The Assassination of President William McKinley

William McKinley speaking to a crowd, 1900

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On September 6, 1901, anarchist Leon Czolgosz walked up to U.S. President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in New York and shot McKinley at point-blank range. After the shooting, it first appeared that President McKinley was getting better; however, he soon took a turn for the worse and died on September 14 from gangrene. The daylight assassination attempt horrified millions of Americans.

Greeting People at the Pan-American Exposition

On September 6, 1901, U.S. President William McKinley spent the morning visiting Niagara Falls with his wife before returning to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in the afternoon to spend a few minutes greeting the public.

By about 3:30 p.m., President McKinley stood inside the Temple of Music building at the Exposition, ready to begin shaking the hands of the public as they streamed into the building. Many had been waiting for hours outside in the heat for their chance to meet the President. Unbeknownst to the President and the many guards who stood nearby, among those waiting outside was 28-year-old anarchist Leon Czolgosz who was planning to kill President McKinley.

At 4 p.m. the doors to the building were opened and the mass of people waiting outside was forced into a single line as they entered the Temple of Music building. The line of people thus came up to the President in an organized fashion, with just enough time to whisper a "Nice to meet you, Mr. President," shake President McKinley's hand, and then be forced to continue along the line and out the door again.

President McKinley, the 25th president of the United States, was a popular president who had just started his second term in office and the people seemed clearly glad to get a chance to meet him. However, at 4:07 p.m. Leon Czolgosz had made it into the building and it was his turn to greet the President.

Two Shots Rang Out

In Czolgosz's right hand, he held a .32 caliber Iver-Johnson revolver, which he had covered by wrapping a handkerchief around the gun and his hand. Although Czolgosz's swaddled hand was noticed before he reached the President, many thought it looked like it covered an injury and not that it was hiding a gun. Also, since the day had been hot, many of the visitors to see the President had been carrying handkerchiefs in their hands so that they could wipe the sweat off their faces.

When Czolgosz reached the President, President McKinley reached out to shake his left hand (thinking Czolgosz's right hand was injured) while Czolgosz brought up his right hand to President McKinley's chest and then fired two shots.

One of the bullets didn't enter the president — some say it bounced off of a button or off the president's sternum and then got tucked into his clothing. The other bullet, however, entered the president's abdomen, tearing through his stomach, pancreas, and kidney. Shocked at being shot, President McKinley began to sag as blood stained his white shirt. He then told those around him, "Be careful how you tell my wife."

Those in line behind Czolgosz and guards in the room all jumped on Czolgosz and started to punch him. Seeing that the mob on Czolgosz might easily and quickly kill him, President McKinley whispered either, "Don't let them hurt him" or "Go easy on him, boys."

President McKinley Undergoes Surgery

President McKinley was then whisked away in an electric ambulance to the hospital at the Exposition. Unfortunately, the hospital was not properly equipped for such surgery and the very experienced doctor usually on-premises was away doing surgery in another town. Although several doctors were found, the most experienced doctor that could be found was Dr. Matthew Mann, a gynecologist. The surgery began at 5:20 p.m.

During the operation, the doctors searched for the remains of the bullet that had entered the President's abdomen but were unable to locate it. Worried that continued searching would tax the President's body too much, the doctors decided to discontinue looking for it and to sew up what they could. The surgery was completed a little before 7 p.m.

Gangrene and Death

For several days, President McKinley seemed to be getting better. After the shock of the shooting, the nation was excited to hear some good news. However, what the doctors did not realize was that without drainage, an infection had built up inside the President. By September 13 it was obvious the President was dying. At 2:15 a.m. on September 14, 1901, President William McKinley died of gangrene. That afternoon, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as President of the United States.

The Execution of Leon Czolgosz

After being pummeled right after the shooting, Leon Czolgosz had been arrested and taken to police headquarters before nearly being lynched by the angry crowds that surrounded the Temple of Music. Czolgosz readily admitted that he was the one who had shot the President. In his written confession, Czolgosz stated, "I killed President McKinley because I done my duty. I didn't believe one man should have so much service and another man should have none."

Czolgosz was brought to trial on September 23, 1901. He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. On October 29, 1901, Leon Czolgosz was electrocuted.

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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The Assassination of President William McKinley." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, July 31). The Assassination of President William McKinley. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The Assassination of President William McKinley." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).