Monday, April 28, 2008

The Assassination of William McKinley

Leon CzolgoszWilliam McKinley 25th President of the United States

William McKinley came to power on March 4th 1897. He was the last of the Civil War veterans to every hold the title of President of the United States. He served one full term, and was just beginning his second when he had his fateful meeting with Leon Czolgosz.

McKinley was President when the United States first became a major force on the world stage. He presided over the Spanish-American War where American forces, including McKinley's soon to be Vice President in his second term Teddy Roosevelt, defeated the Spaniards on the ground in Cuba, and on the ocean where nearly the entire Spanish navy was destroyed in two battles.
A funny story about the war happened at Guam. Captain Henry Glass on the cruiser USS Charleston was ordered to sail to Guam and take the island. Sail there he did and when he arrived he fired a shot to open hostilities. The Spanish official, pathetically underequipped, sailed out to the American vessel, and, not knowing war had been declared, asked for powder to return the American's "salute". Captain Glass promptly took the officer prisoner, and forced the surrender of Guam with only firing the one shot...

This, of course, has nothing to do with the assassination. It is just one of history's goofy stories.

Anyway, McKinley was very much a man who liked to "press the flesh." He enjoyed going to big fairs and expos that featured new machines, and inventions. These types of fairs always brought large crowds hungry for speeches, and a man like McKinley was happy to oblige.
At one such expo in the fair city of Omaha, Nebraska, McKinley was the first President to meet with chiefs of various plains Indian tribes, the first President in history to do so. One of the cheifs he met was the infamous Geronimo of the Apache tribe that gave McKinley's predecessors such a hard time.
It was at this fair in Omaha, that McKinley learned of Naval victory in the Caribbean near Cuba, and that the war was nearly won.
There were many such fairs and McKinley was keen to go to them during his time as President. The Secret Service absolutely hated that McKinley went to these fairs and toured them just like a normal visitor. They remembered the shooting of James Garfield in just such a place and begged McKinley not to go. McKinley would retort "Why should I? No one would wish to hurt me."
Indeed McKinley had every reason to expect that the people loved him. It was September 1901. He had just won re-election, the economy was roaring after a bitter slowdown, and he was a victorious war time President. McKinley was at the top of his political game.
There was an expo in Buffalo New York. Many new inventions were to be on display. Many people would attend. It was right next to Niagara Falls, the tourist in McKinley could not resist.

Leon Czolgosz was, by any account, a born looser. He was the son of Polish immigrants, and a steel worker by trade. He grew up in poverty... Real poverty of the American 19th century, where people staved to death or froze to death. Not the poverty of today, where you bitch when you don't have digital cable.
His most recent job was working for the American Steel and Wire Company in Cleveland, Ohio with his brothers. He made a good wage for that kind of work, $4 a day. Leon and his brothers seemed to be well on their way to a good life, until the unions stepped in. The mill cut wages during some bad financial times. The union retaliated with a strike, and the workers, Leon and his brothers included, were fired.
During the strike some of the workers were protesting. Tension ran high between the striking workers and the police. Soon, a fight broke out, and the vastly outnumbered police panicked. They opened fire on the workers. When it was all said and done 19 workers lay dead, 39 wounded.
The police were acquitted of all charges. Leon saw this as injustice. Everywhere he looked he saw Government oppression, and the exploitation of the working man. He began to take an interest in the Anarchist movement taking shape in the American East.
The Anarchist movement has had many faces in America, from the individual anarchy preached by Henry David Thoreau, to the oppressive federated communities of Anarchist Communism. Leon was interested in the latter form. He believed that private property was evil. He believed that all men, regardless of effort, ambition, or ingenuity, should all be equal. An easy thing to believe in when you are dirt poor, and others have so much more than you do.
Leon believed that a big display had to be made in order for Anarchism to be taken seriously. Something big to get the workers to rise up and throw off the yoke of the Capitalists.
Leon was so intent on this that the other Anarchist believed that he was too much for them. They thought him a spy. Leon had voted in the Republican primary, he constantly talked of violence. He had all the makings of a Government agent. The Anarchist paper Free Society wrote a warning about Leon:

The attention of the comrades is called to another spy. He is well dressed, of medium height, rather narrow shouldered, blond, and about 25 years of age. Up to the present he has made his appearance in Chicago and Cleveland. In the former place he remained a short time, while in Cleveland he disappeared when the comrades had confirmed themselves of his identity and were on the point interested in the cause, asking for names, or soliciting aid for acts of contemplated violence. If this individual makes his appearance elsewhere, the comrades are warned in advance and can act accordingly.

Some time in 1898, Leon suffered what is described as a mental breakdown. He lived as a hermit in his father's house. Shut away from the rest of the world Leon only read newspapers and radical literature.
In Italy, on July 29th 1900, the unpopular King Umberto I was shot by Anarchist Gaetano Bresci. Bresci said that it was for the common man.

