Why History is Horrifying: The Assassination of President McKinley

Welcome to the kick-off of Why History is Horrifying, a series we’re going to be dropping in on from time to time. These will be tales from days gone by to remind us that no matter how terrible things get, they can always be (and have always been) worse. So much worse.

We were hoping to deliver this content earlier in the year. However, a messy crossover occurred of this tale’s subject matter and surreal real-life events. We thought it best to hold off until we knew for sure that idiots in Native American-appropriation cosplay were in handcuffs and whining about organic food.

The mob storming the People’s House and forcing lawfully elected leaders to fear for their lives was indeed historic—including because it fits in snuggly with America’s pattern of being really bad at protecting our leaders.

Fun Fact: 1 out of every 5 US Presidents have been shot and killed, shot and wounded, or directly shot at. And that’s not even including the number of times people have successfully shot a semi-automatic rifle at the White House, crashed a plane on White House property, or thrown a fucking grenade at a president during a press conference.  

Don’t let Manson girls attend presidential events–just don’t.

Today, we take you to one of the four US presidential assassinations, that of President William McKinley. It’s perhaps the most A Series of Unfortunate Events-esque one of them all.

Our sources for this re-telling? Wikipedia. Okay, well, we went to all the Wikipedia pages of relevant people and events, went to the works cited, and more or less confirmed that they said what Wikipedia says they said. So there was some work involved. A little. A smidge. Got a problem with it? Too bad!

Props to the podcast Let’s Go to Court for their coverage of the McKinley Assassination in Episode 90. It’s a fun one and made us interested in more details about this ridiculous incident.

We open on 1901 America. For the second time, William McKinley had kicked the ass of gold-hating, evolution-denying, 3-time loser William Jennings Bryan.

Ol’ WJB was the bane of my existence in AP US History.

McKinley was a well-liked president. Partially because he was all about things turn-of-the-century America loved: imperialism, gold, and protective tariffs. Nothing says “U-S-A!” like defeating Spain and winning territories that we would gleefully neglect for generations.

But aside from all those popular policy agendas, the public liked McKinley because he embraced interacting with them. …Which he did by ditching his personal security as much as possible.

Keep in mind: during McKinley’s lifetime, presidential assassinations (though long-feared and attempted) had finally become a “thing” as the turn-of-the-century loomed. The progress of the Modern Age, I suppose. In less than 40 years, two presidents (Lincoln and Garfield) had been assassinated. McKinley would become the third. Er… Spoiler alert?

“Abe? Jim? Why am I in this portrait with you–uh oh…”

Around this time in history, the world was all about International Expos or world fairs. Think of them like your typical State Fair environment, with an emphasis on culture and science, an Olympics attitude, and fun stuff like riots / serial killers / human beings being used as ‘exhibits.’

In September of 1901 one such fair, The Pan-American Exposition, was happening in Buffalo, New York. This was the sole time in history that Buffalo would get to be more impressive than its neighbor, Niagara fucking Falls.

A brief sidebar about one particular occurrence at the Exposition that a nerd (like Your Intrepid Host) might find amusing: So, Thomas Edison was at the Exposition, because that sociopath couldn’t keep his greasy paws away from anything Big happening. His company was there to film the Exposition during the day and at night.

The night filming was particularly important, because the Exposition buildings had been glamorously outfitted with the modern magic of electric lights. Those lights were powered by Alternating Current, aka AC. AC was the method of electricity that was Thomas Edison’s mortal enemy during the War of the Currents (Edison was all about the Direct Current or DC). So I like to imagine Edison at night during the Expo, standing next to his film camera, pouting at the dazzling lights that he had tried to defeat by murdering hundreds of animals. He mumbles, “Whatever. I guess they’re okay….”

“Yeah sure, I guess it’s stunning and enchanting or whatever…”

Naturally, President McKinley was going to visit this big shindig of Trade and Imperialism for a few days. In order to boost ticket sales, it was widely advertised that the president would be visiting the fair and having multiple public appearances. What could go wrong?

Well, what could and did go wrong is that Chipotle currently keeps its burritos safer than organizers kept the president.

