The Disturbing Story Of The Assassination Of President McKinley

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The year is 1901 and it’s a stifling hot day towards the end of summer in Buffalo, New York. And at the end of a long national tour President William McKinley is in town for the Pan-American Exposition. Here, he’s engaged in one of his favorite activities – meeting and greeting the great American public. But what should have been a joyful event turned into a tragic calamity.

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Indeed, the consequences of that catastrophe would reverberate through American society. McKinley had just led the nation to victory in the American-Spanish war and was a popular president as a result. Americans were appalled by his death and there was also international grief, with many European countries observing a mourning period for McKinley.

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As McKinley’s body lay in state at Washington’s Capitol Rotunda, hordes of mourners came to view his remains. When his funeral train traveled across the country to Canton, Ohio, where the President was interred, cities came to a complete halt to mark his passing. Those old enough to remember the death of President John F. Kennedy can probably recognize the feelings of those grieving Americans over a century ago.

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On a darker note there was a backlash against anarchists in the U.S. because McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was a follower of that particular political creed. Various anarchists were rounded up on the theory that Czolgosz couldn’t have acted alone. Outraged citizens attacked anarchists, although despite considerable property damage there were no fatalities.

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There was also much of criticism from both the press and the public about the arrangements for McKinley’s personal protection. In fact, his assassination was to lead to an overhaul of presidential security. A Treasury section, the Secret Service, was detailed on full-time duty to guard McKinley’s successor as president, Theodore Roosevelt. Congress then formalized this Secret Service role in 1906.

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But before we explore the details of McKinley’s untimely death on that fateful September 1901 day, let’s find out a little more about the man. William McKinley Jr. was born in 1843 in Niles, Ohio, the seventh of the nine children. And his parents, William McKinley Sr. and his wife Nancy McKinley were of English and Scots-Irish stock.

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McKinley’s family were devout Methodists and their religious beliefs led them to be ardent abolitionists. His father was in the iron industry and had interests in a number of foundries across Ohio. McKinley was still a boy when his family moved to the Poland, Ohio, in search of superior schools for their children.

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McKinley attended the Poland Seminary until 1859 when he went on to continue his education at Meadville, Pennsylvania’s Allegheny College. But that doesn’t seem to have gone too well, as he returned to his parent’s home after just a year apparently suffering from depression. Then the McKinley finances declined and the young man took jobs with the postal service and as a teacher.

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Then, like so many Americans, McKinley’s life took a radical change with the outbreak of the Civil War. Indeed, he joined up on the Unionist side with the Poland Guards in the summer of 1861 as a private. However, his unit was soon subsumed by the 23rd Ohio Infantry. The young soldier had his first taste of action in September 1861 in a skirmish with Confederate troops at Carnifex Ferry, in what is now West Virginia.

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McKinley saw more action at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, a vicious engagement that ended in a Union victory and a total of more than 22,000 casualties. Not long after, McKinley was commissioned as an officer with the rank of lieutenant and went on to fight in the July 1863 Battle of Buffington Island.

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Having started the war as a private, McKinley then went on to become attached to the staff of various generals and rose to the rank of Brevet Major. Not long after his last promotion, the Confederate General Lee surrendered to the unionists, effectively ending the war in April 1865. McKinley, now 22 years old, was discharged from military service the following July.

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It’s worth mentioning at this point that McKinley was the last man to serve as president who had actually seen service in the American Civil War. After his military service McKinley pursued a career as a lawyer, joining the bar in Warren, Ohio in 1867. And in the same year, he gained his first political experience, giving speeches on behalf of a friend who was standing for Governor of Ohio.

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The friend was Rutherford Birchard Hayes, a Republican who would go on to become the 19th president of the U.S. in 1877. Indeed, McKinley and Hayes had met during their service together in the Civil War. Meanwhile, back in 1869, McKinley had his first experience of electoral success when, against expectations, he won the position of prosecuting attorney of Stark County in Ohio.

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In 1871 McKinley found time in his busy legal and political career to marry Ida Saxton. Sadly the couple lost two children and it seems that this had a drastic effect on the latter’s health. McKinley and his wife were to remain childless and Saxton never really regained good health. Nevertheless he was a doting husband who never shirked from caring for his sickly wife.

