September 5th had been designated “President’s Day” at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. President William McKinley and his wife had attended briefly and he had delivered a speech on tariffs and foreign trade. The following day he spent the morning visiting Niagara Falls and then returned to the Exposition. He was scheduled for a public reception that afternoon.
The reception was held in the Temple of Music, an ornate red-brick building on the Exposition grounds. McKinley’s secretary, George Cortelyou, had tried to persuade McKinley to cancel it, but McKinley couldn’t be convinced. “Who would want to hurt me?” he asked. Cortelyou did the best he could to minimize the risk. Mounted police and soldiers were stationed outside, and those wishing to meet the President had to file down a long hallway. There were security guards stationed inside.
The day was a hot one, and many of the men had handkerchiefs in their hands, which they used to wipe their faces as they perspired. George Foster, the President’s chief bodyguard, noted that one man in the line had his handkerchief wrapped around his right hand. Idly, he wondered if the man had an embarrassing injury.
When the kerchief-wrapped man reached the President, McKinley reached out with his left hand, wishing to be considerate of the man’s injury. The man raised his right hand to McKinley’s chest and fired two shots. The handkerchief had concealed a .32 caliber revolver.
The President slumped forward, and was caught by those standing nearby. Foster and several others pounced on the shooter, and knocked him to the floor where they began beating him. “Don’t let them hurt him,” said McKinley, weakly.
McKinley was rushed to the hospital on the Exposition grounds. The medical director, Dr. Roswell Park, was not there, but performing cancer surgery offsite. The doctors present believed it was imperative to operate immediately, so they sent for Dr. Matthew Mann, a gynecologist with a practice in Buffalo.
One of the two bullets had deflected off the President’s ribs, and had left only a superficial injury. The other one, however, had penetrated deep into his abdomen, passing through his stomach, pancreas, and kidney, before lodging somewhere in his back.
The conditions at the hospital were far from ideal. There was no electrical lighting inside, although thousands of light bulbs illuminated the outside of many buildings at the Exposition. Candlelight could not be used in close proximity to the President because he was being anesthetized with ether, a highly combustible substance. Ironically, one of the exhibits at the fair was the new X-ray machine, but the doctors were unsure of the potential side effects, and decided not to use it. Unable to locate the bullet, they closed the President up again and hoped for the best.
McKinley spent the next week convalescing at the home of the Exposition’s director. He appeared to be recovering nicely. By September 12, he felt strong enough to take a little toast and coffee. However, shortly after that, he became nauseous and then went into shock.
The path that the bullet had become infected, and gangrean had set in. At 2:15 am on September 14th, President McKinley died. His last words were, “It is God’s way; his will be done, not ours.”
The man with the handkerchief was Leon Czolgosz. He had been born in Alpena, Michigan, and his family had moved to Detroit when he was five years old. His parents were immigrants — from either Prussia, Belarus, or Hungary, depending on what source you believe. By the age of 10, Czolgosz was working in his first factory, and over the next 15 years he witnessed or participated in a number of factory strikes, many of which ended in violence.
By 1898 he was living with his parents again, although constantly at odds with them over their Roman Catholic beliefs. He was said to have been a loner, with no interests in social or romantic relationships. As a child, he had been bullied. At about this time he became interested in Socialist and Anarchist views. He was particularly impressed with the speeches given by Emma Goldman, whose lectures he had attended shortly before his violent act.
He had also been profoundly influenced by the actions of the Anarchists. A number of assassinations had been performed by those claiming to be Anarchists. The French President Carnot had been stabbed to death in 1894. The Empress Elisabeth of Austria had been assassinated in 1898. King Umberto I of Italy had been shot in 1900 by the anarchist Gaetano Bresci. Bresci had claimed that he had committed the act in order to help the common man.
The Trial and Aftermath
Czolgosz had been taken to jail still alive, although it hadn’t been easy. He had initially been taken to the Police Headquarters, where a crowd of about 30,000 people had surrounded the building, ready to drag him from his cell and lynch him. Police had to use nightsticks to beat back the crowd. After that, the street was cordoned off, and a ring of policemen three deep surrounded the police station. Later, he was transferred to the Erie County Women’s Penitentiary, and then to the Erie County Jail. He was moved to Auburn State Prison after his arraignment.
Czolgosz didn’t cooperate much with his court-appointed attorneys, Robert C. Titus and Lorin L. Lewis, both former judges, or with his defense psychiatrists. He did speak freely with his guards, however, and through them it was learned that, as an anarchist, Czolgosz considered it his duty to refuse to speak to anyone in a position of authority, including his own lawyers. He entered a plea of guilty, but the judge changed it to one of not guilty on his behalf.
Since Czolgosz had previously freely confessed to his crime, would not testify in court, and refused to speak to any psychiatrists, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. The jury reached a guilty verdict in half an hour. The entire trial — including jury selection — had taken only eight hours and 26 minutes.
On October 29, just 45 days after the President’s death, Czolgosz was executed by electric chair. As he was strapped into the chair, he said, “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people — the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.” Then, after the final strap around his chin had been fastened, he said, through clenched teeth, “I am awfully sorry I could not see my father.”
Authorities were concerned that Czolgosz might be made into a martyr by his supporters, so steps were taken to ensure that no trace of him was left behind. A lead-lined coffin was prepared, and, after his body had been placed inside, a special acid was poured over it. It was believed that his body would fully dissolve within 24 hours. Czolgosz’s clothing and personal effects were also burned.
Later that day, Czolgosz’s father appeared at the prison. He was too late to see Czolgosz, and too late to claim the body. He did receive a death certificate from the warden, however. Czolgosz’s life had been insured.
Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September 14; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_McKinley; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassination_of_William_McKinley; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Czolgosz; http://www.historynet.com/president-william-mckinley-assassinated-by-an-anarchist.htm; http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/terrorists_spies/assassins/mckinley/1.html.