Leon Czolgosz, The Anarchist Who Killed William McKinley

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In 1901, Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley twice at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He was executed for the assassination less than two months later.

Library of CongressA depiction of Leon Czolgosz killing President William McKinley.

President William McKinley believed in luck. He specifically believed in the luck brought by red carnations, which is why he wore one to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901. When a little girl asked him for the flower, the President l gave to her. Then Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley in the midsection.

For Czolgosz, luck had nothing to do. An anarchist exasperated by inequality in the United States, Czolgosz considered McKinley “the enemy of good people”. Upon hearing that McKinley would be at the Pan American Exposition, he bought a train ticket. Then he bought a gun.

In the end, Leon Czolgosz did more than end McKinley’s life. It also changed the course of American history. The president’s death elevated his young and dynamic vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, 42, to the White House.

How Leon Czolgosz decided to kill the president

Leon Czolgosz

Public domainA booking photo of Leon Czolgosz in 1901.

Born on May 5, 1873, to Russian-Polish immigrant parents, Leon Czolgosz grew up one of eight children in Detroit, Michigan. As a teenager, he found work at a glass factory just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and later at a steel mill in Cleveland, Ohio.

According to his confession, published in the New York Times on September 8, 1901, Czolgosz’s experiences in Cleveland proved formative.

Wage cuts, strikes, and tensions between workers and factory owners convinced Czolgosz that the system was rigged against the poor. He began to dabble in socialism, then anarchism.

And then, in May 1901, Leon Czolgosz fatally attended a speech given by the anarchist Emma Goldman.

“I know I was bitter,” he said in his confession. “I’ve never had much luck at anything, and that ate at me. It made me glum and envious but what sparked the killing craze was a lecture that I I heard a while ago from Emma Goldman… She set me on fire.

Emma Goldman

Public domainEmma Goldman was a feminist, anarchist and activist.

Goldman, according to Czolgosz, had declared that all leaders should be “exterminated”. It was a perfect match for Czolgosz’s rage over unfair working conditions and elite power.

“His doctrine…made me think my head almost split in pain,” Czolgosz said. “Miss Goldman’s words went through me through and through, and when I left the conference I had decided I had to do something heroic for the cause I loved.”

Goldman and Czolgosz had, indeed, a passing acquaintance. But in his memoirs, Live my life, Goldman noted that other anarchists actually suspected the socially awkward Czolgosz of being a spy. He introduced himself as Fred Nieman (a Polish and German surname that translates to “nobody”) and aroused suspicion by asking too many questions.

In any case, it was Leon Czolgosz alone who read that President William McKinley would attend the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo in September. And it was Czolgosz alone who decided to face him there.

The Assassination of William McKinley

President William McKinley

Public domainPresident William McKinley climbs the steps of the Temple of Music, where Leon Czolgosz shot him on September 6, 1901.

According The Buffalo NewsLeon Czolgosz arrived in Buffalo, New York, on August 31, 1901. On Tuesday, September 3 – the day before President McKinley was scheduled to arrive in Buffalo – he purchased a .32 caliber Iver Johnson revolver at a local hardware store. .

“It wasn’t until Tuesday morning that the resolve to shoot the president took hold of me,” Czolgosz later confessed. “It was in my heart; there was no escape for me. I couldn’t have defeated him if my life had been at stake.

On September 4, Czolgosz waited at the train station with a large crowd for the arrival of President McKinley. Ironically, McKinley had a brush with death when his train arrived, and a 21-gun salute from three guns meant to honor his arrival shattered the windows of the first carriage. But McKinley emerged unscathed and Czolgosz couldn’t get close enough to him through the crowd.

Over the next two days, Czolgosz tried – and failed – to put his plan into action. Finally, on September 6, Czolgosz found his opportunity when McKinley attended an exhibition at the Temple of Music.

temple of music

Library of CongressWilliam McKinley at the Temple of Music on September 6, 1901, probably minutes before he was shot.

The assassin stood in line as the president made his way through the crowd, shaking hands. At one point, he met a 12-year-old girl named Myrtle Ledger who asked him for the red carnation he wore for good luck on his lapel. “I have to give this flower to another little flower,” McKinley said, according to the Chronicle of the tribune.

Minutes later, McKinley found himself face to face with Leon Czolgosz, who had his gun hidden under a white handkerchief in his right hand. Although people were supposed to approach the president empty-handed, McKinley may have thought Czolgosz was hiding a deformity or holding the handkerchief because the day was so hot.

Either way, the president held out Czolgosz’s left hand – and Czolgosz shot him twice in the abdomen.

“I would have shot more,” Czolgosz later confessed, “but I was knocked unconscious by a blow to the face.”

The shot came from an African-American waiter named James Parker, who reacted faster than McKinley’s guards to the shots. As the rest of the crowd turned on Czolgosz, McKinley ordered them not to hurt the “poor bewildered,” according to PBS. He then said to his secretary, “Wife, be careful…how do you tell her, oh be careful.

Czolgosz had shot McKinley once in the stomach and once in the sternum. And although the wound to the sternum was superficial, the injury to the abdomen caused the president to succumb to gangrene on September 14. He died whispering the words to his favorite hymn, “Closer, my God, to you, closer to you.”

In the aftermath, Leon Czolgosz proudly declared that he had killed the president in the name of anarchy. “I am an anarchist. I am a follower of Emma Goldman,” he told officers when asked for his motive. “His words fired me up.”

The Legacy of Leon Czolgosz

Leon Czolgosz in jail

Library of CongressLeon Czolgosz died in the electric chair at the age of 28.

After the death of William McKinley, Leon Czolgosz was declared sane, and he was convicted of first degree murder on September 24, 1901. The assassin was sentenced to death two days later and executed on the chair electric on October 29, at the age of 28.

“I killed the president because he was the enemy of good people – good workers,” Czolgosz said during his execution. He added: “I am not sorry for my crime. I’m sorry I couldn’t see my dad.

Goldman, for her part, has denied any association with Czolgosz, though she has defended her actions.

“As an anarchist, I am opposed to violence,” she said. “But if the people want to get rid of murderers, they must get rid of the conditions that produce murderers.”

Like any presidential assassin, Czolgosz left a deep mark on American history. It cut short William McKinley’s second term and elevated his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, to the White House.

Roosevelt would go on to modernize and expand the American presidency, hold onto millions of acres of land, and lead the nation with a foreign policy in which he “would speak softly and carry a big stick”.

In this way, Leon Czolgosz did more than kill William McKinley in September 1901. The assassin also irrevocably changed the course of American history and ushered the country into the 20th century.


After reading about Leon Czolgosz and the assassination of President William McKinley, learn about Charles Guiteau, who shot and killed President James Garfield. Or browse through these eight presidential assassination attempts in US history.

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