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McKinley entered Congress in 1876 as a Republican, the same year his friend Hayes took the presidency. It may well have been a bitter-sweet victory for the new congressman since his earnings as a representative would be only around half of the income he’d been getting as a lawyer. Nevertheless, his political career was well and truly under way.

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McKinley’s success as a political figure was confirmed by a backhanded compliment from his Democrat opponents. On several occasions they orchestrated boundary changes in electoral districts with the sole aim of denying McKinley electoral success. But he overcame these obstacles, on a couple of occasions winning the popular vote despite the Democrats best efforts at gerrymandering.

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And as it turned out, the Democrats were quite right to fear McKinley. That’s because in 1892 he succeeded in taking the governorship of Ohio – and more success was to follow. Indeed, in 1896 he secured the nomination to run as president on the Republican ticket. And in his populist, folksy style, McKinley campaigned hard. He even received members of the public on his own front porch, taking only Sundays off from his political round.

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Interestingly, McKinley’s successful bid for the presidency came to be known as the “Front Porch Campaign.” He had stood on a policy of a strong central government that would help the development of American industry by imposing tariffs on imported goods from foreign lands. He was also an advocate of sound money based on the gold standard.

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So McKinley took up his presidency in March 1897, and in his 2003 biography of the President, Kevin Phillips quoted some of his inaugural address. He said, “We want no wars of conquest. We must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression.” Yet despite these words of peace, a foreign war was on the horizon.

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Events in Cuba caused the war, which at the time was still under Spanish rule. But rebels hungry for independence were increasingly active. Subsequently, the Spanish had ratcheted up their oppression and Cuba became consumed by bloody fighting with the colonialists, who were accused of various atrocities. McKinley favored the rebels and so did the American public.

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But McKinley was not as enthusiastic for military intervention as the voters were and hoped to find a resolution to the crisis by negotiation. However, it soon emerged that Spain had no intention whatsoever of granting the central demands of the rebels: nothing less than independence. And American public opinion was firmly on the side of the insurgents.

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Violent rioting in Cuba’s capital, Havana, finally brought the situation to a head. The battleship USS Maine then sailed for Cuba, but to the shock and anger of the American public, the ship blew up on February 15 with the loss of 266 men. Meanwhile, Spain stood accused of this outrage, and after McKinley’s continuing talks with the Spanish got nowhere, Congress voted to go to war in April.

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Elsewhere, the U.S. overwhelmed the Spanish navy at the Battle of Manila Bay off the Philippines in June 1898. Indeed, the Spanish-American War had now become a conflict about the future of Spain’s colonial territories in the Pacific as well as the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Also in June, U.S. forces landed in Cuba.

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The July Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba was a victory for the Americans. And shortly afterwards, the Spanish fleet in the Caribbean was routed by the U.S. Navy. Peace talks then began in Paris, France, in September. Ultimately, the U.S. took control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and Cuba gained independence. It was a comprehensive victory and one that many believe ushered the United States on to the international stage as a world power.

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But McKinley’s presidency was not all about war and territorial conquest – it was also a time of prosperity for America. Indeed, the country’s economy, which would make her a dominant world power in the 20th century, was expanding rapidly. And this heady mixture of military and economic success meant that McKinley was a highly popular president. Evidence for this came when he was re-elected for a second term in 1900.

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Meanwhile, it was not long after his second inauguration in March 1901 that McKinley found himself in Buffalo, New York. Indeed, he had decided to take a tour of the country along with his wife Ida and an official party. The final stop on the tour was to be Buffalo, and as we’ve seen his visit there would coincide with the Pan-American Exposition.

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The planned tour was somewhat disrupted and delayed by Ida becoming seriously ill. But she recovered and the tour resumed and finally reached its last destination of Buffalo. Meanwhile, the President and his entourage had a full program of events. On Thursday 5 September, McKinley would deliver a speech, outlining his second-term policies to strengthen American industry and then he would be shown around the exposition.

