Leon Czolgosz: Biography & Execution

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

In this lesson, we will learn about the life and execution of Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who assassinated the twenty-fifth president of the United States, William McKinley. Because Czolgosz was the child of immigrants, his violent act contributed to anti-immigrant fears in the United States.

The Assassination of a President

In 1901, in front of a crowd of people, Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley. Czolgosz had no chance of getting away. What could have inspired him to commit such a violent act, that he must have known would condemn him to death?

Leon Czolgosz
Leon Czolgosz picture

Leon Czolgosz's Early Life

Born to immigrant parents in Michigan in 1873, Czolgosz's father was from Poland and his mother from Germany; his mother died in childbirth when he was ten. He had five brothers and two sisters and received only five years of formal schooling. In spite of his lack of formal education, Czolgosz was a big reader and his family considered him an 'intellectual.'

Instead of attending school, Czolgosz worked in factories and mills throughout the Midwest. Czolgosz came to believe that the labor conditions he worked in were unfair, and he became more aware of politics and political ideas, especially anarchism. Anarchists believe that individuals shouldn't live under political states. Instead, people should be self-governed.

Anarchy in the U.S.: The Haymarket Affair

While there are many different types of anarchism, in the late 19th-century anarchism was often associated with immigrant laborers, even though very few immigrants were actually anarchists. This association was partially formed by the 1886 Haymarket Affair. The Haymarket Affair took place in Chicago, where workers had a peaceful rally in favor of an eight-hour workday, and in opposition to police killings of workers. The police tried to break up the peaceful rally, and someone threw a bomb at police. Seven police officers died, as did several civilians, and many others were wounded.

Eight anarchists were arrested and charged with conspiracy. One of the defendants had apparently built the bomb, but none of the defendants had thrown it, even though many had apparently advocated violence. Of the eight defendants, six had been born outside of the United States, which bolstered anti-immigrant feelings in the United States.

Emma Goldman

The anarchist Emma Goldman
Emma Goldman picture

Even though Czolgosz called himself an anarchist, many of the anarchists he knew avoided him, and thought him dangerous, as he frequently spoke about 'conspiracies'. In 1898, Czolgosz had some sort of mental breakdown, which may have contributed to his isolation from other anarchists.

Czolgosz was very much drawn to the type of anarchism espoused by Emma Goldman. Goldman was a Russian immigrant who believed anarchism would free individuals from religion, property, and government, creating true freedom. In her early life, Goldman also advocated for propaganda by the deed. Propaganda by the deed is the belief that it is okay to commit an act of violence if you believe the violence will inspire people to action. Today, this is called terrorism. By 1901, Goldman no longer supported violent acts, but she was sympathetic to them.

Elsewhere in the world, anarchists assassinated world leaders, like Italian King Umberto.

The Pan-American Exposition of 1901

William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States
McKinley picture

The Pan-American Exposition took place from May to November 1901, in Buffalo, New York. The Exposition displayed some of the most cutting-edge technological advancements of the time, such as electricity. At the end of August, Czolgosz traveled to Buffalo, apparently with the intention of killing William McKinley, who was attending the exposition. In Buffalo, he bought a revolver. On September 6, he waited in a receiving line to meet President McKinley, hiding his revolver in his handkerchief. McKinley tried to shake hands with Czolgosz, but instead, Czolgosz shot the President twice.

A drawing of the assassination
A drawing of the assassination

Arrest and Execution

First photograph of Czolgosz after his arrest
First photograph of Czolgosz after his arrest

Czolgosz was quickly tackled by men around him. Even though McKinley was grievously injured, when he saw that Czolgosz was being beaten, he told the men who were doing it to 'go easy on him.'

Prison card of Leon Czolgosz
Prison card of Leon Czolgosz

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