Assassination of President William McKinley
The stunned silence was in sharp contrast to all that had preceded it. Tens of thousands of delighted spectators were exploring the exhibits at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, talking animatedly about the wonders of science and electricity and creating a buzz of excitement. Inside the magnificent Temple of Music, the grand, impressive pipe organ played while a large and noisy crowd pressed forward to shake the hand of the nation’s beaming chief executive, President William McKinley, who was clearly enjoying the adulation of the crowd and looking like everyone’s genial and overweight uncle.
Suddenly, two shots rang out and the crowd hushed. For a split-second everybody froze, and the president stood perfectly still, looking bewildered, while the fatal bullet sliced through his stomach, hitting his kidney and pancreas before burying itself into the muscles of his back. It was 4:07 on the afternoon of Sept. 6, 1901, and a mild-looking 28-year-old anarchist named Leon Czolgosz had just fatally shot the 25th President of the United States.
McKinley was a popular president, who had been reelected in 1900 for his second term. He led America back to prosperity after the economic devastation of the Panic of 1893, and oversaw the remarkably quick and decisive U.S. victory in the 90-day Spanish-American War in 1898 that saw America become a colonial power. People loved McKinley, and he loved them right back.
He especially enjoyed working a crowd, shaking hands and exchanging banter. His personal secretary, George B. Cortelyou, fretted about the president’s safety during such close encounters with the public, but McKinley was fond of waving him off, quipping that “no one would ever want to hurt me.”
But someone did. Leon Czolgosz, the son of Polish immigrants, was unemployed and angry that the nation’s booming wealth was not trickling down to the lower classes. He became an anarchist, convinced that the power of government was used to hold down the unprivileged masses. He decided that McKinley represented all the unfairness of the miserable life he was enduring, and decided to take revenge. After shooting McKinley, Czolgosz told police he shot the president because it was his “duty,” declaring: “I didn't believe one man should have so much service and another man should have none.”
The assassin’s first bullet deflected, only causing a superficial wound, but the second caused serious injury. Even so, the bullet need not have proved fatal. In fact, physicians initially were quite optimistic. Because McKinley was so obese, his layers of fat prevented the doctors from finding the bullet. Nonetheless, they sewed him back up and announced he would fully recover. At first it seemed they were right. For a week the president made steady progress and the doctor’s bulletins announced he was out of danger.
However, what they did not know was that gangrene had set in and the president was slowing dying. On the afternoon of September 12 he had a setback, his condition drastically worsened on September 13, and President McKinley died at 2:15 a.m. on Sept. 14, 1901. Czolgosz was convicted for the murder on September 26 and executed on October 29.
There is a great irony in McKinley’s death. Historians often label McKinley the first “modern” president, bridging the transition between the founding and growth of America in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the establishment of the U.S.A. as the world’s preeminent superpower in the 20th century. McKinley was the first president who rode in an automobile, and the first to use the telephone to help campaign for election. Yet while that “modern” president’s doom was sealed by his doctor’s inability to find the fatal bullet amidst his layers of fat, a new invention being exhibited at the Pan-American Exposition could have found that bullet and saved his life: the X-ray machine.
The following newspaper article provides details about the shooting of President McKinley. It was published by the Morning Herald (Lexington, Kentucky) on the front page of its Sept. 7, 1901, issue:
President McKinley Shot Down by an Anarchist
Treacherous Pole Fired Two Shots from a Revolver under Handkerchief
He Was Pretending to Greet the President at Exposition Reception
Fiend Captured and Narrowly Escaped Lynching
Buffalo, Sept. 6.—(Associated Press.)—President McKinley was shot and seriously wounded by a would-be assassin while holding a reception in the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition a few minutes after 4 o’clock this afternoon. One shot took effect in the right breast and the other in the abdomen. The first is of no serious nature and the bullet was extracted. The second pierced the abdominal wall, and has not been located.
At 11 o’clock the following bulletin by the attending physicians was the only indication of the condition of the President’s wounds:
“The President is rallying and resting comfortable at 10:50 p.m. His temperature is 100.4 degrees; pulse, 124; respiration, 24.”