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The next day, Friday, the President would pay a visit to Niagara Falls. After paying his respects to the famous waterfall, he would visit the Pan-American Exposition. There, he would hold a meet-and-greet in the purpose-built Temple of Music, a spacious auditorium. A long queue of eager members of the public would be there hoping to shake their President by the hand.

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In fact, McKinley’s own personal secretary, George B. Cortelyou, had grave doubts about McKinley’s plans to meet the public in the setting of the Temple of Music. Cortelyou was worried that the event could potentially expose his President to the threat of assassination. But, characteristically, McKinley refused to take his secretary’s concerns seriously.

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On the Thursday, McKinley delivered his speech to a crowd of some 50,000 people who gave him a rapturous reception. But there was one man in the crowd who wished him nothing but ill. He was the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, and he had a pistol in his pocket. The assassin had thought to shoot McKinley during his speech but was foiled by the size of the crowd.

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Czolgosz then followed McKinley as he toured the exposition, but could not get close enough to his prey to be sure of success. Frustrated in his attempt on the President’s life that day, Czolgosz returned to his rented room upstairs from a saloon bar in Buffalo. Perhaps there would be a better opportunity tomorrow.

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Czolgosz was a Polish-American born in Alpena, Michigan, in 1873. Said to have been bullied as a child and to have had strained relations with his family, Czolgosz lapsed into the life of a loner. He became increasingly interested in anarchism as a political movement. And he found the words of the famous contemporary anarchist Emma Goldman intoxicating, even though she did not overtly support violence.

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It’s impossible to be entirely sure of Czolgosz’s state of mind or his motivation. But a statement to the police after the assassination, quoted in Scott Miller’s 2011 book The President and the Assassin offers some insight. Czolgosz told the police, “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 in town… All those people seemed bowing to the great ruler. I made up my mind to kill that ruler.”

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On the Friday afternoon, it was time for McKinley to meet his public at the Temple of Music. An anxious Cortelyou had asked for enhanced security and this was provided by police and detectives in the auditorium. And McKinley’s personal guard, Secret Service man George Foster, was joined by two additional agents.

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A wide passageway was created in the hall by removing some of the seating. Visitors would line up along this aisle, shake hands with McKinley and then leave. Ten minutes had been set aside for the meet-and-greet. Now that might seem short, but McKinley was perfectly capable of shaking the hands of 50 people per minute, using a well-practiced technique.

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An organist regaled the crowds in the hall which had been gathering all afternoon hoping to see McKinley with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The queue of hand-shakers edged forward, and soon Czolgosz was standing directly in front of the President. Normally, those approaching so closely to McKinley had to have empty hands. But it was hot in the hall and people were allowed to hold handkerchiefs to mop their brows.

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But concealed in the handkerchief Czolgosz carried in his right hand was a .32 Iver Johnson pistol. And at point blank range, the anarchist shot McKinley twice in the stomach. He made to fire a third shot but the man standing behind him in line, an African-American man called James Parker, prevented this by attacking Czolgosz. Rapidly, McKinley’s security engulfed the assassin, beating him mercilessly with fists and rifle butts.

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Still conscious, McKinley ordered a halt to the pummeling of Czolgosz and the gunman was dragged away. The President was then operated on, apparently successfully. Meanwhile, the news sped around the world via the telegraph. And at first, it seemed as if the President was recovering – but gangrene took hold. In the days before antibiotics this was usually fatal, and McKinley died in the early hours of September 14, 1901.

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Czolgosz was tried for McKinley’s murder on September 23, 1901, just nine days after the President’s death. Indeed, it took the jury only 30 minutes or so to return a guilty verdict. The assassin was put to death on the electric chair the following month. And in a gruesome final twist, his coffin was filled with sulfuric acid to dissolve his body. What remained of him was buried in the yard of Auburn Prison in New York State.

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President McKinley’s Vice-President, Theodore Roosevelt, succeeded him. Anarchists who had been arrested after the assassination were released without charge; it seemed that Czolgosz had in fact acted alone. And henceforth the security of the U.S. presidents was the prime responsibility of the Secret Service. Indeed, security for such an important figure would never be so lax again.

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