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The William McKinley assassination occurred on September 6, 1901, at the Temple of Music in Buffalomarker, New Yorkmarker. United Statesmarker President William McKinley, attending the Pan-American Exposition, was shot twice by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist.

McKinley initially appeared to be recovering from his wounds, but took a turn for the worse six days after the shooting and died on September 14, 1901. Theodore Roosevelt succeeded McKinley as President. McKinley was the third of four U.S. presidents to be assassinated, following Abraham Lincoln in 1865marker and James A. Garfield in 1881marker and preceding John F. Kennedy in 1963marker. After McKinley's murder, Congress would officially charge the Secret Service with the physical protection of U.S. presidents.

McKinley at the Exposition

McKinley and his wife Ida arrived at the Exposition on September 5th, which had been designated as "President's Day" in his honor. Events scheduled for that day included private receptions and a military review as well as a speech to be given by McKinley.

On the morning of the 6th, McKinley visited Niagara Fallsmarker and returned to the Exposition for a scheduled public reception that afternoon. His secretary, George B. Cortelyou, disliked such public receptions, believing them to be security risks. Cortelyou suggested that McKinley should skip the reception, but McKinley replied, "Why should I? No one would wish to hurt me." McKinley, accompanied by Cortelyou and Exposition president John Milburn, arrived at the Exposition at 3:30 p.m. and proceeded to the Temple of Music building where the reception was to take place.

In 1901 the U.S. Secret Service, founded in 1865 to combat counterfeiting, was not officially responsible for the protection of American presidents. However, the Secret Service had already provided informal, occasional security since 1894, starting with McKinley's predecessor Grover Cleveland. The Secret Service was there that day to protect the President, along with Buffalo detectives and a squad of eleven Army servicemen that had been instructed to keep an eye on the crowd. McKinley, flanked by Cortelyou and Milburn, stood and shook hands with the people filing by in a long line. Waiting in that line was Leon Czolgosz.

The assassin

Leon Czolgosz mugshot, from the day after the shooting.
James Parker, circa 1884
Czolgosz was born in Detroitmarker, Michiganmarker, in 1873, the son of Polish immigrants. He was an unemployed factory worker and was living with his family in 1901. Czolgosz became interested in anarchism in the years preceding the McKinley murder. In May 1901 he attended a speech given by anarchist leader Emma Goldman, in Clevelandmarker, Ohiomarker. Czolgosz traveled to Goldman's home in Chicagomarker on July 12 and spoke briefly to Goldman before she left to catch a train. Goldman was later arrested and briefly detained on suspicion of involvement in McKinley's murder.

In his September 7 statement, Czolgosz said that he had read eight days prior, in Chicago, that McKinley would be attending the Exposition. He immediately took a train to Buffalo and found lodgings in a boarding house. Czolgosz attended the fair on September 5 for President's Day and heard McKinley's speech. He was tempted to shoot the President then but he could not get close enough. Instead, he returned to the Exposition the next day. Goldman's speech from May was still "burning [him] up". He joined the line of people waiting to shake the president's hand. Czolgosz wrapped his hand in a white handkerchief to hide the gun he was carrying. Secret Serviceman George Foster later explained his failure to observe Czolgosz's wrapped-up hand by saying that Czolgosz was too closely bunched up to the man in front of him. However, at the trial, Foster would also admit to not noticing Czolgosz because he was paying close attention to James Parker, a six-foot six inch black waiter from Atlanta laid-off by the exposition's Plaza Restaurant, who was standing immediately behind Czolgosz.

