Czolgosz was immediately wrestled to the ground by another person in the greeting line, James Parker, an African-American waiter who had just been laid off and was looking forward to shaking the hand of the president. [See a related essay on James Parker.] Body guards, police and soldiers of the U.S. Artillery, sent to the Temple of Music to supplement the President's protection, descended upon Czolgosz and began to beat him. From where he lay wounded, President McKinley was heard to have said, "Go easy on him boys."
Who was Czolgosz?
Leon Czolgosz, (alias Fred C. Nieman,) was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1873. His father was a Polish immigrant and his mother German. He had five brothers, Waldeck, Frank, Jacob, Joseph and Michael, and two sisters, Ceceli and Victoria. His mother died of complications from childbirth at the age of 40 but his father soon remarried. Leon's family moved frequently, although they tended to remain in areas dominated by Polish culture.
Although he had attended school for only 5 years Leon was an avid reader and considered to be the "family intellectual." He worked in various factories and mills, and by age 19, as the labor movement became more and more active, he began to distance himself from his Catholic roots. Compelled by what he felt were unfair human labor conditions (compounded by instability at home) Czolgosz became a socialist and began to seek out those who shared and promoted socialist ideals. He was drawn to the big names in the Anarchist movement--Emil Schilling, of the Cleveland Anarchist group Liberty Club, Abraham Isaak, editor of Free Society, and of course, his inspiration, Emma Goldman. Upon hearing her speak, Czolgosz considered himself an Anarchist.
Yet local and national anarchist groups grew suspicious of Czolgosz and shunned him--many considered his references to revolution, secret plots and "conspiracies" to be dangerous. A mental breakdown in 1898 had affected his emotional and mental stability and he became more withdrawn, moving frequently between Chicago, Detroit, his family's farm near Cleveland and Buffalo, although he spent most of his time in the latter two cities. Dr. Walter Channing, an alienist and Professor of Mental diseases at Tufts Medical School, made a detailed study of Czolgosz's case in 1902. "While in this physical and mental state of sickliness," wrote Dr. Channing, "it is probable that he conceived the idea of performing some great act for the benefit of the common and working people."1
Considering his stated confession, "I have done my duty. I did not feel that one man should have so much service, and another man should have none, " the shooting of the President of the United States may have well have been the "great act" Channing refers to. There are contradictory theories as to whether Czolgosz's plan preceded his late summer arrival in Buffalo. He had spent some time in a West Seneca, NY (a Buffalo suburb) boarding house for most of the summer of 1901, but had left for Cleveland only to return to Buffalo a few days later to take a room in John Nowak's saloon on the city's predominantly Polish East Side. Czolgosz states in a later account, that he did not plan the assassination until after returning to Buffalo on that day, August 31, 1901.
Czolgosz had told interrogators that he was in Buffalo looking for work. Perhaps he traveled to Buffalo because of its large Polish population or, because he wished to take advantage of the low excursion rates offered at the time of the Exposition.2 Certainly, the president's visit to the Pan-American Exposition was not publicized until early August and Czolgosz had arrived in the city long before.
Yet Margaret Leech points out that he had been in the city for most of the summer--through mid August. "McKinley's coming visit, heralded by great publicity, was known to everyone who followed the news."3 (And Leon Czolgosz was always carrying a newspaper.) Thus, while he may not have originally set out for Buffalo to shoot the president, there is ample evidence to suggest that he had planned it long before August 31st, as he claimed.
Leon Czolgosz shot William McKinley as the President received greeters at the Temple of Music on September 6, 1901. Czolgosz stood in line with hundreds of others who were hoping to shake the President's hand. That he had his hand wrapped in a handkerchief was apparently of little concern as it was a sweltering day and handkerchiefs were visible everywhere.