Striking of the Blow
Standing in the midst of crowds numbering thousands, surrounded by every evidence of good will, pressed by a motley throng of people, showered with expressions of love and loyalty, besieged my multitudes, all eager to clasp his hand, amid these surroundings and with ever recurring plaudits of an army of sightseers ringing in his ears, the blow of an assassin fell and in an instant pleasure gave way to pain, admiration to agony; folly turned to fury, and pandemonium followed.
Tonight a surging, swaying, eager multitude throngs the city’s main thoroughfares, choking the streets in front of the principal newspapers, scanning the bulletins with anxious eyes, and groaning or cheering in turn at each succeeding announcement, as the nature of the message sinks or buoys their hopes.
Down at police headquarters surrounded by stern-faced inquisitors of the law is a medium-sized man of commonplace appearance with fixed gaze directed on the floor, who presses his lips firmly together and listens with an air of assumed indifference to the persistent stream of questions, arguments, objurgations and admonitions with which his captors seek to induce or to compel him to talk.
Just after the daily organ recital in the splendid Temple of Music the dastardly attempt was made.
Plans Well Laid
Planned with all the diabolical ingenuity of which anarchy or nihilism is capable, the would-be assassin carried out the work without a hitch and if his designs fail and the President survives, only to Divine Providence may be attributed that beneficent result.
The President, though well guarded by United States Secret Service detectives, was fully exposed to such an attack as occurred. He stood on the edge of the raised dais upon which stands the great pipe organ at the east side of the magnificent structure. Throngs of people crowded in at the various entrances to gaze upon their Executive, perchance to clasp his hand and then fight their way out in the good natured mob that every minute swelled and multiplied at all points of ingress and egress to the building. The President in a cheerful mood was enjoying hearty evidences of good will which everywhere met his gaze. Upon the right stood John G. Milburn, President of the Pan-American Exposition, chatting with the President and introducing to him especially persons of note who approached. Upon the President’s left stood Secretary Cortelyou.
Approach of Nieman [an alias used by Czolgosz—ed.]
Shortly after 4 p.m., when one of the throng which surrounded the Presidential party, a medium-sized man of ordinary appearance, plainly dressed in black, approached as if to greet the President, both Secretary Cortelyou and President Milburn noticed that the man’s hand was swathed in a bandage or handkerchief. Reports of bystanders differ as to which was the hand. He worked his way up to the dais until he was within two feet of the President. President McKinley smiled, bowed and extended his hand in that spirit of geniality the American people so well know, when suddenly the sharp crack of a revolver rang aloud, and clear above the hum of voices. Another report followed quickly upon the first. In an instant there was almost complete silence. The President stood stock still, with a look of hesitancy, almost bewilderment, on his face. Then he retreated a step, while the pallor began to steal over his features.
The multitude, only partially aware that something serious had happened, paused in surprise, while necks were craned and all eyes were turned to the rostrum.
Then came a commotion. With the leap of a tiger three men sprang toward the would-be assassin. Two of them were United States Secret Service men, the third was a bystander, a negro, who only an instant previously had grasped the President’s hand. As one man the trio hurled themselves upon the President’s assailant. In a twinkling he was borne to the ground, the weapon wrested from his grasp and strong arms pinioned him down.
Then the multitude began to come to a realizing sense of the awfulness of the scene. A murmur arose which spread and swelled to the hum of confusion, then grew to a babble of sounds, and later to a pandemonium of noises.
A Terrible Scene
With a single impulse the crowd surged forward, while a hoarse cry welled up from thousands of throats, and thousands of men charged forward to lay hands upon the perpetrator of the crime.
For a moment the confusion was terrible and the crowd surged forward regardless of consequences. Some of those nearest the doors fled from the edifice in fear of a stampede, while hundreds of others from the outside struggled blindly forward in an effort to penetrate the crowded building and solve the mystery. Inside, on the slightly raised dais, was enacted within those few moments a tragedy so dramatic in character, so thrilling in intensity that few who looked on will ever be able to give a succinct account of what really transpired.
McKinley after the first shock of the assassin’s shot retreated a step, then as detectives leaped on the assailant he turned and walked steadily to a chair and seated himself, at the same time removing his hat and bowing his head in his hands.
In an instant Secretary Cortelyou and President Milburn were at his side, his waistcoat was hurriedly opened, the President meanwhile admonishing those about him to remain calm, telling them not to be alarmed. “But you are wounded,” cried his Secretary.
