The murder trial of confessed assassin Leon Czolgosz began in the Superior Court Chamber of Buffalo City Hall on September 23, 1901, with the Honorable Truman C. White presiding. The trial lasted two days after which the twelve man jury found Mr. Czolgosz "guilty of murder in the first degree." Their deliberations took slightly more than 30 minutes. On September 26, 1901 at 2:00 p.m. Judge White sentenced Leon Czolgosz to death by electric chair at Auburn State Prison. Interestingly, despite the notoriety of this case—the convicted assassinated the President of the United States—the capital murder trial cost the County of Erie little more than $5000.00.
- The Players
- The Jury
- Testimony of the Witnesses
- Czolgosz's Defense
- The Verdict: Guilty!
- The Execution of Leon Czolgosz
- Was Czolgosz Insane?
- Related Resources
Superior Court Chambers - Buffalo City Hall. Photographer. Undetermined, probably Werner. Source: Digitized microfilm photocopy - Buffalo Courier, (September 19, 1901.) Note the letters marked on the photo — A) the chair of Leon Czolgosz; B) the chair of defense counsel Hon. Robert Titus and C) the chair of Erie County District Attorney Thomas Penney.
Buffalo City Hall (Presently the Erie County Courthouse). Photographer/Engraver: Undetermined. Source: Postcard 5242 - "City and County Hall - Buffalo, N.Y." Buffalo, N.Y. : Buffalo News Company, [n.d.] Courtesy of the University Archives, University at Buffalo
Presiding Judge - the Honorable Truman C. White. Photographer: Undetermined. Source: Men of Buffalo: A Collection of Portraits of Men Who Deserve to Rank as Typical Representatives of the Best Citizenship, Foremost Activities and Highest Aspirations of the City of Buffalo. Chicago: A.N. Marquis & Co., 1902, p. 318.
The Honorable Truman C. White presided over the trial of Leon Czolgosz. He was Justice of the State Supreme Court, and one of Buffalo's leading citizens. In 1840 he was born in Perrysburg, Cattaraugus County, N.Y. He was admitted to the Bar in 1867 and practiced with Wadsworth, Hopkins and Simons.
Prosecuting the case was Erie County District Attorney Thomas Penney, who had been in contact with Leon Czolgosz since his arrest. Assisting Mr. Penney in the prosecution was Assistant District Attorney Frederick Haller.
On the recommendation of the Erie County Bar Association, Grand Jury Judge Edward K. Emery assigned two respected former State Supreme Court Judges to the task of providing counsel to assassin Leon Czolgosz. The Honorable Loran L. Lewis was a former Justice of the State Supreme Court in 1887. Born in Mentz, Cayuga Co., NY in 1825, he served in the State Senate from 1870-1874. Also serving as counsel for the defense were former State Supreme Court Justice Robert Titus as well as Buffalo attorney Carlton E. Ladd.
Erie County District Attorney Thomas Penney. Photographer: Undetermined. Source: Source: Men of Buffalo: A Collection of Portraits of Men Who Deserve to Rank as Typical Representatives of the Best Citizenship, Foremost Activities and Highest Aspirations of the City of Buffalo. Chicago: A.N. Marquis & Co., 1902, p. 359.
Hon. Loran Lewis - Counsel for the Defense. Photographer/Engraver: Undetermined. Source: American Monthly Review of Reviews, v.24, no.4 (October 1901) p. 390.
Attorney Carlton E. Ladd - Counsel for the Defense. Photographer. Werner. Source: Digitized microfilm photocopy - Buffalo Courier, (September 19, 1901.)
The Honorable Robert Titus - Counsel for the Defense. Photographer: Undetermined. Source: Undetermined.
The Prosecutor and Counsel for the Defense spent two hours and twenty-nine minutes selecting the jurors. Twelve men were selected from a jury pool of thirty-six. Interviews with each of the jurors took the form of that with Juror no. 1, Frederick V. Lauer, which appeared in the Buffalo Express, September 24, 1901 :
Direct examination by Mr. Penney.
Q.-Where do you live, Mr. Lauer?
A.-No. 1114 Michigan Street.
