Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Leon Frank Czołgosz was an American steelworker and anarchist who assassinated American PresidentWilliam McKinley on September 6, 1901, in Buffalo, New York. Czolgosz was executed seven weeks later on October 29, 1901. While some American anarchists described his action as inevitable, motivated by what they saw as the country’s brutal social conditions, others condemned his actions, arguing that he hindered the movement’s goals by damaging its public perception.
Czolgosz was born in Alpena, Michigan, on May 5, 1873.[a] He was one of eight children born to the Polish-American family of Paul Czolgosz (1843-1944) and his wife Mary Nowak. The Czolgosz family moved to Detroit, Michigan, when Leon was 5 years old.[b] When he was 10, while living in Posen, Michigan, Czolgosz’s mother died six weeks after giving birth to his sister, Victoria. In his mid-teens, he worked in a glass factory in Natrona, Pennsylvania. By age 17, he found employment at the Cleveland Rolling Mill Company.
After the economic crash of 1893, when the factory closed for some time and looked to reduce wages, the workers went on strike. With great economic and social turmoil around him, Czolgosz found little comfort in the Catholic Church and other immigrant institutions, and sought others who shared his concerns regarding injustice. He 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. Czolgosz rejected his family’s Catholic beliefs and became excited when he heard that an Italian immigrant named Gaetano Bresci returned to Italy and assassinated King Umberto I. He kept newspaper cuttings of the assassination and started to read anarchist papers.
Interest in Anarchism
In 1898, after witnessing a series of similar strikes, many ending in violence, and perhaps ill from a respiratory disease, Czolgosz went to live with his father, who had bought a 50-acre (20 ha) farm the year before in Warrensville, Ohio. He did little to assist in the running of the farm and was constantly at odds with his stepmother and with his family’s Catholic beliefs. It was later recounted that throughout his life he had never shown any interest in friendship or romantic relationships and was bullied during his childhood by peers.
He became a recluse. 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. After the lecture, Czolgosz approached the speakers’ platform and asked for reading recommendations. On the afternoon of July 12, 1901, he visited her at the home of Abraham Isaak, publisher of the newspaper Free Society, in Chicago and introduced himself as Fred Nieman (nobody),[c] but Goldman was on her way to the train station. He only had enough time to explain to her about his disappointment in Cleveland’s socialists, and for Goldman to introduce him to her anarchist friends who were at the train station. She later wrote a piece in defense of Czolgosz, which paints a portrait of him and his history much at odds with what has been recorded: “Who can tell how many times this American child has gloried in the celebration of the 4th of July, or on Decoration Day, when he faithfully honored the nation’s dead? Who knows but what he, too, was willing to ‘fight for his country and die for her liberty?”
In the weeks that followed, his social awkwardness, his evasiveness, and his blunt inquiries about secret societies around Isaak and another anarchist, Emil Schilling, caused the radical Free Society newspaper to issue a warning pertaining to Czolgosz, on September 1, reading:
ATTENTION! The attention of the comrades is called to another spy. He is well dressed, of medium height, rather narrow shoulders, blond and about 25 years of age. Up to the present he has made his appearance in Chicago and Cleveland. In the former place he remained but a short time, while in Cleveland he disappeared when the comrades had confirmed themselves of his identity and were on the point of exposing him. His demeanor is of the usual sort, pretending to be greatly interested in the cause, asking for names or soliciting aid for acts of contemplated violence. If this same individual makes his appearance elsewhere the comrades are warned in advance, and can act accordingly.
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. Then he learned of a European crime which changed his life: On July 29, 1900, King Umberto I of Italy had been shot dead by anarchist Gaetano Bresci. Bresci told the press that he had decided to take matters into his own hands for the sake of the common man.
New York City police lieutenant Joseph Petrosino believed that the same Italian-based anarchist group suspected of responsibility for King Umberto’s death was also targeting President McKinley, but his warnings were ignored.
Assassination of President William McKinley
On August 31, 1901, Czolgosz traveled to Buffalo, New York, the site of the Pan-American Exposition, where he rented a room in Nowak’s Hotel at 1078 Broadway.
On September 6, Czolgosz went to the exposition armed with a concealed .32 caliber Iver Johnson “Safety Automatic” revolver he had purchased four days earlier. He approached McKinley, who had been standing in a receiving line inside the Temple of Music, greeting the public for ten minutes. At 4:07 P.M., Czolgosz reached the front of the line. McKinley extended his hand. Czolgosz slapped it aside and shot the President in the abdomen twice, at point blank range: the first bullet ricocheted off a coat button and lodged in McKinley’s jacket; the other seriously wounded him in his stomach. McKinley’s stomach wound was not lethal, but he died eight days later on September 14, 1901 of an infection which had spread from the wound.
