Leon Frank Czolgosz (Polish pronunciation: [ˈt͡ʂɔwɡɔʂ]; May 5, 1873 – October 29, 1901) was a Polish-American anarchist and former steel worker who assassinated U.S. President William McKinley in September 1901. Czolgosz was executed seven weeks later.
Leon Czolgosz in 1900
Leon Frank Czolgosz
May 5, 1873
Alpena, Michigan, U.S.
|Died||October 29, 1901 (aged 28)|
Auburn, New York, U.S.
|Cause of death||Electrocution (executed via electric chair)|
|Criminal status||Executed by electric chair|
|Motive||To advance anarchism|
|Conviction(s)||Assassination of William McKinley|
|Criminal charge||First-degree murder|
|Penalty||Death by electrocution|
Czolgosz was born in Alpena, Michigan, on May 5, 1873.[a] He was one of eight children born to the Polish American family of Paul Czolgosz and his wife Mary Nowak. The Czolgosz family moved to Detroit when Leon was five.[b] When he was 10 years old, while living in Posen, Michigan, Czolgosz's mother died six weeks after giving birth to his sister, Victoria. In his mid-teens, he worked in a glass factory in Natrona, Pennsylvania. By age seventeen he found employment at the Cleveland Rolling Mill Company.
After the economic crash of 1893, when the factory closed for some time and looked to reduce wages, the workers went on strike, putting Leon and his brothers out of work. With great economic and social turmoil around him, Czolgosz found little comfort in the Catholic Church and other immigrant institutions, and sought others who shared his concerns regarding injustice. He joined a moderate workingman's socialist club, the Golden Eagle Society, and eventually a more radical socialist group known as the Sila Club where he became interested in anarchism.
In 1898, after witnessing a series of similar strikes (many ending in violence), and perhaps ill from a respiratory disease, Czolgosz went to live with his father who had bought a fifty-five acre farm the year before in Warrensville, Ohio. He did little to assist in the running of the farm and was constantly at odds with his stepmother and with his family's Roman Catholic beliefs. It was later recounted that throughout his life he had never shown any interest in friendship or romantic relationships and was bullied during his childhood by peers.
He became a recluse. He was impressed after hearing a speech by the political radical Emma Goldman, whom he met for the first time during one of her lectures in Cleveland in May 1901. After the lecture, Czolgosz approached the speakers' platform and asked for reading recommendations. On the afternoon of July 12, 1901, he visited her at the home of Abraham Isaak, publisher of the newspaper Free Society, in Chicago and introduced himself as Fred Nieman (nobody),[c] but Goldman was on her way to the train station. He only had enough time to explain to her about his disappointment in Cleveland's socialists, and for Goldman to introduce him to her anarchist friends who were at the train station. She later wrote a piece in defense of Czolgosz.
In the weeks that followed, his social awkwardness, his evasiveness, and his blunt inquiries about secret societies around Isaak and another anarchist, Emil Schilling, caused the radical Free Society newspaper to issue a warning pertaining to Czolgosz, on September 1, reading:
ATTENTION! The attention of the comrades is called to another spy. He is well dressed, of medium height, rather narrow shoulders, blond and about 25 years of age. Up to the present he has made his appearance in Chicago and Cleveland. In the former place he remained but a short time, while in Cleveland he disappeared when the comrades had confirmed themselves of his identity and were on the point of exposing him. His demeanor is of the usual sort, pretending to be greatly interested in the cause, asking for names or soliciting aid for acts of contemplated violence. If this same individual makes his appearance elsewhere the comrades are warned in advance, and can act accordingly.
Czolgosz believed there was a great injustice in American society, an inequality which allowed the wealthy to enrich themselves by exploiting the poor. He concluded that the reason for this was the structure of government itself. Then he learned of a European crime which changed his life: On July 29, 1900, King Umberto I of Italy had been shot dead by anarchist Gaetano Bresci. Bresci told the press that he had decided to take matters into his own hands for the sake of the common man.
New York City police lieutenant Joseph Petrosino believed that the same Italian-based anarchist group suspected of responsibility for King Umberto's death was also targeting President McKinley, but his warnings were ignored.
On September 6, Czolgosz went to the exposition armed with a concealed .32 caliber Iver Johnson "Safety Automatic" revolver he had purchased four days earlier. He approached McKinley, who had been standing in a receiving line inside the Temple of Music, greeting the public for ten minutes. At 4:07 P.M., Czolgosz reached the front of the line. McKinley extended his hand. Czolgosz slapped it aside and shot the President in the abdomen twice, at point blank range: the first bullet ricocheted off a coat button and lodged in McKinley's jacket; the other seriously wounded him in his stomach. President McKinley died eight days later on September 14 of an infection which had spread from the wound.