Q.-What is your business?
Q.-Were you born in this country?
A.-Born in Buffalo.
Q.-You believe in our form of government?
Q.-Do you believe in capital punishment?
Q.-Do you know any reason why you cannot render a fair verdict on the evidence in this case?
A.-It depends a good deal on the evidence.
(Stenographer reads question.)
A.-I do not, no.
Q.-If you were convinced of the guilt of a man, charged with murder in the first degree, if you were a trial juror, would you vote for his conviction?
A.-If I was convinced of it?
A.-Would I vote for his conviction?
Q.-Yes, that is the question.
Cross-examination by Mr. Lewis:
Q.-Mr. Lauer, are you a married man?
Q.-Is your mind in such a condition, Mr. Lauer, in your judgment, that if the facts and evidence in this case should raise a reasonable doubt in your mind as to the guilt of the defendant, do you think you could render a verdict of not guilty?
A.-I could, if there was any doubt in regard to his sanity.
Q.-You could give him then the benefit of a reasonable doubt?
Q. -You are not acquainted with the defendant?
A.-Never saw him until today.
Q.-No prejudice against him, then?
Q.-No special prejudice against any class in the community?
A.-Not that I know of.
Mr. Lewis-No objection.
Mr. Penney-No objection.
The juror was then sworn by the clerk as follows, defendant standing: Juror, look upon the defendant; defendant, look upon the juror. You do, solemnly swear that you will well and truly try and true deliverance make between the people of the State of New York and Leon F. Czolgosz, alias Fred Nieman, defendant, whom you shall have in charge, and a true verdict render according to the evidence, so help you God.
Juror takes his seat as No. 1.
Third Row: William Loton, R.J. Garwood, B.C. Ralph, J.S. Stygall, J.H. Mertens, S. Carmer.
Second Row: W.E. Everett, F.V. Lauer, Foreman H.W. Wendt, A.J. Smith, R.J.Adams.
First Row: Officer Brady, Officer Haskell.
MOST FAMOUS TRIAL EVER HELD IN BUFFALO: JURY IN THE CZOLGOSZ CASE.--Bliss, Photo.
The above group shows eleven of the men who decided the fate of President McKinley's assassin. The twelfth juror, Samuel p. Waldow, a farmer of Alden, did not join with the others in having his picture taken. Of the above, Garwood (builder), Ralph (bank cashier), Stygall (plumber), Mertens (boots and shoes), Everett (blacksmith), Lauer (plumber), Wendt (manufacturer), Smith (provision dealer), and Adams (contractor), live in Buffalo. Loton of Eden and Carmer of Clarence are farmers.
[Image and text from the Buffalo Express - October 13, 1901.]
Buffalo newspapers covered the jury selection in detail. These are a few of the articles that appeared during the trial.
Testimony of the Witnesses
Certainly the more prominent of the witnesses called by the People were the surgeons and doctors who cared for President McKinley before and after his death. Drs. Herman Mynter and Matthew Mann testified as to the operation and medical treatment of the President. Dr. Harvey Gaylord described the autopsy that he and his associate Dr. Herman G. Matzinger performed. As expected, Dr. Gaylord declared that the President succumbed to "a necrosis of the tissues" (gangrene) resulting from his injury or, as recorded in the transcript of the trial, he stated that "[t]he cause of death was a gunshot wound leading to changes in the important viscera."1
While the testimony of the medical experts comprised the bulk of the trial, some interesting eyewitness accounts came from men like Exposition Engineer Samuel Fields, who was immediately called to the scene of the shooting to measure and mark the site.
Interior of the Temple of Music -- Scene of the Shooting of President William McKinley. Photographer. Undetermined, possibly Harry Bliss or C.D. Arnold. Source: Photograph from the collection of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. In Thomas E. Leary and Elizabeth C. Sholes, Buffalo's Pan-American Exposition, Charleston, S.C. : Arcadia Press, 1998, p. 123.
Samuel J. Fields, Formerly City Engineer, Was the First to Testify.
"Mr. Fields," said Mr. Penney, and the first witness was called to the stand He was Samuel J. Fields, formerly city engineer.
