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The Assassination of William McKinley

The Assassination of William McKinley

While attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, President William McKinley was shot twice by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist. McKinley and his wife arrived at the exposition on September 5, 1901. He held several private receptions, a military review, and then delivered a speech. On the morning of September 6, the president visited Niagara Falls, and then returned to the exposition for a public reception.

Waiting in line was Leon Czolgosz, the native-born son of Polish immigrants. Czolgosz fancied himself an anarchist after hearing a speech by Emma Goldman in 1898. However, he was not a member of any known anarchist organization, and was even suspected by them as being a spy. Anarchism in the late Nineteenth Century was an extension of the Marxist critique of Capitalism, combined with a desire to do away with the state as a form of government. This leftist philosophy sought to defend the rights of the working class against the ruling class, but saw the overthrow of the ruling class as a precursor to dissolving the state.

Some revolutionaries used acts of terrorism (especially bombings) and assassination as a means of sparking revolution, and in the late Nineteenth Century, several heads of state had been assassinated by Anarchists. Czolgosz seems to have been inspired by the July 29, 1900 assassination of King Umberto I of Italy by an anarchist. Earlier assassinations included:

  • 1881: the assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II, by the group Narodnaya Volya
  • 1894: the assassination of the French president Marie-Francois Sadi Carnot
  • 1894: Bombing of Greenwich Observatory in London

Leon Czolgosz waited in the Presidential reception line inside the Temple of Music with a .32 caliber Iver-Johnson “Safety Automatic” revolver concealed in a handkerchief wrapped around his right hand, giving the impression of a bandaged wound. When the president extended his hand for the handshake, Czolgosz slapped it aside and shot the President twice. One bullet deflected off of the president's ribs and did no major damage. The other bullet damaged McKinley's stomach, kidney, and pancreas, and lodged somewhere in his back. Ironically, the doctors were forced to operate in a building on site without electricity, while much of the outdoor buildings and displays were covered with lights.

Although Thomas Edison's new x-ray machine was on site, doctors were reluctant to use it, probably because they were unsure about possible side-effects. As McKinley seemed to improve, they decided to leave the bullet inside the president. McKinley continue to improve while remaining under close medical supervision in Buffalo. On the morning of September 12 he had improved enough to eat some toast with a cup of coffee, but by that afternoon his condition deteriorated. The president went into shock and died on September 14, eight days after the shooting. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, on vacation in the Adirondacks, was hastened to Buffalo where he was sworn in as President. Leon Czolgosz was tried for murder, found guilty, and executed by electric chair on October 29, 1901.