One hundred years ago today, at seven minutes after 4 o'clock in the afternoon, an assassin fired two bullets into the chest and ample belly of William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States. The crime took place at the Hall of Music at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo; in the background a Bach sonata was being played.
McKinley, then at the height of his popularity, had spent the day sightseeing at the Falls at Niagara. Against the misgivings of his advisers, he insisted on returning to the exhibition to be glimpsed and greeted by thousands who had heard the greatest speech of his presidency the day before.
Historians have long neglected and underrated McKinley, perhaps influenced by Theodore Roosevelt's famous remark that he had the "backbone of a chocolate eclair" and House Speaker Joseph Cannon's comment that he kept his ear so close to the ground it was filled with grasshoppers.
Clear-eyed Henry Adams, on the other hand, credited him with "remarkable" accomplishments. More recent researchers have uncovered evidence that he was a strong war president, keeping in close touch with sensitive military decisions, and a tough-minded chief executive quite capable of using power ruthlessly.
Having annexed Hawaii, gained control of Puerto Rico, thrown the Spanish out of Cuba, imposed colonial rule in the Philippines and identified an isthmian canal as the next great national goal, McKinley used the occasion of the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo to proclaim America's emergence as a world power. "Isolation is no longer possible or desirable," he declared as he called for reciprocity trade treaties in place of the high tariffs he had once embraced.
There was good reason for McKinley's entourage to be security-conscious. In the previous decade the empress of Austria, the king of Italy, the president of France, the shah of Persia and the czar of Russia had been felled by assassins. Anarchy was in the air.
In America, anyone then over the age of 40 could remember the murders of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield - the first by a Confederate vengeance-seeker, the second by a disappointed Republican office-seeker who thus elevated the forgettable Chester Arthur to the presidency. Was the tragedy in Buffalo to be the third assassination in 37 years, a cluster of horror unequaled in the nation's history before or since?
Just before the sound of gunfire punctuated Bach, McKinley had extended his left hand to a young man who had approached with his right hand wrapped in a white handkerchief as though he were injured. McKinley's gesture was typical of the kindness and courtesy that were hallmarks of the 58-year-old president's persona. Instead, two bullets tore through the gunman's handkerchief. One hit the president's breastbone and deflected, leaving only a small wound. The other pierced his abdomen 5 inches below the left nipple, entered and exited his stomach and settled (never to be found) somewhere in or near his pancreas and kidney.
Here's how a New York Times reporter described the scene: "There was an instance of almost complete silence, like the hush that follows a clap of thunder. The president stood stock still, a look of hesitancy, almost of bewilderment, on his face. Then he retreated a step while a pallor began to steal over his features."
McKinley staggered backward, saw blood seeping through his stiff boiled shirt and told his security men not to alarm his wife or hurt the gunman, a white male of unexceptional dress or demeanor. Then he was hurried to the exhibition's emergency room where doctors in poor light closed and cleaned his wounds before taking him to a house in Buffalo where his invalid wife was to hear the calamitous news. Though a new-fangled X-ray machine was one of the marvels being shown at the exhibition, it was not used to find the missing bullet. For the next week, doctors would reassure the nation that the president was on the way to recovery.
But gangrene, crawling along the path of the fatal bullet, took its toll in that pre-antibiotic age. McKinley died at 15 minutes after 2 o'clock in the morning of Sept. 14, 1901. And the flamboyant Roosevelt - mustache bristling, teeth and wire-rimmed round glasses flashing - imposed his personality on the presidency with a skill unmatched until cousin Franklin moved into the White House 32 years later.
Meanwhile, Americans turned their attention to the assassin, a 28-year-old man with the very foreign-sounding name of Leon Czolgosz. Though he had been conceived in what was to become Czechoslovakia, he was born in Michigan, a member of a poor but large immigrant family.
Always a bit of a loner and ne'er-do-well, Czolgosz became entranced by anarchist doctrine and particularly with the writings and preachments of Emma Goldman. He talked to her briefly during one of her speaking engagements in May or June.
Czolgosz (pronounced Cholgosh) saw it as his duty to the workers of the world to kill the president, whoever he was. He left his family in Cleveland, traveled to Buffalo, bought a .32 caliber Iver Johnson revolver for $4.50 and looked for a chance to get near the visiting chief executive. The president's plans were too well advertised. He was to greet those who got in line early at the Hall of Music. Czolgosz was one of the first, and the rest was history.
After being taken to the Buffalo police station, Czolgosz was only too willing to spill out a confession that covered six pages of foolscap.
"I didn't believe one man should have so much service and another should have none," he told his interrogators.
"I don't believe in the republican form of government and I don't believe we should have any rulers. It is right to kill them," he said at another point.
At first, there was the predictable cry of conspiracy. Known anarchists in many cities were picked up; Emma Goldman was arrested, not for the first or last time. But Czolgosz insisted he acted alone and there was no evidence to the contrary.
At his arraignment, he remained silent even as District Attorney Thomas Penney demanded in a steadily rising voice whether he wanted a defense lawyer. The court finally appointed one and entered a plea of not guilty.
As the murder trial approached, Penney took precautions against a possible insanity plea by bringing to Buffalo the same psychiatrist who had testified 17 years earlier that Garfield's assassin was sane. As it happened, there was no insanity plea or any other defense. After a trial on Sept. 25 that lasted eight hours and 23 minutes, Czolgosz was found guilty and was executed by a new method - electrocution - on Oct. 29, 1901. Only long after the crime was the sanity issue rehashed - inconclusively.
Of the four presidential assassinations, how does the death of McKinley rank in historical importance? Certainly, not first. The death of Lincoln brought to power Andrew Johnson, a Southerner who set back the cause of civil rights for black Americans for almost a century. Certainly, not second. Lyndon Johnson, the greatest civil rights president in history, accomplished what John F. Kennedy could not, reversing the obstruction of his century-earlier namesake.
Yet to put the McKinley assassination in third place is not to put down the president mortally wounded in Buffalo one century ago today. Quite the contrary. In the days of McKinley, the power of the presidency was restored after a period of decline that started with the near-impeachment of Andrew Johnson. He recognized the importance of constant White House contact with the people by instituting daily press briefings and establishing a communications system that kept him in instant touch with current events.
Most important, through his reluctant conquests and his victory in the Spanish-American War ("gifts of the gods," he described them), he put the United States permanently front and center on the world stage. Teddy Roosevelt, the quintessential expansionist, reinforced that image by building on the initiatives and the accomplishments of his predecessor.
On the centennial of his death, McKinley is a president in need of reassessment.
Joseph R.L. Sterne is a former reporter and editor for The Sun, now senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.