Anarchism's American roots go back to the nation's Founding Fathers, and it gained popularity in the last years of the nineteenth century as a wave of European exiles brought a revitalized anarchism to the United States. A key leader was Johann Most, a Bavarian politician and author, who fled to the United States in 1882 after serving time in a British prison for expressing his gratitude to the killers of Russia's Alexander II. In the United States, European anarchists discovered fertile ground among increasingly radical labor movements attempting to improve the lives of workers. Some anarchists, including Most, advocated violence, but others called for peaceful resistance. The popular urban press often failed to grasp the distinction and argued that all assassins were anarchists.
In 1880, Charles Guiteau turned his attention to politics after failing as a preacher, author, theologian, lawyer, and publisher. He wrote a speech for the presidential campaign of James Garfield and convinced himself that his support tipped the scales in Garfield's favor. After Garfield's inauguration, Guiteau unsuccessfully petitioned the administration for a job, and he consequently felt convinced that God had wanted him to assassinate Garfield. On July 2, 1881 Guiteau pumped two bullets from a Webley revolver into the president at close range, inflicting wounds that led to an infection that killed Garfield on September 19. A jury rejected his plea of insanity and sentenced him to the gallows, where he died on June 30. Although there is no evidence that Guiteau ever espoused anarchism, journalists began to refer to him as an anarchist years later as labor unrest increased. These accounts categorized various figures (including Guiteau and even John Wilkes Booth) who offered violent opposition to the government as anarchists.
The police quickly arrested several hundred labor leaders and protesters. Authorities were unable to determine who threw the bomb, so they placed eight prominent labor leaders on trial, seven of whom were not present when the bomb exploded, and argued that their rhetoric alone made them guilty of murder. Judge Joseph E. Gary instructed the jury that the prosecutor proved the defendants guilty if he could demonstrate that they were anarchists. The jury found all eight defendants guilty and sentenced seven to death. Before the executions could proceed, one defendant committed suicide and Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby reduced two of the death sentences to life in prison. On November 11, 1887, the four remaining men died on the gallows. Labor leader George Engel shouted “Hurray for Anarchy” in his native German moments before his death. In 1893, Governor John Peter Altgeld granted pardons to the surviving three men, citing errors in Judge Gary's rulings and problems with the prosecution's evidence. Incidents of labor violence, such as Haymarket, convinced a young man to strike a blow against the state.
Leon Czolgosz was born to a poor family of Polish immigrants in 1873. After working on a farm and in a wire mill, he suffered a mental breakdown in 1898. Later that year, he became interested in labor movements and anarchism. In May 1901, he attended a lecture by the famed anarchist Emma Goldman. After the lecture he approached her, and she introduced him to some of her anarchist friends. These activists quickly rejected Czologsz for his disturbingly violent fantasies, and some wondered if he was a police informant. On September 5 Czologsz wrapped a revolver in a handkerchief and attended a public speech by President McKinley. Afterwards, he walked up to the president and fired two shots into his chest. The president's bodyguards immediately grabbed the assassin and beat him as McKinley urged them to “Be easy with him, boys.” The president died of infection on September 14.
Czologsz told investigators that he was inspired to kill McKinley by Goldman's speeches. Goldman denied any conspiracy but claimed to sympathize with his actions, which she saw as an idealistic attempt to help workers. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to death for the assignation. Czolgosz claimed to feel no remorse for killing McKinley, who Czolgosz saw as an enemy to the working class. He died in the electric chair on October 20, but the violence did not. The American labor movement continued to contain strains of anarchistic thought until at least the 1920s when a series of strikes once again erupted into bloodshed.
See also: Altgeld, John P. (1847–1902) ; Czolgosz, Leon (1873–1901) ; Environmentalism ; Goldman, Emma (1864–1940) ; Gilded Age ; Haymarket Riot (1886) ; Knights of Labor ; McKinley, William, Jr. (1843–1901) ; Pullman Strike (1894)
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