Heritage Moments: Mortally wounded, William McKinley thinks of his assassin - and his wife

Sep 24, 2018

The Pan-American Exposition of 1901, a world’s fair that marked Buffalo’s arrival as a major city — it should have left a legacy of joy. Instead, it left one of sorrow. President William McKinley was assassinated there.

McKinley arrived in Buffalo via train on Wednesday, Sept. 4, accompanied by his wife, Ida, who was in poor health with chronic epilepsy; his personal secretary, George Cortelyou; and several close advisers. On Thursday, Sept. 5, McKinley was scheduled to give a major policy speech at the Pan-Am, and, on Friday, Sept. 6, to visit Niagara Falls before returning to the Pan-Am to hold a reception for the general public at the Temple of Music. On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 7, he was to depart for Cleveland.

But Buffalo had another new visitor — Leon Czolgosz, a Detroit-born unemployed factory worker. Czolgosz had stalked the anarchist activist and intellectual Emma Goldman in Cleveland and Chicago, unsuccessfully seeking her friendship and perhaps more. Now, claiming to be inspired by her writings, he lodged above a workingman’s saloon on Broadway. The day before McKinley’s arrival, Czolgosz bought a small .32-caliber Iver & Johnson revolver at a hardware store on Main Street.

“All those people seemed bowing to the great ruler,” he later told police. “I made up my mind to kill that ruler.”

Csolgosz was in the crowd on Wednesday when McKinley stepped down from the train in Buffalo. But he couldn’t get a clear shot. He was in the crowd again, one of more than 50,000 people, when McKinley gave his speech at the Pan-Am on Thursday. But again, he couldn’t get close enough for a shot. Afterward, he followed the president around on his late afternoon tour of the fair, but still, no opportunity for a shot.

On Saturday McKinley toured Niagara Falls. He and his wife took the trolley along the gorge, after which Ida, tired, returned to Buffalo and the Main Street mansion where they were staying; it belonged to John Milburn, president of the Pan-Am’s board of directors. Meanwhile McKinley continued his visit to the falls, then went back to Buffalo and his scheduled event at the Exposition.

McKinley ascending the stairs to the Temple of Music, minutes before he was shot.
Credit "History of the United States,” Vol. 5, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912

Just before 4 p.m., McKinley entered the large, ornate Temple of Music for the reception. There, he would shake hands with hundreds of individual members of the public. Cortelyou had several times canceled similar events; with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Garfield still within fairly recent memory, he disliked the idea of the public having close, unfettered contact with McKinley. But McKinley felt the opposite; he disdained security, and in Washington and elsewhere often traveled unaccompanied by guards.

Inside, the large pipe organ played Schubert’s “Träumerei” (“Daydreaming”) as McKinley stood in the middle of the floor shaking hands with the line of well-wishers, person by person. Czolgosz was in that line, his gun concealed beneath a white handkerchief draped over his arm and hand. He went right up to McKinley, and fired twice. The first bullet ricocheted away, but the second entered McKinley’s stomach. There were screams in the crowd. The organ stopped playing. Onlookers pounced on Czolgosz, took away his gun and started beating him as McKinley slumped to the floor. “Am I shot?” the president asked, and was told he was.

McKinley lay bleeding on the floor, but he had the presence of mind and the compassion to address the men punching Czolgosz: “Go easy on him, boys,” he said in a soft voice. “Let no one hurt him.” McKinley’s next utterance was an expression of concern for his frail wife, Ida, spoken to his personal secretary. “My wife — be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her,” he said. “Oh, be careful.”

It was a remarkable moment of grace from a man who had just taken a bullet.

Today, a plaque marks the spot where it happened, on Fordham Drive near Lincoln Parkway. (Listen here to Stephen Sondheim’s “Ballad of Czolgosz,” from the 2004 production of the musical “Assassins.”)

The rest of the story is full of grim irony. The Pan-Am was a celebration of electric power and light, and indeed, the ambulance that transported McKinley to the exposition infirmary was an electric van. But the Pan-Am infirmary had weak lighting, and doctors had trouble finding the wound. The exposition also had an early X-ray machine, which might have helped doctors locate the bullet in McKinley’s belly — but they were afraid of potential side effects and declined to use it. So they operated right then and there, closing the wound with the bullet still inside. The light was so poor that a mirror was held to the window to reflect the waning sunlight onto the operating table. The operation was performed by a gynecologist; the city’s leading surgeon, Roswell Park, and the president’s own physician arrived only after the operation was already underway.

With thousands lining Delaware Avenue, McKinley was taken to the Milburn House to recuperate. Czolgosz, meanwhile, was held at Police Station No. 13 on Austin Street, where he confessed to the shooting. “I done my duty,” he told the police.

Over the next week the city and the nation kept anxious vigil for McKinley, as doctors issued increasingly optimistic medical reports. But on the night of Sept. 12 he took a turn for the worse — gangrene had set in along the bullet’s path through his internal organs. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was summoned from vacation in the Adirondacks, and by the time he’d dashed down the mountains and onto a special train, arriving in Buffalo on the morning of Sept. 14, McKinley was dead.

A few hours after McKinley died, Roosevelt took the presidential oath of office at the Wilcox Mansion. Czolgosz was convicted of murder and sent to the electric chair at Auburn Prison 45 days after the shooting. Emma Goldman was held on conspiracy charges but later released; she wrote an article a month after the shooting titled “The Tragedy at Buffalo,” in which she called McKinley the “president of money kings and trust magnates of this country.” Two months after the shooting, the Pan-Am, now a financial failure shadowed by tragedy, closed; on one of the fair’s last days, Buffalonians went on an orgy of destruction, looting and vandalizing the exhibits.

Ida McKinley could not bear to attend her husband’s funeral. She withdrew to her home in Canton, Ohio, and lived quietly until her death in 1907. She was buried in Canton alongside William, whose thoughts and cares, at the moment he was mortally wounded, were concerned with her welfare.

Cast (in order of appearance):
Secret Service agent: Todd Fuller
William McKinley: Richard Lambert
George Cortelyou: Karl-Eric Reif
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Brian Meyer, former WBFO news director
Dave Debo, WBFO news director
Armin St. George, Crosswater Digital Media

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)