The Assassination of President William McKinley

Jan 8, 2015 - by Robert Walsh - 0 Comments

Like the assassins of Presidents Lincoln and Garfield, anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley at point-blank range. Eight days later, after enduring inept medical treatment, McKinley died.

 by Robert Walsh  

“I killed the President because he was an enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime. I am only sorry I could not get to see my father.” Assassin Leon Czolgosz, while being strapped into the electric chair in New York.

On September 6, 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition’s Temple of Music, President William McKinley became the third U.S. President to be assassinated. Like his unfortunate predecessors, James Garfield and Abraham Lincoln, he was shot at close range in circumstances that would not have existed given more solid security measures.

Like so many assassin’s victims, he was the antithesis of his killer. McKinley was an American blue-blood with distinguished reputations in law, politics and the Civil War. After rising from private to major during the Civil War, McKinley practised law in Canton, Ohio before his election to Congress in 1976. After losing office in 1890 he served as governor of Ohio in 1891 and 1893. He won the Republican nomination for President in 1896.

McKinley’s presidency marked a return to strong economic prosperity after a recession during the 1890’s. It also saw him lead the United States successfully through the Spanish-American War, the assimilation of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Phillipines (all former Spanish colonies), Cuba becoming effectively (if not formally) under U.S. control and Hawaii (then an independent republic) being annexed in 1898. McKinley gained re-election in 1900, again defeating William Jennings Bryan as he had in 1896 on a platform of sound economics and protectionism for U.S. jobs, workers and financial interests.

Leon Czolgosz, on the other hand, was a penniless, unemployed, immigrant steelworker with deep-rooted bitterness against wealthy, successful, powerful men like McKinley. Czolgosz was also believed to suffer from significant mental imbalance.

Mental illness isn’t unusual in high-profile assassinations; the "lone wolf" types are often outwardly insignificant until they decide to strike. They often seem outwardly quiet and unobtrusive until impulsively making their move. It’s their very unpredictability that makes them so dangerous. Professional assassins assess the risk, plan ahead and have contingency plans if possible. What bodyguards the world over fear most is a random, unpredictable attacker who isn’t spotted in time to be stopped.

Leon Czolgosz

Leon Czolgosz

Czolgosz was one of seven children, born to poor immigrant parents in Alpena, Michigan on May 5, 1873.  He started work at the age of 10 at the American Steel & Wire Company in Cleveland, Ohio, spending the next decade at the factory amid appalling working conditions that radicalized his politics and, many believe, damaged his mental health. An economic slump in 1893 saw him unemployed,  penniless and embittered against those living lives of luxury and privilege while many ordinary Americans lived either on or below the poverty line. The 1890’s saw him drift from one low-paid job to another, never holding work for long. It was during this period that his politics, already radical, turned towards anarchism.

Czolgosz began attending meetings and rallies to ingratiate himself with the many fragmented groups passing for a coherent anarchist movement at the time. The groups, however, disliked his social ineptitude, his openly advocating violence and his habit of asking blunt, intrusive questions.  Few habits make anarchists more suspicious than a stranger probing their inner workings. Czolgosz quickly found himself rebuffed, suspected of being an undercover agent, an agent provocateur or both.

By 1900, Czolgosz was an activist without a movement. Few anarchist groups or individuals (Emma Goldman being a notable exception) would have contact with him. His open support for anarchism also made work harder to find. Perpetual poverty fuelled his sense of injustice and "propaganda of the deed" quasi-terrorist actions of European anarchists further inspired him. He was already headed for some kind of spectacular action, even while his anarchist comrades distrusted or ridiculed him. On September 6, 1901 this insignificant, disturbed nobody wrote his name in history with "propaganda of the deed" inspired by another assassin in another country. The assassin’s name was Gaetano Bresci and Bresci’s victim was King Umberto I of Italy. Bresci’s crime occurred only a year before that of Czolgosz, providing Czolgosz’s strongest inspiration.

