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Leon Frank Czolgosz ( ) (May 1873 October 29, 1901; also used his mother's maiden name "Nieman" and variations thereof) was the assassin of U.S. President William McKinley. In the last few years of his life, he claimed to have been heavily influenced by anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.


Early life

One of seven children of Polish immigrants, Czolgosz was born in Alpena, Michiganmarker in 1873 to Victoria and Romeo Czolgosz. He was baptized in St. Albertus Catholic Church. His family moved to Detroit when he was five years old, and at the age of sixteen he was sent to work in a glass factory in Natrona, Pennsylvaniamarker for two years before moving back home..

According to a source, Czolgosz's ancestors were immigrants from what is now Belarusmarker. It is very likely that Czolgosz's ancestors were both Belarussian and Polish, as the area of and between these now independent nations has historically been controlled by Russia, with borders changing at the whims of Russian rulers. Furthermore, the Russian government often relocated large groups of people to organize them by what it considered to be the people's ethnicities. His father emigrated to the US in the 1860s from Astravets near Hrodnamarker. At immigration he stated his ethnicity as Hungarian and changed his surname from Zholhus (Жолгусь, Żołguś) to Czolgosz.

He left his family farm in Warrensville, Ohio, at the age of ten to work at the American Steel and Wire Company with two of his brothers. After the workers of his factory went on strike, he and his brothers were fired. Czolgosz then returned to the family farm in Warrensville.

Interest in anarchism

In 1898, after witnessing a series of similar strikes (many ending in violence), Czolgosz again returned home, where he was constantly at odds with his stepmother and with his family's Roman Catholic beliefs. It was later recounted that through his life he had never shown any interest in friendship or romantic relationships, and was bullied throughout his childhood by peers.He became a recluse and spent much of his time alone reading socialist and anarchist newspapers. He was impressed after hearing a speech by the political radical Emma Goldman, whom he met for the first time during one of her lectures in Cleveland in 1901. After the lecture, Czolgosz approached the speakers' platform and asked for reading recommendations. A few days later, he visited her home in Chicago and introduced himself as Nieman, but Goldman was on her way to the train station. He only had enough time to explain to her about his disappointment in Cleveland's socialists, and for Goldman to introduce him to her anarchist friends who were at the train station. She later wrote a piece in defense of Czolgosz.

Czolgosz was never known to be accepted into any anarchist group. Indeed, his fanaticism and comments about violence aroused anarchists' suspicions; some even thought he might have been a covert government agent. Furthermore, Czolgosz was known to have been a Republican (the same party as President McKinley), and had voted in the Republican primaries in Cleveland; this participation in representative democracy being directly at odds with an ideology which rejects all forms of government.

The radical Free Society newspaper issued a warning pertaining to Czolgosz, reading:

"The attention of the comrades is called to another spy. He is well dressed, of medium height, rather narrow shoulders, blond and about 25 years of age. Up to the present he has made his appearance in Chicago and Cleveland. In the former place he remained but a short time, while in Cleveland he disappeared when the comrades had confirmed themselves of his identity and were on the point of exposing him. His demeanor is of the usual sort, pretending to be greatly interested in the cause, asking for names or soliciting aid for acts of contemplated violence. If this same individual makes his appearance elsewhere the comrades are warned in advance, and can act accordingly."

Czolgosz's experiences had convinced him there was a great injustice in American society, an inequality which allowed the wealthy to enrich themselves by exploiting the poor. He concluded that the reason for this was the structure of government itself. Then, on July 29, 1900, King Umberto I of Italy was assassinated by anarchist Gaetano Bresci. Bresci told the press he had to take matters into his own hands for the sake of the common man. The assassination shocked and galvanized the American anarchist movement, and Czolgosz is thought to have consciously imitated Bresci. When he was later arrested, police found a folded newspaper clipping about Bresci in his pocket.

Assassination of President McKinley

On August 31, 1901, Czolgosz moved to Buffalomarker, New Yorkmarker, and rented a room near the site of the Pan-American Exposition.

