Leon Czolgosz was an American anarchist and assassin who gained notoriety for shooting U.S. President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901. Czolgosz contended that anarchists, particularly Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, heavily influenced him, but the precise motivation behind the assassination remains unknown. After a quick trial, Czolgosz was convicted and executed by electrocution. Following Czolgosz's murder of McKinley, the anarchist movement suffered legal and public recriminations, but anarchists still assumed Czolgosz as a martyr figure for their cause. McKinley's death also ushered in the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, thus instigating Progressivism on the federal level.
Czolgosz was born in May 1873 in Detroit, Michigan, to Polish-Russian immigrants and had six other siblings. In 1881 his parents moved the family to a small farm near Cleveland to pursue the agrarian dream of independent farming. The farm did not provide Czolgosz's family adequate income, however, and Leon was sent to work in a wire mill at age 10 with his brothers. Two years later, all the boys were fired when mill workers went on strike. At age 16 Czolgosz then worked in a glass factory in Pennsylvania before suffering a mental breakdown in 1898. With no other support network, Czolgosz begrudgingly returned to the family farm, but he rejected his family's Roman Catholicism and became increasingly interested in anarchistic ideology. Czolgosz began insulating himself against outside society, and he spent a great deal of his time reading socialist and anarchist newspapers in his mother's basement. In July 1900, American newspapers reported that Italian-American Gaetano Bresci had returned to Italy and assassinated King Umberto. Bresci contended he had shot Umberto because the king had celebrated the killing of unarmed demonstrators who had marched on the palace demanding a reprieve from high bread prices. Bresci's actions appealed to Czolgosz and other anarchists because Bresci represented the struggle against an unsympathetic monarchy. Reading accounts of the assassination inspired Czolgosz to leave the family farm and attend anarchist meetings.
Arriving in Cleveland on May 6, 1901, Czolgosz heard a speech at the Federal Liberal Club by famed anarchist Emma Goldman. He appears to have become enamored with Goldman, and he spoke with her after the Cleveland meeting and
followed her to Chicago and other cities where she gave lectures. Despite (or because of) his apparent enthusiasm for both anarchism and Goldman, Czolgosz fell under suspicion by other anarchists, particularly Abraham Isaak. Isaak was the publisher of the Free Society, an American anarchist weekly, and he suspected that Czolgosz's repeated call to violence in anarchist meetings meant that Czolgosz was a spy for the U.S. government. Isaak believed Czolgosz was trying to infiltrate the anarchists and pass incriminating evidence to the government, a warning Isaak reiterated publicly in Free Society. As a result, many anarchists shunned Czolgosz.
Czolgosz was indicted for first-degree murder by a grand jury on September 16. Attorneys Robert C. Titus and Lorin L. Lewis were assigned to defend Czolgosz, but Czolgosz refused to interact with them or the psychiatrist sent to determine his sanity. Lewis argued Czolgosz could not be found criminally responsible because he was insane at the time of the shooting, but he could not mount a substantial insanity defense due to Czolgosz's disinterest. During Czolgosz's trial Lewis did not call any defense witnesses. District Attorney Thomas Penney repeatedly referenced Czolgosz's anarchist affiliations and the public desire to see McKinley's assassin quickly tried and executed. The judge presiding over the case, Truman C. White, closed the final minutes of the trial by telling the jury Czolgosz was not insane and he understood his actions in assassinating the president. The inability of Czolgosz's attorneys to mount a defense because of Czolgosz's lack of cooperation, the expert work of District Attorney Thomas Penney, and Judge Truman C. White's failure to preside impartially led the jury to deliberate for only one hour. On September 24, 1901, the jury found Czolgosz guilty, and two days later they unanimously recommended the death penalty. Czolgosz gave no visible or audible reaction to either the conviction or sentencing, and he was electrocuted on October 29, 1901.
Czolgosz's motivation for murdering McKinley remains a mystery. Czolgosz last words before his execution 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” (Rauchway 53 ). His association with anarchists and his last words suggests Czolgosz killed McKinley to dislodge the symbol of U.S. democracy and upset the structure of government that widened the gap between the poor and the wealthy. However, Czolgosz was a Republican with a history of voting in Republican primaries, and McKinley was a GOP president. At the time of the assassination, Czolgosz had been alienated from the anarchists due to their suspicions about his motives. While some anarchists, notably Emma Goldman, exploited Czolgosz's image after McKinley's assassination, many disavowed any knowledge of the assassin and claimed he had damaged their movement. In Murdering McKinley Eric Rauchway raised a strong argument for Czolgosz's long-term depression and alienation. According to Rauchway, Czolgosz experienced much disappointment in his 24 years with his inability to find employment or purpose. On one job application, Czolgosz used the alias Leon Nieman (“no one” or “no man”), an indication he felt profoundly divorced from society. The rejection by anarchists and Goldman only aggravated Czolgosz's sense of alienation, and Czolgosz may have sought to realize his potential and celebrity by murdering McKinley.
See also: Anarchism ; Depression of 1893 ; Goldman, Emma (1869–1940) ; McKinley, William, Jr. (1843–1901) ; Progressivism ; Roosevelt, Theodore (1858–1919)
Faulk, Candace. Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman: A Biography. New York: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
Fine, Sidney. “Anarchism and the Assassination of McKinley.” American Historical Review 60 (4): 777–799.
Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931.
Miller, Scott. The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Random House, 2011.
Rauchway, Eric. Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.
Rauchway, Eric. “William McKinley and Us.” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Reform 4 (3): 235–253.