The Trial of the Assassin Czolgosz: The Insanity Defense

Leon Czolgosz circa 1900

In conclusion, a debate continues to this day over whether Czolgosz was delusional or an idealist. As for the jury, they could have voted no other way.

President McKinley was assassinated by an Anarchist at the PanAm Exposition, in Buffalo, on a lovely afternoon, September 6th, 1901. In the beautiful Temple of Music, he moved along the reception line, smiling, extending his hand to all, without a thought that anyone would want to kill him.

Two Conservatives Compared

McKinley was the Ronald Reagan of his day, beloved of all who loved him, noble figurehead, representing American power and might, yet behind which ruled, also, malevolent forces, business, military and industrial giants who had established his net worth and swept him into the Presidency. These forces McKinley (like Reagan) had repainted as the forces of democracy, because he believed it. Thus, the hope of the country rested in those who saw American in terms of growth of capital, a virtue wholeheartedly endorsed by the President.

President Reagan’s assassin was found not guilty by reason of insanity, but Czolgosz was not. Several factors contributed to the successful insanity defense of John Hinckley. First, of course, was that the miracle of modern medicine permitted Reagan to survive his attack. Secondly, the wealth of the assassin’s parents for the first time showed the American public the power of first class defense attorneys. Third, the legal test for insanity in Washington, D.C., contained more gray area than New York’s law in 1901.

Yet observing either Hinckley or Czolgosz in respective police stations following the shootings, it might be remarked how similar they were. The stress now off, because destiny had spoken and they had done its bidding, the young men proved amiable. Both had different goals, one to pre-empt the Academy Awards on that evening’s television and the other to do away with settled government in the United States, but in terms of the mental health community, they appeared equally delusional.

Defining Insanity

Whether Czolgosz should have been found “not guilty by reason of insanity” has been tossed about ever since. In 1965 Dr. Donald Hastings, Department head of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, wrote a series in the Journal-Lancet on the “Psychiatry of Presidential Assassination.” He concluded Czolgosz was clearly insane and wondered why his attorneys did not see fit to so plead in order to save his life.

First, he is assuming that the insanity defense would have saved his life.Dr. Channing, a Progressive alienist (as psychiatrists were then called) points out, not that many years before, Guiteau, nutty as a fruitcake, had been found sane by a jury influence by public opinion. There is little doubt Czolgosz’s jury would have done the same.

Secondly, Hastings assumes that Czolgosz ‘s attorneys wanted to save his life. Apparently the doctor’s review of literature did not include the two comprehensive articles on the trial,in the Yale Law Review of1901 and the 1902 American Journal of Insanity (cited below), or he might better have understood the nature of Czolgosz’s defense.

Two distinguished jurists were prevailed upon in the name of Justice to defend the assassin. They were both retired Judges, with twenty years’ experience on the New York bench. They recognized that Czolgosz did not meet the legal test for insanity, which in New York law held closely to the M’Naughton rule: “When he shot the President did he know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, and that the act was wrong?”

From the beginning their client had stated that he understood the nature of his act and accepted responsibility for it. Furthermore, all who spoke to him (not them, regrettably) testified to his coherence, clarity, intelligence, and passionate beliefs, perhaps (according to the Press) to the point of infatuation, for the words of Anarchist Emma Goldman. Regardless of whether he was led astray by political ideals or “love of a woman,” he was legally sane.

The prosecution team had been more anxious. In an age when Environmental Determinism was used a reasonable justification for exploitation offset by acts of charity, who was to say that it could not also be grounds for insanity? The urban environment, factories, meaningless labor, high mortality, faceless existence—could these not drive men insane? What if the defense were to assert that Czolgosz was not responsible for his actions, had been driven insane by industrial life?

Such a defense could be disastrous. How could they rebut it? Thousands were out there, similarly misused, and the friends of the late President paid their wages. Worse yet, what if the system that provided their comfortable lives was at work even now, breeding new Czolgoszes? These thoughts were not lost on the prosecution team.

A Defense for the Books

It might be said there was no defense. A far cry from the Hinckley trial where the defense came out of the gate with guns blazing, the defense team’s opening statement was a heartfelt apology for the role they must play. The state of New York required that the assassin be executed only after a fair trial, and it was their duty to assure he had it. They closed with a brief but moving eulogy on the slain President.

They prevailed upon Czolgosz to take the stand but he would not. Their only recourse was “not guilty by reason of insanity.” He could not plead guilty to a capital offense. Dozens of witnesses saw him commit the crime which he confessed he had planned and executed. The entire defense could be summed up: Anyone who does what the defendant did must be insane.


  1. Channing, Walter. “The Mental Status of Czolgosz .” American Journal of Insanity 59.2 (1902), 1-47. Pamphlet.
  2. Clarke, James W. American Assassins : The Darker Side of Politics ( Rev. ed.). Princeton, N.J: Princeton UP, 1990.
  3. Collins, Kimberly, Gabe Hinkebein, and Staci Schorgl. “The John Hinckley Trial & Its Effect on the Insanity Defense.” Faculty Projects: Famous Trials.
  4. “The Death of William McKinley.” Buffalo History Works . 2006.
  5. MacDonald, Carlos F. “The Trial, Execution, Autopsy and Mental Status of Leon F. Czolgosz, Alias Fred Nieman, the Assassin of President McKinley.” American Journal of Insanity Jan. (Jan.1902): 369-86.
  6. Parker, LeRoy. “The Trial of the Anarchist Murderer Czolgosz. ” Yale Law Journal (Dec. 1901):80-94.