born-again Christian. I love you,” Wallace wrote to Bremer in 1995. “I hope that we can get to know each other better. We have heard of each other a long time.”
Bremer did not reply.
Now George Wallace Jr., the son of the governor, thinks about what he would say if he could meet Bremer.
He last tried in the early 1990s. The son wrote a letter, heard nothing back, then dispatched two FBI agents to the prison to inquire about setting up a meeting. Bremer greeted the agents by making sounds like a monkey, according to Wallace.
Even now, all these years later, “I would like to meet with him and talk with him,” says the son, who is about Bremer’s age and served as Alabama state treasurer and public service commissioner.
He wonders if Bremer feels remorse. He would like to learn if there was any more to Bremer’s motive — was his father simply the second-choice target of a busboy yearning to go down in history?
“I would ask him if he had read my father’s letters, and I would relate to him that, ‘Before my father died, he loved you, Arthur, and he wanted the best for you and wanted you to find the Lord, and I just wanted you to know that about him.’ ”
But even in imaginary conversations Bremer holds his silence.
You read in the paper, [you look] at news reports thinking that everything is beautiful just the way Walter Cronkite said. But then when he’s talking about you, you don’t recognize yourself there. When that print reporter’s writing about you, you think, um, well, he missed it.
— Bremer speaking about publicity at his 1996 parole hearing
“Some people know who he is, most don’t,” says one Cumberland merchant. “He’s another guy who lives here. I think it’s good he’s out and lives an anonymous life and goes to work and does what he does — and nobody points him out.”
Almost nobody points him out. The businessman says it was his barber, during a haircut, who first pointed Bremer out to him as Bremer walked past the window. But he doesn’t tell me who his barber is.
So I start visiting barbers. There are half a dozen in Cumberland. No luck at Ned’s Barber Shop. Next I try Fred’s Barber Shop.
“I’ve cut his hair for four or five years,” says Fred Willison.
The barber says I shouldn’t get my hopes up about having a long exchange of ideas with Bremer.
“As far as a conversation, he doesn’t talk,” Willison says. “He’s just different. You’ll know what I mean when you meet him.”
We are about to be interrupted, so I will have to pick up the conversation later, at which point I will ask Willison if Bremer is like any other customer, and he will say: “No, he’s not like any other customer. He shot a man.”
Here’s what interrupts us: Willison spies a figure walking past the window.
“There’s Arthur coming this way!”
A figure in a windbreaker strides past with a brisk side-to-side gait. We study his trajectory as if he were an exotic creature in a special habitat on the other side of the glass.
After a long hesitation, I bolt out of the barber shop and pick up his trail.
I quickly discover I’m an incompetent stalker. I’m conflicted about following a man who wants to be forgotten. But we both keep walking.
After several blocks, the trail ends at a store. Bremer, it appears, plays the lottery.
What if he won the jackpot?
I duck out without waiting to see.
As Bremer asked at the end of his diary: Is there any thing else to say?
He went from busboy to failed assassin in the seconds it took to squeeze off five shots. He paid his debt to society and was forgiven by his chief victim. Does he ever get to be more than a would-be assassin? I’m not sure. But his reluctance to resume the role of narrator for the rest of his story doesn’t help the transition of his image.
He got what he told his diary he wanted: our attention. Did he ever imagine that the penalty of that attention might be life, and afterlife, without parole?
Now, as the rest of us flirt with selfie-enabled notoriety, it’s as if Bremer were making his way back from the bitter extreme of that obsession, with the opposite lesson for a culture more spellbound by media than ever. It may just be too late for him to “unfriend” us all.
I watch him trudge over a hill, getting farther and farther away, until he rounds a corner out of sight.
I let him go.
But not really.
The drive home is a couple of hours, and when I get there I start typing.
Staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report. David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.