The City of Light, Part II

The McKinleys’ plan to spend two days in Buffalo did not meet with unanimous approval. Those close to the president seemed to sense something sinister. They tried to dissuade McKinley from making a stop in Buffalo but President McKinley would not hear of it. The wonders of the City of Light inflamed his imagination, and he could not resist seeing this manifestation of the American spirit. The president’s excitement to see the exposition may be why warnings passed unheeded. A week before the planned stop in Buffalo, a New York City police lieutenant contacted the White House, to warn that anarchists may be targeting the president, but his outreach was ignored.

William McKinley’s last speech on September 5, 1901. The president is at the center of the photograph, wearing a white shirt and vest. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

On September 5, McKinley gave a speech on the Pan-American Exposition grounds before a crowd of more than 50,000. After the speech, Ida retreated to Milburn House where the couple was staying while the president toured the fairgrounds. The security was tight. Twenty mounted police accompanied McKinley and other visiting dignitaries.

The president was scheduled to return to the exposition the following day, for a public reception at the Temple of Music, which was one of the great architectural feats of the Exposition. It had a dome 180 feet high and an organ which cost $15,000 and weighed 25 tons. Presidential Secretary George Cortelyou twice removed the Temple of Music visit from McKinley’s agenda. The president, however, was eager to see the building and he enjoyed meeting the public. Each time Cortelyou removed the stop, McKinley specifically requested the visit to be re-added to his schedule.

Leon Frank Czolgosz (pronounced show-gotz) was one individual in the sea of humanity who had listened to President McKinley’s speech. He was a young man, a second generation American, from a large impoverished family. While working in Michigan, Czolgosz had a nervous breakdown that forced him to move home to the family farm in Warrensville, Ohio. He was now earning good wages at the American Steel and Wire Company, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Leon Czolgosz

Leon Czolgosz

Czolgosz had recently developed a strong interest in anarchy. He came to believe that American society enabled a handful of rich men to exploit everyone else. Everywhere he looked, he saw inequalities and what he believed to be great injustices in American society. Gradually, he concluded that the source of all the misery was the government itself, presumably represented by the U.S. president, William McKinley.

Czolgosz was fascinated when news broke that Gaetano Bresci, an anarchist and silk weaver from Paterson, New Jersey, had traveled back to his native Italy and assassinated King Umberto I in July 1900. Bresci became murderous after learning the king praised one of his generals for firing on unarmed citizens who were protesting high bread prices. Bresci shot King Umberto three times, killing him instantly. He was arrested at the scene, and willingly spoke to reporters afterward. Bresci expressed his rage about the massacre of the protesters and said he had taken matters into his own hands, for the sake of the common man.

In May, the anarchist Emma Goldman came to Cleveland to deliver a series of lectures, and Czolgosz attended. He was inspired by her and resolved he would become an anarchist hero, as Bresci had done. When he read President William McKinley was going to visit the Pan-Am Exposition in early September, he decided the time had come for his contribution to the cause.
Leon Czolgosz arrived in Buffalo on August 31, 1901 and rented a room in town while he lay in wait for McKinley. On September 2, he purchased a .32 Iver Johnson revolver, and he was in the vast crowd to whom McKinley spoke on September 5.

Czolgosz was agitated when it became clear he would not be able to get close enough to the president to get a good shot, but he relaxed when he learned McKinley would return the following day for a public reception.


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