Leon Frank Czolgosz was born in 1873 in Michigan. He came from a poor immigrant family and started working when he was only 10, later suffering a mental breakdown. In September 1901, he shot President William McKinley with a concealed revolver at the Pan-American Exposition. After a brief trial, he was sentenced to death. On October 29, 1901, Czolgosz was executed at Auburn State Prison.
Born in 1873 in Detroit, Michigan, Leon Frank Czolgosz was the assassin of President William McKinley. He grew up poor as one of seven children born to immigrant parents. Czolgosz moved around a lot with his family between different Midwestern cities. He started working at the age of 10. A short time later, he lost his mother when she died in childbirth.
In Cleveland, Ohio, Czolgosz worked in the wire mills. He was known as a good employee and even received a merit-based pay raise. But Czolgosz eventually lost that job as the wire mill owners sought to cut workers' wages. During the 1880s and 1890s, tensions ran high between workers and business owners over fair pay and working conditions. Czolgosz witnessed several violent strikes at large factories where he and his brothers worked. He also observed the disparity between the rich and the poor, which deeply angered him, and thus turned to socialist and anarchist teachings.
Czolgosz reportedly tried to join several anarchist groups, but wasn’t accepted by any of them. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1898. Czolgosz then continued to pursue his interest in radical politics on his own. He found inspiration for his future crime in the newspaper. On July 29, 1900, King Umberto I of Italy was assassinated by anarchist Gaetano Bresci.
When did Czolgosz decide to reenact Bresci’s crime on American soil? That remains unclear. What is known is that he went to Buffalo, New York, in August 1901. Sometime before making this journey, Czolgosz attended a lecture by leading anarchist Emma Goldman. He was already in Buffalo when it was announced that President William McKinley would visit the Pan-American Exposition being held there.
On September 6, 1901, Czolgosz waited for hours to meet President William McKinley. He stood in line with countless others as McKinley greeted his constituents in the Temple of Music at the exposition. As soon as it was his turn with McKinley, Czolgosz pulled out a concealed revolver and shot the president twice. Members of the crowd quickly pounced on Czolgosz. According to American History magazine, the injured president asked for mercy for his assassin.
When he was taken into custody, Czolgosz told the Buffalo police that he was "Fred Nieman." ("Niemand" actually means "nobody" in German.) He soon confessed to his crime and wrote the following statement: "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." When he wrote his confession, he didn’t know that the president was still alive.
Unfortunately, McKinley eventually succumbed to his injuries, dying from gangrene on September 14. Czolgosz was soon arraigned on charges for the murder. Others, such as Emma Goldman, were thought to have been involved in the assassination plot. But it was later determined that Czolgosz acted alone.
Trial and Execution
Czolgosz had initially refused legal representation, but he was appointed two attorneys for his trial. Former State Supreme Court judges Loran L. Lewis and Robert Titus were brought in as defense lawyers. The brief trial began on September 23, 1901, ending with the jury finding him guilty. On September 26, the judge sentenced Czolgosz to death.
The following day, he was transported to Auburn State Prison. There an angry mob waited for his arrival, hoping to deliver their own version of justice. Czolgosz was pulled off the train and badly beaten by the crowd, but the prison officers were able to get him into the building. The warden refused to allow anyone to visit him as he awaited his death sentence. On the morning of October 29, 1901, Leon Frank Czolgosz met his end in the electric chair. He was buried in the prison’s cemetery.
Since his death, Czolgosz has remained an infamous figure in American history. His actions are often considered alongside the acts of such other notorious killers as John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. He was later reimagined for the stage, appearing as a character in Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical Assassins.
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