During the planning, it was decided that one of McKinley’s appearances was going to be shaking hands for 10 minutes at The Temple of Music, which I can only assume was the summer house of the Phantom of the Opera. Any Joe Schmo would get to walk in and shake hands with the president. McKinley’s personal secretary was really not down with the idea. He tried moving the handshaking stunt off the president’s schedule twice, but McKinley put it back on each time, like a West Wing subplot.

Mrs. Landingham would have tolerated none of this foolishness.

I imagine the personal secretary emphasizing: “This handshaking thing sounds like a REALLY bad idea. Remember those guys, oh, what were their names? Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield? They were cool—where are they now? Oh, were they hella murdered during public events? I believe so!”

But McKinley wouldn’t cede to making the event more restricted to the public. He reportedly stated, “Why should I? No one would wish to hurt me.”

[dramatic irony (noun) • irony that is inherent in speeches or a situation of a drama and is understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters in the play.]

Well. There was, in fact, at least one person out there who did want to hurt the president.

Leon Czolgosz (pronounced choh-gloss) was an unemployed factory worker in Cleveland, Ohio. I know: an unemployed factory worker in Cleveland? How? When?

Look, it’s been a tough….century and a half.

Looking back, what we know about Czolgosz is somewhat muddled. Some historians think that he suffered a nervous breakdown after losing his job. He probably suffered a nervous breakdown. Losing his job may also have made anarchism attractive to him. Now, if you are an anarchist, you do you, friend. But Czolgosz is into violent anarchism. Like “Yeah, eliminating hierarchies is cool, but what’s even cooler is blowing stuff up and shooting leaders. That’s really where I feel my calling.”

Now, granted, in the context of the time, the Anarchist Movement itself was debating about violence to achieve its means against the higher class (this is called Propaganda of the Deed). Anarchist violence in the US had largely been defined by the Haymarket bombing in 1886. But over in Europe for the decade prior to 1901, anarchists had been racking up bloody bourgeoisie bodies like a Black Friday Sale at LuluLemon.

But our boy Leon was such a creep that anarchist groups in the Midwest were leery of him. He was so into violence, anarchist groups thought he was a plant sent by the authorities. These groups even published a warning about Czolgosz to their chapters in the region. …which was great, except by then Leon was already in Buffalo with a ticket to the Pan-American Exposition and a revolver in his pocket.

“Wow! This guy Czolgosz shot the president! Who saw that coming?”
Midwestern anarchists:

On September 3rd, 1901 our comedy-of-errors journey to murder begins.

McKinley arrived at the Expo via train. As he pulled into the station, a cannon went off to salute his arrival. But the cannon was too close to the train (because when the leader of your nation is arriving, you want to get explosives as close to him as possible). When the cannon went off, it shattered the windows of the train. Cue everyone panicking.

For the record: this same Exposition didn’t allow one of the first looping rollercoasters into the fair on the grounds that it was too dangerous. Should’ve packed the tracks with explosives–they would’ve loved it! 

So with anarchists being the terrorist boogeymen of the public at the time, naturally after the explosion, people thought a bomb had gone off and shouted, “Anarchists!”

[foreshadowing (noun) • an indication of something that will happen in the future, often used as a literary device to hint at future plot developments.]

But McKinley emerged unharmed, and disembarked the train like, “Everybody chill, it wasn’t anarchists. Anarchists are definitely not out to kill me. There is definitely no anarchist in the crowd, right now, staring at me with Murder Eyes.”

Glaring with Murder Eyes, anarchist Leon Czolgosz started shoving his way through the crowd with his revolver. He had planned to kill this beloved capitalist pig president as he exited the train (an homage to the earlier President Garfield assassination?). But because of the scare from the cannon, there was now too much security surrounding McKinley.

Czolgosz slunk off, shaking his fist with a “I’ll get you next time, Gadget!”

Technically we don’t know that The Claw isn’t Leon Czolgosz

And so, President McKinley attended the fair and had a lovely time. He toured the grounds and exhibits, he saw Niagara Falls, laughed at the attending Canadians saying “eh.”

McKinley even got to indulge in his favorite presidential pastime: ditching his security like a precocious kid in a movie so he can enjoy time amongst The People. Because there’s no safer place for an American president than large public outdoor events!

