William McKinley was, by all accounts, an exceptional President. He successfully led the country to victory during the Spanish-American War, and he oversaw the nation’s rebound from the grievous economic crisis of 1893. At the height of his popularity he was shot during a brief public reception at the Temple of Music during the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. The theme of the exposition was electricity and its many marvelous uses.
William McKinley was the last Civil War veteran to hold the office of the Presidency. He enlisted as a Private and ended the war as a Brevet Major. McKinley served at the Second Battle of Bull Run as well as Antietam. McKinley had a horse shot from under him at Berryville during the Shenandoah Valley campaign.
McKinley’s personal life was, as was so often the case during this time, fraught with tragedy. His two daughters succumbed to illness in childhood, and his wife was emotionally distraught and physically frail ever after. However, McKinley threw himself into politics and was recognized as an innovative, principled, and popular leader.
After the death of his Vice President Garrett Hobart in 1899, McKinley completed his first term without securing a replacement. For his second term, he took on a young war hero, the Governor of New York named Theodore Roosevelt. Sordid events to come would soon elevate Roosevelt to unexpected heights.
Leon Czolgosz was a Polish-American anarchist who never seemed terribly good at anything. He worked for a time in a glass factory but lost his livelihood during the economic crash of 1893. This event combined with disillusionment with the Catholic Church drove him to revolutionary anarchist teachings.
Anarchists believed in essence that government of any sort was bad. Their MO in Europe was to attempt to enact their nihilist vision for society through political assassination and terrorism. Czolgosz was a disciple of the anarchist writer Emma Goldman and sought out her company. Eventually, she began to get a stalker vibe and started avoiding him. In fact, his blunt demeanor and painful social awkwardness led some in the movement to label him an obvious spy working on behalf of the government.
Czolgosz was indeed a fairly pathetic figure. Unable to hold a proper job, his sundry personality defects kept him on the move and unattached. Inspired by successful anarchist assassins in Europe, Czolgosz began to view President McKinley as the embodiment of the hated establishment. In his twisted mind, McKinley seemed institutionally responsible for his individual failure a well. As a result, Czolgosz walked into Walbridge’s Hardware Store in Buffalo, NY, and purchased an inexpensive .32-caliber Iver Johnson Safety Automatic revolver. With this, he embarked upon his journey to assassinate the President in earnest.
President McKinley enjoyed mingling with the public and had a legendary handshake. He could shake hands at a consistent and sustained rate of fifty hands per minute. He had a refined technique that prevented his hand becoming strained unduly by overly vigorous acquaintances. On the day of his shooting McKinley’s personal secretary, George Cortelyou attempted to cancel his public reception twice over security concerns only to have the President overrule him both times.
The President was scheduled to speak on September 5th and then tour the fair exhibits. Of the 116,000 people in attendance that day, roughly 50,000 of them attended his speech. His assassin tried to get close enough for a shot this first day but was kept back by the President’s security detail. The following day at the Temple of Music reception would be his best opportunity.
Czolgosz queued up well in advance for his chance to meet McKinley. The rules held that those wishing to greet the President had to have both hands in clear view and empty. However, it was hot this day, and folks were mopping their sweaty brows with handkerchiefs aplenty. The rules were therefore relaxed.
When Czolgasz got his turn he held out both hands, his right draped in a white handkerchief. Presuming the handkerchief to be a dressing for a wound of some sort, the President reached to take his killer’s left hand in greeting. At that moment Leon Czolgosz fired off two quick shots from his diminutive .32-caliber wheelgun.
One round struck a button and deflected. The President subsequently found this spent bullet loose in his clothes during his ride to the hospital.
The other round, however, penetrated deep, ventilating the stomach, bowel, pancreas, and adrenal glands before lodging in his back muscles.
Spectators and security personnel were on Leon Czolgosz in an instant, but the damage was done. The President intervened personally and entreated those subduing his attacker not to harm him. The only thing witnesses reported Czolgosz having said was, “I done my duty.”
The Iver Johnson .32-caliber Safety Automatic was a diminutive pocket gun that came in three major variants as well as hammerless and conventional versions.
All of these weapons were top-break six-shot revolvers. The first two models were designed to fire black powder cartridges and differentiated by their latching systems. The third model was configured for smokeless powder.
All of these guns were available in either blue or an electroplated nickel finish.
The gun was a fairly efficient design patterned similarly to the English Webley revolver. The star-shaped ejector lifted all six empties up and out as the barrel tipped forward.
The front sight was an ample blade, while the rear sight was so miniscule as to be utterly worthless.
The trigger was a serviceable single action/double action, and the black rubber grips included the image of an owl on both sides.
The gun utilized a transfer bar firing pin for safety.
The .32 S&W was an epically crappy cartridge not much longer than the width of a quarter. A typical load pushed an 85-grain lead bullet to about 700 feet per second.
My revolver is the spitting image of the McKinley assassination gun and set me back $125 from a pawnshop. The overall geometry is really too small to accommodate an adult hand.
Given the gun’s advanced age and questionable personality, I lack the fortitude to fire it. However, I am reasonably certain that the gun would be soft-shooting and easily pointed. So long as you mind the spurred hammer it should run well from concealment.
As the theme of the exposition was electricity President McKinley rode to the fairgrounds infirmary in an electric-powered ambulance.
An esteemed group of surgeons was assembled, and they operated on the President with the limited tools they had available. Interestingly, one of the biggest challenges was illumination. Electric lights were not as effective as sunlight, so it was a race to complete the operation before the ambient light faded. One of Thomas Edison’s primitive X-ray machines was technically available for use, but it was not deemed trustworthy or practical at the time.
The surgeons repaired the stomach wound as well as the other readily accessible injuries. However, a surgeon buddy once opined, “Never mess with the pancreas.” Even if the other stuff had been manageable, McKinley’s pancreatic injury was likely catastrophic.
The patient improved for a time, but this is not uncommon with injuries of this sort. He was sustained via nutrient enemas and was purportedly a model patient. However, eight days after the shooting he decompensated and died of gangrene and fulminant sepsis. He was affectionate to his devoted wife until the end.
The Rest of the Story
Leon Czolgosz was put on trial for the murder of William McKinley nine days after the President’s death. The trial lasted forty-eight hours, and the defense called no witnesses. The jury deliberated half an hour before returning a guilty verdict.
Things were different back then. On October 29, 1901, a mere fifty-three days after he shot the President, Leon Czolgasz was executed by electric chair. His body was soaked in acid prior to his internment, I suppose just out of meanness. What little remained of him was ultimately buried on the grounds of the prison where he was executed.
Take Home Points
Czolgasz chose a truly horrible handgun for his mission. A coat button actually successfully deflected one round, while the other took eight days to end the life of his victim. McKinley’s wounds would have presented a technical challenge to a proper trauma surgeon today but should have been reliably survivable. McKinley’s obese habitus and a previously undiagnosed cardiomyopathy found on autopsy undoubtedly contributed to his death.
The deciding factor, in this case, was a lack of antibiotic drugs. In this era most any bacterial infection was potentially life-threatening. Given the inevitable corruption associated with stomach, gut, and pancreatic wounds there was little hope for the President from the moment the gun went off.
President McKinley guided the country through a pivotal time. Americans were deciding whether or not to become a proper colonial power while simultaneously recovering from a paralyzing economic crisis. In the final analysis, however, William McKinley died for a stupid irrelevant cause that had no functional basis in reality.
Human beings are innately sinful broken creatures. To expect people to govern themselves peaceably in the absence of some kind of formal structure is simply asinine. Then as now those who kill for passionate reasons frequently seem fairly pitiful in hindsight.