The assassination of William McKinley

Leon Czolgosz had a surname that was a bit of a mouthful. As a child, it is likely to have taken him some time to get the tongue around. His friends likely opted for Leon. Born in Michigan, Leon might be the most famous person to have ever come out of Alpena, a small, isolated town on the lower Michigan peninsular. That our Leon is famous, is not a good thing. There is no library named after him, no high school. The airport is known as the Alpena County Regional Airport. The reason Leon is not a celebrated figure in his home town is that on the 6th September 1901, at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York, Leon shot William McKinley. Unless you studied American history or are, indeed, American, William McKinley may well draw a blank look and a mumbled question about whether there might be any more peanuts. William McKinley, though, was the 25th President of the United States. A big cheese. Hence Leon’s fame.

McKinley had swept to power in 1896 with the United States in the grip of an economic depression wrought by the great ‘Panic of 1893’, an economic depression so great they were unable to even give it a name. It was just called the ‘Panic’, and then suffixed with the year; to avoid, perhaps, confusion with other great panics, such as the time Evelyn the Gorilla escaped her enclosure in Los Angeles zoo by shimmying up some overgrown vines, before running loose through the park for over an hour as terrified visitors climbed into trees and TV news helicopters thumped overhead. Mmm.

The ‘Panic of 1893’ had no gorillas, but it did have foreign coups, bankruptcies, epic crop failure and a run on gold at the US Treasury. Like a bushfire, panic quickly scorched the economies of Europe and South America too. Panic indeed.

With McKinley in charge though, the US soon romped back into form, giving Spain a wallop round the chops with a seasoned chorizo sausage of its own, in the bitter 1898 Spanish-American war, in doing so snaffling exotic colonies such as Puerto Rico and the Philippines. McKinley stood over a period of rapid growth, promoting modernization, efficiency and the virtues of scientific endeavour. McKinley was pro-business, and pro-American interventionism. His leadership chimed with the rise of what historians laud as the ‘Progressive Era’; a time of activism and reform hell bent on ridding high government of corruption. Stirring stuff.

Not so stirring for Leon, mind. After leaving school at fourteen, Leon found work in factories, as he might, having so stymied his economic potential with a big pre-GCSE “I’m outta here” in the face of the formal education system. Still school is not for everyone but neither, for Leon, it appeared was factory work. Come the ‘Panic’ Leon was toiling forth at the Cleveland Rolling Mill Company, whose owner quickly decided that in the interests of his own solvency, it would be a good idea to close the company down.

That stuffed Leon who, at a loose end, soon fell into a radical socialist group known as the Sila Club, a club which, if googled today, is variously: an Italian campervan collective, an international woman’s group based in Ljubljana – the capital of Slovenia – or a 4×4 from a lesser known car manufacturer. It might also be a Russian night club, but is one that doesn’t pander to curious English speaking web traffic, so it might also be a brothel. What is clear is that in the throes of the nineteenth century, the Sila Club was a cauldron of political activism and it was where Leon first stumbled into the sweaty embrace of anarchism.

Anarchy has seeped into popular thought to mean chaos. Evelyn the Gorilla wrought anarchy on the idle keepers of LA zoo. The word conjures imagery of statues being toppled, looting, cars burning and rounds and rounds of ammunition being fired into the air by semi-naked middle aged men with beards. Anarchism is, though, a political philosophy; one that favours self-government based on the foundations of voluntary institutions. Society becomes stateless, the state being held up as both undesirable, unnecessary and, indeed, harmful. Any form authority it likely to have an effigy burned in the town square by a mob of truculent, but surprisingly spirited, youths.

Having retired to his father’s farm in Ohio, Leon became a recluse. Shy of a hard day’s farm labour, he spent hours holed up in the attic reading socialist propaganda. Socially awkward, evasive and blunt, Leon had no real friends. He took to going to lectures and harassing well known socialist figures in the street, berating them for their lack of action. He got himself a reputation as being one to steer clear of which is some achievement in a community of anarchist outcasts. Leon later moved to Buffalo, mooched around a bit and read more socialist literature becoming increasingly souped up over the deep seated injustices of McKinley’s American dream. On reading that the President was due to sweep through Buffalo, it appeared Leon decided the President must die.

The first step, was to buy a gun. Leon chose a .32 caliber Iver Johnson revolver. Now, McKinley had two days of events in Buffalo, doing the usual Presidential stuff, visiting fairs shaking hands with the public, and pinching the cheeks of young children. A trip to the Niagara falls was also slated. Several times on the first day Leon got close to the President but not close enough to spring a .32 Iver Johnson surprise on him. The crowds were too thick. The President made a speech touting the virtues of international trade and commerce. The crowd loved it. Leon you suspect, didn’t, and he returned to his lodgings for what must have been a restless night’s sleep. The next day, after a trip to the Falls, McKinley returned to a reception and more walking and talking. McKinley was an experienced politician and could shake hands with up to fifty people a minute, yet when he reached out to shake Leon’s hand at 4.07pm that was it. Leon shot McKinley twice in the abdomen before being jumped on by the secret service, who did what they might do given the President had just been shot on their watch. They gave Leon a real going over.

McKinley though, survived the shooting. And Leon the beating. McKinley had surgery, perked up after some morphine and a few days later was in good spirits and back on the tea and toast. It was, however, a false dawn. Unable to find the bullet, surgeons had patched him up but inside, gangrene was on the creep. His biographer, Margaret Leach wrote that McKinley’s recovery was “merely the resistance of his strong body to the gangrene that was creeping along the bullet’s track through the stomach, the pancreas, and one kidney”. Medicine, at the time, had no answer to gangrene, and come the weekend McKinley was in trouble. He knew the game was up.

William McKinley died at 2.15am on the 14th September, 1901.

Leon Czolgosz was electrocuted on the October 29th, 1901.

McKinley was succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt, the great chum of our man Frederick Selous.

All in all, a nasty affair.

Don’t read socialist propaganda in the attic.


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