Czolgosz and American Assassins – Commonalities

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Leon Czolgosz circa 1900

The assassin Czolgosz had characteristics in common with other American assassins: ordinal position; early loss and lack of close relationships; status incongruence.

To understand what propelled Leon Czolgosz forward to his meeting with destiny, which contributing characteristics he held in common with other Presidential assassins is helpful. Though there are more, these characteristics help make the assassin less inscrutable. In the final analysis assassins’ minds are concealed, perhaps even from themselves.

Ordinal Position

First was his place in the birth order. He was 4th of 8 children, by no means an extreme ordinal position but one guaranteed to bury him in the birth order: too far down to gain much notice from his father or much comfort from his mother, who by this time was worn out by child-bearing. It was an era when the primary job of immigrant mothers was baby production, since children were a source of family income. Unfortunately, 6 of her 8 children were boys, which meant little help with housework.

As soon as the children could earn, they were put to work. Soon, with the entire family pooling their earnings, they purchased a farm in the small Polish community of Posen, Michigan. Each family member had duties around the farm. It was hard work to keep it going, and sometimes the older boys took day jobs in the local lumber industry. They had begun to ascend the ladder of the American dream.

Early Loss

Czolgosz, like most assassins, experienced early loss. The death of Mary Czolgosz, when Leon was 10 or 11, was a blow. Although he never spoke of it, he seemed never to recover from this loss. Today, Secret Service Threat Assessment guidelines would look at how the child processed his mother’s death. Absence of older female relatives to take charge of ritual duties guaranteed the child would be left alone to his grief, to hold it inside and never speak of it. All siblings were silent on the impact of this event. Leon had no interest in finding a wife of his own. The reverence in which he held his mother’s memory could not allow for a human replacement. Family members stated: “He never looked at a girl.”

When his father remarried, hardly more than a year later, Leon could not accept his stepmother. Estrangement from grew, until he could not eat with her but would prepare all his own food and take it to his room.

Lack of Significant Extra-Familial Primary Relationships

Most assassins who experienced early loss also had difficulties forming close relationships, whether through social behaviors never learned, lack of trust or fear of abandonment. Czolgosz typified this. It was not just that he had no women friends—he had no close friends at all. He never opened up.

Status Incongruence

After Mary’s death, with the farm was sold and the family returning to Alpena, a combination of child labor laws and compulsory education freed Leon from a life of unmitigated toil, when at around 11 years, he found himself in school for the first time. Here he “drank deeply of the American promise” as it was spelled out in textbooks. From his prison cell he would speak of the American Revolution and Declaration of Independence, and how he recognized even at his young age that what had happened at Haymarket, which took place around that time, could not be reconciled with his American heritage. “It was not what we learned in school,” he earnestly told his guard.

Czolgosz excelled in his studies. He remained in school till 16, the best scholar in his class, though years behind children on the other side of town. Still, did anyone suggest that the son of a poor immigrant had other options for his life besides the factory? “Leon was too intelligent for a working man,” a prison guard observed. “He would have been happier if he had not been so gifted.”

So, at 16 he went into the factories. Like many assassins who had above average intelligence and were employed at a menial occupations, he experienced status incongruence, a gnawing awareness of the gap between “biologically ascribed status” and “achieved position” in terms of occupational variable. The gap did not become an obsession until awareness of his true “duty” came into focus. Initially, though, his duty was to his family. He worked, pooled his money with theirs, enabling the family to buy a nice farm in Ohio and then a tavern for their Father.

Duty Calls

In 1893 the factory went on strike, and Czolgosz, a member of a socialist workers’ club, went out with them. The strike collapsed when the owners announced their intention to break it by hiring replacements. To his surprise he was blacklisted. To be rehired he had to change his name to Fred Neiman, German for “Nobody.” Perhaps it was his mother’s name, but it is hard not to see it as symbolic of the duty he is assuming. To be a true son of the workingman, dislocation from himself must occur, as with the hero in Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy’s socialist utopian novel, which he carries everywhere.

Soon patient acceptance was not enough. He could take it no more, and in 1899 Czolgosz suffered a nervous breakdown. Instead of work, he devoted himself to self medication, study and meetings. Listening for duty to call, what he heard was Emma Goldman telling him that the only way to find freedom was to eliminate government. The voice of duty spoke with a Russian accent, but he knew it when he heard it. He was ready to go.