The Assassination of McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo

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The Assassination of McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo


By: T. Dart Walker

Date: 1901

Source: Getty Images

About the Artist: T. Dart Walker (1869–1914) was a well known American artist who specialized in political subjects and themes. His work was frequently published in journals such as Harper's Weekly and The Graphic. This image is found in the archive maintained by Getty Images, a worldwide provider of visual content materials to such communications groups as advertisers, broadcasters, designers, magazines, new media organizations, newspapers and producers.


The second presidential term of William McKinley began in 1901, buoyed by a surge of economic prosperity across the United States. The city of Buffalo, New York, is today a center of regional importance to western New York State. In 1901, it was of sufficient national prominence and influence to stage the second Pan-American Exposition, a six month long celebration of American technological and economic might. Known as the 'Queen City', Buffalo's prosperity was derived in part from its role as a busy port and a terminus of the Erie Canal that ran from the Hudson River to Lake Erie.

McKinley waged a previous hotly contested 1896 presidential campaign against the charismatic populist candidate William Jennings Bryan. McKinley's reelection in 1900 was a virtual landslide, aided by his vice presidential nominee and Spanish-American war hero Theodore Roosevelt.

The upswing in American prosperity had not raised the fortunes of all American citizens at the turn of the twentieth century. A number of disaffected persons turned to radical politics, including anarchism, socialism, and other philosophies that advocated direct action against the wealthy and the powerful interests in America. The organized labor movement's most prominent symbol was the American Federation of Labor (AFL), headed by Samuel Gompers (1850–1924). The AFL was perceived as too complacent in its views and not sufficiently radical by more militant forces in America. Anarchists such as Emma Goldman (1869–1940) developed a following among these activist-minded persons.

Anarchists were blamed by many conservative Americans for many social ills. For example, they were said to be chiefly responsible for the tragedy that occurred at the Haymarket Labor riot in 1886 in Chicago, where a bomb thrown by an alleged anarchist killed eight police officers. Largely regarded as a foreign import into American society, anarchism had attracted Leon Czolgosz to its cause in the early 1890s. Czolgosz was American-born to Polish immigrant parents, and he had never enjoyed any employment success, working in a series of low wage jobs until 1901. After both hearing Emma Goldman speak and meeting her briefly in May 1901, also encouraged by the murder of King Umberto in Italy at the hands of anarchists in 1900, Czolgosz resolved that he would assassinate President McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition to strike a blow for all oppressed American persons.

Czolgosz managed to exploit a weak security presence guarding McKinley at an official greeting session arranged at the Buffalo Exposition on September 6, 1901. After waiting in the line of well wishers that had formed to shake the President's hand, Czolgosz was able to approach the president and as McKinley's hand was proffered, Czolgosz fired two shots into McKinley's stomach from a revolver he had hidden under a handkerchief.



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There were a number of significant outcomes that flowed from the assassination of William McKinley. The most prominent of these was the creation of an understanding in the collective mind of the American public that the anarchism espoused by Czolgosz as his rationale for shooting the President of the United States was a dangerous political philosophy that had to be eradicated. The United States Congress passed the Alien Immigration Act in 1903 as a partial response to the perceived threat of the anarchist movement. The Act excluded a wide variety of persons from admission to the United States, including the mentally ill, paupers, persons carrying contagious diseases and convicted felons. The definition of the excluded classes extended to anarchists, or "persons who believe in or advocate the overthrow by violence of the government of the United States". The statute also provided for the deportation of all existing American residents who espoused such causes.

Emma Goldman, whose speech in May 1901 inspired Czolgosz to formulate his plan to assassinate McKinley, was arrested in the aftermath of the shooting as an alleged co-conspirator in the plot; there was no evidence to connect her to the actions of Czolgosz, and she was released nine days later. Goldman published a letter in the aftermath of Czolgosz's arrest and execution that is notable for both its stridency concerning the oppressive power of the forces in America represented by President McKinley and its lack of sympathy for the death of the president. Goldman was ultimately deported from the United States to Russia in 1917 under the same legislation inspired by the McKinley assassination.

The speed with which Czolgosz was tried and executed is remarkable by modern standards. Arrested at the scene, Czolgosz escaped a certain death at the hands of a mob that had assembled on the Buffalo Exposition grounds when the local police kept these rioters from attacking Czolgosz. His trial commenced nine days later; Czolgosz offered no meaningful defense, and he stated to the court that he had done his duty in killing McKinley; Czolgosz held himself out as a martyr to the cause of anarchy in the United States. No appeal was filed upon his conviction, and no defense of either insanity or other mental instability was offered. His death on October 29, 1901 was by means of the new form of capital punishment, electrocution.

The assassination of President McKinley was the third shooting of an American president in thirty-six years, following on the murders of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and James Garfield in 1881. McKinley had been protected at the Buffalo Exposition by a combined force of Pinkerton Detectives, soldiers, and local police officers. As a subsequent review of the presidential security procedures revealed how lax the protection had been to permit Czolgosz his relatively unobstructed access to McKinley, Congress established a permanent Secret Service detail for the protection of all presidents in 1903.

The shooting of McKinley is also significant for the resulting elevation of the Vice President Theodore Roosevelt to the American presidency in 1901. Roosevelt would remain in office until 1909; the notable achievements of his presidency included greater regulation of big business and consumer protection, the construction of the Panama Canal, and his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. Roosevelt was himself shot in a failed assassination attempt when he ran for the presidency in 1912.



Phillips, Kevin. William McKinley. New York; Times Books, 2003.

Rauchway, Eric. Murdering McKinley; The Making of Theodore Roosevelt. New York; Hill and Wang, 2003.

Web sites

University of Buffalo. "McKinley Assassination." 2004 〈〉 (accessed June 13, 2006).

University of California at Berkeley. "Emma Goldman." June 2003 〈〉 (accessed).

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The Assassination of McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo

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