Leon Czolgosz: Steel worker and assassin of U.S. President William McKinley (1873 - 1901) | Biography
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Leon Czolgosz
Steel worker and assassin of U.S. President William McKinley

Leon Czolgosz

Leon Czolgosz
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Steel worker and assassin of U.S. President William McKinley
A.K.A. Leon Frank Czolgosz
Was Criminal
From United States of America
Field Crime
Gender male
Birth 5 May 1873, Alpena
Death 29 October 1901, Auburn (aged 28 years)
Leon Czolgosz
The details (from wikipedia)


Leon Frank Czolgosz (Polish form: Czołgosz, Polish pronunciation: [ˈt͡ʂɔwɡɔʂ]) was an American anarchist and former steel worker who assassinated William McKinley, President of the United States, in 1901. Czolgosz was executed later that year.

Early life

Czolgosz was born in Alpena, Michigan, on May 5, 1873. He was one of eight children of Paul Czolgosz and his wife Mary Nowak. The Czolgosz family moved to Detroit when Leon was five. At the age of 10, while living in Posen, Michigan, Czolgosz's mother died six weeks after giving birth to his sister, Victoria. His first job was at about age fourteen to sixteen in a glass factory in Natrona, Pennsylvania, returning home two years later. 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 Polish 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.

Interest 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 and spent much of his time alone reading socialist and anarchist newspapers. 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 (no man), 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.

The assassination shocked and galvanized the American anarchist movement, and Czolgosz is thought to have consciously imitated Bresci. New York City police lieutenant Joseph Petrosino believed that the same group had previously targeted President McKinley, but his warnings were useless, because McKinley ignored them.

Assassination of President McKinley

President McKinley greeting Well-Wishers at a reception in the Temple of Music minutes before he was shot September 6, 1901
Illustration of how Czologosz's gun was concealed. Chicago Eagle, 9/14/1901
A sketch of Czolgosz shooting McKinley.
Site of McKinley Murder-marked by "x" in lower right.

On August 31, 1901, Czolgosz traveled to Buffalo, New York, the site of the Pan-American Exposition, where he rented a room in Nowak's Hotel at 1078 Broadway.

On September 6, Czolgosz went to the exposition armed with a concealed .32 caliber Iver Johnson "Safety Automatic" revolver (serial #463344) he had purchased four days earlier for $4.50. 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 that wound.

Members of the crowd immediately attacked Czolgosz, as McKinley slumped backward. The President said, "Go easy on him, boys." The crowd chained Czolgosz before the 4th Brigade, National Guard Signal Corps and police intervened. He was held in a cell at Buffalo's 13th Precinct house at 346 Austin Street until he was moved to police headquarters.

Trial and execution

After McKinley's death, newly inaugurated President Theodore Roosevelt declared, "When compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance."

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". Although Czolgosz answered that he was pleading "Guilty", presiding Judge Truman C. White overruled him and entered a "Not Guilty" plea on his behalf.

In the nine days from McKinley's death to the start of Czolgosz's trial, Czolgosz's lawyers were unable to prepare a defense because Czolgosz refused to speak to either one of them. As a result, Loran L. Lewis argued at the trial that Czolgosz could not be found guilty for the murder of the president because he was insane at the time (similar to the ineffective defense used at Charles J. Guiteau's trial in 1881, after he had shot President James A. Garfield).

On September 23 and 24, the prosecution presented testimony of the doctors who treated McKinley and of various eyewitnesses to the shooting. Lewis did not call any defense witnesses. Czolgosz himself refused to testify on his own defense, nor did he even speak in court. In his statement to the jury, Lewis noted Czolgosz's refusal to talk to his lawyers or co-operate with them, admitted his client's guilt, and asserted that "the only question that can be discussed or considered in this case is... whether that act was that of a sane person. If it was, then the defendant is guilty of the murder... If it was the act of an insane man, then he is not guilty of murder but should be acquitted of that charge and would then be confined in a lunatic asylum."

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 in which he knew 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. At Thomas Penney's request, White closed the trial with instructions to the jury which supported the prosecution's argument that Czolgosz was not insane, and that he knew clearly what he was doing. After this, no chance remained of acquitting Czolgosz on the basis of insanity, for the defense had offered no evidence that he could not understand the wrongfulness of his crime.

Czolgosz was convicted on September 24, 1901, after the jury had deliberated for only an hour. On September 26, the jury unanimously recommended the death penalty. Czolgosz was said to have remained silent and to have shown no emotion upon either his conviction or his sentencing to death. When he was asked by Judge White if he wanted to make any statement in open court, Czolgosz shook his head to indicate that he did not. Upon returning to Auburn Prison, Czolgosz asked the warden if this meant he would be transferred to Sing Sing to be electrocuted, and he seemed surprised to learn that Auburn had its own electric chair.

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." As the prison guards strapped him into the chair, however, he did say through clenched teeth, "I am only sorry I could not get to see my father." Czolgosz was electrocuted by three jolts, each of 1800 volts, in Auburn Prison on October 29, 1901, just 45 days after his victim's death. He was pronounced dead at 07:14.

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; his brain was autopsied by Edward Anthony Spitzka. 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.

Czolgosz's letters and clothes were burned, although the names of those who had sent threatening or sympathetic correspondence were recorded for future reference.


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 killer 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 (42°56.321′N 78°52.416′W / 42.938683°N 78.873600°W / 42.938683; -78.873600) 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. Briggs also reviewed the cases of Clarence Richeson and Bertram G. Spencer, men who had histories of mental illness before committing murder. Contrary to views almost universally expressed at the time of the assassination, Briggs concluded that Czolgosz was "a diseased man, a man who had been suffering from some form of mental disease for years. He was not medically responsible and in the light of present-day psychiatry and of modern surgical procedure, there is a great question whether he was even legally responsible for the death of our President."

Portrayals in media

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.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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