Members of the crowd immediately attacked Czolgosz, as McKinley slumped backward. The President said, "Go easy on him, boys." The police struggled to keep the crowd off of Czolgosz. He was held in a cell at Buffalo's 13th Precinct house at 346 Austin Street until he was moved to police headquarters.
On September 13, the day before McKinley succumbed to his wounds, Czolgosz was taken from the police headquarters, which were undergoing repairs, and transferred to the Erie County Women's Penitentiary. On September 16, he was brought to the Erie County Jail ahead of being arraigned before County Judge Emery. After the arraignment, Czolgosz was transferred to Auburn State Prison.
A grand jury indicted Czolgosz on September 16 with one count of first-degree murder. Throughout his incarceration, Czolgosz spoke freely with his guards, but he refused every interaction with Robert C. Titus and Loran L. Lewis, the prominent judges-turned-attorneys assigned to defend him, and with the expert psychiatrist sent to test his sanity.
The case was prosecuted by the Erie County District Attorney, Thomas Penney, and assistant D.A. Frederick Haller, whose performance was described as "flawless".[d] Although Czolgosz answered that he was pleading "Guilty", presiding Judge Truman C. White overruled him and entered a "Not Guilty" plea on his behalf.
Even had the jury believed the defense that Czolgosz was insane, by claiming that no sane man would have shot and killed the president in such a public and blatant manner, knowing he would be caught, there was still the legal definition of insanity to be overcome. Under New York law, Czolgosz was legally insane only if he was unable to understand what he was doing. And the jury was unconvinced of Czolgosz’s insanity due to the directions given to them by Judge White, thus convicting him in only less than a half-hour of deliberations (a jury member later said it would have been sooner but they wanted to review the evidence before conviction).
His last words 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. I am sorry I could not see my father." Czolgosz was electrocuted by three jolts, each of 1800 volts, in Auburn Prison on October 29, 1901, 45 days after his victim's death. He was pronounced dead at 7:14 a.m.
Leon Czolgosz's brother, Waldek, and his brother-in-law, Frank Bandowski, were in attendance at the execution. When Waldek asked the warden for his brother's body to be taken for proper burial, he was informed that he "would never be able to take it away" and that crowds of people would mob him.
Czolgosz was autopsied by John E. Gerin;[e] his brain was autopsied by Edward Anthony Spitzka. The autopsy showed his teeth were normal but in poor condition; likewise the external genitals were normal although cicatrices were present—the result of chancroids. The autopsy showed the deceased was in good health; a death mask was made of the deceased. The body was buried on prison grounds following the autopsy. Prison authorities had planned to inter the body with quicklime to hasten its decomposition, but decided otherwise after testing quicklime on a sample of meat. After determining that they were not legally limited to the use of quicklime for the process, they poured sulfuric acid into Czolgosz's coffin so that his body would be completely disfigured. The warden estimated that the acid caused the body to disintegrate within twelve hours. His clothes and possessions were incinerated to discourage exhibitions of his life.
Emma Goldman was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the assassination, but was released, due to insufficient evidence. She later incurred a great deal of negative publicity when she published "The Tragedy at Buffalo". In the article, she compared Czolgosz to Marcus Junius Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar, and called McKinley the "president of the money kings and trust magnates." Other anarchists and radicals were unwilling to support Goldman's effort to aid Czolgosz, believing that he had harmed the movement.
The scene of the crime, the Temple of Music, was demolished in November 1901, along with the rest of the Exposition grounds. A stone marker in the median of Fordham Drive, a residential street in Buffalo, marks the approximate spot () where the shooting occurred. Czolgosz's revolver is on display in the Pan-American Exposition exhibit at the Buffalo History Museum in Buffalo.
Lloyd Vernon Briggs, who later became the Director of the Massachusetts Department for Mental Hygiene, reviewed the Czolgosz case in 1901 on behalf of Dr. Walter Channing shortly after Czolgosz's death.
Czolgosz's death was re-enacted in the silent film Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison. Czolgosz is also featured as a central character of Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins, in which his assassination of McKinley is depicted in a musical number called "The Ballad of Czolgosz". He was also portrayed in the Reaper episode "Leon" by Patton Oswalt as an escaped/captured/released/re-captured soul from Hell who could turn his arms into large guns, but had issues with his father.
Fired, then blacklisted, he got his old job back by working under the alias Fred Nieman. German for 'nobody,' Nieman is the name Czolgosz first gave to the Buffalo police upon arrest.
|Booknotes interview with Eric Rauchway on Murdering McKinley, September 21, 2003, C-SPAN|
|Q&A interview with Scott Miller on The President and the Assassin, July 3, 2011, C-SPAN|
At 7:12:30 o'clock this morning, Leon Frans Czolgosz, murderer of ... the formal finding in his case was composed as follows: Foreman, John P. Jaeckel. ...