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The assassination of William McKinley, from Le Petit Journal, Paris, September 22, 1901

A skillful playwright might have a good time with the story of the assassination of President William McKinley, and especially with the three most flamboyant political figures involved: Mark Hanna, Theodore Roosevelt, and Emma Goldman. All three were enemies of one another, all three were formidable political personalities, each had a different vision of the good society, and all three were ambitious. When sudden death takes a president, opportunities for new beginnings flourish among the ambitious and the tensions among such people can be dramatic, as they were when President Kennedy was killed.

The struggle for influence over the American future is the dramatic subtext of Scott Miller’s new look at the McKinley assassination and also of Vivian Gornick’s concise but elegant portrait of Emma Goldman, subtitled Revolution as a Way of Life. Goldman’s vision of a society reinvented through revolutionary upheaval was essentially poetic, compared with Hanna’s and Roosevelt’s prosaic theories about tariffs, taxes, trade, and trusts, but it was a time when politics was hospitable to poetry in the passionate and violent vein. Gornick draws a picture of the era as it looked to the world’s Emma Goldmans:

In the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, all over Europe as well as in America, as the heartlessness of Victorian industrialism deepened in coal mines and clothing factories, steel mills and lumber camps, wherever roads and houses and bridges were being built, a desperation of relations between those who owned and those who labored was growing ever more deadly.

Whenever worker protest mounted, hired guns—often aided by the local police, national guards, or state troopers—appeared to shoot at, jail, blacklist, and, if necessary, kill the protesters and their organizers; and everywhere, the workers replied in kind: with guns of their own, or even dynamite, the poor man’s only real source of return fire.

Thousands of people on both sides of the divide perished during these years, and thousands more instantly took their place. The labor movement grew slowly—spilling blood, rage, and resistance in equal parts—but it grew.

This was not the world in which Hanna and Roosevelt dwelt. In the extraordinarily bitter presidential campaign of 1896 McKinley had beaten William Jennings Bryan, which meant that the urban hard-money interests—banks, big corporations—had beaten the rural Populists and free-silver Democrats. Republicanism’s marriage to big business was finally established. The party now controlled all the branches of government. “The Republican triumph could not have been more complete,” the historian Louis Hacker observed a generation later.

It may have been the high-water mark of unrestrained and uninhibited American capitalism, and Mark Hanna probably deserved as much credit for the victory as McKinley. Hanna was a dynamic coal-and-iron shipping industrialist from Ohio who loved politics, though an arrogant manner made him an unlikely candidate. Not a man you’d like to have a beer with, to use the present-day measure of political charm. Never mind. Hanna would take the gentle McKinley under his guidance and make him his own political instrument. When McKinley faced financial ruin because a friend for whom he had cosigned large loans went broke, Hanna dipped into his own fortune to bail McKinley out. Theirs had always seemed an improbably close friendship; now it seemed to become indestructible.

It was Hanna who persuaded corporate and banking tycoons to stop quaking in terror of Bryan and the Democrats’ free-silver campaign in 1896 and to join in creating a huge fund dedicated to victory for McKinley and capitalism. Scott Miller pulls together the story of how he did it with the help of James Hill, a Wall Streeter and Democrat who was alarmed by his party’s attacking people like himself as “greedy tyrants.” The bipartisan Hanna-Hill team traveled Manhattan, writes Miller, stepping

out of their carriage at one stately address after another—the House of Morgan, the Pennsylvania Railroad offices, the investment bank Kuhn, Loeb & Co…. One by one, Big Business opened the vaults…. As Republican boosters pulled wad after wad of bills out of their office safes, Hanna organized the first comprehensive mass mailing in American political history.

The 1896 election appears to have been a precursor of modern presidential elections in which campaign spending is unlimited and anything goes. Miller describes a remarkable spectacle in New York a week before election day in 1896:

An unlikely army of millionaires, lawyers, journalists, and university professors marched shoulder to shoulder in their bowler hats and overcoats from the Battery in lower Manhattan to Fortieth Street to voice their support for the gold standard. All told, one hundred thousand people made the journey, cheered on by a quarter million spectators…the cream of New York society taking to the streets on behalf of McKinley.

