In his reclusive state, Leon started to read Socialist and anarchist literature. He slowly became more and more entranced by the ideals of the two groups, culminating in his trip to Cleveland in 1901 to see political radical, Emma Goldman, speak. He quickly approached her after her speech and asked her for some reading recommendations. A few days later, he showed up at her house, calling himself Nieman (no man). So yeah, that's not creepy at all. Goldman said she had a train to catch, but would introduce him to some of her anarchist friends at the train station. Leon was convinced that there was a terrible injustice happening in America. The rich kept getting richer, and the poor getting poorer. The rich exploited the poor, leading to their continued bliss. Leon blamed the inequality on the structure of the government, but wasn't sure how to properly fight it. All these anarchists were just talk. He must be a man of action. Then, it came to him, in the form of a news story from Europe: King Umberto I of Italy had been assassinated by anarchist Gaetano Bresci. Bresci told the press after the assassination that he was taking matters into his own hands, for the people's sake. This pushed little Leon over the edge, though it galvanized the anarchist movement in America.
Anarchist had taken their toll on Europe, killing half a dozen officials and members of the Royal Houses. Fear began to spread in America of this new idealism. Even to identify yourself as an anarchist in New York was considered a breach of the peace. With Umberto's murder, there began to be a growing concern for the life of the president. Lincoln and Garfield had been assassinated within the last forty years, so who was to say that it couldn't happen again? Probably the person who feared this most was Secretary to the President, George B. Cortelyou. Cortelyou and members of the president's cabinet urged newly re-elected President William McKinley to please have some security around him. This wasn't going to happen. McKinley was too much of a man of the people! He couldn't be seen as a cold and distant president. In fact, this is why all the presidents didn't have security on them 24/7; they didn't want to seem out of touch. That would all change after McKinley was assassinated. From Theodore Roosevelt on, the President had Secret Service men with them whenever they were outside the White House, though Roosevelt constantly tried to lose them.
Leon moved to Buffalo, New York, for reasons unknown, though some historians speculate it was because of the large Polish population there. Leon heard that the President would be making a stop in Buffalo, and he knew this was his chance. He later told police that:
It was in my heart, there was no escape for me. I could not have conquered it had my life been at stake. There were thousands of people there on Tuesday. I heard it was President's Day. All those people seemed bowing to the great ruler. I made up my mind to kill that ruler.
Leon was convinced that the only way to solve things and bring back equality to America was to kill the tyrannical ruler of it: President McKinley. Was Leon right about there being a great inequality in America? Yes. Did he go about it the wrong way? Most definitely. Leon promptly went to buy a gun from a local store, a .32 caliber Iver Johnson to be exact. He wasn't quite sure how he was going to do it, but all he knew is that he had to get close to the president. McKinley's train arrived in Buffalo to a cannon salute from the city. The cannon ended up being to close to the train car and it blew out a bunch of the windows. People flipped out, assuming it was a bomb that went off, and starting screaming, "Anarchists!" McKinley was not unnerved and stepped off the train for his official welcome. Who was at the train station at that moment? None other than Leon. Leon pushed through the crowd once he saw the president step off the train, but the president was too well guarded for him to get a decent shot. Leon retreated. Part of the President's trip itinerary was to visit Niagara Falls, then the next day go to The Temple of Music at the Exposition grounds to meet the people. Cortelyou, his secretary, was extremely wary of McKinley's visit to The Temple of Music and tried to take it off the President's schedule twice, but the President put it back on each time. He had to meet the people! There was no need for alarm! McKinley even told Cortelyou that there was no need for concern, because no one would want to harm him. Cortelyou was not convinced of this and asked that there be extra security at the Exposition grounds.
The day before the public meeting at The Temple of Music, McKinley gave what was to be his last speech. In front of 50,000 fair-goers, McKinley talked of the end of isolationism and of new trade agreements that would allow US manufacturers new markets. Leon had arrived early that day and considered shooting the President during the speech, but Leon wasn't convinced he could get an accurate shot, especially with a bunch of people elbowing him. He gave it up for that day and headed off to his hotel room. Leon was confident that he would have his moment at The Temple of Music. McKinley arrived to the large auditorium to the "Star Spangled Banner" and prepared for his favorite part of the job: shaking hands. He was an experienced politician and could shake hands with fifty people a minute. That's pretty darn fast! McKinley was only allotted ten minutes to shake hands with people, something Cortelyou probably saw to. After five minutes, Cortelyou signaled for his men to close the doors and stop more people from coming in. The line stopped abruptly when 12-year old Myrtle Ledger, who was accompanied by her mother, asked if she could have the red carnation that McKinley always wore on his lapel. He accepted and let the young lady take his carnation. This is where things get a little spooky. That red carnation wasn't just any old carnation; it was his lucky red carnation that he never stopped wearing. I don't believe in luck, but this is a pretty crazy coincidence! A swarthy, nervous looking man was approaching McKinley now, and security started to get suspicious. They breathed a sigh of relief when the man shook the President's hand, and went on his way. The policy that all shaking hands with the President must have their hands open and free was not being enforced. It was terribly hot, and many people had handkerchiefs to wipe away the sweat. So nobody thought it odd when the next person after the swarthy man came up to the president with his right hand wrapped up. Probably presuming that the man had injured his hand, the President went to shake the man's left hand. When they touched hands, two shots rang out. The man was Leon Czolgosz. He had concealed the handgun in the bandages and got one good shot in the President's abdomen. The other shot just grazed him.
