The day after President McKinley spoke to a vast crowd at the Pan American Exposition, Leon Czolgosz hurried to the Temple of Music, with his .32 caliber revolver carefully hidden in his pocket beneath his handkerchief. He drew a breath of relief when he saw the long line of citizens waiting for the doors to open so they could have their turn to shake a U.S. President’s hand. His only concern was that something would have happened to detain McKinley and he would not have his chance. Czolgosz took his place at the end of the line.
McKinley only had ten minutes allotted for greeting the public, and the line moved forward swiftly. While they waited, they could listen to William Gomph, the exposition’s organist, playing Robert Schumann’s Träumerei from Kinderscenen on the Temple’s famed organ.
Czolgosz reached the front of the line at 4:07 p.m. “I trembled until I got right up to him,” he said later. The eyes of the president met those of the dark-haired young man, and McKinley smiled; meeting the public was a part of his job he enjoyed. He extended his hand. Czolgosz slapped it away and before McKinley could react, he shot the president twice at point blank range. The first bullet ricocheted off of a coat button before hitting McKinley and causing a shallow wound. The bullet second tore into McKinley’s stomach, seriously wounding him.
The Temple of Music, where Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley. Photo courtesy Library of Congress
McKinley had a security detail, but in the critical moment they seemed to be frozen in shock.
‘Giant’ Jim Parker was a visitor from Atlanta. You could not miss Giant Jim, a black man who towered over everyone else at 6’6. He realized what had happened before anyone else did, and hit Czolgosz in the face, knocking him down and preventing him from firing a third shot and immediately killing the president.
This broke the spell, and the soldiers and detectives who were there to protect McKinley descended on Czolgosz. They would surely have beaten him to death but McKinley’s voice rose over the pandemonium and stopped it. “Go easy on him, boys,” he told them. “He could not have known.”
McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was arrested at the scene and dragged away. When he was questioned, Czolgosz confirmed he had deliberately fired at the president and said he had acted alone. “I am an anarchist,” he declared. “I am a disciple of Emma Goldman. Her words set me on fire.”
Later that day, Czolgosz wrote and signed a confession that read: “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.”
The handwritten confession of Leon Czolgosz
There were shrieks and screams as the news spread, and the president was carried out of the temple and rushed to the exposition’s aid station in an electrical ambulance.
McKinley was laid on a table and the doctors crowded around him. The first bullet was easy to find and remove but the second was buried deep in the president’s body.
The doctors were at a disadvantage. Even though the exteriors of many of the buildings were covered with thousands of light bulbs, the tiny operating room at the aid station did not have electric lights. Someone on the staff procured a tin pan and used it to reflect sunlight to illuminate the room.
Efforts to find the second bullet were unsuccessful. The doctors were aware a newly developed X-ray machine was on display at the exposition, but they were unsure what side effects it might have and were reluctant to use it on the president. At last they decided further attempts to find the bullet would hurt McKinley more than they could help him.