After McKinley’s victory, Senator John Sherman of Ohio, whose interest in foreign policy had previously seemed slight, was appointed secretary of state, creating a Senate vacancy that was quickly filled by the appointment of Mark Hanna.


Only one setback marred Hanna’s triumphant election year: the Republican convention, pressed hard by the New York machine’s party regulars, gave the vice-presidential nomination to “that damned cowboy,” Theodore Roosevelt. The New Yorkers, detesting Roosevelt’s fractious reformer’s brand of politics, saw an opportunity to be rid of him: ship him to Washington for burial in the vice-presidency. Hanna had asked, “Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between this madman and the White House?” but he finally accepted the risk, probably judging that McKinley was young and healthy enough to survive as Roosevelt faded into the Washington woodwork.

McKinley was fatally shot while greeting visitors at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901. The shooter was Leon Czolgosz, an indolent twenty-eight-year-old for whom the word “nondescript” might have been created. He had lately become interested in anarchism, a political doctrine seeking ways to satisfy mankind’s ancient desire to be free of institutional authority. Though rooted in peaceable theories of behavior and governance articulated by intellectuals like Peter Kropotkin in Russia and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in France, anarchism by McKinley’s time had acquired a nasty and well-deserved reputation for violence.

Miller writes that when forty-five anarchists from around the world met in London in 1881 (at a pub in the Euston Road), they concluded that legal methods could not succeed in producing the revolution they sought, and endorsed violence as a necessity. In the more radical ranks of the movement, the killing of political figures became acceptable, and the following decades made anarchism synonomous with bloodshed across Europe. In 1894 the president of France, Marie-François-Sadi Carnot, was stabbed to death while riding through Lyon in an open carriage. Paris, Miller writes, endured a two-year onset of terror during which anarchists, courts, and police “descended into a bloody cycle of bombing, executions, and revenge attacks” that sometimes left people fearful of leaving the house. One resolute anarchist, condemned to the guillotine for trying to blow up the homes of a judge and a prosecutor, went to his death crying out, “To be happy, god dammit, You have got to kill those who own property.”

A few months before shooting President McKinley, Czolgosz had attended a lecture by Emma Goldman, then in her early thirties but already famous for her passionate lectures on anarchism’s behalf. Miller’s book presents Czolgosz as an ineffectual idler, one of those easily cartooned armchair warriors who fight oppression by attending lectures and subscribing to radical magazines.

Attending Emma Goldman’s performance seems to have turned his mind to thoughts of becoming a hero of anarchism. Goldman in this phase of her long career had endorsed the need for violence; indeed, she had connived in 1892 with her youthful lover, Alexander Berkman, in a scheme to murder Henry Clay Frick, the union-hating manager of Andrew Carnegie’s steel plants. (Berkman worked his way into Frick’s presence, shot him twice, but not fatally, stabbed him several times with a dagger, and served sixteen years for attempted murder. Goldman was not present at the assault but seems to have helped raise money to buy Berkman clothes presentable enough to help him reach Frick’s office.)

When Czolgosz heard her speak in 1901, Goldman was already a star of the radical lecture circuit. “Her podium manners were legendary,” Miller writes, quoting a witness who described her as a “sledgehammer” and the “very embodiment of the doctrine she preaches.”

Her popularity was nationwide. On an eight-month tour in 1898 she delivered 210 lectures to more than 50,000 people in sixty cities from the Midwest to the Pacific coast. Vivian Gornick conveys a sense of her appeal by describing her very first platform appearance. Presented with a conventional speech to read to a hall filled with “silent, hard-worked faces,” Emma found it impossible to speak the words, simply because they were not her words and, so, seemed “thin and abstract in her own ears.”

