Republican president William McKinley was riding the crest of a wave in 1900. After scoring a decisive victory over old political sparring partner William Jennings Bryan, he was successfully re-elected. With victory in the Spanish-American War and the establishment the US Gold Standard, his popularity was at an all-time high.
The electric exposition
One of the objectives that McKinley failed to achieve while preoccupied with the war was a day at the Pan-American exposition. A world fair held in Buffalo, New York, it had been postponed until the war was over so the president could attend. Now back up and running, the fair would be held on 6 September and include exhibitions that showcased the latest developments in technology. Electric lighting was the latest technological advancement and the Electric Tower was covered in lightbulbs, wowing the mass crowds. All the governments from within the western hemisphere would be in attendance and it was an ideal opportunity for McKinley to show off the wealth and prosperity of the New World in a new century.
A man by the name of Leon Frank Czolgosz also travelled to Buffalo on that day. He was deeply angered by the divide between rich and poor and his radical politics had been inspired further by the assassination of King Umberto I of Italy on 29 July 1900. Czolgosz now believed he was the man to repeat this on American soil. Mounted police patrolled the entrance but would they notice an inconspicuous 28-year-old man from Michigan?
In the Temple of Music
The president was ecstatic to be in attendance at the state of the art show but had been advised against appearing by his personal secretary George Cortelyou due to safety concerns. McKinley brushed off these fears, perhaps slightly naively, confidently proclaiming, “No one would wish hurt me”. As the elites of society poured in, the president stood at the head of the reception line in the Temple of Music, greeting and shaking the hand of each and every visitor. In the line was Czolgosz who had been quietly waiting for his turn to meet the president for over two hours to meet the president. Cortelyou looked at the face of each person as they came in contact with the president and was keen to move him onto his next appointment. On approaching McKinley, Czolgosz had his right hand draped in a handkerchief. Believing this to be an injury, McKinley went to shake his left hand but as he did so, Czolgosz thrust his right hand into the president’s stomach and unloaded his revolver, which was concealed below the handkerchief. He shot the president twice, one bouncing off his chest, the other embedding itself in his stomach. As McKinley fell, the crowds pounced on the assassin, preventing him from unloading a third bullet. It is reported that McKinley pleaded with his associates to go easy on Czolgosz and also to break the news to his wife gently. The president was rushed to hospital while his assassin was bundled into custody and awaited trail.
Death by gangrene
The shots didn’t kill McKinley immediately and it was hoped that he would make a full recovery. Surgery using ether as an anesthetic was performed upon the president in hospital but by the 14 September his condition had deteriorated rapidly. The surgeons were unable to locate the second bullet and gangrene set in, killing the president.
Czologosz meanwhile was taken through an angry mob to the nearest police station. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to the electric chair. Ironic perhaps that an electric device would end his life after shooting the president at a fair promoting the wonders of electricity. Over a 1,000 requests were received to attend the execution, as a vengeful American public vented their anger at the president’s assailant.
A cold killer and a beloved president
Leon Frank Czolgosz would go down with the likes John Wilkes Booth as an infamous figure in American history. McKinley died a popular president but his achievements were overshadowed somewhat by his successor Theodore Roosevelt who went on to become one of the most popular presidents of all time. McKinley’s death was the third presidential assassination in 36 years and congress responded by adding presidential security to the list of the Secret Service’s duties. The first presidential assassination of the 20th Century however, wouldn’t be the last.
Three quick McKinley facts:
• He was the first president to ride an automobile while in office
• Sticking with technology, he was the first president to use a telephone in a campaign
• McKinley was the only president between Andrew Johnson and Woodrow Wilson to be clean shaven.