The shooting

Temple of Music at night, photograph, 1901.
McKinley had been shaking hands for approximately ten minutes when Cortelyou left his side to shut the doors. William J. Gomph, the exposition's official organ, was softly playing Schumann's Träumerei on the massive organ that was a special attraction at the Temple of Music. At this moment, 4:07 p.m. Czolgosz advanced to face the President. McKinley reached out to take Czolgosz's "bandaged" hand, but before he could shake it Czolgosz pulled the trigger twice. James Parker punched Czolgosz in the face and tackled him, knocking the gun from Czolgosz's hand. Agent George Foster jumped onto Czolgosz and shouted to fellow agent Albert Gallagher "Al, get the gun! Get the gun! Al, get the gun!" Gallagher instead got Czolgosz's handkerchief, which was on fire. Private Francis O'Brien, of McKinley's Army detail, picked up the gun.
Scene of the shooting inside the Temple of Music.
Spot where McKinley was shot marked with an X.
McKinley remained standing while security dragged Czolgosz away. After someone hit Czolgosz again, McKinley cried out "Don't let them hurt him!" Eleven minutes after the shooting an ambulance arrived and McKinley was taken to the hospital on the Exposition grounds. He had been shot twice. One bullet deflected off his ribs, making only a superficial wound. However, the second bullet hit McKinley in the abdomen, passed completely through his stomach, hit his kidney, damaged his pancreas, and lodged somewhere in the muscles of his back.

The doctors, unable to find the bullet, left it in his body and closed up the wound. An experimental X-ray machine, which might have helped to find the bullet, was on hand at the exhibition, but for reasons that remain unclear it was not used. (In the following days Thomas Edison would arrange for an X-ray machine to be delivered all the way from his shop in New Jersey, but it was never used either). McKinley, still unconscious from the ether used to sedate him, was taken to John Milburn's home to recover.

Death of the President

Milburn residence, where McKinley died.
Czolgosz confessed everything that night stating, "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." He provided more detail the next day, insisting that he acted alone, although his statement did not prevent Goldman's arrest a few days later.

Contrary to Czolgosz's assertion that he had killed the President, McKinley not only was still alive, but seemed to be recovering. On Saturday, September 7th, McKinley was in good condition, relaxed and conversational. His wife was allowed to see him, and he asked Cortelyou, "How did they like my speech?" A bulletin sent from his sickbed on September 8 said, "The President passed a good night and his condition this morning is quite encouraging. His mind is clear and he is resting well. Wound dressed at 8:30 and found in a very satisfactory condition."

Most of McKinley's cabinet came to Buffalo, as well as his old friend and former campaign manager, Senator Mark Hanna. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was attending a luncheon event in Vermontmarker on September 6 when word came that the President had been shot. Roosevelt and his party left immediately for Buffalo, arriving the next day. However, by September 10, McKinley had improved to the point that Roosevelt's presence no longer seemed necessary, and, for the sake of publicity, the Vice President left Buffalo that day. He went to take a hiking vacation in the Adirondack Mountains, where his wife and family were already waiting. Similarly, Mark Hanna and the cabinet members left Buffalo when the crisis seemed to have passed.

The President continued to improve. A bulletin on September 9 stated, "The President's condition is becoming more and more satisfactory. Untoward incidents are less likely to occur." On September 10 a bulletin stated, "The President's condition this morning is eminently satisfactory to his physicians. If no complications arise a rapid convalescence may be expected." McKinley continued to take water orally and nutritive enemas. On September 11, the President took beef juice orally, the first food he'd taken in the stomach since the shooting. Bulletins said "continues to gain" and "condition continues favorably." On September 12, McKinley had his first solid food, some toast and egg with coffee, but he "did not relish it and ate very little."Later that day, the President's condition began to worsen. He reported headache and nausea and his pulse rate increased, rapid but weak. McKinley became sweaty and restless, although he remained conscious and alert. A bulletin on the morning of September 13 said, "The President's condition is very serious, and gives rise to the gravest apprehension." That day, Friday, September 13, McKinley began rapidly deteriorating. Hanna and the cabinet returned to the Milburn house. McKinley was given adrenaline and oxygen in attempts to improve his weak pulse. His condition worsening, McKinley told his doctors, “It is useless, gentlemen, I think we ought to have prayer.” Later, as he faded, McKinley whispered the words to the hymn, "Nearer, My God, to Thee." A bulletin at 6:15 p.m. said, "The President's physicians report that his condition is most serious in spite of vigorous stimulation... unless it can be relieved the end is only a question of time."

