Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1901: Polish-American anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley

On September 6, 1901, Polish-American anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot and fatally wounded U.S. President William McKinley at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York.

The son of Polish immigrants, Leon Czolgosz was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1873. By the age of 17, he found employment at the Cleveland Rolling Mill Company, but lost his job during the economic Panic of 1893. Finding little comfort in the Catholic Church and other immigrant institutions, Czolgosz sought others who shared his concerns regarding injustice.

Who was Leon Czolgosz?

Leon Czolgosz joined a moderate working man’s socialist club, the Knights of the Golden Eagle, and eventually a more radical socialist group known as the Sila Club, where he became interested in anarchism. He was impressed after hearing a speech by the anarchist Emma Goldman, whom he met for the first time during one of her lectures in Cleveland in May 1901.

Leon Czolgosz believed there was a great injustice in American society, an inequality which allowed the wealthy to enrich themselves by exploiting the poor. He concluded that the reason for this was the structure of government itself. In the summer of 1901, Czolgosz moved to Buffalo, New York, though his reasons for doing so are not known, it has been speculated that he may have chosen Buffalo because of its large Polish population.

At the time, U.S. President William McKinley was at the height of his power. Elected in 1896, during the serious economic depression resulting from the Panic of 1893. McKinley led the nation both to a return to prosperity and to victory in the Spanish–American War in 1898, taking possession of such Spanish colonies as Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

Having long been an advocate of protective tariffs, McKinley planned to negotiate reciprocal trade agreements with other countries, which would open foreign markets to United States manufacturers. During a long trip planned for the months after his inauguration, he intended to make major speeches promoting this plan, culminating in a visit and address at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.

While in Buffalo, McKinley had two days of events. On Thursday, September 5, he was to deliver his address and then tour the fair. The following day, he was to visit Niagara Falls, and, on his return to Buffalo, meet the public at the Temple of Music on the Exposition grounds.

William McKinley rarely missed an opportunity to meet his constituents, but this particular event had worried his staff members, some of whom feared that an assassin might take the opportunity to strike. The President’s personal secretary, George B. Cortelyou, had even tried to cancel the reception on two separate occasions. Both times, McKinley had insisted that it remain on the schedule.

Leon Czolgosz went to the exposition armed with a concealed .32 caliber revolver he had purchased four days earlier. At precisely 4:07 P.M., Leon Czolgosz, who had patiently waited with the gun wrapped in a white handkerchief and concealed inside his jacket pocket, reached the front of the line and fired two shots at point blank range.

“I am not sorry for my crime”

“There was an instant of almost complete silence, like the hush that follows a clap of thunder,” the New York Times later wrote. “The president stood stock still, a look of hesitancy, almost of bewilderment, on his face. Then he retreated a step while a pallor began to steal over his features. The multitude seemed only partially aware that something serious had happened.”

The stillness was only broken when James “Big Jim” Parker, a tall African American man who had been waiting in line, punched Czolgosz and prevented him from firing a third shot. A host of soldiers and detectives also pounced on the assassin who was taken to Buffalo’s 13th Precinct house and held in a cell there until he was moved to police headquarters.

McKinley’s stomach wound was not lethal, but he died eight days later of an infection which had spread from the wound.

A grand jury indicted Czolgosz with one count of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. He was electrocuted by three jolts, each of 1,800 volts, in Auburn Prison on October 29, 1901. His last words were: “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.”

Coming at a time when the United States began to emerge as an imperial power, the assassination of President William McKinley created a perception that the United States was under threat from anarchists. It led to the creation of surveillance programmes, which were eventually consolidated in 1908 as the Bureau of Investigation, which would later come to be known as the FBI.

Theodore Roosevelt, who rose to the nation’s highest office after McKinley’s death, even said at the time, “When compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance.”

Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.

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