Leon Czolgosz

Leon Czolgosz
Leon Czolgosz ca 1900.jpg
Leon Czolgosz in 1900
Leon Frank Czolgosz

May 5, 1873[1]
Died October 29, 1901(1901-10-29) (aged 28)
Cause of death Electrocution (executed by electric chair)
Occupation Steel worker
Criminal status Executed by electric chair
Parent(s) Paul Czolgosz[2]
Mary Nowak
Motive To advance anarchism (propaganda of the deed)
Conviction(s) Assassination of William McKinley
Criminal charge First-degree murder
Penalty Death by electrocution

Leon Frank Czolgosz (/ˈɡɔːʃ/; May 5, 1873 – October 29, 1901) was an American steelworker and anarchist known for the assassination of President William McKinley, whom he shot on September 6, 1901, in Buffalo, New York. The president died on September 14 after his wound became infected. Caught in the act, Czolgosz was quickly tried, convicted, and executed seven weeks later on October 29, 1901.

While some American anarchists described his action as inevitable, motivated by what they saw as the country's brutal social conditions, others condemned Czolgosz for hindering the movement's goals by damaging its public perception.

Early life

Leon Frank Czolgosz was born in Alpena, Michigan,[3][4][5] on May 5, 1873.[a] He was one of eight children[7] born to the Polish-American family of Paul Czolgosz (Paweł Czołgosz, 1843–1944) and his wife Mary Nowak (Maria Nowak). The Czolgosz family moved to Detroit, Michigan, when Leon was 5 years old.[b] When Leon was 10 and the family was living in Posen, Michigan, Czolgosz's mother died six weeks after giving birth to his sister, Victoria.[9] In his mid-teens, Czolgosz began working in a glass factory in Natrona, Pennsylvania.[10][11] By age 17, he found employment at the Cleveland Rolling Mill Company.[12]

After the economic crash of 1893, when the factory closed for some time and tried to reduce wages, the workers went on strike. With great economic and social turmoil around him, Czolgosz found little comfort in the Catholic Church and other immigrant institutions; he sought others who shared his concerns regarding injustice. He joined a moderate working man's socialist club, the Knights of the Golden Eagle, and eventually a more radical socialist group known as the Sila Club, where he became interested in anarchism.[13][14] Czolgosz rejected his family's Catholic beliefs and became excited when he heard that an Italian immigrant named Gaetano Bresci had returned to Italy and assassinated King Umberto I. He kept newspaper cuttings of the assassination and started to read anarchist papers.[15]

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 50-acre (20 ha) farm the year before in Warrensville, Ohio.[16][17] He did little to assist in running the farm and was constantly at odds with his stepmother and with his family's Catholic beliefs. It was later said that throughout his life he had never shown any interest in friendship or romantic relationships, and was bullied during his childhood by peers.[18]

Czolgosz became a recluse.[19] He was impressed after hearing a speech by the anarchist Emma Goldman, whom he met for the first time at one of her lectures in Cleveland in May 1901. After the lecture, Czolgosz approached the speakers' platform and asked her 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 told her that he was disappointed in Cleveland's socialists, and Goldman quickly introduced him to anarchist friends who were at the train station.[21]

She later wrote a piece in defense of Czolgosz, which portrays him and his history in a way at odds with other sources: "Who can tell how many times this American child has gloried in the celebration of the 4th of July, or on Decoration Day, when he faithfully honored the nation’s dead? Who knows but what he, too, was willing to 'fight for his country and die for her liberty?"[22]

In the weeks that followed, Czolgosz's social awkwardness, evasiveness, and blunt inquiries about secret societies around Isaak and another anarchist, Emil Schilling, resulted in the radical Free Society newspaper to issue a warning pertaining to him on September 1, reading:[6]

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. About this time, he learned of the assassination of a leader in Europe; King Umberto I of Italy, who had been shot dead by anarchist Gaetano Bresci on July 29, 1900. Bresci told the press that he had decided to take matters into his own hands for the sake of the common man.[23]

New York City police lieutenant Joseph Petrosino believed that the same Italian-based anarchist group suspected of being responsible for King Umberto's death was targeting President McKinley, but his warnings were ignored.[24]

Assassination of President William McKinley

On August 31, 1901, Czolgosz traveled to Buffalo, New York, the site of the Pan-American Exposition, where President McKinley would be speaking. Czolgosz rented a room in Nowak's Hotel at 1078 Broadway.[25]

On September 6, Czolgosz went to the exposition armed with a concealed .32 caliber Iver Johnson "Safety Automatic" revolver[26][27] he had purchased four days earlier.[28] 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 twice in the abdomen at point blank range: the first bullet ricocheted off a coat button and lodged in McKinley's jacket; the other seriously wounded him in the stomach. McKinley's stomach wound was not lethal, but he died eight days later on September 14, 1901 of an infection that had spread from the wound.

