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A Polish anarchist assassinated President William McKinley

Posted in America, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Politics on Friday, 3 August 2012

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This edited article about President McKinley originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 758 published on 24th July 1976.

President McKinley, picture, image, illustration

One of William McKinley’s presidential campaign posters

The way that President William McKinley of the United States could shake hands was legendary. Forty-five hands a minute was his speed when he was fully under way, and he seemed to love it. So, too, did the American people, as he went among them, seizing proffered hands and pumping them vigorously.

Only his aides seemed anxious and worried about these continuous demonstrations of friendliness with the great mass of the people. They knew that even in 1901 danger stalked a President’s life. McKinley was the 25th President – and already two of the 25 had been assassinated.

Someone reminded McKinley of this when he arrived at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. The planned meeting with the crowd, he was told, was ill-advised. McKinley laughed. He was looking forward to the handshakes.

“Why should anyone wish me harm?” he asked.

He was a kind and gentle man, a courteous, portly figure who reminded the American public of everyone’s favourite uncle. He had a smile for one and all. His tenderness towards his chronically-sick wife was well-known.

The old Americans, and the new ones flocking from Europe to what was still a vast frontier land, loved him for it. It seemed to them that the crowd-mixing and the hand-shaking was the essence of democracy. Only in America could a common man exchange a warm smile and a firm handshake with the supreme leader of the people.

So, on September 3, 1901, they came in thousands to the exposition’s Temple of Music, where the President was due to appear at 4 p.m. When the doors were opened they surged forward, past a police cordon and down between two lines of soldiers who slowed them down to a shuffle and steered them into a single file.

The President began to pump their hands – the thick hands of German immigrants, the olive-skinned hands of Italians, the ringed hands of mothers and the starfish hands of little children.

It was an all-American day and it was also stifling hot. The spent heat of summer seemed to pervade every corner of the white stucco Temple. Some of the crowd took out handkerchiefs to wipe away the perspiration as the line shuffled forward. The plain clothes’ men and the Secret Service agents surrounding the President watched the people warily – a hundred of them, then two hundred . . .

Seven minutes had ticked by when the 315th man came face to face with the President. He was a 28-year-old Polish-American named Leon Czolgosz. The handkerchief draped around his right hand didn’t seem out of place in the over-heated building, so no one could have guessed that it concealed a gun.

The President stood in front of an American flag. On his immediate right was his loyal and efficient secretary worried as ever by all this meeting-the-people activity. No such qualms, however, disturbed the beaming figure of Louis Babcock, who stood near the President.

It was a day of triumph for Babcock, organiser of the Pan-American Exposition. For, despite all its exciting attractions – including electric light to decorate the pavilions – the exposition had not been doing too well. Now, in one day, the President’s visit had attracted 100,000 customers.

Leon Czolgosz was aware of all this. He had been at the exposition since midday and had visited it on previous days, mulling over in his mind what was going to happen.

“It isn’t right,” he had long ago decided, “for one man to get all that attention while millions of ordinary Americans work for a pittance in harsh conditions. It is time for someone to strike a blow, to make a gesture, to set an example.”

That was why, under the handkerchief covering his right hand, Czolgosz gripped the nickel-plated .32 Iver-Johnson revolver which he had bought two days earlier.

With a sweep of his eyes Czolgosz took in the four sentries and three Secret Service agents flanking the President, and McKinley himself.

He may, in that single sweep of comprehension, have noticed the secretary look impatiently at his watch, before considering bringing to an end the line of well-wishers shuffling up, then walking away, dazed with loyal pride. Then it was his turn.

As McKinley reached out, Czolgosz brushed his arm aside and pressed his right hand, still covered with the handkerchief, against the President’s white waistcoat. Twice he squeezed the trigger. For a moment the two men stared into each other’s eyes. Then the President fell back into the arms of one of his aides.

In the uproar that followed, Czolgosz disappeared in a tangle of arms, legs and fists. In seconds his dark grey suit, flannel shirt and tie were in tatters. “Easy on him” gasped the President, who was still conscious. It was a typical remark from McKinley, but one that his aides chose to ignore in that moment of frenzied passion.

Czolgosz was bundled into an ante-room and rough-handled on to a table. A tall Negro waiter drew a knife and had to be restrained from cutting the assassin’s throat. The President, meanwhile, had opened his waistcoat and was feeling the blood under his shirt. “The wound hurts so very much,” he murmured, then ordered his secretary to break the news gently to Mrs. McKinley, who had been ill. To Louis Babcock he said: “I’m sorry this should have happened here.”

McKinley was taken to a small emergency hospital in the grounds of the exposition. A hastily summoned doctor discovered that the first bullet had struck the President in the breastbone but had not penetrated. The other had gone right through his stomach, damaging various organs, and was lodged in his back muscles. A makeshift operation was performed by a doctor whose skill did not extend to any great knowledge of gunshot wounds and when it was over the news was broken to the ailing Mrs. McKinley.

“The President,” she was told, “will live.” Indeed, that was the view of all the doctors who saw McKinley after the operation, and the President himself agreed with them.

Certainly he seemed next day to be on the mend. By that time the Buffalo police were putting together the jig-saw of Leon Czolgosz’s life.

He was one of eight children of a Detroit sewerman who had scarcely learned a word of English since arriving in America from Poland. He had worked in a wire-spinning factory and had helped to organise a strike there. When the strike was over he met another Pole – an upholsterer – who led him to the path for which his distorted and half-educated mind was groping – the path to anarchy.

Czolgosz was a perfect pupil. He was neat and clean; he didn’t bet or swear or gamble. He had no girl friends and kept himself strictly to himself. His brooding resentment about what he imagined were the corrupting evils of society was fanned by his inherent shyness.

On the day of the murder he got up early and called at a barber’s shop for a shave. Thus clean and freshened up, he took a tram to Niagara Falls, which is about half an hour’s ride from Buffalo, because he had read that the President would be there that morning. There was no question in his mind that the assassination would take place anywhere else other than at the exposition that afternoon – the trip to Niagara was simply made to satisfy a desire to view the intended victim at close range. But for some reason Czolgosz missed the President that morning.

McKinley at this time was in his second term of office – he had been elected in 1896 and again in 1900.

McKinley’s term had seen America involved in the Spanish War of 1898 – an imperialistic contest over Cuba which the Americans won easily. But McKinley, trained as a lawyer, a gifted orator, and a man who fought with distinction in the American Civil War, was a kindly man, and no warmonger.

A week after Leon Czolgosz’s attack, the President’s condition rapidly deteriorated. Early in the morning of September 14 he died, murmuring some passages from the Bible. His Vice-President, Theodore Roosevelt, was on a climbing holiday when a guide hastened to tell him the tragic news that had made him the new President.

The law dealt swiftly with the assassin. His trial for murder began only ten days after McKinley’s death and lasted for less than nine hours. The jury found him guilty without retiring and Czolgosz took the dawn walk to the electric chair still declaring: “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people, the working people.”

But the reason for the assassination was perhaps better demonstrated by McKinley himself on his death bed when, asked about the assassin, he murmured: “He must have been some poor, misguided fellow.”

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