On this day in 1901, President William McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, is executed in the electric chair at Auburn Prison in New York. Czolgosz had shot McKinley on September 6, 1901; the president succumbed to his wounds eight days later.
McKinley was shaking hands in a long reception line at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York, when a 28-year-old anarchist named Leon Czolgosz approached him with a gun concealed in a handkerchief in his right hand. McKinley, perhaps assuming the handkerchief was an attempt by Czolgosz to hide a physical defect, kindly reached for the man’s left hand to shake. Czolgosz moved in close to the president and fired two shots into McKinley’s chest. The president reportedly rose slightly on his toes before collapsing forward, saying “be careful how you tell my wife.” Czolgosz was attempting to fire a third bullet into the stricken president when aides wrestled him to the ground.
McKinley suffered one superficial wound to the sternum and another bullet dangerously entered his abdomen. He was rushed into surgery and seemed to be on the mend by September 12. Later that day, however, the president’s condition worsened rapidly and, on September 14, McKinley died from gangrene that had remained undetected in the internal wound. According to witnesses, McKinley’s last words were those of the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.” Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as president immediately following McKinley’s death.
Czolgosz, a Polish immigrant, grew up in Detroit and had worked as a child laborer in a steel mill. As a young adult, he gravitated toward socialist and anarchist ideology. He claimed to have killed McKinley because the president was the head of what Czolgosz thought was a corrupt government. The unrepentant killer’s last words were “I killed the president because he was the enemy of the good people—the working people.” His electrocution was allegedly filmed by Thomas Edison.