On September 5th, McKinley gave a speech. The grounds were packed with spectators, people cheered him on. I imagine McKinley basked in it. “People really dig me,” he must have been thinking, “Clearly no one is out there thinking about the best way to shoot me dead.”

In the crowd was Leon, not the professional. He got to the grounds early with his revolver, grabbing a spot right next to the podium. ….But as we all know, the place right next to the stage is where the mosh pit is. You’re never gonna get a clear shot off from there.

Too jostled and not willing to throw away his shot, Czolgosz slunk off once again.

You’ve never moshed until you’ve moshed in a straw hat.

It was like Leon Czolgosz was Wile E. Coyote with a gun and William McKinley was a corpulent version of the Roadrunner. This should have been easy, and yet just couldn’t work. 

The next day, September 6th 1901, is the day. THE day. Or, in the immortal words of Margot Robbie: “I mean it’s what you all came for, folks. The fucking incident!”

The story thus far has been Prelude to a Shitshow. Now The Shitshow really gets underway.

So on this day, President McKinley would be doing his handshaking event at the Temple of Music.

At a lunch earlier in the day, an organizer joked, “lol, maybe the president will get shot at the Temple of Music!” Hi-lar-ious.

[prophecy (noun) • a literary tool in which there is a prediction that somehow causes itself to come true.]

…I mean seriously, you can practically hear the musical score swelling in the background.

Really distasteful to have the “Where Pres. McKinley was shot” postcards made before the incident.

So in order to prepare for this event, organizers had decided to stage some extra soldiers on the event floor. These soldiers were tasked to watch for any suspicious figures. Cool, so they’ll know what they’re doing, right?

Well not so fast, buckaroo. See this was a lovely event in a very pretty building at a super bougie fair. Can’t be mucking around looking for soldiers with experience! What mattered most were soldiers who would look super fine in their dress uniforms. Priority #1: Eye Candy. Priority #2: Keeping the president alive. So yeah, some pretty boys in uniform, with no protection or police experience, were assembled to help protect the president.

But McKinley was attending with his one personal secret service agent, plus two extras. Great. These guys would know what they’re doing.

Now, as you might guess, personal security agents are most effective if they can be close to the person they are securing. Usually, McKinley’s personal secret service agent stood directly behind the president for these sorts of events.

But the Jackass In Charge of the fair, a guy named Millburn, decided that he would be standing next to the president instead. Why? Because he was the Chuck Norris of his day? Nope! Because he wanted to personally introduce the president to people he knew.

I picture the Personal Secretary and the Personal Security Agent exchanging looks as all of this is decided like “We’re fucked, right? Like utterly, presidentially fucked? Yep. Yep we are.”

At 4 o’clock, everything was all set to go very badly. The doors to the Temple of Music opened. A line of random people who showed up in line to meet the president are allowed in.

Like a good industrial capitalist, McKinley had developed a special technique to maximize the efficiency of shaking hands. Reportedly, he could shake 50 hands a minute. *cue the industrial music from Looney Tunes*

Now consider: this event was supposed to “only” be 10 minutes long. Seems like a narrow enough window to avoid disaster, right? But if McKinley could shake that many hands that quickly, that’s 500 people getting to directly approach the president.

At one point, a 12-year-old girl asked if she could have McKinley’s good luck charm—a red carnation that he wore on his lapel. Wow, just asking the president for stuff, eh kid? I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing at that age–my mom would’ve grabbed me by the ear and taken me straight home.

But, McKinley gives his good luck charm to the little girl. And that is why young Myrtle Ledger was the one who REALLY murdered the president… 

Was it worth it, little Myrtle? Was it? Ya couldn’t have just bought a half dozen for a dollar at the closest bodega? Really?

Now, believe it or not, there were rules for these events. Or, I guess, “guidelines”? The expectation, at least, was that a person would approach the president with open, empty hands.

But on this occasion? Meh, it was hot and people were wearing the ridiculous layers of underwear required for 1901. So plenty of people held or waved handkerchiefs about. And like (most) Congressional Republicans witnessing their own attempted murder, no one did anything.

At one point, a sketchy-looking guy approached the president. Now, since several people had been charged specifically with not letting sketchy people get near the president, they snapped into action! …Oh, wait no, they didn’t do that. They just held their breath and hoped for the best.