On September 6, he went to the exposition with a .32 caliber Iver-Johnson "Safety Automatic" revolver (serial #463344) he claimed he had purchased on September 2 for $4.50. With the gun wrapped in a handkerchief in his pocket, Czolgosz approached McKinley's procession, the President having been standing in a receiving line inside of the Temple of Music, greeting the public for 10 minutes. At 4:07 p.m., Czolgosz reached the front of the line. The President extended his hand; Czolgosz slapped it aside and shot McKinley twice at point blank range.

Members of the crowd immediately subdued Czolgosz, before the 4th Brigade, National Guard Signal Corps and police intervened, and beat him so severely it was initially thought he might not live to stand trial.

Trial and execution

On September 13, the day before McKinley succumbed to his wounds, Czolgosz was transferred from the police headquarters, which were undergoing repairs, to the Erie County Women's Penitentiary until the 16th, after which he was taken to the Erie County Jail before being arraigned before County Judge Emery. After the arraignment, he was transferred to Auburn State Prisonmarker.

A grand jury indicted Czolgosz, who spoke freely with his guards, yet refused all interaction with Robert C. Titus and Lorin L. Lewis, the prominent judges-turned-attorneys assigned to defend him, and with the expert sent to test his sanity.

The district attorney at trial was Thomas Penney, assisted by a Mr. Haller, whose performance was described as "flawless". Although Czolgosz answered that he was pleading "Guilty", the presiding Judge Truman C. White overruled him and entered a "Not Guilty" plea on his behalf.

In the week from the death of President McKinley to the trial date, Czolgosz's lawyers, Lewis and Titus, had practically no time to prepare a defense since Czolgosz refused to speak to either one of them. As a result, Lewis argued that Czolgosz cannot be found guilty for the murder because he was insane at the time (the same defense that was used in the Charles Guiteau trial back in 1881 following the assassination of President James A. Garfield).

The prosecutor, however, brought out Czolgosz's anarchist affiliations and called upon the jury to heed the popular demand for a quick trial and execution. Since the defense had been unable to enter evidence of any kind of temporary insanity, there could only be one verdict. Even if the jury believed the defense that Czolgosz was insane by claiming that no sane man would have shot and killed the president in such a public and blatant manner in which he knew he would be caught, there was still the legal definition of insanity to be overcome. Under New York law, Czolgosz was legally insane only if he was unable to understand what he was doing.

At Penney's request, Judge White closed the trial with instructions to the jury that supported the prosecution's argument that Czolgosz was not insane and that he knew clearly what he was doing. After this, any chance that remained of acquitting Czolgosz on the basis of insanity was gone, since the defense offered no evidence that he couldn't understand the wrongness of his crime.

Leon Czolgosz was convicted and sentenced to death on September 23, in a brief trial that lasted eight-and-a-half hours from jury selection to verdict. The following day, upon returning to Auburn Prison, he asked the Warden if this meant he would be transferred to Sing Singmarker to be electrocuted, and seemed surprised to learn that Auburn had its own electric chair.

Czolgosz was electrocuted by three jolts, each of 1800 volts, in Auburn Prison on October 29, 1901. His brother Waldek and his brother-in-law Frank Bandowski were in attendance, though when Waldek asked the Warden for his brother's body to be taken for proper burial, he was informed that he "would never be able to take it away" and that crowds of people would mob him, so the body had to be buried on prison grounds.

His last words were "I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime." As the prison guards strapped him into the chair, however, he did say through clenched teeth, "I am sorry I could not see my father." His brain was autopsied by Edward Anthony Spitzka.Sulfuric acid was thrown into his coffin so that his body would be completely disfigured, resulting in its decomposition within twelve hours. His letters and clothes were burned.


Emma Goldman was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the assassination, but was released because there was no evidence to support this suspicion. She later incurred a great deal of negative publicity when she published "The Tragedy at Buffalo." In the article, she compared Czolgosz to Marcus Junius Brutus, the killer of Julius Caesar, and called McKinley the "president of the money kings and trust magnates." Other anarchists and radicals were unwilling to support Goldman's effort to aid Czolgosz, believing that he had harmed the movement.