District Attorney Penney began the examination of the witness. He testified that he was summoned to the Temple of Music between 5 and 6 o'clock on the afternoon of the shooting, Friday, Sept 6th.
A large map of the ground-floor plan of the historic building where the tragedy occurred had been brought in and placed on the stand next to the witness-stand,
Pointing to the map, Mr. Penney had Engineer Fields point out the various pieces of furniture, drapery, flags, etc., in the building and also to give the distances.
Mr. Penney turned the witness over to the defense and Judge Titus began his cross-examination of the first witness at 3 o'clock.
"Did you mark that Spot?" asked Judge Titus.
"There was a spot of blood on the floor there."2
[Text from the Buffalo Commercial, September 23, 1901.]
Also called before the jury was photographer Harry A. Bliss, "a pleasant, smooth-shaven, dark-haired young man ... [who] identified five big photographs of the interior of the temple of music as made byhim the morning after the shooting. He told where the camera was placed for each picture. The views show the aisles, the angle and the flags and palms and all the details of the scene of the murder. Mr. Penny passed them to Judge Titus and then, after offering them in evidence, handed them to the jury as exhibits A, B, C, D and E. Mr. Bliss stepped down at 3.07 o'clock. The evidence showed clearly the scene of the shooting."3
Photograph of the Interior of the Temple of Music after President McKinley's Shooting. Photographer: C.D. Arnold. Source: President McKinley's Pan-American Address at Buffalo, N. Y., With a Short Biographical Sketch of the Late President. Buffalo, N. Y. : Bensler & Wesley Printers, [1901.]
"The Handerchief [sic]. Secret Service Detective Gallaher Produced it in Court." Author: Undetermined. Source: Buffalo Commercial, September 24, 1901.
Close-up of the rendering by T. Dart Walker that appeared on the cover of the September 21, 1901 issue of Leslie's Weekly.
"DEADLY REVOLVER. Czolgosz's Weapon Identified by the Artilleryman Who Secured It." Author: Undetermined. Source: Buffalo Commercial, September 24, 1901.
Under direct examination by Mr. Penney, Secret Service Detective Albert L. Gallaher described the shooting and the means by which he acquired the handkerchief that Czolgosz had used to conceal the gun he carried in his right hand. In the trial transcript, Gallaher described being burned by the handkerchief, which was on fire when he grabbed it. While the Buffalo Commercial did not mention this, Gallaher's producing the handkerchief in court was described by the paper with a bit more drama than appeared in the transcipt of the trial:
…[Mr.Penney] "Did you get the handkerchief?"
[Mr. Gallaher] "I did."
"Have you that handkerchief now ?"
Then came one of those intense moments when the nerve of every soul in the court-room was strained.
Mr. Gallaher reached in his coat pocket and withdrew the handkerchief which was over the revolver which was used on the President. It was passed to the attorneys for the defense, who in handing it from one to another, passed it before the face of Czolgosz. The latter bent his head.4
As for Czolgosz's gun, Private Francis P. O'Brien of the 73rd United States Army seacoast artillery testified that he grabbed the revolver in the chaos immediately following the shooting. After engraving his initials on it, O'Brien gave it to the Corporal of his detail, Louis Bertschey. Bertschey also engraved his initials into the gun before turning it over to his commanding officer, Captain Wisser, who took the revolver to the Buffalo Chief of Police's office the following morning.
"Temple of Music, Scene of the Assassination of Wm. McKinley, Buffalo, N.Y." View: Color Postcard of the Temple of Music, with inset of President William McKinley. Published by Retrograph Co., [1901?] no.G 2387a. Source: From the collection of the Music Library. University at Buffalo, the State University of New York.
Supt. Henshaw's Story.
Harry P. Henshaw, superintendent of the Temple of Music, was the next witness. He said when the shooting occurred he was just to the right of the President. Mr. Penney questioned him.
"As you stood there, were you looking toward the people who approached the President?"
"I was, very carefully."
"I noticed this defendant in the line approaching the President, with his hand pressed against his abdomen and encased in something white. Then I noticed as he drew near the President he extended his left hand. The President put forward his right hand. Like a flash the assassin pushed the President's right hand out of the way. Then I heard two shots and saw the handkerchief smoking.
