OTD in History… September 14, 1901, President William McKinley assassinated Theodore Roosevelt ascends to the presidency

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Source: Smithsonian

On this day in history September 14, 1901, President William McKinley dies of the gunshot wounds from an anarchist’s assassination attempt on September 6, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Immediately after, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt is sworn in as the 26th president. Months into his second term President McKinley was standing in a receiving line when Leon Czolgosz, a 28-year-old Polish-American anarchist, who went by the name Fred C. Nieman, came up to him and shot the president twice, one bullet deflected off his suit button and “punctured his sternum,” the other hit his abdomen and then lodged in his back. At that time, a shot in the abdomen was almost certain death from gangrene. McKinley was operated on an appeared to be healing when on September 13 he took a turn to the worse; he died on September 14 from unnoticed gangrene in the wound. McKinley would become the third president to die in office from an assassination after Abraham Lincoln (1865) and James Garfield (1881). McKinley did not like using security and enjoyed his rapport with the public and his death lead to the institution of the Secret Service to protect the president.

First elected in 1896, a former two-term Governor of Ohio, McKinley came to the presidency in the middle an economic depression after the Panic of 1893, under his watch, the economy recovered and the United States was successful in the Spanish-American War of 1898, where American acquired new territories Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In 1899, McKinley’s Vice President Garett Hobart died and at the 1900 Republican National convention, Republicans wanted New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, famed as a “Rough Rider” in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Mark Hanna and President McKinley disliked Roosevelt. “Boss” Thomas Platt of New York, helped break the logjam, motivated by his desire to get Roosevelt, an anti-machine reformer, out of New York. After Roosevelt’s nomination, Hanna said: “Don’t any of you realize, that there’s only one life between that madman and the Presidency?”

Although the economy since recovered, Leon Czolgosz was still disgruntled after losing his job during the 1893 panic at a Cleveland factory. Afterward, Czolgosz became interested in “socialist and anarchist ideology,” a movement that was the cause of a number of Royal assassinations, and head of states in Europe, the 1891 terror bombing in Paris and the 1886 Haymarket bombing in Chicago, which killed seven police officers. Czolgoz became a devotee of Emma Goldman attending a speech where she sympathized with those who used violence, although not advocating it. He followed Goldman to the point of stalking and might have been following the president in Canton, Ohio as well. In July 1901, Czolgoz moved to Buffalo, he decided on September 3, to assassinate President McKinley purchasing the fateful revolver, later telling the police, “It was in my heart, there was no escape for me. I could not have conquered it had my life been at stake. There were thousands of people in town on Tuesday. I heard it was President’s Day. All those people seemed bowing to the great ruler. I made up my mind to kill that ruler.”

Czolgoz made a self-thwarted attempt on McKinley’s life when the president arrived in Buffalo. A cannon salute was too close to McKinley’s train shattering some of its windows, with too much security around Czolgoz left. McKinley was not even supposed to be in Buffalo then, he originally planned to deliver his speech at the exposition in June, after passing the Dingley Tariff McKinley embarked on April 29, on a national tour touting the tariff and potential trade agreements ending isolationism. The tour stalled after First Lady Ida became ill and the president’s speech postponed until September 5. McKinley’s two-day visit to the fair culminating with a public reception at the Temple of Music would drum up support for the fair. The president’s personal secretary George Cortelyou thought the reception would be too dangerous and tried to get McKinley to cancel it, which he opposed; in the end, Cortelyou arranged extra security.

On September 5, the president delivered his speech in an open-air pavilion and toured the exhibition; all the while Czolgoz was planning another attempt on the president but did not think he could hit his target because of the large crowds. On September 6, President McKinley toured Niagara Falls. Ida McKinley feeling ill returned to Milburn House where they were staying, the “home of the Exposition’s president, John G. Milburn.” Then the president headed to his reception at the Temple of Music. McKinley’s aides and Louis L. Babcock, the grand marshal of the Exposition arranged for increased security, besides his usual Secret Service agent George Foster, two more covered McKinley, there was police at the doors, and a dozen artillerymen in uniform in the venue’s aisles. The meet and greet with the president was to last only ten minutes and was what McKinley called his “favorite part of the job.” Still, a change of having his Secret Service to the president’s right rather than usual left made him less secured.

For security purposes, people usually required not to have anything in their hands and needed to be checked as they approached the president but with the heat, security allowed handkerchiefs. Czolgoz approached the president at 4:07 pm with his right hand wrapped in a handkerchief with a .32 Iver Johnson revolver underneath, upon touching for a handshake; Czolgoz shot McKinley twice in the stomach. The man behind Czolgoz “slammed” in him and tried to reach for the gun, “Buffalo detective John Geary and one of the artillerymen, Francis O’Brien” both tackled the assailant, who says, “I done my duty.” Cortelyou and Detective Geary guided a conscious McKinley to a chair, where McKinley urged them to stop beating Czolgoz and asked that they “be careful how you tell my wife.”

