Story of an Eyewitness

views updated

Story of an Eyewitness

Leon Czolgosz Assassinates President William McKinley

Newspaper article

By: Leon F. Czolgosz

Date: September 8, 1901

Source: New York Times.

About the Author: According to the New York Times, the article contains "a graphic account by an Exposition official who stood near the President when shots were fired."


Leon F. Czolgosz, born in Detroit in 1873 to Polish immigrants, had a reputation as a quiet loner with a violent temper. While working as a blacksmith in a Cleveland wire mill in the 1890s, he began attending meetings of local socialists and anarchists. In 1898, Czolgosz quit his job at the mill and never again worked regularly. Czolgosz's family and friends, including fellow anarchists, later reported that they regarded him as mentally unbalanced. On September 6, 1901, Czolgosz fatally shot President William McKinley in a reception line at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Convicted of murder, he died in the electric chair at the prison at Auburn, New York, on October 29, 1901.

Anarchism appeared in Europe in the 1860s as a reaction to the perceived brutalities of unregulated capitalism. Seeing private property as the root cause of inequality, anarchists sought to eliminate private ownership. Arguing that government officials cooperated with property owners to exploit the workers, anarchists sought the elimination of the state. They believed that the abolition of the state would allow individuals to live full and free lives. To this end, some anarchists advocated revolutionary violence.

Political opponents had threatened President William McKinley with death, but the threats were not considered serious. On the hot afternoon of September 6, 1901, McKinley shook hands with people in a long line at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Thousands had waited for hours in the hope of shaking hands with the popular president. Exposition officials had deployed extra guards, but their position in the receiving area of the Temple of Music made it harder for the McKinley's three Secret Service men to scrutinize every outstretched hand.

Czolgosz waited in the long line. The handkerchief carried by Czolgosz, a short, slender man in a black suit, concealed a short-barreled .32 revolver. As McKinley reached forward to shake Czolgosz's empty left hand, the anarchist fired two bullets through the handkerchief in his right hand. The first hit a button on McKinley's jacket and the second lodged in the President's pancreas. Czolgosz was knocked to the ground and the crowd seemed ready to maul him. "Let no one hurt him," said the wounded President. Moments later he turned to his secretary: "My wife, be careful how you tell her—oh, be careful."

McKinley's doctors thought that he would survive, but the medical technology of the era was poor. The doctors could not find the bullet, and gangrene set in. The President died at 2:15 a.m. on September 14, 1901.


Buffalo, N.Y., Sept. 7.—

"A little girl was immediately ahead of him in the line," he said," and the President, after patting her kindly on the head, turned with a smile of welcome and extended hand.

"The assassin thrust out both of his hands, brushed aside the President's right hand with his left hand, lurched forward and, thrusting his right hand close against the President's breast, pulled the trigger twice. The shots came in such quick succession as to be almost simultaneous.

"At the first shot the President quivered and clutched at his chest. At the second shot he doubled slightly forward and sank back. It all happened in a moment.

"Quick as was Czolgosz he was not quick enough to fire a third shot. He was seized by a Secret Service man, who stood directly opposite the President, and hurled to the floor. Soldiers of the United States Artillery, detailed at the reception, sprang upon the pair, and Exposition police and Secret Service detectives also rushed upon them.

"A detective clutched the assassin's right hand, tore from it the handkerchief, and seized the revolver. The artillerymen, seeing the man with the revolver, grabbed him and held him powerless, and a private of the artillery got the pistol.

"Meanwhile the President, supported by Detective Geary and President Milburn, was assisted to a chair. . . . His face was deathly white. He made no outcry, but sank back with one hand holding his abdomen, the other fumbling at his breast. His eyes were open and he was clearly conscious of all that happened. . . .

"Then moved by a paroxysm of pain, he writhed to the left and his eyes fell upon the prostrate form of his would-be-murderer lying on the floor, bloodstained and helpless beneath the blows of the guard. The President raised his right hand, stained with his own blood, and placed it on the shoulder of his secretary.

"'Let no one hurt him,' he gasped.

"He sank back as . . . the guard bore the murderer out of the President's sight.

"They carried Czolgosz into a side room at the northwest corner of the temple."


McKinley's murder fit into a pattern of anarchist attacks in the 1890s. Anarchists assassinated a number of European political leaders and monarchs, including French President François Sadi-Carnot in 1894, Prime Minister Antonio Canovas del Castillo of Spain in 1897, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary in 1898, and King Umberto I of Italy in 1900. Most anarchists did not assume that such killings would necessarily lead to revolution, but saw them as the inevitable result of government oppression.

McKinley's death led to more government persecution of anarchists and did nothing to help the anarchist cause in the United States. In the aftermath of the McKinley attack, anarchism came under heavy assault from the government, the press, and the public. All anarchists, whether peaceful or violent, were demonized as scoundrels and deviants. Across the country, crowds vented their anger on any anarchists that they could find. The pressure forced anarchists to begin to shift away from individual acts of violence toward labor union activism on behalf of oppressed workers.

Perhaps more importantly, McKinley's death propelled Vice President Theodore Roosevelt into the White House. A much more dynamic leader than McKinley, Roosevelt was the first Progressive president. Along with other Progressives, he held that government had an obligation to protect the public by establishing laws in a range of areas that had been free of government control in the past. Roosevelt, focused on business activities, promoted a "Square Deal" to place workers and business owners on a level playing field. Roosevelt's reforms, ones that McKinley did not endorse, ended many of the abusive practices of industry and helped change public perception of government into an institution known for protecting the general public.

Czolgosz's assassination of McKinley, an example of anarchist terrorism, was among the most high-profile anarchist attacks on U.S. soil.



Fisher, Jack. Stolen Glory: The McKinley Assassination. La Jolla, CA: Alamar Books 2001.

Seibert, Jeffrey W. "I Done My Duty": The Complete Story of the Assassination of President McKinley. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books 2002.