“Let me examine you.”
“No, I think not,” answered the President. “I am not badly hurt, I assure you.”
Nevertheless his outer garments were hastily loosened and when a trickling stream of crimson was seen to wind its way down his breast, the worst fears were confirmed.
A force of the Exposition guards was on the scene by this time, and an effort was made to clear the building. Spectators crowded down the stairways from the galleries, and the crowd on the floor surged forward toward the rostrum, while—despite the strenuous efforts of the police and guards—a throng without struggled madly for admission.
Assailant Hurried Away
The President’s assailant in the meantime was hustled to the rear of the building by Exposition guards, where he was held while the building was cleared, and later he was turned over to Superintendent Bull, of the Buffalo police department, who took the prisoner to No. 13 police station and afterward to police headquarters. As soon as the crowd in the Temple of Music was dispersed sufficiently the President was removed in an automobile ambulance and taken to the Exposition hospital, where an examination was made. The best medical skill was summoned, and within a brief period a number of Buffalo’s best-known practitioners were at the patient’s side. The President retained full exercise of his faculties until placed on the operating table and subjected to an anaesthetic. Upon the first examination it [had been] ascertained that one bullet had taken effect in the right breast just below the nipple, causing a comparatively harmless wound.
Moved to Milburn Home
The other took effect in the abdomen about four inches below the left nipple, four inches to the left of the navel and about on a level with it. Upon arrival at the Exposition hospital the second bullet was probed for. The walls of the abdomen were opened, but the ball was not located. The incision was hastily closed, and after a hasty consultation it was decided to remove the patient to the home of President Milburn. This was done, an automobile ambulance being used for the purpose. Arrived at the Milburn residence, the task of probing for the bullet which had lodged in the abdomen was begun by Dr. Roswell Park.
At 8:30 Secretary Cortelyou said telegraphic offices would be established at once in the Milburn residence and bulletins giving the public the fullest information possible will be issued.
Telegrams poured in by the hundreds and Secretary Cortelyou was kept busy replying to them. Two stenographers with typewriters were placed in the parlor which was quickly transformed into a bustling room.
While the wounded President was being borne from the Exposition to the Milburn residence between rows of onlookers with bowed heads, a spectacle was being witnessed along the route of his assailant’s journey from the scene of his crime to police headquarters. The trip was made so quickly that the prisoner was landed safely within and the police station doors closed before anyone was aware of his presence. The news of the attempted assassination having in the meanwhile been spread, broadcast by the newspapers.
Then bulletins began to appear on the boards along newspaper row, and when the announcement was made that the prisoner had been taken to police headquarters only two blocks distant from the newspaper section crowds surged down toward the terrace, eager for a glimpse of the prisoner. At police headquarters they were met by a strong cordon of police drawn up across the pavement, and admittance was denied. In a few minutes the crowd swelled to thousands until the streets were completely blocked.
Lynch Him, the Cry
At this juncture someone raised the cry of “Lynch him.” Like a flash the cry was taken up and the whole crowd re-echoed the cry, “Lynch him, hang him.” Closer the crowd surged and denser the throng became. The situation was becoming critical, when suddenly both doors were flung open and a squad of the Reserve advanced and drove the crowd back across the street, and gradually succeeded in disbursing them from about the entrance to the station. By this time probably 50,000 people had assembled in the vicinity of Pearl, Seneca and Erie streets and the terrace. The crowd was so great that it became necessary to rope off the entire street in front of the police headquarters and at a late hour tonight the police are still patrolling the streets in the neighborhood in squads of three or four.
Inside the station house assembled District Attorney Penny, Superintendent of Police Bull, Captain Reagan of the First Precinct, and other officials. The prisoner at first proved quite communicative, so much so in fact that little dependence could be placed on what he said. He first gave his name as Fred Nieman, and said his home was in Detroit, and that he had been in Buffalo about a week. He said he was boarding at a place on Broadway. Later this place was located as John Nowak’s saloon, No. 1078 Broadway. Here the prisoner occupied Room 8. Nowak, the proprietor, said he knew very little about his guest.
He came there, he [Nowak] declared, last Saturday, saying he had come to see the Pan-American Exposition. He was alone at all times and had no visitors. In the room was found a small traveling bag of cheap make. It contained an empty cartridge box and a few clothes.
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