They took McKinley to the exhibition hospital in an ambulance at 4:25 p.m. The hospital had an operating theatre but no doctor qualified to deal with the president’s wounds. The hospital director Dr. Roswell Park was in Niagara Falls conducting a neck operation and refused to come even for the president. Dr. Park was the only one that had the skills to save McKinley. First gynecologist Dr. Herman Mynter arrived then the surgeon, Dr. Matthew D. Mann, who conducted primitive surgery with the operating rooms limited tool and he did not extract the bullet, believing, “A bullet, once it ceases to move, does little harm,” and did not use the X-ray machine available. Dr. Park arrived at the end of the operation and did not take over. McKinley’s wound was not drained, just cleaned with stitches and a bandage.

The news broke out after the shots with newspapers reporting and the public waiting outside the newspaper bureau waiting for the next wire. After the surgery, the First Lady was told about the president’s injuries. While Vice President Roosevelt, some of the cabinet and McKinley’s friend Senator Mark Hanna came to Buffalo. The president seemed to be recuperating at Milburn House, and most of his cabinet left including Roosevelt, who embarked on a vacation in the Adirondack Mountains in Vermont. Despite the confidences, when Secretary of State John Hay arrived he told Babcock, he did not think the president would live. Hay had been Lincoln’s secretary and a friend of Garfield’s.

On September 11, President McKinley started to eat again, having some solids the next morning but after he ate he experienced severe pain but it was dismissed as indigestion. The next day, on September 13, McKinley took a turn for the worst. They tried to reach Vice President Roosevelt and sent a park ranger to find him. By the evening McKinley knew he was dying, “It is useless, gentlemen. I think we ought to have prayer.” The First Lady was distraught. Senator Hanna met with friend for the last time Historian and biographer Howard Wayne Morgan in his book William McKinley and His America recounts, “Sometime that terrible evening, Mark Hanna had approached the bedside, tears standing in his eyes, his hands and head shaking in disbelief that thirty years of friendship could end thus.”

McKinley died in the early morning at 2:15 a.m. on Saturday, September 14, 1901. After Roosevelt received the telegram from the park ranger about McKinley’s condition, he took a horse down the mountain. He boarded a special train and would not reach Buffalo until 12 hours later at dawn. Roosevelt was sworn in at the Ansley Wilcox House, in the parlor at 3:30 pm. With McKinley’s death, Roosevelt became the youngest president in history at 42-years-old. On 23 September 1901Roosevelt wrote his friend, Henry Cabot Lodge, “It is a dreadful thing to come into the presidency in this way, but it would be a far worse thing to be morbid about it.” He returned to Washington on September 20, to begin the task of the presidency.

With an autopsy, doctors determined McKinley died from delayed gangrene. Morgan writes, “His hearty constitution, everyone said, would see him through. The doctors seemed hopeful, even confident … It is difficult to understand the cheer with which they viewed their patient. He was nearly sixty years old, overweight, and the wound itself had not been thoroughly cleaned or traced. Precautions against infections, admittedly difficult in 1901, were negligently handled.” (Morgan, 401) While, historian Margaret Leech writing in her Pulitzer Prize-winning history In the Days of McKinley notes the President’s recovery “was merely the resistance of his strong body to the gangrene that was creeping along the bullet’s track through the stomach, the pancreas, and one kidney.”

President McKinley would have a state funeral, lying in state in Buffalo and Washington before his funeral and burial in his hometown of Canton, Ohio on September 19. Czolgosz went on trial quickly on September 23, his trial was almost as quick, and he mounted no defense witnesses. The jury deliberated and found him guilty in a half an hour. Czolgoz was “sentenced to death and executed by electric chair on October 29, 1901.”

There were three legacies come out from McKinley’s assassination. They included the rise of the progressive movement under his successor Roosevelt to curb anarchism, which had become a threat to western society with terrible consequences. Historian Eric Rauchway explains in his book Murdering McKinley, The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America, “As society became more urban and more complex, and individuals had less control over their own fates, people grew surer that the only way to keep a populace sane and healthy was to keep the social environment sane and healthy — to have good schools, clean streets, green parks. Social movements to create and sustain all of these benefits grew to fruition during the Roosevelt presidency in the years following the assassination, giving shape to the liberal political ideology Americans came to call progressivism…. McKinley’s specter loomed over and limited the very progressive movement to which the President’s unhappy end had given so bloody a birth.” (Rauchway, xii-xiii)

The second is “political modernization” arising from Roosevelt’s administration As Rauchway indicates, “Theodore Roosevelt takes the helm and offshoots the ship of state in five directions at once, leaving the nineteenth century far astern.” (Rauchway, xi) The third, the Secret Service became a permanent fixture to protect the president. By 1902, The Secret Service was “protecting Roosevelt full time.” In 1906, Congress passed legislation making the agency the official protectors of the president. Despite the added protection, the 20th century would see two more assassinations on a president, in 1963, with President John F. Kennedy, and in 1981 an attempt on President Ronald Reagan, both through gun violence.


Leech, Margaret. In the Days of Mckinley. Newtown, Conn: American Political Biography Press, 1999, 1959.

Morgan, H W. William Mckinley and His America. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2003.

Rauchway, Eric. Murdering Mckinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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