James Parker, a man standing directly behind Czolgosz, struck the assassin in the neck and knocked the gun out of his hand; as McKinley slumped backward, members of the crowd began beating Czolgosz. "Go easy on him, boys", the President told the attackers.[29][30] The police struggled to keep the angry crowd off Czolgosz.[31] Czolgosz was taken to Buffalo's 13th Precinct house at 346 Austin Street and held in a cell until he was moved to police headquarters.

Trial and execution

Czolgosz brain autopsy

After McKinley's death, newly inaugurated President Theodore Roosevelt declared, "When compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance."[32]

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 temporarily. On September 16, he was brought to the Erie County Jail to be arraigned before County Judge Emery. After the arraignment, Czolgosz was transferred to Auburn Prison.[33]

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.[34]

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.[35]

Czolgosz's trial began in the state courthouse in Buffalo on September 23, 1901, nine days after McKinley died. Prosecution testimony took two days and consisted principally of the doctors who treated McKinley and various eyewitnesses to the shooting. Lewis and his co-counsel called no witnesses, which Lewis in his closing argument attributed to Czolgosz's refusal to cooperate with them. In his 27-minute address to the jury, Lewis took pains to praise McKinley. Scott Miller, author of The President and the Assassin, notes that the closing argument was more calculated to defend the attorney's "place in the community, rather than an effort to spare his client the electric chair".[36]

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. The jury was unconvinced of Czolgosz's insanity due to the directions given to them by Judge White; they voted to convict him after 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).[37]

Czolgosz had two visits the night before his execution, one with two clergymen and another later in the night with his brother and brother-in-law. Even though Czolgosz refused Father Fudzinski and Father Hickey twice, Superintendent Collins permitted their visit and escorted them to his cell. The priests pleaded for 45-minutes for him to repent, but he refused and they left. His brother and brother-in-law visited after the priests had left. His brother asked him "Who got you into this scrape?" to which Czolgosz responded "No one. Nobody had anything to do with it but me." His brother said it was unlike him and was not how he was raised. When asked by his brother if he wanted the priests to come back, Czolgosz said, "No, ---- them; don't send them here again I don't want them," and "Don't you have any praying over me when I'm dead, I don't want it. I don't want none of their ---- religion." His father wrote a letter to his son the night before his execution, wishing him luck and informing him that he could no longer help him, and Leon had to "pay the price for his actions."[38]

Czolgosz's 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."[39] Czolgosz was electrocuted by three jolts, each of 1,800 volts, in Auburn Prison on October 29, 1901, 45 days after McKinley's death. He was pronounced dead at 7:14 a.m.[40]

Czolgosz's brother, Waldek, and his brother-in-law, Frank Bandowski, attended 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. Although post-trial Czolgosz and his attorneys were informed of his right to appeal the sentence, they chose not to after Czolgosz declined to appeal. Also, the attorneys knew that there were no grounds for appeal; the trial had been "quick, swift, and fair."[41]

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 scars were present, the result of chancroids. The autopsy showed the deceased was in good health; a death mask was made of his face.[39] 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.[42] The warden estimated that the acid caused the body to disintegrate within 12 hours.[40] His clothes and possessions were burned in the prison incinerator to discourage exhibitions of his life.[43]


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."[44] Other anarchists and radicals were unwilling to support Goldman's effort to aid Czolgosz, believing that he had harmed the movement.[45]

The scene of the crime, the Temple of Music, was demolished in November 1901, along with the rest of the Exposition temporary structures. A stone marker in the median of Fordham Drive, now 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[46]) 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.[47]

Czolgosz is buried at Soule Cemetery in Cayuga County, New York.

Portrayals in media

  • Czolgosz's execution was portrayed in the silent film Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison.
  • He is featured as a central character of Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins. His assassination of McKinley takes place during a musical number called "The Ballad of Czolgosz".
  • He was 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 1990 film Slacker refers to Czolgosz by his photograph on the wall.
  • In season seven, episode fifteen, of the CBC television drama series Murdoch Mysteries, "The Spy Who Came Up to the Cold" (2014), Leon Czolgosz is portrayed by Goran Stjepanovic.
  • Czolgosz is the main character in John Kessel's short story The Dark Ride (Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, Jan/Feb issue)[48]

See also