On This Day

mckinley shot, McKinley assassination, Czolgosz McKinley
Library of Congress
Leon Czolgosz shoots President McKinley with a concealed revolver at Pan-American Exposition
reception, Sept. 6, 1901.

On This Day: President McKinley Fatally Shot by Anarchist

September 06, 2011 06:00 AM
by Josh Katz
On Sept. 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley at the World's Fair in Buffalo. McKinley would die eight days later.

The Assassination of McKinley

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President William McKinley was attending the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. “McKinley had been notorious for discounting his own personal safety at public appearances, writes Wyatt Kingseed in American History magazine. His secretary, George B. Cortelyou, had suggested he skip the event, but McKinley replied, “Why should I? Who would want to hurt me?”

Sept. 6 was a hot day, and many of the people at the Exposition’s Temple of Music were holding handkerchiefs to wipe away the sweat. Leon Czolgosz stood in the line of people waiting to shake McKinley’s hand, his handkerchief folded around his right hand.

When the president went to shake his hand, Czolgosz, the anarchist son of Polish immigrants, shot McKinley in the upper abdomen with the gun concealed in his handkerchief.

Police then descended upon the shooter and started beating him; at that point McKinley said, “go easy on him.” Czolgosz would later be executed by electric chair.

McKinley would die of gangrene in his stomach and pancreas on Sept. 14, whispering the words of the hymn, “Nearer my God to Thee, Nearer to Thee,” according to the Library of Congress.

Background: Anarchists in America

The assassination of McKinley called attention to anarchists in America, and newspapers around the country responded by attacking them. The Baltimore Herald, for example, wrote, “Their presence in this country is a cancerous growth upon our republican form of government, and the most drastic measures used to remove them will not be too severe.”

“Anarchism, as a philosophical doctrine, is the belief that man can only achieve his highest calling by being free from all governmental authority,” truTV’s Crime Library explains. Not all anarchists advocate violence, but the movement became commonly associated with it. The death of McKinley came after a number of assassinations orchestrated by anarchists in the previous two decades, including that of Humbert I, the King of Italy (1901); French President Marie Francois Sadi Carnot (1894); and Czar Alexander II of Russia (1881).

I killed President McKinley because I done my duty,” Czolgosz later said. “I didn’t believe one man should have so much service, and another man should have none.” He was one of the more radical anarchists, though he represented the larger movement that was gaining a foothold in the country in the face of industrialization, according to the University at Buffalo Library.

Anarchism became associated with immigrants and working-class Americans. In 1886, the Haymarket Riot shook the country. Labor unions in Chicago were fighting for the eight-hour workday, and anarchists became involved in the activity.

Czolgosz had named leading anarchist Emma Goldman as an influence. However, by the time of the assassination, Goldman no longer believed in violence, instead preferring education as a means to obtain social reform. Still, she was sympathetic to Czolgosz and, in regard to anarchists who implemented violence, she said they “could not stand aside while workers suffered.”

Courts cracked down on anarchism “in part because of the … seemingly endless growth in influence and power of the labor unions,” according to the University at Buffalo Libraries. The Alien Immigration Act was passed in 1903, prohibiting anarchist immigrants from entering the country and legally permitting the deportation of confirmed anarchists within the United States.

Biography: William McKinley (1843-1901)

For much of his political career, William McKinley was known for his protectionist policies and advocacy of high tariffs to benefit American workers. In Congress he spearheaded the McKinley Tariff of 1890, bumping the tariff higher than it had ever been. His policies would drastically change, however.

McKinley, a Republican, battled William Jennings Bryan in one of America’s most infamous presidential races. For the most part McKinley remained at his home in Canton, Ohio, during the campaign, stressing the importance of holding onto the gold standard, while Bryan, the Democratic and Populist candidate, traversed the country preaching the need for a new bimetallic gold and silver standard. He wanted to inflate the currency, allowing poor farmers and others to more easily pay off their debts.

But McKinley would handily defeat Bryan to become the 25th U.S. president in 1897. The country was already abandoning its isolationist ways, and McKinley only accelerated that tendency in an apparent contradiction to his advocacy of high tariffs. Yellow journalists helped to solidify American resolve against Spanish rule in the Caribbean. Under McKinley, the U.S. launched the Spanish–American War in 1898, a “splendid little war,” according to Secretary of State John Hay, which would ultimately give the U.S. possession of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

While the prosperous, internationalist United States became an empire, McKinley won a second term in 1900, again beating Bryan. By the end of his presidency, McKinley would embrace global trade, though his second term came to an early end when he was assassinated in Buffalo.
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