The McKinley Assassination: Greed and the Lone Gunman Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The McKinley Assassination: Greed and the Lone Gunman

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The 20th Century began both auspiciously and inauspiciously; 1901 was an unsettling year. In January, Queen Victoria passed away on the Isle of Wight, and Britons began using stamps with a new monarch's face for the first time since they were invented. In South Africa, the Boer War was still raging. In February, in smoky Pittsburgh, financial wizard JP Morgan brokered the deal that created the giant US Steel Corporation, the first billion-dollar company in the world. On Broadway, George M Cohan opened a new musical, The Governor's Son, which ran for only 32 performances. As noted before, events were both auspicious and inauspicious.

The autumn, however, turned ominous, with portents of the political upheavals to come in the turbulent century ahead. On 6 September, 1901, the President of the US was shot at point-blank range while shaking hands1 in Buffalo, New York. He was the third American president to fall to an assassin's bullet. The circumstances of McKinley's death, and its aftermath, tell us a lot about the issues under debate at the start of the century.

Who was McKinley? Who shot him, and why? What did it all have to do with Anarchists and corporations?

Shuffling Off in Buffalo

Republican William McKinley, born 1843, was the answer to a corporate magnate's prayer. McKinley loved big business, and had no truck with reform. He kept the nation on the Gold Standard, in spite of the Populists' demands for free silver. This kept the US strong financially, but kept farmers and workers poor. It was not a popular idea – at least, not with the workers and farmers. So how did McKinley stay in power? In a word: money.

McKinley's 1896 campaign was the most expensive US Presidential election to date. His supporters threw in $3.5 million. He ran all over Populist/Democrat William Jennings Bryan, in spite of Bryan's electrifying bimetallism speech. 'You shall not crucify America on a cross of gold!' But McKinley could, and he did. He easily defeated Bryan again in 1900. Capitalists were in the catbird's seat. Progressivism – the idea of economic, social, and political change based on new knowledge and technology – was dead, as far as the White House was concerned.

Until September 1901, that is. That's when an extremely disgruntled Polish-American Anarchist took McKinley out of the picture. And Standard Oil's John D Rockefeller and other plutocrats2 discovered to their chagrin that McKinley had been harbouring a Progressive Vice President, one Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a big-game hunter, and he came in loaded for bear.

But that is getting ahead of the story. Who shot McKinley? And why did North Americans fear Eastern European political philosophers?

Anarchists and Lone Gunmen

Emma Goldman was a politically persuasive woman. She came from Russia – and eventually, US authorities sent her back there. But during her life in the US, Goldman taught Anarchism: the idea that what the world needed was, ultimately, no government at all. Humans should be autonomous collectives. They should also live in peace with one another. Most Anarchists believed that eventually, governments would die out, as people became more enlightened. This doctrine, although naîve in the extreme, hardly seems dangerous. So why was everyone always blaming their problems on the Anarchists?

Anarchism tended to make people frustrated at the inequities of the world. And change wasn't happening soon enough. In 1892, during the violent Homestead Strike, Goldman's lover, Alexander Berkman, attempted to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick, whose hired Pinkerton detectives were fighting a street battle in Homestead. Frick survived the attack, and Berkman spent 14 years in prison, while Goldman was in and out of jail for 'inciting to riot'.

In 1901, Leon Czolgosz, a Michigan-born Polish American who was out of work and disgusted with the nation's economic problems, travelled to Buffalo, site of the Pan American Exposition. President McKinley, who liked to press the flesh, was standing in a receiving line when Czolgosz shot him. Medical science was not all it should have been, and the President expired eight days later.

Czolgosz claimed that the inspirations for his act were Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. For many Americans that settled it: Anarchists and foreigners – especially Anarchists and foreigners who believed in Free Love – were bad news.

Gun control advocates take note: Czolgosz bought his gun, a .32 calibre Iver Johnson 'Safety Automatic' revolver, four days before the assassination. He paid $4.50 for it. Due to the Gold Standard, prices at the time were not inflationary.


Leon Czolgosz refused to speak to his court-appointed attorneys, and refused to defend himself in court. The lawyers tried to mount an insanity defence, but without success, as their client wasn't co-operating. Before his execution, Czolgosz said: 'I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.' On 29 October, 1901, he was executed by electrocution.

Emma Goldman was arrested on suspicions of complicity in the crime, but released for lack of evidence. The authorities destroyed all Czolgoszs' possessions – but kept a list of anybody who had written sympathetically to the Anarchist. The 20th Century began as it meant to go on: with a strong dose of political paranoia and a lot of polarised opinion. Emma Goldman wrote about Leon Czolgosz, comparing him to Marcus Junius Brutus3.

And Theodore Roosevelt? He went on to become a two-term president and famous 'trust-buster', or fighter of monopolies. He also advanced the cause of environmental protection, creating about 193 million acres of protected national forest. In 1908, he decided to 'retire', departing on a long holiday. When Roosevelt returned from his year-long African safari, he was horrified to learn that his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, was being soft on industrialists. An outraged Roosevelt flung his hat back into the ring, proclaiming himself the candidate of the new Progressive Party.

Roosevelt's agenda embraced even more radical change than William Jennings Bryan had dreamed of. Roosevelt wanted wage and price controls, health insurance, even women voting. He launched an energetic campaign, but lost to Woodrow Wilson. Women got the vote anyhow, and the US is still waiting for a good health insurance plan.

The 20th Century began both auspiciously and inauspiciously. And pretty much the way it ended: with political division, the problem of rich and poor, and lone gunmen who tried to redress the balance with a firearm.

1Assassin Leon Czolgosz was able to get so close to the President while holding a revolver because it was concealed in a handkerchief 'bandage', a low-tech but effective camouflage.2'Plutocrats' was a word used by William Jennings Bryan to describe rich people who used their wealth to buy political power. Of course, there are no such people around today.3Brutus seems to be the odds-on favourite role model of American assassins – John Wilkes Booth even played him on stage.

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