Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Assassination of President William McKinley

The End Comes

On September 26, Justice White addressed Czolgosz: "The sentence of this court is that the week beginning October 28, 1901, at the place, in the manner and means prescribed by law, you suffer the punishment of death. May God have mercy on your soul. Remove the prisoner!" Czolgosz never made a sound nor did he stir an inch. As police guarded him closely, he was escorted out of court and taken to a hidden room. Authorities were very concerned about street mobs breaking into the jail and lynching the prisoner. Throughout the trial, there were continued threats of mob violence and the court was eager to get Czolgosz out of Buffalo.

On September 27, he was taken to Auburn State Prison, which at that time still had an electric chair. Although he arrived at Auburn at 3:00 a.m., there were hundreds of angry people waiting for him at the train station. Czolgosz was attacked and dragged off the train by crowds of people who beat him relentlessly as the security detail struggled to keep control. Cops swung their blackjacks at the rioting crowd who seemed determined to lynch the terrified prisoner. He was dragged kicking and screaming into the prison where guards fired rifles above the crowd to fend them off. Eventually, Czolgosz was tossed into a cell, bloodied and beaten unconscious.

Leon Czolgosz, behind bars
Leon Czolgosz, behind bars

For the next few weeks, he remained in his cell. He was allowed no visitors and he was not permitted to go outside even for exercise. The prison warden, J. Warren Mead, was determined that Czolgosz receive no notoriety for his crime. He would not let reporters inside the prison nor would he allow any photographs. Dr. Carlos McDonald of New York City, one of the physicians who had examined Czolgosz and concluded he was sane, was scheduled to be at the execution. He made a request to Warden Mead to remove Czolgosz's brain after death to perform a detailed examination. The request was denied because the warden was afraid it would increase publicity. "I cannot allow anything to go away from the prison that will in any way continue this man's identity or present plan is not to allow any portion of the man, his clothing or even the letters he received to leave this place," said Warden Mead to the N.Y. Times.

On the morning of October 29, 1901, at 7:00 a.m., just 45 days after McKinley died in Buffalo, Czolgosz was removed from his cell and brought to the execution chamber. It was a rather small, gray room with heavy steel doors. There were several rows of seats for witnesses and the windows on each side of the walls were high up near the ceiling. As the witnesses sat into their seats, Warden Mead addressed the audience: "You are here to witness the legal death of Leon F. Czolgosz. I desire that you keep your seats and preserve absolute silence in the death chamber no matter what may transpire."

In a corner of the room was a closet-like structure that concealed the control panel for the electrical current. Electrician Edwin Davis, the state's executioner, who also traveled to other prisons to administer the death penalty, manned the controls. The chair itself was a large, ordinary piece of furniture. It had huge, wide leather straps for the chest area and legs. Hanging down from the ten-foot ceiling was a coiled wire that attached to a helmet, which was placed over Czolgosz's head. The attendants fastened the straps over his body as a third guard wet a specially made sponge and placed it under the helmet. This was done to ensure a solid connection and to enable the current to do its deadly work. During this era, when killing by electricity was still new, executions were frequently mishandled. Many of those were due to poor preparation and a failure to understand that electricity needed secure contact to travel freely.

As the guards made the final adjustments on the straps, Czolgosz spoke to them. "I killed the President because he was an enemy of the good people of the working people. I am not sorry for my crime!" he said. The final strap was placed over his chin and fastened to the chair to prevent his head from jerking forward during the application of the current. "I'm awfully sorry I could not see my father," he said through clenched teeth.

Precisely at 7:12 a.m., Warden Mead gave the signal and the electrician pulled the lever that sent 1,700 volts soaring through the body of the prisoner. Czolgosz jerked forward, throwing his chest hard against the restraining straps that looked as if they would snap from the pressure. His hands tightened up into fists and his whole body trembled at once. His face became a beet red and a tiny wisp of steam emanated from under the helmet. The current remained at 1,700 volts for one full minute until the electrician gradually lowered the amount to zero. Then, after a wait of a few seconds, he turned up the power again to 1,700 volts for ten seconds more. The lifeless body of Czolgosz again jumped forward as the chair noticeably creaked. The current was then shut down completely. Dr. McDonald stepped forward from the witness row to examine the prisoner. Although he felt no pulse, he suggested another application of current. He stepped back and again the electrical current was applied. After a second brief examination, Dr. McDonald happily announced, "Gentlemen, the prisoner is dead!" Czolgosz was the 50th person to die in the electric chair in New York.

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