McKinley: The Forgotten Assassination

In September 1901, President William McKinley was shot and killed by a self-proclaimed anarchist. It was the third Presidential assassination in US history. But today, McKinley and his untimely death are virtually forgotten.

McKinley monument, Columbus OH

William McKinley made his political reputation as a staunch isolationist and protectionist. After the Civil War, the Republican Party represented the liberal wing of American politics. One of its strongest platform planks was a policy of trade protectionism, in which tariffs for foreign products would be kept as high as possible, making them artificially higher-priced than American-made products. American companies liked this because it protected their market share and also gave them higher prices and bigger profits. American workers liked it because higher profits could mean higher wages. In the 1880’s, McKinley, in a series of campaigns, became the most prominent national spokesman for the Republican trade policy, which carried him into the US House of Representives and then into two terms as Governor of Ohio.

In 1893, the US suffered an economic recession that lasted for several years (back then they were known as a “financial panic”). Governor McKinley once again waved his party flag, arguing for another increase in trade tariffs to protect American industry from European competitors and end the Panic. His message was popular enough to put him into the White House in the 1896 election.

But the key event of McKinley’s presidency would turn out to be military, not economic. A rebellion had broken out in Cuba against Spanish rule. In February 1898, the Navy battle cruiser USS Maine, which had been dispatched to Cuba to “show the flag”, blew up in Havana Harbor. McKinley, who was at heart an isolationist, was reluctantly forced by public opinion to declare war on Spain. Within a year, the US had beaten the Spanish, and now controlled new territories in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands. The United States had taken a spectacular step onto the world stage.

McKinley, now viewed as the winner of one of the most popular wars in American history, was re-elected in a landslide in 1900. But as the US role in the world changed, so did McKinley’s views. The United States was, McKinley realized, now a major military and economic player, and its policies needed to embrace and assert that new global role. And so, only two months after being re-elected, McKinley wrote a speech that would make a startling announcement: he would no longer support an isolationist foreign policy or a protectionist trade policy. Instead, he would strive towards tariff reduction and free trade, as a way of promoting international cooperation and avoiding conflicts and wars.

The place that McKinley chose to give his speech was symbolic. The 1901 Pan-American Exposition was being held in Buffalo NY. McKinley planned to travel around the country by train, beginning in March, giving stump speeches along the way about the new policy and ending with a major speech at the Expo in June. But in April, as the tour was just beginning, the First Lady, Ida McKinley, became gravely ill, the trip was cancelled, and the speech at the Expo could not be rescheduled until September 5, 1901.

President McKinley, the First Lady, and his entourage arrived at the Buffalo train station on September 4. McKinley was scheduled to spend the night at the home of John Milburn, the Expo’s president, then make his speech on trade policy the next day. On September 6 he and the First Lady would make a short trip to nearby Niagara Falls, then the President would return to the Expo that afternoon to greet the public.

One person in particular hoped to see the President that day. Leon Czolgosz (pronounced “chull-gosh”) was a 28-year old son of Polish immigrants who had lost his job as a steelworker in Detroit during the Panic of 1893. The experience had radicalized him, and by the time McKinley arrived in Buffalo, Czolgosz was a self-proclaimed anarchist (although he is not known to have been a member of any anarchist group, and seems to have undergone his conversion simply by reading books). For the past year, he had been wandering between Ohio, Chicago and Buffalo. While in Chicago in August, he heard about President McKinley’s upcoming speech in Buffalo and, according to his later confession, decided to kill him as a political statement. Arriving the day before the President, Czolgosz bought a .32-caliber pistol in a local hardware store.

When McKinley arrived at the train station on September 4, Czolgosz was waiting on the platform, pistol in his pocket. But an odd incident wrecked the would-be assassin’s chances: a cannon had been set up on the platform which would fire a salute to the President as he arrived. But it had been mistakenly placed too close to the train, and although it was only firing a blank the concussion broke several windows, and in the resulting confusion Czolgosz wasn’t able to get close to McKinley.