King Umberto I of Italy... I dig his 'stash.

This act woke Leon up. In this act he found a hero. In this act he found a cause. He would emulate this act. He would kill the President for the common man.
Leon endeavored to make the assassination of President McKinley as much like the assassination of King Umberto as possible.
Buffalo was having a fair. The President liked fairs. The President was well known for shaking hands. It would be easy.
On August 31st, 1901 Leon moved to Buffalo.
On September 2nd Leon went out and found the same type of gun that Bresci used, a .32 Iver Johnson Safety Automatic hammerless revolver. He paid $4.50. (A days wages??? Kahr are you reading this?? Bastards. I hate them for making me want their guns so much.)

This type of gun appealed to Leon. It seemed made for assassination. It was small, easy to hide. It had no hammer to cock. No hammer to catch on clothing. Just point and shoot. Perfect.
Leon began to practice his technique. He would hold a handkerchief in his left hand dip in to his pocket with his right, pull the revolver and cover it with the handkerchief. He practiced until he had the movement down perfectly.
McKinley was due to give a speech on September 5th. On September 6th the President would be "pressing the flesh."

On September 6th Leon got in the receiving line in front of the Temple of Music to meet the President and shake his hand.

President McKinley about 10 minutes before he was shot.

Leon finally got to the front of the line. There McKinley stood, smiling, with his hand outstretched, blissfully unaware of what was about to happen.
Leon had his gun out and covered by his handkerchief. With his left hand he batted away the President's hand, revealing the gun. Leon fired twice, hitting the President in the shoulder, and in the stomach.
As the wounded President fell to the floor the crowd realized what was happening, and fell upon the assassin. Leon was soon being beaten to within an inch of his life.
McKinley seeing what was happening, told his body guards "Don't let them hurt him, boys." The Secret Service did there best to extract Leon from the crowd and lay him down. For a moment, predator and prey lay side by side.

A sketch of the assassination.

McKinley was rushed to an operating theater set up for the expo. Despite the outsides of the buildings being covered with electric lights, the buildings were meant to be temporary, and had no electric lighting in their interiors. The operating theater could not be lit by candles, because the President was anesthetized by flammable ether. A large reflecting pan had to be used to bring in natural sunlight.
The bullet that went in to the shoulder was easily found. The gut shot, however was very difficult to find. The bullet had tumbled through the President's body hitting his stomach, colon, and kidney ending up somewhere lodged in the muscles of the back.
The death of President Garfield weighed heavily on the doctors minds as they scrambled to figure out how to extract the bullet. On display was a new medical invention brought about by the new field of radiology. An amazing device that allowed doctors to take a picture of the insides of a person, something called an X-Ray machine. However, this new device was so new that the people selling them had no idea as to what the side effects of its use were. If they use it on the President, and he dies, that could be very bad for business. It was decided that the X-Ray not be used.
With the bullet seemingly away from any vital organ, and the damage repaired as best as could be, it was decided to leave well enough alone, and leave the bullet inside the President.
McKinley held on for eight more days. He seemed to be feeling better. He even ate something, toast and some coffee. He then went in to shock, and passed away in the early morning hours of September 14th 1901. His last words reflected his religious belief "It is God's way; His will be done, not ours." Official cause of death was attributed to gangrene surrounding his wounds.

After the shooting Leon recovered in his jail cell. He was beaten quite severely. At first it was believed that he would die before he reached trial. Leon proved to be tougher than that though, and he pulled through.

Leon in his cell. Note the bandages around his head, and the broken nose.

The trial began on September 23, 1901 by 4:26 on September 24th, after just 8 hours and 26 minutes total time, a verdict was reached. Leon did not mount much of a defence. Many witnesses testified that Leon had shot the President, and Leon's own confession to the police did not help his case much.
Leon was, of course, sentenced to death. Sentence was carried out on October 29th 1901. Leon was strapped in to the electric chair, and as they fastened the straps, he said: "I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people — the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime."

They hit Leon with three charges at 1,700 volts for one minute apiece. He was declared dead soon after 7:12 am.

There was great concern that Leon may become a martyr for the anarchist cause, so the state took extraordinary efforts to prevent this from happening. An extra thick casket was ordered and Leon's body placed inside. A large quantity of Sulfuric acid was poured in to the casket and the coffin sealed. It was estimated that Leon's body would be completely dissolved in 24 hours.

So a new era began in America that year. McKinley's very young Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt, was sworn in as President on September 14th, and ushered in the era of the U.S. as a world power. Leon Czolgosz was hardly ever thought of afterwards. Today if you ask someone about Leon, it is likely that they will not know of who you speak. Of course if you ask them about William McKinley or Theodore Roosevelt they will not know of who you speak...

No comments: