Slogan du site
Descriptif du site
Article published on 31 March 2004
last modification on 2 November 2005

by r-c.
logo imprimer
Save this article in PDF

On September 2, 1901, in Buffalo, New York, a young man purchased for $4.50 a "Safety Automatic" Iver-Johnson revolver in .32 S&W caliber, serial number 463344. He later explained that he had made that choice so that, in future exhibits, his choice would be admired.

Three days later, dressed in a dark suit, his right hand wrapped in a handkerchief, he was standing in line at the Pan-American Exposition with some 50.000 people, waiting outside the beautiful Temple of Music for more than two hours in 82-degree heat for his turn to shake hands with President William McKinley, who was visiting the exhibit. The Temple of Music was a beautiful auditorium; people would be herded through two large doors on the right side of the stage where the President had taken place.They would pass between some eighty guards.

The President was standing in a receiving line greeting the public. A Bach sonata was softly playing on the gigantic organ. He saw a young man coming towards him, with a bandaged right hand who slowly raised his left hand to shake McKinley’s. But the right arm went into the President’s chest. Two bullets were fired at point blank range. It was 4:07 pm.

The President started falling and members of his entourage came to help him and let him sit down in a chair while the young man was being being pummeled beneath a mass of angry guards who were striking one another. The young man, who was by now a bloody mess, was immediately taken away from the crowd who wanted to lynch him and dragged to a prison cell.

He declared that he was an anarchist : « I killed President McKinley because I done my duty," he quietly explained. "I didn’t believe one man should have so much service and another man should have none."

He gave his name as Nieman, as he used to, like other members of his family, because it was his stepmother’s maiden name, but his official name was Leon Czolgosz (pronounced Choal-gosh).

* *

Leon Czolgosz, one of seven children, was born in 1873 of Russian-Polish immigrants, immigrated to America during the 1860s, who were then living in Detroit. His father, a laborer in the construction trade, was frequently out of work. But the family was constantly moving, till it settled in a new farm outside Cleveland, Ohio, in 1881.

Leon only went to school for five and a half years and soon worked as a child at small tasks in various jobs, as a bottle forker and in a wire mill. At the age of six, he had been in the streets shining shoes and selling newspapers. He often withdrew from the family and took long naps.

At the age of ten, he left his family farm in Cleveland, Ohio to work at American Steel and Wire Company with two of his brothers. At the height of his employment he was making $4 a day as a reward for his hard work.

His mother died when he was at the age of 12. His father remarried and his step-mother, a woman whom Emma Goldman described as appearing « with a dull, vacant look », would call him « daft » at his face, while his father, thinking that his son was ill, concluded that he should not work.

Yet he went on working at the factory. He was a good employee, retaining his job even through an economic depression. But he was fired with the workers after they went on strike. He then witnessed a series of similar strikes and in 1898 suffered a mental breakdown.

He returned home but was soon at odds with his stepmother. He was now reading socialist and anarchist papers, slowly abandoning his Catholic beliefs, thinking that God had let him down by not listening to his pleas to free the workers. He became a recluse.

Some time at the turn of the century, Leon Czolgosz moved to Charleston, Ohio, a boom town where many immigrants lived. He was hired as a wire drawer at the old nail factory along the banks of the Kanawha River in upper Kanawha City. However, the mill soon went out of business, leaving its employees to scatter to other jobs and locations.

He married a pregnant German immigrant who had come to Charleston searching for him. The young woman, Emma Wisemki, went to Charleston police and described the father of her unborn child and said he worked in a nail mill. Constable Howard Smith located Fred Nieman, who reports said readily agreed to the marriage.

On Jan. 14, 1900, a Kanawha County marriage license was issued to Nieman, 23, and Emma Wisemki, 17, a pregnant German immigrant. They were married in Charleston by Father Joseph Stenger.

On May 6, 1901, he traveled to Cleveland to hear one of his most beloved speakers, Emma Goldman. That night at the Federal Liberal Club, after she spoke, Leon worked his way through the crowd and met with Miss Goldman. « he came over to me with the question : ‘Will you suggest something for me to read ?’ He was working in Akron, he explained, and he would have to leave before the close of the meeting. He was very young, a mere youth, of medium height, well built, and carrying himself very erect. But it was his face that held me, a most sensitive face, with a delicate pink complexion ; a handsome face, made doubly so by his curly golden hair. [1] » A few months later, he was in Chicago a few months later and shortly met Emma Goldman. He told her that he had joined a Socialist group in Cleveland, but found them dull and wanted to get in touch with the Anarchists. Some time later, h e went to see Abraham Isaak, the editor of Free Society and
« said he was going to kill McKinley and wanted to join the anarchist organization. [2] ». According to his granddaughter, Isaak who was a Pacifist Mennonite replied that there was no anarchist organization to kill anybody. He thought he had just met an agent provocateur and issued a warning in his paper :


The attention of the comrades is called to another spy. He is well dressed, of medium height, rather narrow shouldered, blond, and about 25 years of age.

Up to the present he has made his appearance in Chicago and Cleveland. In the former place he remained a short time, while in Cleveland he disappeared when the comrades had confirmed themselves of his identity and were on the point interested in the cause, asking for names, or soliciting aid for acts of contemplated
violence. If this individual makes his appearance elsewhere, the
comrades are warned in advance and can act accordingly. »

What may have triggered Czolgosz’ decision was the news that, an Italian-American anarchist, Carlo Bresci, had left wife and children in the United States and had gone to Italy where he assassinated on July 29, 1901, King Umberto I of Italy at his summer palace in Monza. Czolgosz cut out the newspaper stories and read them over and over again, memorizing the whole incident. To him, Bresci was a hero.

Czolgosz wanted to assassinate McKinley without hurting anyone else. He followed the President around on the 4th and the 5th and waited for an opportunity.

* *

McKinley died from his wounds on September 14 . Two days later, Czolgosz was indicted and arraigned, and the trial commenced one week later in Buffalo’s city hall.

« The court-room was guarded by a heavily armed force and filled with curiosity-seekers, mostly well-dressed women. The atmosphere was tense with excitement, all eyes on the door from which the prisoner was to enter. Suddenly, there was a stirring in the crowd. The door was flung open, and a young man, suported by policemen, was half-carried into the room. He looked pale and emaciated ; his head was bandaged, his face swollen. It was a repulsive sight until one caught his eyes – large, wistful eyes, that kept roving over the court-room, searching with terrible intensity, apparently for some familiar face. Then they lost their intentness, turning brilliant as if illumined by some innervision. [3] »

The trial was a mockery, as in every anarchist indiction [4] Czolgosz, unrepentant, decided to plead guilty, but of New York’s supreme court justices, Truman C. White, instructed the court clerk to enter a plea of not guilty in accordance with New York state law. No witnesses were called for the defense. The trial lasted eight hours, twenty six minutes. Thirty four minutes later, came the guilty verdict.

Czolgosz was executed by electrocution on October 31 ,1901 . As the guards made the final adjustments on the straps, Czolgosz spoke to them. “I killed the President because he was an enemy of the good people of the working people. I am not sorry for my crime!” he said. The final strap was placed over his chin and fastened to the chair to prevent his head from jerking forward during the application of the current. “I’m awfully sorry I could not see my father,” he said through clenched teeth.

Sulfuric acid was poured into Czolgosz’ coffin.

Waldek Czolgosz, Leon’s father came to the prison later that day. He declined a visit to the grave but insisted upon a death certificate in order to claim some life insurance held by his son.

McKinley’s death temporarily stopped America’s new imperialism and giant trusts were no longer allowed to operate as usual. But


- Kilar, Jeremy W. "I am not sorry," Michigan History 1995 79(6): 10-17.
ISSN: 0026-2196
A psychological biography

- Kingseed, Wyatt , « The Assassination of WILLIAM McKINLEY, » American History, Oct 2001, Vol. 36 # 4, p. 22, 8p.

Notes :

[1Emma Goldman, Living My Life vol. 1 p. 291.

[2Grace Umrath, the grand daughter of Isaak, in Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voicesp. 25

[3Miss T., in Emma Goldman, Living My Life, Dover, 1970, vol. 1 p. 352.

[4See for instance the Haymarket, the Sacco and Vanzetti trials, or the various trials which Emma Goldman endured, while none of her aggressors was ever hindered.

P.S. :

The Trial and Execution of Leon Czolgosz

Associated keywords

Events to come

No events to come
bullet pointSite map bullet pointContact bullet pointEditors area RSS

2003-2019 © RAForum - All rights reserved
Top of the page
Created with SPIP
Template ESCAL 4.1.4