The next day, McKinley gave his speech at the Expo. “Isolation,” he declared, “is no longer possible or desirable. The period of exclusiveness is past. The expansion of our trade and commerce is the pressing problem. Commercial wars are unprofitable. A policy of good-will and friendly trade relations will prevent reprisals.” A crowd of over 50,000 people had crammed into the auditorium to hear the President. One of them was Czolgosz. He had managed to work his way just a short distance from the podium, but, he later told the police, he was being jostled so much by the crowd that he wasn’t sure he would be able to hit his target, and so never drew his pistol.

The next afternoon, September 6, McKinley was scheduled to spend several hours greeting the public in the Expo’s Hall of Music. This, Czolgosz realized, would be his best opportunity. To hide the pistol, he placed it in his right hand and wrapped the entire thing with a swathe of bandages. Then he arrived at the Expo and patiently stood in line for the next two hours.

President McKinley stood on a platform, shaking hands with the long line of people as they went past. Next to him stood John Milburn, the Expo president. In front of them, about five feet away on the other side of the line of people, was Secret Service agent George Foster. Foster later recalled how he had seen a man in line, wearing a dark suit, with his hand wrapped in a bandage, and had idly wondered if the man was covering some sort of disfiguring injury. Anyway, it was over 80 degrees that day, and many in the crowd were carrying small towels or handkerchiefs. Foster thought nothing of it.

When Czolgosz reached the platform shortly after 4pm, McKinley first smiled and put out his right hand to shake, then, seeing the apparent injury and bandage, promptly extended his left hand instead. In an instant, Czolgosz grabbed McKinley’s arm with his left hand to pull him close, extended his bandaged right hand with the gun into the President’s stomach, and fired twice. It was probably the first bullet that tore into McKinley’s abdomen; the second bullet hit one of the buttons on his vest and bounced harmlessly off his sternum. As McKinley staggered back, Czolgosz took aim for a third shot, but was tackled by a number of bystanders, including Secret Service agent Foster.

With a patch of blood spreading across his white vest, McKinley was helped into a nearby chair. Seeing people punching and kicking the assailant, he said, “Don’t let them hurt him”. Then, knowing that Ida McKinley was still weak from her illness, he whispered, “Be careful how you tell my wife.” The President was packed into a carriage and rushed to the hospital on the Expo grounds. On the way, McKinley felt something inside his shirt, pulled it out, and calmly declared, “I believe this is a bullet.”

The first doctor to arrive was Buffalo gynecologist Matthew Mann, who began operating about an hour after the shooting. The wound was serious. A bullet had passed almost completely through the abdomen, damaging the stomach, colon, pancreas and kidney. After stopping the bleeding, the doctors probed for the bullet, but being unable to find it and not wanting to risk further damage, they closed the surgery.

Over the next several days, McKinley’s condition seemed to be improving. He was alert and was talking with his Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt, who had rushed to Buffalo upon hearing the news. On the morning of September 12, the President felt well enough to eat a breakfast of toast and coffee. Roosevelt and the other cabinet members were convinced by the doctors that all would be well, and had left. But later that night, as infection set in, McKinley got weaker. In an age before antibiotics, there was little the doctors could do. Shortly after 2am on September 14, he died, apparently from gangrene caused by bacteria carried into the wound by the bullet.

Leon Czolgosz, meanwhile, was being questioned by the Buffalo Police. He freely admitted everything, and gave a detailed confession. “I done my duty”, he declared. Although two lawyers were appointed by the Court to represent him, Czolgosz refused to talk with them. The trial began on September 23, a little over a week after McKinley had died: it lasted less than 3 days. Czolgosz was convicted and sentenced to death. He refused an appeal, and was electrocuted on October 29. His last words were “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people—the working people.”

Today, the former grounds of the Pan Am Expo are a highway. Only a bronze plaque on one of the median strips marks the historical significance of the spot where President McKinley was killed.

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