The good news: that sketchy guy just shook the president’s hand and went on his way.

The bad news: the man directly behind sketchy guy, who probably would’ve chickened out for the third time if sketchy guy had been tackled, was Leon Czolgosz. And Leon had his trusty revolver—concealed in a handkerchief that he was carelessly allowed to display while stepping towards the president.

…yeah I don’t know if “cunning” is quite the word, fellas…

Czolgosz approached McKinley. McKinley extended a hand. Czolgosz slapped the hand away. And still, no one did anything before Czolgosz revealed the gun and shot the president at point blank range, twice.

And so concluded Leon Czolgosz’s success of looking like a badass for three seconds of his life. It was all going to go down from here. 

See, it was 1901. So even under these circumstances the shooting was anticlimactic. One of the bullets ricochets off a coat button (the Biff Loman of historic bullets). The other hit McKinley in the stomach, but it wasn’t a lethal wound. …well, technically. As we’ll see, “lethal wound” was a much broader term in the days before antibiotics.

Leon Not the Professional was then tackled by—not anyone who’s ACTUAL job it was to tackle assassins, but by James B. Parker. Who’s James B. Parker? He was a black man who was working as a caterer at the Expo, but got laid off. So what did he do during his Funemployment Day? He went to meet the fucking president, that’s what.

…unfortunately he was directly behind Leon Czolgosz in line, so he’d never get that chance. What he did have the chance to do was jump into action and beat the snot out of an assassin.

Parker punched the gun out of Czolgosz’s hand, broke his nose, and then knocked out some of his teeth for good measure. Ho. Ly. Shit. Parker didn’t save McKinley’s life, but he stopped Czolgosz from killing McKinley on the spot or hurting anyone else. Plus, he delivered some really satisfying visuals of a patriot kicking a terrorist’s ass. Well done!

[Well, there’s my lazy contribution to Black History Month. *white person pat on the back*]

You can almost hear that first bullet clattering off the button with a pathetic “Nooooo!”

Finally, everyone piled on Leon Czolgosz like a Guy Ritchie movie. And you know what? President McKinley called for the guys beating up Leon to “go easy” on him. To me, that’s the best final failure of Czolgosz in this scene. He could not strike a killing blow at point blank range, he got the tar beat out of him, and his own victim felt sorry for him.

President McKinley was taken to the Exposition’s hospital immediately. Because if you get horribly injured at a fair, you definitely want to go to the fair’s hospital, not a real one. When McKinley arrived, there was no actual doctor at the hospital.

Oh hey! It’s our friends, Good News & Bad News!

The good news: an excellent surgeon was nearby. He was particularly qualified and successful at performing operations on the abdomen, including gunshot wounds.

The bad news: he was in surgery when this all goes down. When someone came in to call him away, he literally declared, “I cannot leave, even for the President of the United States!”

I assume someone then awkwardly explained that they in fact need him to leave for the President of the United States. And then maybe the surgeon was all “Well this belongs in that Alanis Morissette song! Ha ha! …but seriously, I can’t go.”

Eventually, two actual doctors are looking after McKinley. One of the doctors had served in the Danish army earlier in his career–he should know about bullet wounds, right? If he did, he sure as hell wasn’t about to show it. And the other? Well he was an OBGYN. I wouldn’t want a turn-of-the-century OBGYN around the stuff he was actually supposed to touch, let alone a gunshot wound. 

Yeah, I saw The Knick and I want precisely none of that. None.

Now, neither of these doctors were surgeons or in a position to operate. But both of these doctors—like many before them when faced with a dying president—were struck by Patriotic Doctor Hubris. They decided to operate on the president.

The hospital—or rather, “hospital” didn’t have basic surgical equipment. In fact, all those awesome AC lights they hooked up at the exposition grounds? They didn’t bother putting any in at the exposition’s “hospital.” So these doctors were stuck poking around the president’s gut looking for a bullet in natural light. And I mean ‘poking’ literally. The doctors stuck their bare fingers into the president’s wounds to look for the bullet. I wish I could give more details about that, but as I started to read about it, I was struck by a strange spell of puking uncontrollably.

Shockingly, between the dim light and the bare hands, the doctors didn’t use it. Because hey, why try?