James Parker, a man standing directly behind Czolgosz, struck the assassin in the neck and knocked the gun out of his hand; as McKinley slumped backwards, members of the crowd began beating Czolgosz. “Go easy on him, boys”, the President told the attackers. The police struggled to keep the angry crowd off Czolgosz. Czolgosz was taken to Buffalo’s 13th Precinct house at 346 Austin Street and held in a cell there until he was moved to police headquarters.
Trial and Execution
After McKinley’s death, newly inaugurated President Theodore Roosevelt declared, “When compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance.”
On September 13, the day before McKinley succumbed to his wounds, Czolgosz was taken from the police headquarters, which were undergoing repairs, and transferred to the Erie County Women’s Penitentiary. On September 16, he was brought to the Erie County Jail ahead of being arraigned before County Judge Emery. After the arraignment, Czolgosz was transferred to Auburn State Prison.
A grand jury indicted Czolgosz on September 16 with one count of first-degree murder. Throughout his incarceration, Czolgosz spoke freely with his guards, but he refused every interaction with Robert C. Titus and Loran L. Lewis, the prominent judges-turned-attorneys assigned to defend him, and with the expert psychiatrist sent to test his sanity.
The case was prosecuted by the Erie County District Attorney, Thomas Penney, and assistant D.A. Frederick Haller, whose performance was described as “flawless”.[d] Although Czolgosz answered that he was pleading “Guilty”, presiding Judge Truman C. White overruled him and entered a “Not Guilty” plea on his behalf.
Czolgosz’s trial began in the state courthouse in Buffalo on September 23, 1901, only 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. Lewis and his co-counsel called no witnesses, which Lewis in his closing argument attributed to Czolgosz’s refusal to cooperate with them. In his 27-minute address to the jury, Lewis took pains to praise McKinley. Scott Miller, author of The President and the Assassin, notes that the closing argument was more calculated to defend the attorney’s “place in the community, rather than an effort to spare his client the electric chair”.
Even had the jury believed the defense that Czolgosz was insane, by claiming that no sane man would have shot and killed the president in such a public and blatant manner, knowing he would be caught, there was still the legal definition of insanity to be overcome. Under New York law, Czolgosz was legally insane only if he was unable to understand what he was doing. And the jury was unconvinced of Czolgosz’s insanity due to the directions given to them by White, thus convicting him in only less than a half-hour of deliberations (a jury member later said it would have been sooner but they wanted to review the evidence before conviction).
Czolgosz had two visits the night before his execution, one with two clergymen and another later in the night with his brother and brother-in-law. Even though Czolgosz refused Father Fudzinski and Father Hickey twice, Superintendent Collins permitted their visit and escorted them to his cell. The priests pleaded for 45-minutes for him to repent but he refused and they left. His brother and brother-in-law visited after the priests had left. His brother asked him “Who got you into this scrape?” to which Leon responded “No one. Nobody had anything to do with it but me.” His brother responded saying this was unlike him and was not how he was raised. When asked by his brother if he wanted the priests to come back he responded, “No, —- them; don’t send them here again I don’t want them” and “Don’t you have any praying over me when I’m dead, I don’t want it. I don’t want none of their —- religion.” His father wrote a letter to his son the night before his execution, wishing him luck and informing him that he could no longer help him and Leon had to “pay the price for his actions.”
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. I am sorry I could not see my father.” Czolgosz was electrocuted by three jolts, each of 1,800 volts, in Auburn Prison on October 29, 1901, 45 days after his victim’s death. He was pronounced dead at 7:14 a.m.
Czolgosz’s brother, Waldek, and his brother-in-law, Frank Bandowski, were in attendance at the execution. When Waldek asked the warden for his brother’s body to be taken for proper burial, he was informed that he “would never be able to take it away” and that crowds of people would mob him. Although post-trial Czolgosz and his attorneys were informed of his right to appeal the sentence, they chose not to after Czolgosz declined to appeal, and because the attorneys knew that there were no grounds for appeal; the trial had been “quick, swift, and fair.”
Czolgosz was autopsied by John E. Gerin;[e] his brain was autopsied by Edward Anthony Spitzka. The autopsy showed his teeth were normal but in poor condition; likewise the external genitals were normal, although scars were present, the result of chancroids. The autopsy showed the deceased was in good health; a death mask was made of his face. The body was buried on prison grounds following the autopsy. Prison authorities had planned to inter the body with quicklime to hasten its decomposition, but decided otherwise after testing quicklime on a sample of meat. After determining that they were not legally limited to the use of quicklime for the process, they poured sulfuric acid into Czolgosz’s coffin so that his body would be completely disfigured. The warden estimated that the acid caused the body to disintegrate within 12 hours. His clothes and possessions were burned in the prison incinerator to discourage exhibitions of his life.
