Monday, August 27, 2007

Presidential Assassin Celebrated in Song

Leon Frank Czolgosz was a self proclaimed anarchist and assassin of U.S. President William McKinley.

As a young man, Leon Czolgosz (1873-1901) worked in a wire mill in Cleveland, Ohio. He was a good employee, retaining his job even through an economic depression.

In 1898, after witnessing a series of strikes (many ending in police confrontation), Czolgosz returned home, where he was constantly at odds with his family's Roman Catholic beliefs and with his stepmother. He became a recluse, and spent much of his time alone, reading socialist and anarchist newspapers. He was very affected by hearing a speech of Emma Goldman, and sought her out in New York City to discuss political matters. She later wrote a piece sympathetic to Czolgosz's assassination of McKinley, though not quite in favor of the act. However, Czolgosz, as far as is known, failed to be accepted into any anarchist group.

Czolgosz's experiences had convinced him there was a great injustice in American society, an inequity which allowed the wealthy to enrich themselves by exploiting the poor. He concluded the reason for this was the structure of government itself. Then on July 29, 1900, King Umberto I was assassinated by avowed anarchist Gaetano Bresci. Bresci told the press he had to take matters into his own hands for the sake of the common man. The assassination sent shockwaves through the American anarchist movement. In Bresci, Czolgosz found his hero: a man who had the courage to sacrifice himself for the cause.

On August 31, 1901 he moved to Buffalo, New York and rented a room near the site of the Pan-American Exposition.

On September 6, Czolgosz went to the exposition with a pistol in his hand, concealed in a handkerchief. McKinley had been standing in a receiving line at the Temple of Music greeting the public for several minutes when Czolgosz reached the front of the line and shot him twice at point-blank range. The time was 4:07 p.m. McKinley would die from his wounds on September 14.

Czolgosz was convicted and sentenced to death on September 23, in a trial that lasted 8 hours and 26 minutes from jury selection to verdict.

Czolgosz was found guilty and executed by electrocution, by three jolts at 1700 volts each, on October 29, 1901, at Auburn prison in Auburn, New York. His last words 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." As the prison guards strapped him into the chair, however, he did say through clenched teeth, "I am sorry I could not see my father."

Sulfuric acid was thrown in his coffin so his body would completely dissolve within 24 hours. His letters and clothes were burned.

The 1901 film used is a detailed reproduction of the execution of Leon Czołgosz faithfully carried out from the description of an eye witness. Czolgosz is executed with the fairly new invention of the electric chair in the prison of Auburn, New York. The keepers are seen taking Czolgosz from his cell to the death chamber, and shows State Electricians, Wardens and Doctors making a final test of the chair. Czolgosz is then brought in by the guard and is quickly strapped into the chair. The current is turned on at a signal from the Warden, and the assassin heaves heavily as though the straps would break. He drops prone after the current is turned off. The doctors examine the body and report to the Warden that he is dead, and he in turn officially announces the death to the witness. While the film is certainly an important historical document, revealing popular fascination with both the fact and the manner of Czolgosz's execution, it cannot be taken as a record of the actual execution. (more)

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