Senator Hanna, grief stricken, said "Mr. President, can't you hear me? William! Don't you know me?" President McKinley, brought down by infection and gangrene, died at 2:15 a.m. on September 14, 1901.

Roosevelt succeeds to the Presidency

Newspaper sketch of Theodore Roosevelt's inauguration, minus the customary Bible.
On September 12, Theodore Roosevelt and his family arrived at their cabin on the 5,344-feet-high Mount Marcymarker. The next morning, a cold, foggy day, Roosevelt left for a climb to the top of the mountain, accompanied by a couple of his friends and a park ranger. By noon on September 13, the Vice President and his party stopped to rest at the summit on a large flat rock that offered a panoramic view of the mountains. They climbed back down five hundred feet to have lunch by a lake. At about 1:30, a park ranger arrived, running, bearing a telegram. Roosevelt understood as soon as he saw the messenger what had happened, saying later: "I instinctively knew he had bad news... I wanted to become President, but I did not want to become President that way."
Theodore Roosevelt's cabin on Mount Marcy.
The telegram confirmed his fears, reporting that McKinley's condition had turned very much for the worse. After returning to his cabin, Roosevelt received a dire telegram from Secretary of War Elihu Root:


Just before midnight, Roosevelt left his family for a carriage ride down Mount Marcy, a trip that even in daylight usually took seven hours. At 3:30 a.m. Roosevelt boarded another wagon and continued the long, twisting ride down the mountain at high speed in the dark. Two hours later, Roosevelt finally arrived at the train station in North Creek, New Yorkmarker, where, at 5:22 a.m. on September 14, he received a telegram from Secretary of State John Hay:


Roosevelt then boarded the train. The train stopped briefly in Albanymarker before pulling into Buffalo at 1:30 p.m. There he met his friend Ansley Wilcox and went to Wilcox's house, one mile from Milburn's house where McKinley's body lay. After cleaning up, Roosevelt went to the Milburn house to pay his respects. He met with Mrs. McKinley, Root, Cortelyou, and most of the rest of the cabinet there, but could not see McKinley's body as the autopsy was underway. Root recommended holding the ceremony there, but Roosevelt thought that "inappropriate" and decided to return to the Wilcox house for the swearing-in ceremony. Roosevelt took the oath of office as the 26th President of the United States at 3:30 p.m. Six weeks away from his 43rd birthday, he was and still is the youngest man ever to hold the office of President.


Emma Goldman incurred a great deal of negative publicity when she published an article in which she compared Czolgosz to Marcus Junius Brutus, the killer of Julius Caesar, and called McKinley the "president of the money kings and trust magnates." Some other anarchist and radicals were unwilling to help Goldman's effort to aid Czolgosz, believing that he had harmed the movement.

Czolgosz went on trial on September 23, 1901, only nine days after the President died. Prosecution testimony took two days and consisted of the doctors who treated McKinley and various eyewitnesses to the shooting. Defense counsel Loran Lewis did not call any witnesses. In his statement to the jury, Lewis noted Czolgosz's refusal to talk to his lawyers or cooperate with them, admitted his client's guilt, and said that "the only question that can be discussed or considered in this case is... whether that act was that of a sane person. If it was, then the defendant is guilty of the murder... 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."

The jury took only half an hour to convict Czolgosz. On September 26, Czolgosz was sentenced to death. He was immediately taken to Auburn State Prisonmarker to await execution. According to one account, Czolgosz expressed remorse, saying, "I wish the people to know I am sorry for what I 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." Czolgosz was executed by means of electrocution on October 29, 1901. However elsewhere his last words are reported as, "I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime."

After McKinley's murder, Congress took up the question of Presidential security. In the fall of 1901 they informally asked the Secret Service to control presidential security, and the Service was protecting President Theodore Roosevelt full-time by 1902. However, this was not yet official. Some in Congress recommended the United States Army be charged with protecting the President. Not until 1906 did the Congress pass legislation officially designating the Secret Service as the agency in charge of presidential security.

