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Pan-American Exposition of 1901

The Execution of Leon Czolgosz

A reporter in the September 26, 1901 Buffalo Commercial referred to Leon Czolgosz's death warrant as a "historic document."

… It is the supreme mandate of the court, commanding the death of the anarchist assassin for the foul murder of the beloved President, William McKinley.
It is not a document of vengeance, but it is the final instrument by which the law takes the life of Leon F. Czolgosz in return for the life which he took. But the document is not attested until the victim has had every opportunity of a trial by a jury of twelve men. … [see the article in full]

The Death Warrant

The People of the State of New York—To the Agent and Warden of Auburn state prison:
Greeting-
Whereas, at a term of the supreme court of the state of New York, held at the city of Buffalo, in the county of Erie, state of New York, beginning on the 23d day of September, 1901, before Honorable Truman C. White, one of the justices of said court, presiding, and a jury, Leon F. Czolgosz was convicted of the crime of murder in the first degree, in that he wilfully and feloneously and from a deliberate and premeditated design to effect the death of William McKinley, did kill and murder said William McKinley, at said city of Buffalo, on the 6th day of September, 1901.
The said Leon F. Czolgosz appeared before said court for judgment, and having been duly asked by the clerk whether he had any legal cause to show why judgment should not he pronounced against him, and after due inquiry being made into the circumstances, and there appearing no legal reason why the execution of the sentence against said Leon F. Czolgosz should not be made, or why judgment should not be pronounced, said supreme court of the state of New York, holden as aforesaid, did then and there, and on the 26th day of September, 1901, render judgment and sentence said Leon F. Czolgosz to suffer the punishment of death to be inflicted by the application of electricity, as provided by law, within the week commencing on Monday, the 28th day of October, 1901, within the walls of the state prison of the state of New York, at Auburn, New York, or in the yard or enclosure thereto adjoining; and that in the meantime he, the said Leon F. Czolgosz, be removed to and until the infliction of said punishment be kept in solitary confinement in said state prison.
Now, therefore, you are hereby ordered, commanded and required to execute the said sentence upon said Leon F. Czolgosz upon some day within the week commencing Monday, the 28th day of October, 1901, the time of the execution within said week to be left to your discretion, and within the walls of said state prison, or within the yard or enclosure adjoining thereto, by then and there causing to pass through the body of him, said Leon F. Czolgosz, a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death, and that the application of said current of electricity be continued until he, said Leon F. Czolgosz, be dead.

Given under my hand and seal of the court this 26th day of September, 1901.

TRUMAN C. WHITE,
Justice of the supreme court.


Auburn State Prison

Auburn State Prison

Auburn State Prison. Photographer: Undetermined. Source: Buffalo Courier, October 6, 1901. Courtesy of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Pan-American Exposition Scrapbooks Collection.

Upon his sentencing on September 26th, 1901, it was decided that Leon Czolgosz should be removed from Buffalo as soon as possible. Later that evening, he was placed in a special car and transported to New York Central's Exchange Street Station. The car was then coupled to the last section of train number 12 heading east to Rochester. Few, if any of the passengers in the forward coaches were aware that they were traveling on the same train as the convicted assassin of President McKinley.1 Czolgosz's car arrived at Auburn State prison in the early hours of September 27th. He would remain in solitary confinement on Auburn's death row until October 29, 1901, the day of his execution.

Numerous newspaper accounts of the trip to Auburn describe Czolgosz as calm, but tell of his expressing regret for his crime. To reporters from the Buffalo Express and the New York World and in the presence of Jailer Mitchell, Czolgosz stated that he wished the people to know that he was sorry for what he did. "It was a mistake and it was wrong. If I had it to do over again, I never would do it. But it is too late now to talk of that. I am sorry I killed the president. … I was alone in what I did and, honestly, there was no conspiracy. No one else urged or told me to do it. I did it myself."2 [See the entire article.]


Description of the Death Chamber.

Photo - A demonstration of the electric chair and the method of executing a criminal

A Demonstration of the Electric Chair and the Method of Executing a Criminal. Photographer: Undetermined. Source: Buffalo Courier, October 6, 1901. Courtesy of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Pan-American Exposition Scrapbooks Collection.