Emma Goldman was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the assassination, but was released, due to insufficient evidence. She later incurred a great deal of negative publicity when she published “The Tragedy at Buffalo”. In the article, she compared Czolgosz to Marcus Junius Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar, and called McKinley the “president of the money kings and trust magnates.” Other anarchists and radicals were unwilling to support Goldman’s effort to aid Czolgosz, believing that he had harmed the movement.
The scene of the crime, the Temple of Music, was demolished in November 1901, along with the rest of the Exposition grounds. A stone marker in the median of Fordham Drive, a residential street in Buffalo, marks the approximate spot (42°56.321′N 78°52.416′W) where the shooting occurred. Czolgosz’s revolver is on display in the Pan-American Exposition exhibit at the Buffalo History Museum in Buffalo.
Lloyd Vernon Briggs, who later became the Director of the Massachusetts Department for Mental Hygiene, reviewed the Czolgosz case in 1901 on behalf of Dr. Walter Channing shortly after Czolgosz’s death.
Czolgosz is buried at Soule Cemetery in Cayuga County, New York.
a. His three older brothers, Warren, Frank and Joseph, were born in Poland while Louis was born in Michigan.
b. Czolgosz’s ancestors probably came from what is now Belarus. His father may have migrated to the US in the 1860s from Astravyets (Ostrowiec) near Wilno. When he arrived in the United States, he gave his ethnicity as Hungarian and changed the spelling of his surname from Zholhus (Жолгусь, Żołguś) to Czolgosz.
c. Czolgosz also sometimes used the surname “Nieman” [“Nobody”] and variations thereof
d. Dr. McDonald’s description of the trial.
e. Everett 1901, p. 448. “The physicians were: Dr. Carlos F. MacDonald of New York and Dr. Gerin of Auburn. Other witnesses were: E. Bonesteel, Troy; W. D. Wolff, Rochester; C. F. Rattigan, Auburn; George R. Peck, Auburn, N.Y.; W. N. Thayer, former warden of Dannemora prison, who assisted Warden Mead, and three newspaper correspondents.”
- Twelfth Census of the United States, United States Census, 1900; Orange, Cuyahoga, Ohio; roll T623 1261, page 4A, line 34.
- Rauchway, pp. 114, 126.
- Biography.com Editors. “Leon Frank Czolgosz Biography”. A&E Television Networks. Archived from the original on December 23, 2015. Retrieved December 22, 2015.
- Briggs 1921, p. 262.
- Everett 1901, p. 73.
- Everett 1901, Chapter 5
- Channing 1902.
- “Paul Czolgosz (1843-1944) – Find A Grave Memorial”. www.findagrave.com. Retrieved September 26, 2020. Андрей Довнар-Запольский (November 27, 2008).
- “Президента США Уильяма МакКинли застрелил белорус?”. Kp.ru. Retrieved July 12, 2013.
- Miller 2011, pp. 41.
- Briggs 1921, p. 287.
- Rauchway, p. 115.
- Miller 2011, pp. 56.
- Miller 2011, pp. 57-60.
- Jensen, Richard Bach (December 5, 2013). The Battle against Anarchist Terrorism: An International History, 1878–1934.
- Leon Czolgosz
- Miller 2011, pp. 231.
- “Assassin Known…” & September 8, 1901, col. 1 para. 8.
- Briggs 1921, p. 287, 304.
- Berlinski, Claire (2007). Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too. Three Rivers Press. p. 39.
- Vowell, Sarah (2005). Assassination Vacation. Simon and Schuster. p. 214.
Fired, then blacklisted, he got his old job back by working under the alias Fred Nieman. German for ‘nobody,’ Nieman is the name Czolgosz first gave to the Buffalo police upon arrest.
- Goldman 1931, pp. 289–290.
- “The Tragedy at Buffalo”.
- Sekulow, Jay Alan (December 13, 2007). Witnessing Their Faith: Religious Influence on Supreme Court Justices and Their Opinions. Sheed & Ward. p. 165.
- “Archived copy” (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on May 23, 2018. Retrieved January 24, 2010.
- “Czolgosz Says He Had No Aid”. Chicago Sunday Tribune. September 8, 1901 – via mckinleydeath.com.
