Skip to Content
ublogo print

University at Buffalo Libraries

Search library resources
Pan-American Exposition of 1901

Leon Czolgosz and the Trial

On September 5, 1901 Leon Czolgosz unsuccessfully sought an opportunity to assassinate President McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. A second assassination attempt, by this self-proclaimed Anarchist, was successful. On September 6, at an afternoon reception at the Temple of Music, Leon Czolgosz, as if reaching to shake his hand, fired two shots into the President.

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."

Portrait of Leon Czolgosz

Portrait of Leon Czolgosz. Photographer/Engraver: Undetermined. Source: Harper's Weekly. September 21, 1901.

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

Was the McKinley Shooting Czolgosz's "Great Act?"

The 32-cal. gun used to shoot Preident McKinley

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.

The Act

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.

From the Buffalo Express, Sept. 7, 1901:

... "Lynch Him" cried a hundred voices and a start was made for one of the entrances to the Temple of Music. The soldiers and police sprang outside and beat back the crowd. ... In the midst of the confusion, Nieman [Czolgosz] still bleeding from his blows and pale and silent with his shirt torn was led out quickly by Capt. James F. Vallely, chief of the exposition detectives, Assistant-Commandant Robertson and detectives. They thrust him into a closed carriage. The detectives leaped in with him and Capt. Vallely jumped in the driver's seat as they lashed the horses into a gallop. A roar of rage burst from the crowd.

"Murder! Assassin! Lynch him! Hang him!" yelled the thousands, and men, women and children tore at the guards, sprang at the horses and clutched the whirling wheels of the carriage. Nieman huddled back in the corner concealed by the bodies of two detectives.

Arrest and Confession

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

"While Wm. McKinley the President of the United States was holding a public reception in the Temple of Music at the Pan-Amer. Exposition, he was shot in the abdomen twice with a .32 cal. revolver."

Photograph of Czolgosz from Facsimilie of Czolgosz's Police Report

Photograph of Czolgosz and Facsimilie of Czolgosz's Police Report. Photographer: Undetermined. Source: Facsimilie of Czolgosz's police report-- provided by the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

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 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

A facsimile of Czolgosz's Confession

A Facsimile of Czolgosz's Confession. Source: Karpeles Manuscript Museum, Buffalo, N.Y.

Apparently, 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.

"He has the "Phrenological Characteristics Common to Criminals"

Czolgosz was becoming more and more withdrawn while in police custody, so much so that by Sept. 10, the Buffalo Courier reported that he was being guarded to prevent suicide. The Sept. 11 Commercial described the prisoner's physical appearance and demeanor in more detail:

Czolgosz Has Become Very Rest-
less, Refuses to Talk and
Eats Little.

   Czolgosz passed a very restless night.
   He evidently found it impossible to sleep. He rolled restlessly on his hard bed for a long time and then got up and paced up and down in his narrow cell.
   He hardly tasted of his supper last night. Either his splendid appetite had vanished or he deliberately determined not to eat. It was the same this morning when his breakfast was taken to him. He ate a morsel of it and left the rest.
   At 8 o'clock he began to walk up and down in his cell. He has refused to talk to his guards. He never says a word to anybody and answers no questions.
   The police do not know just what to make of this change. It may herald a complete break-down.

Czolgosz is not Permitted to Shave
Himself-Still Wears the Blood-
Marked Shirt.

   Czolgosz appears at least ten years older today than he did at the time of his arrest. The principal reason for this change probably is the fact that he has grown a beard, which now covers the whole lower portion of his face.
   Czolgosz is not permitted to shave himself, nor is it the intention of the police to call anybody in to shave him. In fact, they are no more particular about his personal appearance than Czolgosz is himself. So long as Czolgosz remains in his dungeon at police headquarters, which is likely to be some days at least, his beard will grow unmolested.
   Czolgosz's beard is rather full and heavy. It begins high up on his cheeks and runs low on his neck. It is a brown beard and rather dark, and just at present is fully one-quarter of an inch long. It evidently troubles him some, too, for he frequently runs, his fingers through it, as if annoyed by its length and thickness.
   The combination of the thick, stubby, beard and the general untidy appearance of the prisoner makes him look a great deal more like the typical anarchist than on the day of his arrest.
   Since last Friday, Czolgosz has neither washed himself nor combed his hair. He is wearing the same clothes, including his underwear, which be had on when he shot the President. He was not provided with a change of linen and the police did not think it was their duty to secure any for him. He wears neither coat nor vest. His faded shirt is soiled and is spotted with blood, the blood which was from his nose and face by the blows which were rained upon him immediately after he shot the President. The button holes in the collar of his shirt are ripped apart. Parker, the big negro, did that when he seized Czolgosz and prevented him from firing a third shot. His hair is long, heavy and tangled. It falls over his face and ears and is beginning to turn up at the back of the neck.
   Czolgosz has made one request for a comb. It was denied him, and since then he has displayed not the slightest interest in his personal appearance.
   As he appears now, there are not very many men who would be particularly delighted to meet Czolgosz in a lonely by way at night.    There is a good deal of the animal in his make-up. The police say he has the phrenological characteristics common to criminals of a low and degraded class.

The Charge Becomes Murder in the First Degree

Buffalo Police Headquarters

Buffalo Police Headquarters. Photographer: Undetermined. Source: Buffalo Courier, September 8, 1901.

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

Czolgosz's Arraignment

The following Buffalo Commercial article briefly describes Czolgosz's arraignment.9

"CZOLGOSZ ARRAIGNED..." - Buffalo Commercial, September 16, 1901

Judge Edward K. Emery

Erie County Court Judge Edward K. Emery. 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. 319.


  1. 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.
  2. Robert J. Donovan, in A. Wesley Johns, The Man Who Shot McKinley, p.43.
  3. Margaret Leech,. In the Days of McKinley, New York : Harper & Row, 1959, p. 593.
  4. Police report on Leon Frank Czolgosz, arrested September 5, 1901. Department of Police, Buffalo, N.Y., Bureau of Identification.
  5. Buffalo Express, September 8, 1901. While enroute to Auburn State Prison after his sentencing, Czolgosz would state that this was an error. In an interview published in the Buffalo Express, September 27, 1901, he claimed to have not planned to shoot McKinley at Niagara Falls.
  6. Buffalo Enquirer, September 7, 1901.
  7. Buffalo Commercial, September 15, 1901.
  8. Buffalo Express, September 17, 1901. 9. Buffalo Commercial, September 16, 1901.