On this day in 1901, President William McKinley is shot by a gunman. He would pass away eight days later.
The McKinleys were then attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The President had been invited to give a speech. He’d accepted the invitation and was eager to attend, although Mrs. McKinley was worried. She had a bad feeling about the event and didn’t really want him to go.
The President went anyway.
The couple arrived in Buffalo on September 4. If only they’d known that an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz was in the crowd that greeted them that day! Czolgosz was thinking about killing the President, but he couldn’t get close enough to do anything.
He got another chance the next day.
On September 5, Czolgosz was sitting near the front as McKinley gave his speech to a crowd of about 50,000 people. Again, Czolgosz thought about shooting the President, but he was worried that he couldn’t get off a good shot with so many people around him. In the end, he did nothing.
Unfortunately, Czolgosz got one last chance when McKinley attended a public reception on the exhibition grounds the following day.
The President was inside the reception, shaking hands with those who were coming through. It was a hot day, and many people were holding handkerchiefs to wipe sweat from their brow. Thus, no one thought anything of it when a man approached McKinley with a handkerchief over his right hand. That man turned out to be Czolgosz. The handkerchief hid his revolver.
“Suddenly I saw a hand shoved toward the President,” an eyewitness later reported, “two of them in fact—as if the person wished to grasp the President’s hand in both his own. In the palm of one hand, the right one, was a handkerchief. Then there were two shots in rapid succession, the interval being so short as to be scarcely measurable.”
Czolgosz got off two bullets before the President’s aides wrestled him to the ground.
After he was shot, McKinley reportedly told his personal secretary, “My wife, be careful, [George] Cortelyou, how you tell her—oh, be careful.” McKinley had always been very attentive to his wife, who was still suffering from the deaths of her two young daughters (their only children) and her mother. Ida McKinley had also developed epilepsy after their marriage.
Perhaps you wouldn’t expect an ambulance to arrive quickly in the year 1901, but this ambulance arrived within minutes. McKinley was quickly taken to the fair’s hospital. The best available doctor, a surgeon who was an expert on gynecology, performed the surgery to repair the damage and remove the bullet. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find it because of poor lighting.
Throughout the exposition, there was electric lighting. But not in the fair’s hospital!
Sadly, a new X-ray machine was nearby at the exposition, but it was never used. The machine could have helped to locate the lost bullet in the President’s abdomen. Perhaps worse, a local doctor who was an expert in abdominal surgery was then out of town, performing an operation in Niagara Falls.
At first, it seemed that the President might recover, despite these hiccups. But, by September 13, an infection had set in, and his health took a severe turn for the worse. On September 14, McKinley passed away and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as president.
For those who think death penalty laws are tough now, you won’t like this! Czolgosz confessed to his crime and was convicted in a three day trial not long after the murder. He was executed mere weeks after the shooting, on October 29, 1901.
H. Wayne Morgan, William McKinley and His America (1998) (2d ed)
Kevin Phillips, William McKinley: The American Presidents Series: The 25th President, 1897-1901 (2003)
Topics in Chronicling America—The McKinley Assassination (Library of Congress website)
Willard M. Oliver & Nancy E. Marion, Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief (2010)