In a panic, she decided to scrap the prepared speech and talk straight “from the heart.” In a moment she felt her own reality and was soon associating freely to the past, easily invoking the horrors of working-class life as she had ever known them: “In a flash I saw it—every incident of my three years in Rochester: the factory, its drudgery and humiliation, the failure of my marriage, the Chicago crime. The last words of August Spies. I began to speak. Words I had never heard myself utter came pouring forth, faster and faster. They came with passionate intensity, they painted images…. The audience had vanished, the hall itself had disappeared; I was conscious only of my own words, of my ecstatic song.”

Czolgosz was the child of a large family of Polish immigrants working a small farm near Cleveland. Why he had left an apparently acceptable salaried job and come back to settle on the farm is not clear, but his reluctance to pitch in to the necessary toil was irritating to the rest of the family. Attending the Goldman lecture, however, seems to have energized his lethargic spirit. “Her doctrine that all rulers should be exterminated,” Czolgosz later said, “set me to thinking so that my head nearly split with the pain.” He left the hall determined “to do something heroic for the cause I loved.”


Several months passed during which his behavior suggests a mind in considerable confusion. He began a period of seemingly pointless travel to various cities in the Great Lakes region and came to Buffalo the day before McKinley arrived to visit the exposition. There he bought a .32 caliber revolver from a hardware store. Two days later, while the President was greeting visitors in the Temple of Music, he got into line to shake hands and approached near enough to shoot the President twice with his pistol concealed in a white handkerchief. He was quickly thrown to the ground and severely beaten by shocked spectators and presidential assistants who relented only after the wounded President urged the crowd not to hurt him.

Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, 1917–1919

McKinley suffered two wounds, one of them trivial. The other, in the abdomen, would prove fatal when, after nearly a week of apparent healing, gangrene appeared in the affected tissue. Miller’s account of the emergency surgery that followed the shooting suggests that the medical treatment may have been as lethal as anarchism. Nowadays, thanks to decades of incessant warfare, the United States has a large number of surgeons remarkably skillful at treating the most grotesque gunshot wounds. Such mastery was rare in 1901. The best surgeon who could be found in a hurry had an excellent reputation as a gynecologist but no “substantial experience” in upper-abdominal surgery or gunshot wounds. The area in which he worked was not a proper hospital, but an ill-equipped temporary facility that had been set up to care for sick or injured visitors to the Exposition. The lighting in which he worked was so bad, Miller writes, that an assistant used a mirror to reflect sunlight onto the wound for the surgeon to see what he was doing.

The surgery was complicated by the President’s corpulent figure. It was an age when statesmen tended to be men of large girth and great weight, and McKinley, though not nearing the three-hundred-pound standard later set by President William Howard Taft, was anything but a lightweight. The doctor who performed the surgery later wrote, “The greatest difficulty was the great size of President McKinley’s abdomen and the amount of fat present. This necessitated working at the bottom of a deep hole, especially when suturing the posterior wall of the stomach.”

The doctor was unable to find the bullet and, with the President in shock, he decided that leaving it in the back muscles, where he thought it had probably lodged, was preferable to further searching. “A bullet after it ceases to move does little harm,” he wrote.

Shot on September 6, McKinley died eight days later, on September 14. In an astonishing display of justice swiftly rendered, Czolgosz’s trial for murder opened just nine days later; his death sentence was pronounced three days after that. Czolgosz was electrocuted at the Auburn Prison in upstate New York on October 29, less than eight weeks after the shooting.

Emma Goldman was arrested in Chicago on suspicion of complicity in the assassination and quickly released for lack of evidence, but the cause of anarchism suffered terrible and lasting damage. Thereafter, beyond intellectual political circles, it seems never again to have been viewed in the United States as a significant political idea. In slapstick movie comedies of the Depression, revolutionary anarchists were occasionally depicted, always as clownish and ineffectual crackpots. (Elements of anarchism, however, persisted in popular movements like feminism and the antiwar campus uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s and have more recently been involved in violent protests against meetings of such groups as the World Trade Organization.)