Gaetano Bresc
Gaetano Bresc

Bresci assassinated King Umberto in Monza, Italy on July 29, 1900 in retaliation for a riot being brutally put down by Italian troops. It’s said that over 350 Italians were killed, The King’s response was to decorate the general responsible, enraging Italian anarchists both at home and abroad. Bresci was living in Paterson, New Jersey at the time where he bought the Iver Johnson, five-shot, break-open .32-caliber revolver he used for the assassination. When Czolgosz was detained after assassinating President McKinley, he used the same model of revolver, an Iver Johnson ‘Safety Automatic,’ and a newspaper clipping about the Umberto assassination was found in his pocket. Interestingly, Sirhan Sirhan also used an Iver Johnson revolver when he assassinated Attorney General Robert Kennedy, brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

Isolated, desperate, increasingly unbalanced and equally determined to make his mark, Czolgosz decided to act. During the summer of 1901 he began to track the movements of President McKinley, looking for an opportunity to strike. With McKinley’s forthcoming appearance at the Pan-American Exposition in mind, Czolgosz travelled to Buffalo, New York. He purchased his revolver and awaited a chance to meet the President at close quarters. At the Temple of Music, he got one.

A Date with Infamy at the Temple of Music

Charles Cortelyou, McKinley's secretary, had twice removed the Temple of Music from the presidential calendar, fearing potential security implications. Both times McKinley had reinstated the date believing that he had nothing to fear.  Cortelyou did include two Secret Service agents in the presidential entourage and discreetly placed an escort of soldiers in ceremonial uniform around the President when he entered the Temple. This too proved a serious mistake. The soldiers were entirely untrained in close protection, obscured the Secret Servicemen’s view of both the President and the crowd and got in the way when Czolgosz attacked.

Leon Czolgosz's gun
Leon Czolgosz's gun

At 4:07 p.m., Czolgosz struck. President McKinley was moving down a line of guests "pressing the flesh" in customary presidential style when the agents noticed a tall, somewhat dishevelled-looking man in the line. They watched him intently, completely missing Czolgosz who was standing next to and slightly behind the suspect. They also failed to enforce then-standard protocol for anybody approaching the President with one hand covered. Normal protocol stated that nobody should be allowed to approach unless both hands were open and clearly visible. Czolgosz’s right hand was wrapped in a handkerchief, suggesting some kind of hand injury. The handkerchief actually concealed his revolver. If the agents had followed standard procedure, Czolgosz would have been spotted and stopped. They didn’t.

As McKinley stood before him, having the politeness to reach for Czolgosz’s seemingly uninjured left hand, Czolgosz fired two shots with his right before the crowd descended upon him. One shot glanced off one of McKinley’s buttons, only grazing his torso. The other ripped into his belly and lodged in his spinal muscles, having penetrated both the front and back of McKinley’s stomach. It was a grievous wound. From then on the outlook became increasingly bleak.

Czolgosz was almost beaten to death before, ironically, his victim managed to utter the words “Go easy on him, boys.” If not for McKinley’s intervention Czolgosz might well have been beaten to death or lynched long before the proper judicial process could swing into action. Instead Czolgosz was detained rather than killed out of hand. He was hurriedly transferred to the 13th Precinct, then to Buffalo Police Headquarters with an armed escort from the 4th Brigade of the National Guard accompanied by detectives. Under interrogation Czolgosz stated that:

“I am a disciple of Emma Goldman. I killed the President because I done my duty. I did not feel that one man should have all the power while others have none.” Emma Goldman was one of the leading anarchists of her time, had briefly met and encouraged Czolgosz to further his interest in anarchism and, as such, was one of the first people arrested under suspicion of involvement in the assassination which was later disproved.

While Czolgosz was detained and transferred, emergency medical aid was being sought for the President. An immediate search was also mounted for Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt, then holidaying in the Adirondack Mountains, to deputize for his seriously injured Commander-in-Chief.

Medical Mistakes and Misjudgements Doom McKinley

The emergency medical aid wasn’t up to the task. A decision was made to treat the President at the Exposition’s own medical center rather than moving him to the far better-equipped Buffalo General Hospital on the grounds that his injury might be worsened by the journey. In fact, a fully-equipped hospital might just have saved him. There was no doctor at the medical center which was staffed only by nurses and interns. It was more of a showpiece for handling minor injuries at the Exposition and not intended to deal with near-fatal gunshot wounds. Doctor Park, the Exposition’s chief doctor, was summoned from his practise near Niagara Falls. His response was that he had just started a highly delicate neck operation and couldn’t come until it was completed, not even for President McKinley.

