Last week’s crime, the murder of four teenage girls in a Texas yogurt shop, was especially tragic. So, too, is this week’s case, the murder of an American president. In the fall of 1901, President William McKinley visited the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. An assassin shot him, and he died eight days later.
William McKinley was riding high in the late summer of 1901. He had started his second term as President of the United States earlier that year in March after a convincing win over William Jennings Bryan the previous November. Three years earlier, he was at the helm when the United States trounced Spain in the brief Spanish-American War and became a global imperial power.
McKinley, the last veteran of the American Civil War to serve as president, was popular with the American people, and he looked forward to a comfortable second term in office.
William McKinley Goes to the Fair
The Pan-American Exposition Company was formed in 1897 to stage a world’s fair in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area. The Spanish-American war put the project on a brief hold, but planning resumed once the war ended.
The Pan-American Exposition opened on May 1, 1901, on 350 acres in the western part of Buffalo, New York. President McKinley planned to visit on June 13 as part of an extended tour of the United States. However, First Lady Ida McKinley fell ill in California, causing the president to modify his schedule and cancel several public appearances.
McKinley rescheduled his visit to the Exposition for early September 1901. On September 5, he delivered a speech from an open platform without incident. The following day, September 6, the president held a reception in the Temple of Music, shaking hands with well-wishers as they passed.
An Assassin Strikes
McKinley had been shaking hands for about ten minutes when Leon Czolgosz (pronounced CHOL-gosh), a laborer from Detroit and an avowed anarchist, reached the head of the line. A handkerchief covered his right hand like a bandage. As the president prepared to shake his left hand, Czolgosz fired two shots from an Iver Johnson .32 caliber revolver hidden underneath the handkerchief. The first shot ricocheted off a coat button, but the second wounded McKinley in the stomach. Czolgosz prepared to fire a third shot for the coup de grâce while the crowd looked on in horror. James Parker, an African-American man from Georgia next in line, slammed into the shooter, trying to take the gun away. Soon, Czolgosz disappeared underneath a pile of men punching and kicking him.
After the second bullet struck him, McKinley lurched forward a step before aids helped him into a chair. Seeing the pummeling Czolgosz was taking, he ordered it stopped. Then he told Treasury Secretary George Cortelyou, “My wife—be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her—oh, be careful.”
Treating McKinley’s Wounds
Any student of presidential history will marvel at the poor quality of medical care our past chief executives have received. William McKinley was no exception. An electric ambulance took the wounded president to the Exposition hospital. Although the hospital did have an operating room, it did not have a surgeon on duty. The first physician on the scene was Herman Mynter, who injected McKinley with morphine and strychnine to ease pain. When a second doctor, Matthew B. Mann, arrived, it was decided to operate.
Although the exteriors of most of the Exposition buildings were covered with thousands of light bulbs, the hospital operating room had no electric lighting. Instead, the doctors relied on the rapidly fading sunlight reflected by a metal pan to illuminate McKinley’s wounds. Dr. Mann, a noted gynecologist without experience with abdominal wounds, repaired the entrance and exit wounds from the bullet that perforated the stomach. He then covered the area with a bandage but failed to provide for any drainage from the wound.
An electric ambulance took McKinley from the Exposition hospital to the home of James G. Milburn, the Exposition president.
The Death of William McKinley
At first, McKinley seemed to be on his way to recovering from the gunshot. Saturday, September 7, found him relaxed and conversational. Cabinet members and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, who had hurried to Buffalo upon receiving word of the shooting, began to leave on September 9. Roosevelt took off for a vacation in the wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains.
A few days later, on September 13, McKinley suffered a collapse. His apparent recovery had been a mirage. Gangrene was growing on the walls of his stomach and flooding his body with toxins. At 2:15 a.m. on September 14, 1901, President William McKinley died.
Justice for Leon Czolgosz was swift. On September 16, a grand jury indicted him with one count of first-degree murder. Although he chatted freely with his guards, he refused to have anything to do with Robert C. Titus and Loran L. Lewis, the judges-turned-lawyers assigned to defend him.
Czolgosz’s trial began on September 23, 1901, nine days after McKinley died. Prosecution testimony took two days and consisted principally of the doctors who treated McKinley and various eyewitnesses to the shooting. Defense attorney Lewis called no witnesses but praised McKinley in his twenty-seven-minute closing argument to the jury. The jury deliberated less than half an hour before returning a guilty verdict.
Czolgosz died in the electric chair at New York’s Auburn Prison on October 29, 1901, forty-five days after President McKinley’s death. Unrepentant to the end, his last words were, “I shot the president because I thought it would help the working people and for the sake of the common people. I am not sorry for my crime. I am awfully sorry because I could not see my father.”
You can read more about President McKinley, Leon Czolgosz, and the assassination in The President and the Assassin by Scott Miller.
Don’t Miss Out! Subscribe to the Newsletter
Subscribe to True Crime in the News, a monthly email newsletter that looks at recent news stories that will interest any true crime fan. There is also a summary of the previous month’s blog posts. You won’t want to miss this. Sign up for the newsletter today.