The chamber in which the murderer of President McKinley was executed was not the same in which the first electrocution took place. It is a comparatively new building, strikingly elaborate in comparison with the very old prison structures about it. It is built of gray stone, and is situated about half way down the prison yard on the left hand, or south side. Entrance to it is possible either from the prison yard or from the main south corridor, and the execution room proper may be entered without passing the condemned cells.
From the time of his entry into the death-house, Czolgosz was confined in the cell nearest the death chamber, so that when he entered the execution room this morning he had only to step a few feet through the stone arch, and as the great iron door swung behind him he was beside the electric chair.

The execution room has seats for the witnesses and is lighted with several windows placed high in the walls. In one corner of the room is the closet in which the keyboard is situated and in which Electrician Davis stood when he switched the current on. The preliminaries were exactly like those of every other execution. The witnesses gathered in the office of the warden on the second floor of the prison, and were told to quietly follow the warden and state superintendent of prisons, and after walking through the long corridor they took their places silently beside the death chair in the execution room. The iron door leading to the condemned cells was closed, but behind it the warden's assistants were preparing Czolgosz for death. The warden waited till the witnesses were seated and then made the usual formal declaration that those present in the room were merely there as witnesses invited to a legal execution of a murderer, and that under no circumstances and no matter what the provocation, none of them was to leave his seat or make any disturbance. Electrician Davis then put upon the arms of the chair a bank of 22 incandescent lamps and attaching the electrical wires, passed the current through them so that the lights glowed out brightly. An assistant, in the meantime, put the two electrodes, which were lined with sponge, into pails of salt water, so as to get them wet enough to prevent the current from burning the victim's flesh.

Text source: Buffalo Commercial, October 29, 1901. Image source: Buffalo Courier, October 6, 1901.


Witnesses Descibe Czolgosz's Final Moments.

After Leon Czologosz was executed in the electric chair at Auburn state prison on the morning of October 29, 1901, Sheriff Samuel Caldwell and Charles R. Huntley were two of the fourteen witnesses who signed the statement of death. (Ironically, Charles Huntley was a major figure in the development of the electrical power industry in Buffalo.) Both men provided eyewitness accounts of the execution, which appeared in the October 29, 1901 Buffalo Commercial. The text is reproduced in full below:


BUFFALO MEN AT THE EXECUTION; Sheriff Caldwell and Charles R. Huntley Saw Czolgosz Die; THEIR IMPRESSIONS; Both Say that Czolgosz Gave No Evidence of Fear in the Death Chamber.; DID NOT UTTER A GROAN. - Buffalo Commercial article

Sheriff Caldwell and Charles R. Huntley returned from Auburn shortly after 1 o'clock this afternoon, having witnessed the execution of Leon F. Czolgosz, the slayer of President McKinley. Asked about the execution, Mr. Huntley said to a Commercial. reporter:

"There is really little to be said about it. The case has been described correctly in the newspapers. I read them on my way up from Auburn and find that they picture the proceeding accurately. Czolgosz did not show any signs of fear and he did not tremble or turn pale; he walked into the death room between two men, and walked with a firm step. He stumbled as he came into the room but did not fall, nor did his knees weaken. I was quite surprised at his demeanor, as was everyone else, I should say. He was perfectly strong and calm. He just slid himself into the chair exactly as a man might who expected to enjoy a half hour's repose. The fact that in a moment a death current was to be forced through him did not seem to perturb him in the least.

"Yes, I heard him make the statements accredited to him. He spoke very plainly and in a voice which did not waver in the slightest degree. He said first that he was not sorry for having killed the President, and, as the straps which bound his jaws were put in place, he said that he was sorry he could not see his father. Everyone in the room must have heard and understood him. He had expressed a desire to speak, so it was claimed, after getting in the presence of the witnesses. He wanted everyone to hear him. It was supposed, therefore, that whatever talking he intended to do he would do before getting into the chair. It was a general surprise to hear his voice after the men had begun to affix the electrodes. The witnesses were somewhat startled and were amazed at the man's calmness. We all kept our eyes on him and listened most attentively. But the men at work beside him and in front, of him did not pause. They kept on affixing the appliances. Evidently Czolgosz had prepared something to say and what he said was part of his prepared piece. That is my thought of the matter. I wouldn't say that he tried to make a hero of himself. There was no spirit of bravado manifest at all. He said a few things just as if he felt it his duty to say them."

