Assassination of U.S. President William McKinley

Assassination of William McKinley – Artist’s conception of the shooting of McKinley in September, 1901

There is no speck of doubt that 25th U.S. President William McKinley played a crucial role in steering the nation out of a depression in the late 19th century. Sadly for the nation, President McKinley’s life was cut short just a few months into his second term in the White House. The Ohio-born politician was shot at point blank range in the torso by Leon Czolgosz, a crazed man of Polish decent.

The assassination of President McKinley on September 6, 1901, meant that he was the third POTUS in the history of the nation to suffer such tragic fate.

Fast Facts about William McKinley

Birthday: January 29, 1843

Place of birth: Niles, Ohio, U.S.

Death: September 14, 1901

Place of death: Buffalo, New York, U.S.

Cause of death: Assassination

Parents: William McKinley Sr. and Nancy Allison

Spouse: Ida Saxton (married in 1871)

Children: 2 – Katherine (born in 1871) and Ida (born in 1873)

Education: Allegheny College, Mount Union College, and Albany Law School

Political Party: Republican Party

Elected Public Offices: 25th President of the United States; 39th Governor of Ohio (1892-1896); Member of the U.S. Congress (1877 – 1884 and 1885-1891)

Presidency: March 4, 1897 to September 14, 1901

Predecessor: Grover Cleveland

Successor: Theodore Roosevelt

Most famous accomplishments: McKinley Tariff of 1890; Leading the U.S. to victory during the Spanish-American War; Annexing Hawaii

President McKinley’s speech on September 5, 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York

McKinley was a on a two-day visit to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Not only were participants in the exposition thrilled by the presence of the president, but they was a lot of interest in the various attractions on display, like the 389-foot electric tower which was powered by hydroelectric power from the Niagara Falls.

McKinley’s approval rating had seen a significant jump due to his handling of the Spanish-American War (1898), a war that saw the U.S. defeat Spain. And as part of the Peace Treaty of Paris in December 1898, Spain ceded control of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the U.S.

On September 5, 1901, close to 120,000 people thronged into the exposition and waited to listen to the speech given by President McKinley, a man they described as the “Chief of the American Empire”.

September 6, 1901

President McKinley greeting well-wishers at a reception in the Temple of Music minutes before he was shot September 6, 1901

Going against the recommendations of his staff about a possible security breech situation, President McKinley was determined to interact with his supporters at a public meet-and-greet event in the Temple of Music theater.

As a precautionary measure, McKinley’s security team was increased as police and soldiers took up strategic positions to ward off any possible attack on the president.

The president’s security raised concerns over how exposed the venue was. George B. Cortelyou, his personal secretary, even advised that president cancel the 4 p.m. meet-and-greet event.

25th U.S. President William McKinley was shot by a deranged man on September 6, 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. | Image: The official Presidential portrait of William McKinley, by Harriet Anderson Stubbs Murphy

Leon Czolgosz, the man who killed President William McKinley

Assassination of William McKinley | Image: Leon Czolgosz

Leon Czolgosz, a mentally unhinged 28-year-old man, was among the thousands of supporters that waited on that day to either catch a glimpse of McKinley or shake the president’s hand. Investigations revealed that Czolgosz, a professed anarchist, made his way to Buffalo, New York, a few days before the event. While in the city, he bought a .32 caliber Iver Johnson revolver.

“All those people seemed bowing to the great ruler. I made up my mind to kill that ruler.”

The would-be assassin concealed the fully loaded weapon in his white handkerchief which was then tugged inside his jacket pocket.

Appearing with the calmest of composure, Leon Czolgosz walked towards President McKinley at around 4:07 pm. He remained calm in order not to give anything away to the team of Secret Service agents that watched the president.

McKinley is said to have given a smile and stretched his hand to the unsuspecting Czolgosz. It was right at that moment that Leon Czolgosz took out the weapon concealed in his jacket pocket and then proceeded to shoot President McKinley at point blank range. The president was shot twice as a blanket of silence covered the entire venue for a second.

Just as Czolgosz was about to take a third shot, a well-built African American man by the name of James Parker (also known as “Big Jim”) knocked down the assailant with a powerful punch. In a twinkle of an eye, several Secret Service agents and soldiers had swarmed Czolgosz. The assailant was beaten until McKinley ordered them to stop. The assassin was then whisked away by the soldiers.

Where was McKinley shot?

In a blood-stained white vest, a bewildered McKinley was quickly taken to the nearest hospital which was the Pan-American Exposition’s hospital. Frantic efforts were made by the surgeon in the operating theater to stop the president from bleeding further.