Accounts of exactly what happened vary from newspaper to newspaper. The Buffalo Express (Sept. 7, 1901) reported that a young girl was in line in front of Czolgosz while the Commercial (Sept. 7, 1901) printed secret service agent Ireland's account, stating that there appeared to have been a man in line in front of Czolgosz who "lingered too long." James Parker, the Negro waiter who wrestled Czolgosz to the ground, was said to have been behind the assassin in some accounts and in front of him in others. (As Daryl Rasuli points out in his essay, many of the newspapers did not even report Parker's involvement until sometime later.)
What is known, however, is that Czolgosz fired two shots into President McKinley and was immediately apprehended. The public was enraged.
Czolgosz used the alias Fred Nieman and his police record listed him as twenty-eight years old, 5ft. 7-5/8 in., weighing 138 pounds. He was further described as being of medium build and complexion, with dark blue eyes and red-brown hair. The nature of the crime, stated on his record is as follows:4
After being processed at Buffalo Police Headquarters, Czolgosz was interrogated by District Attorney Thomas Penney. He confessed to the crime, stating that "I killed President McKinley because I done my duty. I didn't believe one man should have so much service, and another man should have none." Interestingly, the date of the signed confession, September 6, 1901, was fourteen days prior to the actual death of McKinley, suggesting the Czolgosz was unaware at the time that the President was still alive. A Buffalo Express article reported Czolgosz as saying that 3 or 4 days prior to the shooting, he conceived the idea of shooting the president but hadn't determined how. He claimed that he had purchased the revolver at a store on Main Street for $4.50 the morning of the shooting and that although he had later followed the President to Niagara Falls, an opportunity did not present itself until the McKinley's Temple of Music reception.5
Leon Czolgosz was a model prisoner, saying and doing very little to defend
himself or to provide any additional information as to why he had committed
this crime. Police were convinced that he was part of a larger anarchist
conspiracy. If such a conspiracy could be proven, Czolgosz could be tried
in federal court. As mentioned in the Anarchy section
of this site, Emma Goldman and some of anarchists with whom Czolgosz
identified were arrested. Likewise, anyone with whom Colgosz had contact
in the Buffalo area was also questioned. John Nowak, owner of the East
Side saloon (1078 Broadway) where Czolgosz stayed, was taken into custody
with three other men for questioning.6
Upon the president's death, Buffalo physician Dr. I. Saylin was also arrested
in connection with the assassination. Although he did not know Czolgosz,
he had met with Emma Goldman during her visit to Buffalo.7
Like Nowak, Saylin was eventually released. No evidence of a conspiracy
or the involvement of anyone other than Czolgosz was ever discovered.
In fact, up to the point of his execution, Czolgosz maintained that he
had acted alone.
Upon the death of President William McKinley on September 14, 1901, his assassin Leon Czolgosz was soon removed from the Buffalo Police Headquarters and taken to the Erie County penitentiary. Superintendent Bull told Czolgosz that "he was in danger and it would mean his immediate death if he made any attempt to escape. ... The prisoner was then told that Mr. [Patrick] Cusack, [Assistant Superintendent of Police,] was to take him to the Penitentiary. ... His clean shirt, which had been bought for him several days before, had been put on and Czolgosz looked fairly respectable, except for a shaggy beard, which partly covered his face, the result of a week's confinement. ... There were probably a dozen curious people standing near Police Headquarters. They were satisfied to look at the building which they supposed contained Czolgosz. None of those curious people imagined that the man who walked out ahead of Mr. Cusack was Czolgosz."8
following Buffalo Commercial article
briefly describes Czolgosz's arraignment.9
A more detailed article, which includes
the text of the indictment, was reported in the September 17, 1901 Buffalo
to the Trial of Leon Czolgosz
A. Wesley Johns, The Man Who Shot McKinley, South Brunswick, N.J.
: A. S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1970, p. 39. Most biographical information
about Leon Czolgosz is from the Johns book and from Margaret Leech's In
the Days of McKinley, New York : Harper & Row, 1959. Additional information on the ethnicity of Czolgosz's parents was provided by Wanda Slawinska.