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Czolgosz, Leon F.locked

(1873–29 October 1901)
  • Mark C. Carnes

Czolgosz, Leon F. (1873–29 October 1901), assassin of President William McKinley, was born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Paul Czolgosz, a menial laborer. His mother’s name is unknown. His parents emigrated from southern Poland to the United States just prior to Leon’s birth. As a boy Czolgosz shined shoes and sold newspapers. In 1880 the family moved to Rogers City in northern Michigan, but after five months they settled in the Polish community in Posen. Czolgosz intermittently attended public and Catholic parochial schools and developed a lifelong interest in reading, chiefly Polish magazines. In 1885 his mother died in childbirth. That year the family moved to Alpena, near Detroit, and in 1889 to Natrona, a predominantly Polish community near Pittsburgh. There Leon worked in the searing heat of a glass factory, earning seventy-five cents a day. In 1892 the family moved to Cleveland, where he found a job tending machinery at the Newberg Wire Mills. He was a steady and quiet worker who managed to save $400, which he contributed to a family fund to buy a farm. On one occasion the wire spool snapped, slashing and scarring his face.

The depression of 1893 forced many firms to cut wages, including the Newberg Wire Mills, and its workers went on strike. Czolgosz joined them and was fired, but the following year he successfully applied for a job at the plant using the alias Fred C. Nieman. The strike and its aftermath affected him profoundly. Formerly a devout Catholic who read the Bible regularly, Czolgosz abandoned religion and was increasingly drawn to radical groups, first to a Polish socialist club that met in a room above the small saloon his father bought in 1895. Czolgosz joined the organization though seldom took part in its discussions.

In early 1898 Czolgosz experienced some sort of health-related or emotional crisis. He seemed tired and depressed and complained of stomach and lung problems. In August he quit the wire mill and moved to the family farm near Cleveland. Mostly he lounged in his room and read newspapers, especially the anarchist Free Society. He was especially fascinated by an account of Gaetano Bresci, an anarchist from Paterson, New Jersey, who in 1900 shot and killed King Humbert I of Italy. Czolgosz kept the article by his bed.

In the spring of 1901 Czolgosz asked his family to return the money he had put up for the farm so that he could seek work in the West. They initially balked but eventually advanced him seventy dollars, which financed his subsequent travels. On 5 May he went to Cleveland and was moved by a speech by the anarchist Emma Goldman. Introducing himself as Fred Nieman, Czolgosz also approached Emil Schilling, treasurer of the Liberty Club, the anarchist group that published Free Society. Schilling and other anarchist officials were put off by Czolgosz’s ignorance of anarchist doctrine and his incautious queries, such as when he asked whether the group was “plotting something like Bresci.” In late July Czolgosz took advantage of low excursion rates to travel to Buffalo, site of the Pan-American Exposition. He took a room in a boardinghouse in West Seneca, outside Buffalo, probably in the hope of finding work. McKinley’s decision to visit the exposition was not made public until August.

About this time, too, the officers of the Liberty Club learned that Czolgosz had not given them his real name, and they assumed the worst. The 1 September issue of Free Society warned readers that a probable government spy, “well dressed, of medium height, rather narrow shouldered, blond, and about twenty-five years of age,” had recently attempted to infiltrate the organization. The article may have driven Czolgosz to take desperate action to prove his loyalty. Early in September he bought a 32-caliber Iver Johnson revolver.

On 5 September Czolgosz attended the exposition. It was “President’s Day,” and Czolgosz was infuriated: “I thought it wasn’t right for any one man to get so much ceremony,” he said later. The next day Czolgosz returned to the exposition, concealed his revolver in a handkerchief, and took a place in line at the Temple of Music. When his turn came to shake hands with the president, Czolgosz pushed McKinley’s arm away, thrust the revolver forward, and fired two shots through the handkerchief. McKinley stiffened and then slumped into the arms of his aides. Soldiers and Secret Service men knocked Czolgosz down and beat him. “Be easy with him, boys!” McKinley called out. Lengthy surgery proved ineffective; the president died eight days later.

Before the end of the month, Czolgosz was put on trial for murder. When medical experts sought to determine his sanity, he flatly admitted his culpability: “I fully understood what I was doing when I shot the President.” He took no part in the trial other than to utter the word “guilty,” a plea the judge could not accept. Czolgosz’s court-appointed lawyers called no witnesses, and the trial lasted only eight hours. The jury deliberated thirty-four minutes before pronouncing him guilty. He was sentenced to death by electrocution. There was no appeal. On the morning of 29 October, as he was being strapped into the electric chair, Czolgosz’s explanation of his actions was terse: “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people—the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.” He died in the Auburn penitentiary.

Czolgosz’s act provoked a crackdown by federal and state law enforcement agencies on anarchists and socialists; prompted Congress to amend immigration laws to exclude anarchists and other radicals; and forced the Secret Service to tighten security for the president and other key federal officials. Although most radicals distanced themselves from Czolgosz, Emma Goldman called him an idealist who hoped for a better world.

In 1902 psychiatrist Walter Channing argued that Czolgosz had been insane. He cited Czolgosz’s shyness, his preference for solitary pursuits such as reading, and his avoidance of women. Nineteen years later L. Vernon Briggs expanded on Channing’s analysis and claimed that Czolgosz suffered from “dementia praecox,” or paranoid schizophrenia. But Czolgosz’s act, though unreasonable, was not wholly irrational. McKinley’s administration was in fact beholden to powerful business interests whose excesses came at the expense of poor people and helped precipitate Progressive reforms. Assassination, moreover, was consistent with the violent political doctrines of the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Yet it is difficult to discern a rational purpose in Czolgosz’s action if only because his political beliefs were confused. Though he endorsed violence and anarchy, his favorite book was a Polish translation of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), which evoked a genteel socialist utopia, and Czolgosz had joined and sympathized with many socialist organizations, whose goals were antithetical to those of the anarchists.

Neither pathological nor exclusively political, Czolgosz’s act was essentially that of an awkward and dull-witted young man who rarely attracted much notice, except for one day when, energized in some complex way by radical rhetoric, he set forth on a path that fatefully intersected with that of the president.


Newspaper accounts and other materials on the assassination can be found at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Association, and also the Courthouse Archives of Erie County, N.Y. (People v. Leon F. Czolgosz [1901], repr. in American State Trials, ed. John D. Lawson [1923]). The major biography is A. Wesley Johns, The Man Who Shot McKinley (1970). For the official report positing Czolgosz’s sanity, see Joseph Fowler et al., “Official Report of the Experts for the People in the Case of the People v. Leon F. Czolgosz” (1901), repr. in American State Trials. On the posthumous claim that he was insane, see Walter Channing, “The Mental State of Czolgosz, the Assassin of President McKinley,” American Journal of Insanity 59 (Oct. 1902); and L. Vernon Briggs, The Manner of Man That Kills (1921). See also Robert J. Donovan, The Assassins (1952), and Sidney Fine, “Anarchism and the Assassination of McKinley,” American Historical Review 60, no. 4 (July 1955).