"Did, he tremble or grow pale as the straps were put in place?" was asked.

"No, not at all. He was collected and calm every moment, to all appearances. Sheriff Caldwell, who was with me, said he looked better and more self-possessed than he looked during the trial here in Buffalo. His face had the normal amount of color in it, and his hands didn't tremble a bit.

"The majesty of the law was perfectly sustained," continued Mr. Huntley. "There wasn't a hitch anywhere and not an incident which could merit the faintest criticism. Czolgosz was sentenced to die in the electric chair, and his death was effected quickly and certainly. It was but an incredibly short time after the murderer walked into the death chamber when the doctors in attendance pronounced him dead. There had been no scene; no one had fainted or grown excited. Everyone conducted himself with remarkable sang-froid. The attendants were busy right up to the moment of turning on the current, and had but stepped back when the body of the assassin was in the grasp of the powerful current. As I have said, not a thing marred the formality. Everything went off smoothly, according to a schedule carefully planned."

Sheriff Caldwell's Impression.

Sheriff Samuel Caldwell was asked by a Commercial reporter as to his impressions of the execution of the assassin. He replied:

"I was impressed with the idea that the assassin was a man of great nerve. Although guards had hold of his arms, the prisoner could have walked unaided to the chair. Aside from the prisoner's last words, there was not a sound in the death chamber, and the prisoner himself gave no evidence of fear.

"As soon as he had been seated in the chair and his face covered so that his nose and month were alone exposed, Warden Mead raised his hand and Electrician Davis turned on the current which snuffed out the prisoner's life as with a snap of the finger. The electrician then felt the prisoner's jugular vein. Dr. MacDonald did the same, and was followed by Prison Physician Gerin. The doctors then stepped back, and Warden Mead again raised his hand. Again the current was applied and was continued about 50 seconds.

"When the electricity was again shut off, the physicians examined the body by the usual means, and at the end pronounced that the man was dead. The witnesses left the death chamber before the body was removed to the operating table in the autopsy room. I signed the document. swearing that I saw the electrocution of the assassin. The doctors remained for the autopsy, but I came home immediately.

"The prisoner's nerve was evidenced by his conduct from the moment he entered the death chamber. No groan escaped him, and his lips did not even move except when he was making his final statement to the effect that he did not repent his crime. When the electricity entered the assassin's body it stiffened with successive jerks, but death was so quick that he did not have time to groan."

[click to see the pdf version of this article.]


Portrait-J. Warren Mead, Warden of Auburn State Prison

J. Warren Mead, Warden of Auburn State Prison. Photographer: Undetermined. Source: Buffalo Courier, October 29, 1901. Courtesy of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Pan-American Exposition Scrapbooks Collection.

"Czolgosz'z Death Stated" - Buffalo Express, November 1, 1901


According to the autopsy, the cause of Czolgosz's death was a "current of electricity passed through his body in accordance with the statute in such case made and provided."3 The December 7, 1901 issue of Western Electrician reported that "[t]wo electrical contacts were made, occupying in all one minute and five seconds. In the first contact, the electromotive force was maintained at 1,800 volts for seven seconds, then reduced to 300 volts for 23 seconds, increased to 1,800 volts for four seconds and again reduced to 300 volts for 26 seconds, when it was broken. The second contact was maintained at 1,800 volts for five seconds. That conscious life was absolutely destroyed the instant the first contact was made was conceded by all of the witnesses. The strength of the current is not stated."4

Upon completion of the autopsy, Leon Czolgosz's body was placed in a plain, black casket and doused with sulfuric acid. His remains disintegrated within 12 hours.


References

  1. "In a Special Car." Buffalo Express, September 27, 1901.
  2. 2. "Regrets His Crime." Buffalo Express, September 27, 1901.
  3. 3. "Czolgosz's Death Stated..." Buffalo Express, November 1, 1901
  4. 4. "Record of Czolgosz's Execution." Western Electrician, v. 29, no. 23 (December 7, 1901) p. 375.