President McKinley’s assailant had shot him in the sternum and the stomach. The latter bullet is said to have gone straight through the stomach. Therefore stitching the stomach wounds was possible. It was the first bullet that caused great alarm, as the surgeon could not locate it. Medical experts believed that the bullet sat in the back of the president.

Did you know: the weapon Czolgosz bought to carry out his heinous crime was the same kind of weapon used to kill King Uberto I of Italy in 1900?

McKinley’s false recovery

In the couple of days following the shooting, McKinley’s doctors were optimistic and very impressed by the president’s recovery. The president’s second-in-command vice president Theodore Roosevelt was “absolutely sure” that McKinley was in good hands and expected McKinley to be back in full health as soon as possible.

In a twist of events, the president’s health began to deteriorate at an alarming rate on September 13. Doctors had started noticing the gangrene that spread across the stomach of the president. His recovery was thwarted by the fact that he was suffering from a severe blood poisoning. As he kept moving in and out of consciousness, doctors tried their possible best to reverse his downward trend.

Death of President William McKinley

Around midnight of September 13, it all looked bleak for McKinley. The president ultimately passed away at quarter past two on September 14. He was survived by his two children and his wife Ida Saxton.

The news of McKinley’s death sent the entire nation into mourning. Several world leaders expressed their deepest condolence to the deceased president’s family and the people of the United States.

On September 17, McKinley was given the highest honor as his body was laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Businesses and other organizations shut their doors as the president’s funeral train went through many cities before arriving at Canton, Ohio, the final resting place of the slain president.

Did you know: Leon Czolgosz original intention was to kill President McKinley during his September 5 speech to close to 120,000 people at the Buffalo Pan-American Expedition?

Why did Leon Czolgosz kill President McKinley?

Following the assassination of McKinley, the police extensively interrogated the assassin Leon Czolgosz for many days at the Buffalo county jail.

From the interrogations, it was revealed that Czolgosz killed McKinley because he believed America ought to be free of rulers. Those revelations of his were in line with his anarchist sentiments. The Michigan-born assailant also expressed his complete hate of the U.S. republican system of governance.  By killing President McKinley, the deranged anarchist believed that he was doing his sacred duty as a citizen.

Czolgosz also stated that he acted independently. Police did however state that Czolgosz was heavily influenced by the hateful speeches of anarchist Emma Goldman. With no direct connections between Czolgosz and about a dozen anarchist members in Chicago, the police eventually released Goldman and other anarchist members that were arrested.

Trial and Death sentencing of Leon Czolgosz

Investigations revealed that Czolgosz followed President McKinley throughout the latter’s stay in Buffalo. The assassin’s original intention was to kill the president while he disembarked from the train on September 5.

Due to the severity of his crime, Leon Czolgosz was quickly processed for a court trial, which began on September 23. It took less than three days for the prosecution to successfully push for the death penalty. With the defense argument being weakened by the death of President McKinley, the court found Leon Czolgosz guilty and slapped him with the death penalty (by the electric chair).

At New York’s Auburn Prison, while the whole nation and the world mourned the death of President McKinley, Leon Czolgosz’s death sentence was carried out on October 29, 1901. Still maintaining his deluded stance, the killer went to the grave without any remorse for his heinous crime.

Did you know: Many European monarchs were so moved by the assassination of President William McKinley that many of them declared national days of mourning for the deceased president?

President William McKinley’s successor

William McKinley’s successor Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States

As per the order of succession at the time (according to the  12th Amendment), Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took the presidential oath of office following the death of McKinley on September 14, 1901.

Riding on his heroics during the Spanish-American War (1898), Theodore Roosevelt’s assumption of the reins of power in some way helped instill a bit of confidence and hope in a nation that was reeling from the death of McKinley.

More William McKinley Facts

He was the last president of the United States to serve in the American Civil War (1861-1865). McKinley went on to attain the rank of brevet major in the Union Army.

He was 34 years of age when he won a seat in Congress, representing Ohio’s 17th congressional district.

Since his days as a practicing attorney in Ohio, McKinley always had a soft spot for labor unions and workers’ associations. He famously put up a strong defense for a group of coal miners accused of rioting. The Ohio-born attorney succeeded in getting all but one of those miners acquitted.

McKinley was known for using the front porch campaign strategy to great efficiency as he delivered speeches right from the balcony of his home to more than half a million people. The strategy proved to be a huge success in securing him the White House job in 1897.

He led the U.S. to victory over Spain during the 1898 Spanish-American War. Following the 100-day war, the European nation ceded control (at the Peace Treaty of Paris in December 1898) of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the United States.

He maintained an “Open Door Policy” when it came to trade with China by calling on European nations to lift trade restrictions.

President William McKinley’s tenure marked the beginning of America’s dominance in the world, a status it has held since then – both militarily and economically.

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