"The crowd gathered around the defendant so quickly that he was lost to my view in an instant. I was by the President's side when the President was taken away in the ambulance."
Just before Judge Lewis started his cross-examination he turned about to speak to the prisoner, but Czolgosz would pay no attention to him.
Only a few questions were asked by Judge Lewis, and then Mr. Henshaw was excused.
John Branch's Evidence.
John Branch, a colored porter in the Temple of Music, was called to the stand by Mr. Penney at five minutes to 12 o'clock. He testified as follows:
"I saw this man here, this defendant, with his right hand over his abdomen. He went to shake hands with the President. Then, how he did it, I don't know, but I saw the report and the fire. Then I saw the second report and fire and saw the handkerchief about the man's hand afire.
"I saw the artillerymen around the man and bear him down to the floor.
"That's all I saw of the shooting."
Judge Titus cross-examined the witness, and Branch swore that he heard some one say—"The President's shot," "The President's shot."
"Did you hear the President say anything?" asked Judge Titus.
"'Be easy with him, boys,' was all I heard him say."
"Did you hear him say that?"
"Yes; he put his hand to his abdomen and said that—'Be easy with him, boys.'"
[Text from The Buffalo Commercial, September 24, 1901.]
Distirct Attorney Penney closed the prosecution's case at 2:44 p.m., September 24, 1901. Judge Loran Lewis of the defense addressed the court:5
"If your Honor please, the defendant has no witnesses that he will call, so that the testimony is closed at the close of the testimony of the People.We are somewhat embarrassed, disappointed, in the People's testimony closing at this point. My associate and myself have not had very much consultation as to the course to be pursued, but from the slight conversation that we have had we are inclined to ask your Honor to permit each of us, both of us, to make some remarks to the jury in summing up this case. They will be on my part very brief, and I presume so on the part of my associate."
Lewis then addressed the jury:
"…A great calamity has befallen our nation. The President of the country has been stricken down and dies in our city. It is shown beyond any peradventure of doubt that it was at the defendant's hand that he was stricken down, and the only question that can be discussed or considered in this case is the question whether that act was that of a sane person. If it was, then the defendant is guilty of the murder and must suffer the penalty. If it was the act of an insane man, then he is not guilty of murder but should be acquitted of that charge and would then be confined in a lunatic asylum. …
Now, gentlemen, we have not been able to present any evidence upon our part. The defendant has even refused on almost every occasion to even talk with his counsel; he has not aided us; so that we have come here under, as I said to you, the designation of the court, to do what we can to determine this important question which is to be submitted to you.
All that I can say, to aid you, is that every human being --- yes, nearly, certainly, every human being --has a strong desire to live. Death is a spectre that we all dislike to meet, and here this defendant, without having any animosity against our President, without any motive, so far as we can see, personal motive, we find him going into this building, in the presence of these hundreds of people, and committing an act which, if he was sane, must cause his death.
How, could a man, with some mind, perform such an act? Of course, the rabble in the street would say, “No matter whether he is insane or sane, he deserves to be killed at once;" but the law says, no; the law says, consider all the circumstances and see whether the man was in his right mind or not. But one may say, "Why, it is better that he should be convicted, as a terror to others." That may be so in some regard, but, gentlemen of the jury, if it could be; if it can be that you find that this defendant was not responsible for the crime, for this act, you would aid in uplifting a great cloud off from the hearts and minds of the people of this country and of the world. …"
While the question of Czolgosz's insanity was raised, the defense offered no evidence to support or refute the question. Lewis instead spoke of his and Judge Titus's professional duty to uphold the lawsof American jurisprudence and defend the assassin, however "distasteful" such a task may have been. Titus and Lewis were reluctant to defend Czolgosz and it was the coaxing of the more prominent members of the Bar that convinced them to do so. This reluctance on the part of the defense and the fact that there was little time between arraignment and trial to investigate or secure possible witnesses suggests that the protection of Czolgosz's rights was not a priority. At any rate, Judge Lewis's statement to the court was brief—approximately 20 minutes long—after which Judge Titus concurred and the defense rested.