- Taylerson, A. W. F. (1971). The Revolver, 1889-1914. New York City: Crown Publishers. p. 60.
- Johns, A. Wesley (1970). “The man who shot McKinley”. A. S. Barnes: 97.
- Leon Czolgosz and the Trial — “Lights out in the City of Light” — Anarchy and Assassination at the Pan-American Exposition Archived February 8, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
- “The Legal Aftermath of the Assassination of William McKinley – Pan-American Exposition of 1901 – University at Buffalo Libraries”. buffalo.edu.
- “September 6, 1901”. nps.gov.
- “The Trial and Execution of Leon Czolgosz”. Buffalohistoryworks.com. Archived from the original on February 17, 2012. Retrieved July 12, 2013.
- Doherty 2011.
- Briggs 1921, pp. 246–47.
- Oliver, Willard M.; Marion, Nancy E. (2010). Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. p. 66.
- Hamilton, Dr. Allan McLane. Autobiography. Pre-1921
- Miller, Scott (2011). The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century. New York City, United States: Random House.
- Great American Trials 1994, pp. 225–227.
- “Assassin Czolgosz Pays Death Penalty in Electric Chair”. San Francisco. The San Francisco Call. p. 1.
- MacDonald, Carlos F. (January 1902). “The Trial, Execution, Autopsy and Mental Status of Leon F. Czolgosz, Alias Fred Nieman, the Assassin of President McKinley”. The American Journal of Insanity. 58 (3): 375. Retrieved November 10, 2019.
- “The Execution of Leon Czolgosz—’Lights Out in the City of Light’—Anarchy and Assassination at the Pan-American Exposition”. Ublib.buffalo.edu. June 11, 2004. Archived from the original on September 27, 2011. Retrieved July 12, 2013.
- Briggs 1921, p. 260.
- “Assassin Czolgosz…” & October 30, 1901.
- Brandon, Craig (March 3, 2016). The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. p. 214.
- “The Tragedy at Buffalo”. Ublib.buffalo.edu. June 11, 2004. Archived from the original on September 27, 2011. Retrieved July 12, 2013.
- Goldman 1931, pp. 311–319.
- “Site of the Assassination of President McKinley”. Retrieved July 30, 2010.
- Rauchway, p. 55.
- Andrews, E. Benjamin (1912). History of the United States. six volumes. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Retrieved June 22, 2011.
- “Assassin Czolgosz Is Executed At Auburn. He Declared that He Felt No Regret for His Crime. Autopsy Disclosed No. Mental Abnormalities. Body Buried in Acid in the Prison Cemetery”. The New York Times. October 30, 1901. Retrieved April 30, 2011.
At 7:12:30 o’clock this morning, Leon Frans Czolgosz, murderer of … the formal finding in his case was composed as follows: Foreman, John P. Jaeckel. …
- “Assassin Known As A Rabid Anarchist; Parents of Czolgosz Found at Home in Cleveland. One Member of the Family Now Draws a Pension from the Federal Government” (PDF). The New York Times (published September 8, 1901). September 7, 1901. Retrieved May 4, 2014. Lay summary.
- Briggs, L. Vernon (1921). The Manner of Man That Kills.
- Carnes, Mark C. (1999). “Czolgosz, Leon F. (1873–1901), assassin of President William McKinley”. In Garraty, John A.; Carnes, Mark C. (eds.). American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Channing, Walter (1902). “The Mental Status of Czolgosz”. American Journal of Insanity. 59 (2): 1–47. doi:10.1176/ajp.59.2.233. ISSN0002-953X.
- Doherty, Brian (January 2011). “The First War on Terror”. Reason Magazine. A review of The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents, by Alex Butterworth, Pantheon Books…
- Everett, Marshall (1901). Complete Life of William McKinley and Story of his Assassination. Historical Press.
- Goldman, Emma (1931). Living My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- “Leon Czolgosz Trial: 1901”. Great American Trials. New England Publishing. 1994. pp. 225–227.
- Lee, Earl (2001). You Are Being Lied To. The Disinformation Company.
- Miller, Scott (2011). The President and the Assassin. New York: Random House.
- Rauchway, Eric (2004). Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America (paperback ed.). Hill and Wang.
- Richardson, Heather Cox (August 24, 2003). “A captivating tale of a murder that mattered, and why it did”. Chicago Tribune. p. 7. Archived from the original on May 18, 2012. Retrieved June 22, 2011. Alt URL a review of Rauchway’s Murdering McKinley
- Seibert, Jeffrey W. (2002). I Done My Duty: The Complete Story of the Assassination of President McKinley (Illustrated ed.). Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 01.29.2003, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.