The scene of the crime, the Temple of Music, was demolished in November 1901, along with the rest of the Exposition grounds. A stone marker in the middle of Fordham Drive, a residential street in Buffalo, marks the approximate spot where the shooting occurred. Czolgosz's revolver is on display in the Pan-American Exposition exhibit at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Societymarker in Buffalomarker.In 1921, Lloyd Vernon Briggs, Director of the Massachusetts Department for Mental Hygiene reviewed the Czolgosz case and the cases of Clarence Richeson and Bertram G. Spencer. Contrary to views at the time of the assassination, he concluded that Czolgosz was "a diseased man, a man who had been suffering from some form of mental disease for years. He was not medically responsible and in the light of present-day psychiatry and of modern surgical procedure, there is a great question whether he was even legally responsible for the death of our President."

Czolgosz in film and popular culture

  • The story of McKinley's assassination appears in a traditional folk song, known variously as "The White House Blues," "Zolgotz" (a corruption of the assassin's name), and "McKinley's Rag". Both Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Alan Lomax collected the song for the Library of Congressmarker, the former on the record "Songs and Ballads of American History and of the Assassination of Presidents." It dates to at least 1923 and its original author is unknown.
  • Czolgosz's story was the fictionalized theme of the play Americans, by Eric Schlosser.
  • Czolgosz's story, along with those of eight other presidential assassins and would-be assassins, was the basis of Sondheim's and Weidman's Broadway musical Assassins. His story is told in the song The Ballad of Czolgosz.
  • Czolgosz's activities on the day of the assassination are depicted in Brian Josepher's fictionalized chronicle of the 20th century, What the Psychic Saw.
  • Czolgosz's execution by electrocution was recreated on film by Thomas Edison.
  • Czolgosz is the escaped soul in "Leon", episode six of the first season of Reaper. He is played by Patton Oswalt.
  • Czolgosz is referred to by name by Emma Goldman in E. L. Doctorow's novel, "Ragtime."
  • Czolgosz is referred to by name in Richard Linklater's Slacker by a senile anarchist who befriends an armed robber he finds in his home. Czolgosz's police photo is framed on the wall.
  • In Eleanor Updale's "Montmorency's Revenge", Czolgosz and his assassination of McKinley appear as a plot point in the second half of the novel.
  • In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it is mentioned that Anya, as a Vengeance demon, once forced an unfaithful man named Mr. Czolgosz to fall in love with President McKinley.
  • In the 1993 movie In the Line of Fire, would-be assassin Mitch Leary (played by John Malkovich) attempts to shoot the President with a gun concealed in a handkerchief, as Czolgosz did when he approached McKinley.
  • Czolgosz's story is the subject of John Smolens's novel "The Anarchist" (Three Rivers, Dec 2009).


Image:First photograph of Leon F. Czolgosz, the assassin of President William McKinley, in jail.jpg|First photograph of Czolgosz in jail.

Image:Czol following day.jpg|Police mug shot of Leon Czolgosz #757.Image:Czol execution card.jpg|Czolgosz's prisoner card at Auburn #A2323.Image:Paul Father Czol.jpg|Paul Czolgosz, Leon's father.Image:Jacob Czol.jpg|Jacob Czolgosz, Leon's brother.

See also


  1. Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.
  3. Президента США Уильяма МакКинли застрелил белорус?
  4. Emma Goldman. Living My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931. p. 289 and 290
  5. American Experience | Emma Goldman | Transcript | PBS
  6. Kick, Russ. You Are Being Lied To. New York: The Disinformation Company, 2001. p.77 ISBN
  7. Marshall Everett, Complete Life of William McKinley
  8. Leon Czolgosz and the Trial - "Lights out in the City of Light" Anarchy and Assassination at the Pan-American Exposition
  9. Briggs, L. Vernon. "The Manner of Man That Kills", 1921
  10. The Trial and Execution of Leon Czolgosz
  11. Dr. McDonald's description of the trial
  12. Hamilton, Dr. Allan McLane. "Autobiography". Pre-1921
  13., 1901 video of his execution
  14. The Execution of Leon Czolgosz - "Lights Out in the City of Light" - Anarchy and Assassination at the Pan-American Exposition
  15. "The Tragedy at Buffalo"
  16. Goldman 311-319
  17. Execution of Czolgosz, with panorama of Auburn Prison / Thomas A. Edison, Inc.

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