Dr. Herman Mynter was the first physician on the scene, followed by Dr. Matthew Mann. With Dr. Park still unavailable, the decision was made to operate. Dr. Mynter initially administered a dosage of strychnine and morphia to control the President’s pain before surgery began. Had the operation taken place in proper light conditions, the Exposition’s medical center having only a combination of small lamps and natural light (by that time of day the light was already fading) then things might have turned out differently although this is unlikely given the President’s injury. It didn’t help that Mynter had little surgical expertise and Dr. Mann was a gynaecologist, not a trauma surgeon.

The operation was, by modern standards, botched from the start. In the absence of proper surgical lights and even a lack of basic equipment such as retractors, things were always improvised, hasty and seemingly unlikely to save President McKinley. The light became so bad that an assistant had to reflect light onto the wound using a shiny metal pan. Without retractors to open the wound fully, the bullet inside his abdomen could not be found or removed. A then-new X-ray machine might have found the bullet and one was available, but the doctors chose not to use it, fearing an overdose of radiation.

There was also the ever-present danger of infection, the usual cause of death with abdominal gunshot wounds, especially prior to antibiotics such as sulphanilamide and penicillin. It was as much gangrene as the wound and the bungled surgery that killed the President, but it was McKinley himself and, shortly afterward, Leon Czolgosz who paid the ultimate price. As is common with abdominal wounds a piece of cloth from President McKinley’s clothing had been embedded deep inside the wound by the incoming bullet. It caused, as anticipated, fatal infection despite being quickly removed.

After days of delirium, President McKinley died at 2:15 a.m. on September 14. His last words were:

“We are all going, we are all going. God’s will be done, not ours.”

In an emotional ceremony, Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in to replace his fallen predecessor.

The Trial of the Assassin

On September 13 Czolgosz was removed from Police Headquarters, which was undergoing renovation. He was moved under heavily armed escort to the Erie County Women’s Penitentiary and moved again for his own protection to the Erie County Jail before his arraignment. On September 16 he was arraigned before County Judge Embry having been charged with first-degree murder. Czolgosz barely spoke at his arraignment, declining to co-operate with the court or acknowledging its authority to try him at all. It made no difference. He was transferred to the dreaded Auburn Prison in upstate New York to await trial, certain conviction and almost-certain execution. Aside from a brief appearance at his trial, Leon Czolgosz would never leave Auburn.

Lacking either a lawyer or funds to engage one, Czolgosz was lucky to be granted two very competent defense counsel. Robert Titus and Loran Lewis hadn’t wanted the case, nor did they take it willingly. What they did do was their best to save his life without any chance of actually doing so. Csolgosz’s guilt was undoubted, his crime aroused intense public outrage and Czolgosz himself completely refused to co-operate with them. About his only statements were to admit shooting the President, that he had acted alone and that he still rejected the right of capitalist justice to try him.

The trial began on September 23, 1901, only a fortnight after McKinley’s death, with Judge Truman White presiding. It was a foregone conclusion. Czolgosz refused to assist his defenders at any point while District Attorney Thomas Penney had the easiest, most famous case of his legal career. Loran Lewis made an insanity plea on Czolgosz’s behalf, a tactic used by the defense during the trial of Charles Guiteau for assassinating President Garfield in 1888. It was a similar plea with a similar outcome. The only difference was that Guiteau had been hanged. Leon Czolgosz would face the then-new method of execution already nicknamed "Old Sparky."

The prosecution presented its evidence including dozens of eyewitnesses to the shooting. They also made the fullest possible use of the defendant’s self-professed anarchist beliefs. District Attorney Penney called upon the jury to heed public demands for a quick trial and equally quick execution. Czolgosz spent most of his trial simply refusing to speak, denying the court’s authority and seemingly didn’t care that the trial would simply proceed whether he cooperated or not. Lewis made a particularly eloquent plea to both judge and jury to find his client insane but, with public outrage in mind, it was never going to work.

It didn’t. New York law stated clearly that to accept an insanity plea a defendant had to show he  didn’t know what he was doing and that what he was doing was a crime. During one of his very brief interactions with investigators, Czolgosz made it abundantly clear that he knew exactly what he was doing. Mentally ill Leon Czolgosz undoubtedly was, but legally insane he was not. After deliberating for only a half-hour the jury returned a guilty verdict. In New York at that time a guilty verdict for first-degree murder meant a mandatory death sentence.