After a summation by District Attorney Penney, the jury was charged with deliberating the guilt or innocence of Leon Czolgosz. Justice White briefly reviewed the case and read the indictment, explaining the jurors' responsibilities and stating that "there will be from now on no demonstration, but that there will be reverence for the dignity and majesty of the law."6
The Verdict: Guilty!
The jury deliberated for little more than thirty minutes and, to the surprise of few, returned to find Leon Czolgosz guilty of murder in the first degree. The sentencing occurred on September 26, 1901.
An article in the September 27, 1901 Buffalo Express described the courtroom as "crowded to capacity" on the day of sentencing. "It is no exaggeration to say that if Czolgosz were to have been sentenced in the Stadium the Pan-American Exposition grounds would have been taxed to their capacity." The jury box was filled with well-known lawyers and among those who packed the courtroom were Hon. Wilson S. Bissell, William H. Love, Col. Ransdell, sergeant-at-arms of the United States Senate, Senor Don Edelberto Farres, President of the Cuban commission to the Exposition, Senator George A. Davis, Sheriff Samuel Caldwell, Drs. Matthew D. Mann and Herman Mynter as well as the members of the jury. As reported in the trial transcript, September 26, 1901, Justice Truman C. White addressed Leon F. Czolgosz:
"Czolgosz, in taking the life of our beloved President you committed a crime which shocked and outraged the moral sense of the civilized world. You have confessed your guilt, and, after learning all that can at this time be learned of the facts and circumstances of the case, twelve good men have pronounced your confession true and have found you guilty of murder in the first degree. You declare, according to the testimony of credible witnesses that no other person aided or abetted you in the commission of this terrible act. God grant it may be so. The penalty for the crime of which you stand convicted is fixed by statute, and it now becomes my duty to pronounce its judgment against you. The sentence of the court is that in the week beginning October 28, 1901, at the place, in the manner and by the means prescribed by law, you suffer the punishment of death."
The Buffalo Express, the Buffalo Commercial and the Buffalo Courier all printed extensive stories on the sentencing of Czolgosz.
Frank T. Housh, Esq. "Indefensible Acts: Capital Trials a Century Apart" reposted from the Bulletin of the Erie County Bar Association, July/Aug. 2001. Housh compares the trial of Czolgosz to that of Timothy McVeigh to illustrate the 20th Century evolution of "protection of the rights of the accused."
Erie County Bar Association. McKinley Assassin Trial Re-Creation : The Trial of Leon Czolgosz, Assassin of President McKinley, on September 22, 2001. This site describes the recreation of the Czolgosz trial held in Buffalo as part of the Pan-American Exposition's Centenial Celebration. Included is background information on the assassination of President McKinley and the original trial of his assassin.
- The People of the State of New York, -- against -- Leon F. Czolgosz. Transcipt of the trial "[t]ried before Hon. Truman C. White, and a Jury, in Part III of the Supreme Court, in the City and County Hall, in the City of Buffalo, New York, commencing on the twenty-third day of September, 1901, at ten A.M." Online. Available via the web site of the Bar Association of Erie County. . Accessed 30 May 2003.
- While Mr. Field stated that he placed marks on the floor to indicate blood spots and the placement of people, chairs, etc., it is unclear who was responsible for placing the "X" depicting where the president stood when shot. Leary and Sholes state that it was James L. Quackenbush, a member of the Pan-American Exposition Committee on Ceremonies, who was a witness to the shooting and was responsible for calling Fields to the scene. There is no mention of this in the testimony of either men, however.
- Buffalo Express, September 24, 1901.
- Buffalo Commercial, September 24, 1901. Note: it is apparant that when reporting the trial, newspapers took great liberty in their interpretation of the "accuaracy of the details." Certainly sensationalism was the rule of the day and one must consider that events were edited for readability. No doubt, testimony purported to be direct quotation was often paraphrased instead.
- The People of the State of New York, -- against -- Leon F. Czolgosz. Transcipt of the trial. Accessed 30 May 2003.
- "Defense Rests." Buffalo Commerical, September 24, 1901.