Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Assassination of President William McKinley

Rendezvous with Destiny

By the early morning of September 5, 1901, the Expo was already full of people. The festive atmosphere was heightened by the expected appearance of the President who was scheduled to give a speech later that day. Over 116,000 people would go through the turnstiles that day and more than 50,000 would hear McKinley's speech that same afternoon. The exhibitions and sidewalks were full to capacity as at least six different bands played their music to the milling crowds. The President, as always, was eager to go out into the multitude, shaking hands, greeting people face to face. Although his staff always tried to discourage such close-up contact, the president refused to be afraid. "Why should I? No one would wish to hurt me," was his usual response.

At 12 p.m., the crowds assembled on the Esplanade near the Triumphal Causeway where the President was to give his speech. A few minutes later, an open carriage appeared with the President and the First Lady sitting grandly inside its sparkling exterior. A beaming McKinley stepped down from the carriage and helped his wife onto the pavement. They walked to the dais where he immediately received a tumultuous reception. As the water flowed loudly from the Court of Fountains a short distance away and the vast, dazzling landscape of the Pan American Exposition in its entire splendor lay before him, President McKinley began his speech.

Horticulture building at the Expo
Horticulture building at the Expo

That day, he spoke of the tremendous prosperity of the nation and its limitless potential for the future. The response to the speech was overwhelming and at its conclusion, the crowds broke into waves of applause and cheers. As McKinley stepped off the dais, the people pushed forward trying to get a closer look or to touch his hand. After leaving the Causeway, the President went on a tour of the Expo like any other visitor. As he strolled through the various displays, like the Liberal Arts building, Graphic Arts, and the Transportation building, he came within yards of Leon Czolgosz who was biding his time for a good opportunity. But it was not to be. "I was close to the President when he got to the grounds, but was afraid to attempt the assassination because there were so many men in the bodyguard that watched him. I was not afraid of them...but afraid that I might be seized and that my chance would be gone forever!" the New York Times later reported. McKinley had lunch at the New York State Building and then returned to Milburn's house in the late afternoon where he would stay the night.

The next morning, Friday, September 6, was a glorious day, an avalanche of sunshine amidst a cloudless blue sky. The President made a leisurely visit to Niagara Falls before noontime with his beloved wife. At about 3 p.m. that day, McKinley and his entourage arrived at the fairgrounds. He was scheduled to give a brief speech and a reception at the Temple of Music, on the southwest side of the Expo in the midst of dozens of flower gardens. John Milburn, George Cortelyou, a long time friend, and several Secret Service officers, accompanied him. Surrounding McKinley were a dozen Buffalo policemen and a squad of U.S. Army soldiers. The reception room at the Temple was a spacious hall containing a large pipe organ and lavishly decorated with potted palms. It made a fine presidential setting. Thousands of people, aware that McKinley would be greeting the public at the Temple of Music, had already gathered outside its doors. The multitude pressed up against the walls and filled the hallways to capacity and beyond. In the forefront of the crowd, Czolgosz stood motionless with his sweating hand grasped firmly around the .32 caliber revolver in his pocket.

At 4:00 p.m. the doors to the auditorium were opened and the public flooded in. There was a thunderous applause as McKinley, with a broad, sincere smile, walked across the room and began to greet each visitor. "Let them come!" the President told his aides. McKinley stood in the center of the room as the crowd, in single file, moved past him, shaking hands as they passed. At precisely 4:07 p.m. while the organ played a Bach sonata, Czolgosz finally reached his target. As the President extended his hand, Czolgosz pushed it aside and pulled out the revolver, wrapped in a handkerchief, from his pocket. Holding the weapon just inches from the President, he fired two quick shots into McKinley's torso. There was a brief second of silence as the President stared at Czolgosz in amazement.

A painting of the assassination of President McKinley
A painting of the assassination
of President McKinley

"I would have shot more but I was stunned by a blow in the face, a frightful blow that knocked me down and then everybody jumped on me!" Czolgosz said later. Immediately, a wall of people fell upon the assassin. He was knocked to the ground and pummeled by the crowd and the security detail. The people screamed: "Lynch him!" and "Hang the bastard!" As the furious crowd nearly beat the assailant to death, McKinley, his hands clutching his bloody chest, said, "Boys, don't let them hurt him!"

A panic-stricken crowd quickly encircled the building as the Secret Service struggled to keep control of the scene. Within minutes an electric-powered ambulance arrived to remove McKinley from the scene. As the President was carried from the Temple of Music, his white shirt covered in blood, some spectators screamed in horror, others fainted.

Unknown to anyone at the time, one bullet had never penetrated flesh. It had bounced off a button on McKinley's jacket and was lodged inside his clothing. The other bullet had passed through his stomach, damaging the pancreas and a kidney. The physical damage to the organs alone was not enough to cause death, but the infection caused by the path of the bullet and the quality of the medical care given to the President would take its toll.

Leon Czolgosz, mugshots
Leon Czolgosz, mugshots

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