Assassination of William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz

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Clipping of a wash drawing by T. Dart Walker depicting the assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz at Pan-American Exposition reception on September 6, 1901.

The personality of Leon Czolgosz contributed to his embrace of Anarchism, a philosophy that ultimately led him to shoot President William McKinley in 1901.

On July 12, 1900, The New York Times reported on a plot to kill President William McKinley. The plot involved Cuban and Spanish conspirators but was never fully investigated or confirmed, according to the Times. Within 14 months, however, McKinley would be shot in Buffalo, New York by Leon Czolgosz, a Detroit native who had joined the Anarchist cause. Anarchists had successfully assassinated several world leaders and had been blamed for the violent labor strikes in the United States, such as the Haymarket riot in Chicago.

Henry Payne, a friend of McKinley and member of the National Republic Committee, concluded that, “The attempt upon his life was not because he was William McKinley, but because he was President of the United States.” (The New York Times, September 7, 1901) Teddy Roosevelt, the Vice President agreed. According to writer Edmund Morris [1], in Roosevelt’s opinion “those bullets at Buffalo had been fired, not merely at a man, but at the very heart of the American Republic.”

The Anarchist Assassin Leon Czolgosz

When Leon Czolgosz entered the Temple of Music at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition on September 6, 1901, he carried a revolver concealed by a handkerchief in his hand. Shortly after 4:00, Czolgosz approached the President who had been shaking hands with peopled lined up before him. The assassin fired two shots and was swiftly subdued by two Secret Service agents and an African-America who had, only moments before, shaken the hand of the now mortally wounded McKinley.

Czolgosz was a recent recruit to Anarchism, having repudiated his Catholic faith. He had met Emma Goldman, a leading Anarchist, after hearing her speak. Although Americans at that time feared Anarchism and associated it with European immigrants, Czolgosz was a “home grown” assassin, born and raised in Michigan. In 1921, Dr. L. Vernon Briggs [2] published his studies on Czolgosz, offering insights into the assassin’s personality.

Czolgosz had been a loner most of his life. He was educated at both parochial and public schools. Those that knew him well stated that he was always shy and bashful. As a child, he refused to play with other children. Having been rejected by a girl he loved, he never again attempted romance. As he grew older, he was described as morose and anti-social, suffering from “hypochondriacal symptoms” (Briggs) in the period before the assassination. Briggs also noted that Czolgosz had been bullied as a child.

Death of the President and the Trial and Execution of Czolgosz

On Saturday, September 14, Theodore Roosevelt received a telegram from John Hay that said: “The President Died at Two-Fifteen This Morning.” Surgery on McKinley to remove the bullet in his abdomen had not been successful. In the company of his friend and political manager, Senator Mark Hanna, the President died after repeating lines from his favorite hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee.”

Historian James Ford Rhodes [3] recounted the events in his 1922 history, asserting that, “The journalist who had sneered at ‘the pious McKinley’ could not, from his skeptical view, appreciate the depth and sincerity of McKinley’s religious nature.” Yet even as McKinley died, his assassin showed no remorse. Having been incarcerated in Buffalo, a crowd numbering 30,000 (New York Times) called for his lynching.

The assassin’s trial and execution came swiftly. A jury deliberated for just over an hour and found him guilty, recommending the death sentence. This was carried out on October 29th, 1901. Czolgosz had given a full confession. Although his mental state might have played a role in the assassination, unlike Charles Guiteau who had shot President James Garfield, he was not insane.

Teddy Roosevelt the New President

Roosevelt became the first Vice President propelled into office upon the death of a President to win reelection three years later. Yet in 1912 he was also the target of an attempted assassination. As the modern presidency began, the security of the President took on new meaning, sparked, perhaps, by McKinley’s death in 1901.

Notes:

  • [1] Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex (NY: Random House, 2001)
  • [2] Lloyd Vernon Briggs, The Manner of Man that Kills (Boston: Gorham Press, 1921)
  • [3] John Ford Rhodes, The McKinley and Roosevelt Administrations 1897-1909 (NY: The Macmillan Company, 1922)

Other Sources:

  1. The New York Times, September 7, 1901
  2. Page Smith, The Rise of Industrial America: A People’s History of the Post-Reconstruction Era, Volume 6 (Penguin Books, 1984)
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