People fascinated by history’s human agents and victims may justifiably feel some sympathy for Emma Goldman. She was the one character in this melodrama who had the dreamer’s redeeming impulse to strive for the impossible, and she ended, as Gornick shows us, mortified and disillusioned, and with her dreams mocked when her longed-for revolution finally occurred.

McKinley, by contrast, seems not to have dreamed very largely. He was a rather ordinary good-fellow politician. A decent, small-town, crowd-pleasing vote-getter who loved his neurotically crippled wife with admirable devotion, he was also a readily available political tool for use by hard and brutish men. He reached the presidency by obeying the classic advice that Capitol old-timers pass down to ambitious congressional newcomers: “If you want to get along, go along.” He got along with political colleagues and went along with Mark Hanna, and even when shot and bleeding he attempted to get along with his assailant, urging the shocked mob not to hurt the poor fellow.

Theodore Roosevelt, according to the historian H.W. Brands, said that McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” Roosevelt, a jingoistic lover of war, was then itching to muscle the United States into combat with the decrepit old Spanish Empire, and McKinley—like Mark Hanna—was being annoyingly slow to start the shooting. Roosevelt was a living refutation of the old-timers’ advice about going along. He went along with very few people and got along very well by not doing so. Not going along with the New York Republicans, after all, made him vice-president only six months before the assassination.

Mark Hanna and Roosevelt, though competitors for presidential power, were both dedicated to preserving Republicanism’s triumphant alliance with capitalism. The quarrel between them was not philosophical but technical. How could capitalism be best served in the new century? Hanna, through McKinley, had flourished by going along with the predatory capitalism dominant during the last decades of the nineteenth century: the bankers and mine owners, the meat packers and sweatshop operators, the mill owners and the aggregators of capital, the steel corporations and the railroad owners—all whose services and products were making the United States the world’s newest marketing behemoth—must not be encumbered with government restraint on their right to maximize profits.

The resulting excesses of tyrannical management and human abuse influenced reformist Republicans, led by Roosevelt, to begin pressing for modest government restraints on unbuttoned capitalism at its ugliest. To Hanna-McKinley Republicans this was an offensive intrusion on capital’s right to freedom; to the reformists it was a sensible way to shelter capitalism from enraged attack by society’s losers: the dreaded Populists, the terrifying Bryan, the steadily growing labor unions.

Roosevelt was not really assiduous about trust-busting. Indeed, he was mostly bark with no bite. Still, he made the regulation of capitalism a respectable part of Republican conversation. The old-guard Republicans who controlled Congress and often the presidency in the late 1800s hated him for it. Many Republicans today still hate the damage he did to the faith, rarely pausing, I suppose, to reflect that it was Leon Czolgosz with his .32 caliber pistol who brought Roosevelt down upon them.

Gornick’s portrait of Emma Goldman includes the story of her stay in the Soviet Union after the 1917 revolution. Deported from the United States, she and Alexander Berkman, her lifelong best pal in anarchism (who by now had served his time for attacking Frick), were welcomed to Lenin’s new state as heroes of the proletariat. Emma went from exhilaration to uneasiness to dislike and fear. She was appalled by the Bolsheviks’ contempt for the freedoms she had enjoyed in America. Perceiving that Lenin’s system must inevitably lead to a police state, she and Berkman “wandered on, trapped, as in a dream…until the dream began to morph into nightmare.”

In 1921, after Trotsky’s Red Army killed thousands of political petitioners led by sailors at the Kronstadt naval base, Gornick writes, Emma knew that “the revolution she had believed in all her life was now a caricature ‘come to jeer and mock me.'” Among the Kronstadt petitioners’ demands were the rights of free speech and assembly, free elections in their soviet, and the freeing of political prisoners.

With the Kronstadt killings, Emma’s romantic attachment to the idea of improving mankind through bloodshed ended at last. She and Berkman departed the Soviet Union after a stay of twenty-three months, Gornick writes. “One more year and, in all probability, they would have ended up in a labor camp in Siberia.”