The Anarchist assassination of President McKinley

Everybody knows about the assassination of two US Presidents: Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and John F Kennedy in 1963. But what about President William McKinley on 14 September, 1901? Shot at point-blank range by an anarchist called Leon Czolgosz and dying of his wounds just over a week later. As we move into a stormy political period worldwide, this assassination is the one we should all know about.

The murder of McKinley was part of a global wave of assassinations that claimed top political leaders including McKinley. Other victims of the anarchists included the King of Italy, President of France, Tsar of Russia, King of Greece, and the Empress of Austria. In 1920, an anarchist bomb detonated on Wall Street, the financial heart of New York, killed 38 people. The worst terrorist atrocity in the city until 9/11.

In the 1890s and up until the 1920s, there were secret anarchist cells operating on American soil planning attacks in the United States and around the world. The successful plot to kill the King of Italy, Umberto I, in 1900 was hatched in New Jersey and implemented by an Italian-American called Gaetano Bresci, who travelled to Italy to carry out the murderous deed.

The assassination of President McKinley was carried out by a working-class Polish American, Leon Czolgosz, who was known to some of the leading anarchists in the United States including Emma Goldman – a globally recognised figure at the time. Czolgosz may have carried out the crime as a lone operator to prove his worth to comrades, some of whom thought he was an ‘agent provocateur’ in the pay of the police. Or he may have been directed by other anarchists.

DISCOVER: The eight assassination attempts on Queen Victoria

Ten facts about the anarchist assassination of President William McKinley

Here are ten facts about the McKinley assassination that you might not know:

  1. Newspapers had been warning of an anarchist-inspired attack on the President for weeks before. One senior police officer thought the same anarchist cell behind the killing of King Umberto of Italy was planning to murder McKinley.
  2. President McKinley’s killer – the anarchist Leon Czolgosz – was suspected by his fellow anarchists of being a police spy.
  3. Czolgosz hid his gun in a handkerchief and in a major security breach fire at very close range at McKinley.
  4. An African-American called James Benjamin Parker, born to enslaved parents in 1857 in Atlanta, Georgia stopped Czolgosz firing a third shot into McKinley and his heroism led to public call for a statute to be erected of Parker. Sadly he died in poverty six years later.
  5. Anarchists were rounded up across the United States after the death of President McKinley including the infamous Emma Goldman described as the “queen of anarchism”
  6. President McKinley loved meeting the public and boasted he could shake fifty hands a minute
  7. McKinley removed one of the bullets that Czolgosz had fired himself as he was being stretchered out as that bullet had glanced off his suit buttons while the other had penetrated his abdomen and would kill him
  8. The President urged his security detail to stop beating Czolgosz after the shooting
  9. The assassination happened at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York state, and there was an early X-Ray machine being used as a fun exhibit but it was not deployed by medical staff to find the bullet lodged deep in the President
  10. Czolgosz was condemned to the electric chair but a film widely circulated on YouTube purporting to show his execution is actually a re-enactment with an actor produced by Thomas Edison’s film company. His last words before the volts were fired through his body were: “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.

This YouTube film below that I presented, directed and produced tells most of the story of the McKinley assassination. Below it, I share even more salacious details – including questions we have to ask about the personal lives of and psychology of these anarchists.

The ceaseless slayings by anarchist assassins had experts scratching their heads. What was motivating these killers? Psychology was in its infancy. Months before McKinley’s death, Professor Cesare Lombroso at the University of Turin published a study that reads today more like a tabloid newspaper rant than a serious analysis. He called the anarchist assassins “moral madmen, half-educated, or not educated at all”.

He took aim specifically at Luigi Luccheni, a fellow Italian who had murdered the Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898 with a knife while she was taking a stroll in the Swiss city of Geneva. Professor Lombroso pointed to Luccheni’s troubled childhood as “the son of a tippling priest of unsteady mind, and of a servant”. Raised in a foundling asylum, then farmed out to various foster parents, followed by a period of begging. And he was epileptic. Seemingly “gentle natured” and kind to children. Nevertheless a terrible anger was building up inside him.

Luccheni “feels the breath of anarchy” – Lombroso wrote – which he believes can “avenge his many grievances”. This is a recognised pattern in radicalisation today. Grievance creates a cognitive opening for terrorist ideology which legitimises and enables violent action. He stabbed the Empress. After his arrest, Luccheni claimed he would have killed any aristocrat who crossed his path that day “even if she had been a little baby”.

At his trial, Luccheni demanded the death penalty. He wanted to die. Professor Lombroso concluded that “his homicide is nothing except an indirect suicide”. What law enforcement today calls ‘suicide by cop’ when an individual knowingly provokes the police into a deadly response to kill themselves. Lombroso noted this character trait in many of the anarchist assassins of his time.

But then Lombroso took a weirder turn in his analysis. Not only was Luccheni suicidal (he did go on to hang himself in jail), but he was…”in temperament a homosexual”. Worse – a homosexual with epilepsy! This is of course wildly offensive today. Lombroso’s theory is that anarchists like Luccheni swung between criminality and anarchy. He could tell what phase Luccheni was in by his handwriting – going from “small and feminine characters” (presumably in his homosexual/anarchist phase) to criminality, when his handwriting got bigger and more butch!

Lombroso characterised anarchists as something akin to werewolves who kill in a trance-like state and then have to sleep it off. As for the epilepsy: “Epilepsy, moreover, is extremely frequent among anarchists, and one might say that it was the basis of action among the bomb-throwing anarchists”. The debate about the relationship between mental illness and radicalisation into terrorism is still very live today but experts are more careful about how they frame the issue.

This is an image of Luccheni under arrest below looking very pleased with himself.

The contemporary debate about the motivations of anarchist killers threw up some crazy ideas. Madame De Thebes, a Paris-based palmist, was sure that the answer lay in examining the shape of anarchists’ hands. She had examined the hands of several anarchist assassins and noted marked similarities.

The hand of a standard murderer is less detailed than an ordinary hand because the lines indicating love, long life, and domestic happiness are not there apparently. Neither are the raised mounts that tell of success and “worthy ambition”. But the politically motivated murderer, Madame De Thebes observed “has a less brutal hand than the ordinary murderer”.

Although the Parisian palmist had nothing good to say about the hand of Italian-born, French resident Sante Geronimo Caserio – an anarchist who successfully stabbed President Marie François Sadi Carnot to death in 1894 and was guillotined for his crime. His hand was “repellent” with four fingers of almost equal length and a thumb that was “strong, heavy, and brutal”. In a diagram reproduced below, De Thebes was most insistent that a murderer’s was invariably “short and thick”.

If you enjoy my video on anarchist assassinations – it is part of a playlist on YouTube about terrorists in history so do watch some of the others that cover everybody from Jesus Christ to Guy Fawkes.

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