The wound was stitched up without even draining the area. Any protocol for cleaning wounds or protecting against infections, even by 1901 standards, was abandoned. Because again: why try?

McKinley was allowed to wake up and “recover.” For several days, everyone thought he’d be okay. Yep, why worry? It’s just a gunshot wound to the gut. Literally the worst place to get shot. Especially for an obese senior citizen. Particularly if they’ve basically just slapped duct tape on the wound and called it a day.

As a part of his “recovery,” McKinley was treated with nutritive enemas—the literal shit-show part of this story. Then, he was allowed to eat and drink a little—including coffee. Because when my intestines and guts have been shot through, probed with fingers, and enema-purged, I want coffee put in there for sure. Plus, I want to be as awake and alert as possible.

Oh coffee. Delicious frenemy of the digestive system.

After several days of “meh he’ll be fine, but weird how he keeps collapsing in pain,” everyone finally realized that McKinley is dying from gangrene.

With the president on his deathbed, the vice president needed to be found ASAP. Well, who was the vice president at this time? Teddy Motherfuckin’ Roosevelt. So naturally, he couldn’t be reached because he was out in the Adirondacks about 12 miles from civilization. They had to send a park ranger out into the brush to rustle him up.

Even better: Teddy rode out there after his boss was shot. Roosevelt was reportedly very upset that Czolgosz would probably “only” get 10 years for attempted murder, what with McKinley’s “recovery” going so well.

And the thing of it is, Teddy Roosevelt had been shooed into being VP because his own Democratic Party of New York wanted him out as governor. Roosevelt was supposed to be shuffled off to be VP, hike and shoot as much as he wanted, but not actually have power. It’s the classic hedging of bets of “well he’s ONLY a heartbeat from the presidency.”

They did make him awfully cute in The Alienist though…

On September 14th 1901, President William McKinley died. Ironically, while McKinley couldn’t find 2 competent doctors on his deathbed, 14 doctors attended his autopsy.

Our buddy Leon was charged with murder. During the proceedings, he didn’t even speak to his defense attorneys. He may have sensed it was a waste of time, because those attorneys in turn called no witnesses. In fact, Czolgosz’s defense attorneys spent their 30 minute closing argument talking about how great McKinley was. They were doing everything but tap-dancing for the public singing “We loved McKinley! We hate our client! Please don’t tar and feather us!”

Unsurprisingly, Czolgosz was found guilty within 30 minutes of jury deliberations. He was executed 8 weeks after the day he shot the president. He was put to death in the electric chair which, just like the lights at the Pan-American Exposition, also used Alternating Current electricity. Full circle!

Teddy Roosevelt became president, and boy is that a tale for another time.

SUCH a tale, guys….

From then on, everyone seemed to decide, “Hey, we really gotta stop having our presidents frolic about all nambly pimbly.” Clearly, our doctors couldn’t do shit for any president that needed them in an emergency. And funeral train tours, inaugurations to swear in vice presidents–that gets expensive and exhausting. From then on, the United States Secret Service was required to protect the president at all times.

As far as Leon Czolgosz’s attempted Propaganda of Deed for Anarchism, it didn’t go so well. Fear of anarchism, which was already pretty high, spiked even higher. And it sadly wasn’t the end of anarchist violence in the US–don’t worry, those would be coming in due course). But growth of the anarchist movement in legitimate American political avenues was permanently crippled. It definitely didn’t help that the assassination directly led to the creation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, specifically to monitor anarchist activity. Way to go, Leon! 

But hey, no Leon Czolgosz, No X-Files, so I guess it all evens out?

President William McKinley now lies in peace at West Lawn Cemetery in Canton, Ohio. While he was a fat guy in a top hat who touted the American ills of imperialism and isolationism, he did like being among fellow Americans of all walks of life.

Yet after this assassination, we have never and will never have another president who was so literally accessible to the average citizen. The closest equivalent we’ve gotten to raw access to a president since has been via A Certain Twice Impeached President’s Twitter. And we don’t even have that anymore–thank god.

And that’s just one reason Why History is Horrifying!

Thanks as always for reading. Happy 2021, Happy Inauguration, Happy Impeachment, and so on. We look forward to bringing you more horrifying content in this year.

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