The late 19th century witnessed a wave of anarchist assassinations and attempted assassinations as the turbulent 19th century waned into an even more turbulent 20th century.
Among the victims of these actions were a Prime Minister of Spain on August 8, 1897, the Empress of Austria-Hungary on September 18, 1898 and the King of Italy on July 29, 1900. The terrifying aspect of these murders were that they were the actions of loan wolf assassins, inspired by anarchist writings, but not members of organized conspiracies. Security services around the globe were puzzled as to how to combat a group that eschewed organized plotting and celebrated individual violent acts.
If William McKinley was concerned about the prospect of assassination he left no hint of it. Of course he left virtually no personal correspondence in which he expressed his views on any public matters. One of the more enigmatic men to ever be president, McKinley was largely a mystery even to men he had known for decades. Close mouthed, McKinley rarely expressed himself on any issue unless he had to, and always after a period of careful consideration.
Rising from Private to Brevet Major during the Civil War, McKinley began his rise in politics by defending, pro bono, striking workers accused of rioting, obtaining acquittals for all but one of his clients. McKinley served a long political apprenticeship before becoming President: prosecuting attorney, Congress, Governor of Ohio, sometimes meeting with defeat in the politically divided Ohio. When he ran for President in 1896, he won one of the great political victories in American history, establishing Republican political dominance that would endure until 1932. His victory in 1900 was even greater, the GOP winning all but four states outside of the solid South.
His personal life was marked by tragedy. He and his wife had two daughters, one who died in infancy and the other before her fourth birthday. McKinley’s wife, suffering from epilepsy and deep depression, became a semi-invalid, McKinley devoting himself to her care for the rest of his life.
Theodore Roosevelt, the reluctant Vice-President of McKinley, assumed that he would have so little to occupy his time, that he planned on attending law school during his term in office.
Another man who did not have enough to do was Leon Frank Czolgosz. Born to immigrants from Belarus in Detroit in 1873, he worked at the Cleveland Rolling Mill until the Panic of 1893. With economic hard times, Czolgosz became interested in socialism and anarchism. In 1898 he went to live with his father on a 55 acre farm near Warrensville, Ohio that his father had purchased. He came into conflict with his father due to his loafing and his rejection of the fervent Catholicism of his father. Inspired by the assassination of King Umberto on July 29, 1901, he decided, in the cause of anarchism, to assassinate President McKinley.
His opportunity came with the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York that President McKinley was going to visit. At a receiving line at the Temple of Music on September 6, 1901, as McKinley reached to shake his hand, Czolgosz shot McKinley in the stomach. The crowd immediately attacked Czolgosz, McKinley calling out, “Go easy on him, boys. He could not have known.”
Being a combat veteran of the Civil War, McKinley probably realized his chances were not good. Taken to a hospital, McKinley recognized Dr. Herman Mynter, having met him yesterday. McKinley joked that he had not expected to need Mynter’s professional services so quickly. McKinley mentioned again that the man who shot him could not have known what he was doing and murmured the Lord’s Prayer as he was put under with ether. The operation was a failure in that the bullet was not located. Initially McKinley, still a strong man although overweight, seemed to be recovering. Then infection, that great killer from gun shot wounds before modern antiseptics, set in. By the evening of September 13, McKinley announced that further efforts were useless and it was time for prayer. His wife and other family members, along with a few friends, were admitted, his wife sobbing that she wanted to die with him. McKinley spent most of his remaining time comforting his wife, using his last strength to put his arm around her. He died at 2:15 AM on September 14, 1901.
Czolgosz went on trial for murder on September 23, 1901. His defense counsel pled insanity. Czolgosz refused to cooperate with his attorneys. After being found guilty he refused the offer by the Court to make a statement before being sentenced. Sentenced to death, he died in the electric chair on October 29, 1901.
Czolgosz’ assassination of McKinley led to a crackdown against anarchists, although there was no evidence that anyone else was involved. He brought to an abrupt end the domination of the White House by Civil War veterans. The forty-two year old Roosevelt ushered in a post war generation, brimming with energy and new ideas. Whether Roosevelt would ever have been elected president absent the death of McKinley is open to question. The office of Vice President has rarely proved a good launching pad for a presidential campaign, and four years of obscurity would have diminished the national hero status that Roosevelt still enjoyed in 1901. If Roosevelt had been elected president in 1904 and 1908, the Progressive-Republican split in 1912 would have been avoided, and it is likely that Woodrow Wilson would not have been elected president. Czolgosz led a life of little consequence, except for the life he took, but that action caused a large impact on US history.
After three presidents dying at the hands of assassins over a 36 year span, the Secret Service was assigned the duty of protecting presidents in 1902.