Judge White’s sentencing was brief. He said, “Czolgosz, in taking the life of our beloved President, you committed a crime which shocked and outraged the moral sense of the civilized world.” He then passed sentence of death, ordering that Czolgosz be returned to Auburn Prison for electrocution. Crowds had been gathering outside Auburn almost as soon as it became known that Czolgosz was being held there. Even before the trial began those same crowds had been repeatedly chanting:

“Give him to us! Give him to us!”

A Date with "Old Sparky"

The crowd wouldn’t get Czolgosz, but State Electrician Edwin Davis, the world’s first "electrocutioner" soon would. He had already been notified of the impending execution and he set about preparing with his customary professionalism. He would do his grim task at dawn on October 29, 1901, less than two calendar months after Czolgosz committed his crime.

At 7 a.m. that day the ritual began. Czolgosz declined a last meal, his head was shaved and he was issued the customary condemned clothing with no metal zips and wooden buttons to avoid a fire when the switch was thrown. Warden Mead was in charge of proceedings. Leon Czolgosz would be the first presidential assassin to "ride the lightning" and only the 15th   inmate in penal history ever to do so. "Old Sparky" wasn’t yet the standard means of execution that it would become, nor had it spread across the 28 States that would eventually adopt it, but it was firmly established in New York. Czolgosz had been surprised not to be transferred to Sing Sing for execution but, like so many people then and now, he didn’t know that at that time New York had three electric chairs, one each at Auburn, Sing Sing and Dannemora. In fact, Auburn’s chair had been used for the very first electrocution, that of murderer William Kemmler in August, 1890. The Kemmler execution had been a disaster, but that of Leon Czolgosz would be a mere formality. Kemmler’s execution, by virtue of being the world’s first-ever judicial electrocution, had been terribly bungled. Not knowing exactly what they were doing, his executioners effectively cooked him after first applying enough electricity to cause terrible suffering, but not cause Kemmler’s death. In the words of noted electrical entrepreneur George Westinghouse: “It would have been done better with an ax.” Ironic when you consider that Kemmler himself had used one when committing his crime.]

Czolgosz walked in escorted by several guards and was swiftly seated. He remained silent as the death warrant was read out, glaring around at the official witnesses who’d come to watch him die. He only broke his silence as the straps and electrodes were being applied to utter his final statement:

“I killed the President because he was an enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime. I am only sorry that I could not get to see my father…”

The switch was thrown. Davis initially applied the full 1,700 volts then standard at Auburn before slowly reducing the voltage over the course of a minute. With a few seconds left he gave Czolgosz another brief burst of 1,700 volts and cut the power. The doctors checked for pulse and found none, but as was standard by then, Davis obeyed a crudely-worded command:

“Give him another poke.”

At 7:14 a.m. Czolgosz was finally certified dead and the execution had been completed.

Czolgosz was autopsied immediately after execution, a legal requirement in New York State. His brain was autopsied by the prison doctor, Dr. Gerin, and noted neurologist Edward Spitzka. Spitka’s father had examined the brain of Charles Guiteau after Guiteau’s hanging for assassinating President Garfield and became an authority on the brains of electrocuted inmates while not approving of electrocution as a method. Gerin, who had instructed Edwin Davis to “Give him another poke.” had been hostile to Czolgosz right from his arrival at Auburn, having no sympathy even while the lynch mob had gathered outside the prison.

In a break from standard practice, Czolgosz’s body was not returned to his family for burial in spite of their request to have that happen. Instead, his body was interred within the grounds of Auburn Prison in an unmarked grave where it still rests. In order to stop souvenir hunters and Czolgosz’s supposed anarchist network from reclaiming the corpse and using it as some grisly totem, the coffin was filled with sulfuric acid so that nothing would remain after a few hours underground.

Ironically, given their failure to stop Czolgosz, one result of his crime was that the Secret Service was specifically tasked to protect the President. Today’s security procedures are far more advanced, constantly evolving and rigorously followed, with only one more president having fallen victim to an assassin. That said, presidents remain under constant threat.

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