The Temple of Music was demolished in late 1901 and the grounds of the Pan American Exposition were cleared for residential development. A boulder with a metal plaque marks the location where McKinley was shot. The Milburn house at 1168 Delaware Avenue, where McKinley died, was turned into an apartment building in 1919 and later demolished in 1956 in order to create an additional parking lot for Canisius High Schoolmarker. Students of the school watched the demolition from their classroom windows. The Ansley Wilcox Mansion in Buffalo, where Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office, is now a National Historic Site. In 1907, Buffalo dedicated a 96-foot-tall marble obelisk in Niagara Square to McKinley's memory.
The assassination site as it appears today.


Order of exercises, Nashua, N.H. memorial service
  1. "Images of President McKinley at the Pan-American Exhibition
  2. "Official Daily Program of the Pan-American Exposition, Sept. 5, 1901"
  3. "William McKinley's Pan-American Address"
  4. Olcott, Charles. The Life of William McKinley. Houghton Mifflin company, Boston, 1916, p. 313
  5. Olcott, 314
  6. Olcott 314
  7. Bumgarner, Jeffrey. Federal Agents: The Growth of Federal Law Enforcement in America. Greenwood Press, 2006, ISBN 0275989534, p. 44
  8. Olcott 314–5
  9. Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. New York: Courier Dover, 1970 edition. ISBN 0486225437, pp. 289–91
  10. New York Times, Sept. 11, 1901
  11. Goldman 296–304
  12. New York Times, Sept. 8, 1901
  13. Townsend, G.W. Memorial Life of William McKinley. 1901, p. 465
  14. Rauchway 61
  15. Olcott 317
  16. Olcott 315
  17. "James B. Parker Revisited"
  18. "Big Ben Parker and President McKinley's Assassination"
  19. Rauchway 62–3
  20. Townsend 464
  21. "The Trial"
  22. Olcott 316
  23. The Official Report on the Case of President McKinley
  24. Kevles, Bettyann. Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century. Basic Books, 1998. ISBN 020132833X. p. 42–3
  25. X-rays at the Exhibition
  26. Olcott 319
  27. "The Confession of Leon Czolgosz"
  28. Olcott 320
  29. "Medical and Surgical Report" by Dr. Presley M. Rixey
  30. Olcott 321
  31. Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Modern Library 2001 paperback edition, ISBN 0375756787, p. 777
  32. Morris, Rise, 778
  33. Olcott 322
  34. "Medical and Surgical Report" by Dr. Presley M. Rixey
  35. Olcott 323
  36. Olcott 324
  37. Olcott 325
  38. Beschloss, Michael. Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989. Simon and Schuster, 2007, p. 128. ISBN 0684857057.
  39. Morris, Rise, 779
  40. Morris, Rise, 780
  41. Morris, Rise, 889, endnote 16
  42. Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex, Random House, 2001. ISBN 0394555090, p. 3
  43. Morris, Rex, 4–6
  44. Morris, Rex, 7
  45. Morris, Rex, 9–11
  46. Morris, Rex, 11–15
  47. "The Tragedy at Buffalo"
  48. Goldman 311–319
  49. "The Execution of Leon Czolgosz"
  50. "Regrets His Crime"
  51. Bumgarner 45
  52. Bumgarner 46
  53. History of the Secret Service
  54. Buffalo Historical Markers and Monuments
  55. John Milburn
  56. Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site
  57. Buffalo Arts Commission - City of Buffalo
  58. McKinley Monument

Further reading

  • Fisher, Jack C. Stolen glory : the McKinley assassination. La Jolla, CA : Alamar Books, ©2001
  • Johns, A. Wesley. The man who shot McKinley. South Brunswick [N.J.]: A.S. Barnes [1970]
  • Lowy, Jonathan. The Temple of Music: A Novel. Three Rivers Press, 2005. ISBN 0307209849. A novel of the assassination.
  • Rauchway, Eric. Murdering Mckinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2004. ISBN 0809016389, 9780809016389

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