McKinley lurched forward and Leon attempted to shoot him a third time, but the man in line behind him promptly slammed into him, trying to get the gun out of his hand. Then Leon had a bunch of men on him, some punching him, some hitting him in the head with a rifle. Leon was heard saying, "I done my duty." McKinley was helped to a chair by Cortelyou and others and tried to convince them he wasn't badly hurt, though everyone could see he was bleeding profusely. McKinley observed the men giving Leon the beating of a lifetime and ordered them to stop, claiming that Leon obviously didn't know what he had just done. When Leon wouldn't stop looking at McKinley as he was being searched, Secret Service Agent Foster knocked him to the ground with one punch. McKinley was taken from the building in an electric-powered ambulance and on his way to the hospital pulled out the bullet that had grazed him. Lucky for him it had hit one of his buttons and barely hit him. The other bullet, however, would not be found at all. The hospital that McKinley ended up at had an area for surgery, but not a qualified doctor, only nurses and interns. The best doctor in the whole city, Dr. Roswell Park, was away at Niagara Falls performing a delicate neck operation and told messengers that he wouldn't leave the operation, even if it was for the President of the United States. He was told that was exactly who it was for, and Park attempted to finish up and get to the President. The only doctors on hand were Dr. Mynter and Dr. Mann, who gave McKinley a shot of morphine and attempted to find the bullet after giving the ailing President some ether. They opened him up and saw all the damage the bullet had done, but not the bullet itself. Dr. Mann guessed it had lodged itself in McKinley's back muscles and wouldn't do any harm. They stitched him up just in time for Dr. Park to show up. McKinley was woken up and taken to the Milburn House to recover.
|The last known photo of President McKinley|
Dr. Mann and fourteen other doctors performed an autopsy to find where the bullet lay. The bullet had passed through his stomach, his transverse colon, and nicked his left kidney on its way to disappearing inside the peritoneum. Modern doctors speculate that McKinley was as good as dead the moment the bullet entered him. He is most likely to have died from pancreatic necrosis, something that is extremely hard to treat in this day in age, so the likelihood of him surviving then was slim to none. A death mask was made of McKinley's face, with a short service being held at the Milburn House. He was then moved to the County Hall in Buffalo for five days of national mourning. He was laid to rest in Canton, Ohio where there is now a memorial. McKinley's name is all over the place in not only Canton and Ohio, a state that has twenty schools named after him, but also states around the country. Mount McKinley, the highest point in all of North America is even named after him.
As soon as word got out that McKinley had died, Leon was transferred from jail to a penitentiary to await trial. Leon talked freely with his guards at the prison, but refused to talk to either of his two lawyers, or the psychiatrist sent to test his sanity. The fact that Leon refused to talk to his lawyers made their case a hard one to make. Leon even refused to defend himself in court! He literally just sat there and watched it all unfold. This is far different from Charles Guiteau's trial, where Guiteau turned the courthouse into a zoo (not literally, though that would have been awesome). One thing that was like Guiteau's trial was the defendant's lawyers trying to get an insanity plea. They begged the jury to acquit Leon of 1st degree murder and send him instead to an insane asylum. But it was not to be. The jury took one hour, then came back with the verdict: Guilty, and the sentence was death....by electrocution. Leon returned to Auburn Prison and was soon strapped into the last chair he would ever sit in. His last words were: "I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people-the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime." Right before he was electrocuted he said through clenched teeth that he wish he could have seen his father one last time. Leon's brain was autopsied afterwards by scientists, probably to see if they could find the part of his grey matter that was crazy. He was buried in a simple black coffin in the prison grounds, though the hole was filled with sulfuric acid so the body would be completely eaten up. It was probably so no one would steal his bones later, but I'd like to believe that they were just keeping his ghost/zombie from coming back and wreaking havoc on the populace. Leon was only twenty-eight when he was sent to his death. This is a weird thought for me, since I'm very near that age, and it seems crazy that a person my age went and shot the president.
A couple things happened due to McKinley's death at the hand of Leon Czolgosz. The most important was the fact that now Theodore Roosevelt was President and it was going to take more than an anarchist with a gun to take him down. Roosevelt made sure there were new laws made against anarchist, though they lay dormant until WWI. America truly entered a new age when Roosevelt became President. Trust-busting, jingoist, environmental, imperialistic change! Things did not get better for anarchist, as you can imagine. Emma Goldman and anyone else Leon had conversed with in his travels were brought in and questioned. The government was convinced that Leon didn't act alone, though he himself claimed otherwise. All who were arrested were soon let go, though Goldman had to sit in jail for three weeks before she was let go. She sympathized with Leon, and that sympathy didn't make her popular, even with other anarchist. She would eventually be jailed and eventually deported to Russia in 1917 for apparently encouraging people not to register for the draft. The last thing that changed is something that I already talked about; the fact that the President had to have the Secret Service around at all times. The President had to deal with looking separate from the public; it was either that or potential death at any moment. The Temple of Music where the crime took place was torn down later that year, as was the rest of the Exposition. There is a marker in the middle of Fordham Drive showing the exact place where McKinley was shot. One last note on Leon Czolgosz: Lloyd Vernon Briggs reviewed Leon's case along with others who had histories of mental illness before they committed murder and found that Leon was no different. Judging from his anti-social behavior and inability to form relationships, there is a strong case that Leon was mentally ill, and had been for a very long time. He felt there was a large question of whether Leon could be held accountable for the President's death. That will remain a mystery to us, however, as we can't really dig Leon up and ask him questions. All it does is give us further questions on how we determine if a person can be held responsible for their actions when they have a history of mental illness.