Leon Czolgosz Trial: 1901
Leon Czolgosz Trial: 1901
Defendant: Leon F. Czolgosz
Crime Charged: Assassinating President William McKinley
Chief Defense Lawyers: Loran L. Lewis and Robert C. Titus
Chief Prosecutor: Thomas Penny
Judge: Truman C. White
Place: Buffalo, New York
Dates of Trial: September 23-24, 1901
Sentence: Death by electrocution
SIGNIFICANCE: Leon Czolgosz, an avowed anarchist, was tried and sentenced to death for his sensational assassination of President McKinley. The trial was remarkably short. Because the court said that the law presumed Czolgosz was sane, despite important evidence to the contrary, the jury may well have convicted Czolgosz for his extremely unpopular political beliefs.
Leon Czolgosz was one of eight children in a poor Michigan family. Czolgosz worked in various menial jobs from childhood, and he eventually moved to Cleveland and worked in a factory. In his late 20s, Czolgosz became fascinated with anarchism. At the time, anarchism had a certain popularity amongst radical working-class circles, but most Americans viewed it with an abhorrence.
After an Italian anarchist killed the King of Italy, Czolgosz became obsessed with assassinating President William McKinley to strike a blow for the cause. In August 1901, he went to Buffalo, New York for the Pan-American Exposition, which McKinley was planning to attend. Because McKinley was very popular, there were large crowds at the Exposition to see the President. On September 6, Czolgosz made his way through the crowds to where McKinley was greeting the public and shaking hands. Czolgosz successfully made his way past the President's security men, and pulled out a concealed pistol. He shot McKinley twice before the stunned spectators could subdue him.
One shot gave McKinley only a flesh wound, but the other pierced his midsection and tore through his stomach. Despite the best efforts of his doctors, McKinley developed complications and died September 14, 1901.
Czolgosz's Trial is Swift
The public was outraged and demanded speedy justice. Czolgosz's trial began September 23, 1901, little more than a week after President McKinley died. The trial took place in Buffalo before Judge Truman C. White, and the prosecutor was Thomas Penny. Finding attorneys to represent Czolgosz was difficult; no one wanted to be associated with such a hated defendant. After some prodding by the president of the local bar association, Loran L. Lewis and Robert C. Titus agreed to be Czolgosz's counsel.
Lewis and Titus had had practically no time to prepare a defense, and to make matters worse, Czolgosz obstinately refused to talk to them. Lewis could only argue that anyone who would kill the president in the face of an almost certain death penalty must be insane:
Every human being … has a strong desire to live. Death is a spectre that we all dislike to meet, and here this defendant, … we find him going into this building, in the presence of these hundreds of people, and committing an act which, if he was sane, must cause his death.
The prosecutor, however, brought out Czolgosz's anarchist affiliations and called upon the jury to heed the popular demand for a quick trial and execution:
We have shown you that he had gone to these anarchistic or socialistic meetings and that there had been embedded in his diseased heart the seeds of this awful crime.… What evidence is there in this case that the man is not sane? UJnder the presumption of the law that he is sane … how brief ought to be your meditation, how brief ought to be your consultation about the responsibility and criminality of this individual?
The prosecutor had argued to the jury that the law presumed Czolgosz was sane unless he could prove otherwise. Since the defense had been able to enter practically no evidence of any kind, there could be only one verdict. At Penny's request, Judge White closed the trial with instructions to the jury that supported the prosecutor's argument:
The law in this case presumes that the defendant was sane.… The burden of showing insanity is upon the person who alleges it.
Even if the jury believed the defense's claim that no sane man would have killed the president in such a public and blatant manner, there was still the legal definition of insanity to be overcome. Under New York law, Czolgosz was legally insane only if he was unable to understand that what he was doing was wrong on the day he shot McKinley. This legal definition was called the "test of responsibility," and was the gist of Judge White's instruction to the jury on legal insanity:
In other words, if he was laboring under such a defect of reason as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing or that it was wrong, it is your duty, gentlemen of the jury, to acquit him in this case.
Judge White's instruction was the final blow to the defense. Any chance that remained of acquitting Czolgosz on the basis of insanity was gone, since the defense had no evidence to offer that he couldn't understand the wrongness of his actions. On September 24, only one day after it began, the trial ended. After a token deliberation, the jury returned its verdict that Czolgosz was not insane and that he was guilty of murder in the first degree.
Czolgosz went to the electric chair on October 29, 1901. His final statement showed no regret:
I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people, the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.…
Czolgosz's last words, like all his other statements, contained no reason for his hatred of McKinley other than an unsupported belief that the president was an enemy of the people. Czolgosz's irrationality strongly suggested insanity, but the issue was brushed aside due to the speed of his trial and the strength of popular feeling against him in particular and anarchists in general.
—Stephen C. Christianson
Suggestions for Further Reading
Glad, Paul W. McKinley, Bryan and the People. Chicago: T.R. Dee, 1991.
Johns, A. Wesley. The Man IVho Shot McKinley. South Brunswick, N.J.: A.S. Barnes, 1970.
Leech, Margaret. In the Days of McKinley. Norwalk, Corn.: Easton Press, 1986.
Restak, Richard. "Assassin." Science Digest, (December 1981): 78-84.