The McKinley Assassination Plot

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | July 30, 2012

Add to History Board Share Print

At about four o’clock in the afternoon on September 6, 1901, William McKinley was shaking hands with the public at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, when he reached to greet a slight twenty-eight year-old man with a bandaged hand. The man, however, had not come to meet McKinley, but to kill him. Raising his bandaged hand – which concealed, in a swathe of white handkerchief, a .32 caliber revolver – he calmly fired two shots at pointblank range into the stomach and chest of the 25th President of the United States.  “I done my duty,” he remarked casually, as the crowd dragged him down. The shooter, an unemployed factory worker named Leon Czolgosz, shot McKinley because he was anarchist – and  because, for once, he was lucky.

The idea of killing a “ruler” had been with Czolgosz ever since he heard the uber-radical Emma Goldman speak four months before – but who to kill, and where, only came to him at the last moment. When he read on September 2nd that McKinley was going to be visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 4th for a few days, Czolgosz had an epiphany.  He was in Buffalo – he would get a gun – he would shoot the President.  It was that simple. He would be somebody.

Leon Frank Czolgosz was – and had been for years – figuratively and literally, nobody. He was poor, unemployed, unskilled; maladroit, alone, and restless.  He even called himself, “Fred Nieman” – Fred Nobody.  He had used that name since 1893, first to surreptitiously gain re-employment at a factory where he had been blacklisted and later, as he repeatedly sought to affiliate with anarchist groups, unsuccessfully. They didn’t want him, either.

Once, almost a decade before, Czolgosz had been a hard-working church-goer, but caught up in the violent labor unrest of the 90s, he’d grown increasingly disaffected and by 1898, retreated to his family’s farm outside Cleveland. He said he was sick, but if so, his illness didn’t appear to be physical. He tinkered, shot rabbits, slept inordinately, and argued with his stepmother. He also read anarchist papers, placed a newspaper clipping about the assassination of King Umberto I in his wallet, and periodically left the farm to look for “secret societies” he might join. On July 11, 1901, he managed to get enough money from his family to quit the farm altogether and – evasive, as usual – moved to West Seneca, in the vicinity of Buffalo.  It was from there (or perhaps Cleveland, to which he often, and mysteriously, repaired) that he wrote, as “Fred C. Nieman”, this red-inked letter two and a half weeks later. Addressed to John Grinder, a member of a  workingman’s fraternal organization, the Golden Eagle Lodge and an employee of the wire mill where Czolgosz had once worked,  it seems innocuous – but for one phrase: there is a streetcar to Buffalo in his new town, Czolgosz notes, and it’s just a nickel ride.

Inclosed you will find One Dollar, to pay my Lodge dues in June I gave one Dollar to brother George Coonish to pay my Assessed on the death of our late Brother David Jones, and I was in the hall that night and i give one Dollar to our brother at the first guard Room to pay my Lodge dues and I said to him that you have got my book.  brother Grinder will you send my book to me at my cost and send me the Passwords if you can do so. I left Cleveland Thursday July 11th I am working here I will stay here for some time, and the street car fair [sic] from here to Buffalo is five / 5 cents. Hoping this letter will find you well as it leaves me at present.

Czolgosz left West Seneca in late August, and after a fleeting visit to Cleveland, relocated to Buffalo on the 31st. There he read that McKinley was coming – there he planned to murder – there he waited for McKinley to arrive. Then he followed the President to three locations, before finally getting close enough to kill him.

Afterward, he did not try to get away, and freely confessed his heinous deed. “I done my duty,” he repeated, saying he shot the President because he did not believe in “one man having so much service [power], and another man should have none.” His trial, just a little over a week after McKinley succumbed to his wounds, lasted 8 and a half hours; his execution, a month later, took a minute. Sulfuric acid was thrown on his body; his letters and clothes were burned. “Fred C. Nieman” was, absolutely, nobody.

WILLIAM MCKINLEY, 1843-1901. 25th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed (with his alias “Fred C. Nieman”),  2 pages, octavo, recto and verso, datelined Cleveland, Ohio,  but very possibly sent from West Seneca, New York, July 30, 1901. To John Grinder in Cleveland, Ohio. In red ink, Of the utmost rarity.

Manuscripts Related To This Article