The wounded President McKinley was taken to Milburn House, where Ida was waiting. His cabinet was informed of the shooting, and they rushed to Buffalo to join the president. Initially, however, it looked as though a crisis had been averted. The doctors were optimistic and President McKinley appeared to be on the mend. The Cabinet dispersed and Vice President Roosevelt headed for a long-planned camping trip in the Adirondacks.

The doctors had overlooked the earliest signs that the president’s wounds had become infected and on the morning of September 13, a week after the shooting, William McKinley’s health began a rapid decline. The doctors were confronted with the ugly reality that the president was dying. Gangrene had set in, and it was rapidly poisoning him. No drugs yet existed that could control such an infection. His pulse grew fainter all day, until around 5 p.m., when the president suffered a heart attack.

That evening, McKinley realized what the doctors had known all day. “It is useless, gentlemen,” he whispered. “I think we ought to have prayer.”

He wanted to see Ida. The First Lady rushed to him and sobbed, “I want to go, too! I want to go, too!”

“We are all going,” he said soothingly. “God’s will be done– not ours.” He lost consciousness shortly afterwards and on Saturday at 2:14 a.m., William McKinley’s spirit departed.

Buffalo Courier front page of Sept 14 1901

As soon as the president was known to be dying, messengers had been sent out to locate the vice president. The adventurous Roosevelt was camping on Mount Marcy, far from easy reach of civilization. As soon as he was located, Roosevelt rushed back to the president’s bedside but he was too late to see McKinley. Instead, he was inaugurated as the twenty-sixth president of the United States in the city of Buffalo.

While America mourned the fallen McKinley, the people were hopeful about Theodore Roosevelt. He was still relatively unknown to most of the country, having been the vice president for less than 200 days, but he was a man of the age: optimistic, tough, and an avid outdoorsman. Had they heard of Roosevelt at all, it would have been about his speech to the crowd at the Minnesota State Fair, when he said: “Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far.”

Nine days after President McKinley’s death, Leon Czolgosz went on trial for his murder. The trial was short, mostly because the defense had nothing to present. Czolgosz would not speak to his attorneys, though he communicated freely with everyone else. After 30 minutes of deliberation, the jury declared the president’s assassin Guilty. The judge sentenced him to death.

Exactly 45 days after President McKinley died, on October 29, 1901, Leon Czolgosz made his final statement. “I killed the president because he was the enemy of the good people— the good working people,” he said defiantly. “I am not sorry for my crime.” Moments later, an Edison camera recorded his execution, by electrocution.

A panoramic souvenir picture of the Pan-American Exposition

A month later, the Pan-Am Exposition closed. Eight million people had visited the magnificent City of Light within the city of Buffalo. Workers dismantled and packed up the exhibits, and the beautiful buildings were demolished.

Despite the end of the exposition, and the tragedy that hung over the place, no one could fail to be impressed with Buffalo’s beauty and ingenuity. The city had made its mark. Buffalo was a consequential place.

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.

The Ambulance in Which President McKinley was taken from the Temple of Music to the Emergency Hospital , and thence to the Milburn residence, where he died. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

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.


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.