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When President William McKinley was murdered at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901, Americans were bereaved and frightened. Rumor ran rampant: A wild-eyed foreign anarchist with an unpronounceable name had killed the commander-in-chief. Eric Rauchway's brilliant Murdering McKinley restages Leon Czolgosz's hastily conducted trial and then traverses America with Dr. Vernon Briggs, a Boston alienist who sets out to discover why Czolgosz rose up ...
When President William McKinley was murdered at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901, Americans were bereaved and frightened. Rumor ran rampant: A wild-eyed foreign anarchist with an unpronounceable name had killed the commander-in-chief. Eric Rauchway's brilliant Murdering McKinley restages Leon Czolgosz's hastily conducted trial and then traverses America with Dr. Vernon Briggs, a Boston alienist who sets out to discover why Czolgosz rose up to kill his president.
At or about four o'clock in the afternoon of September 6, 1901, President William McKinley arrived in an open carriage outside the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He walked inside and to the head of a receiving line, where he began shaking the hands of Exposition visitors. His handlers expected him to remain only a short while, and about ten minutes later, one of them pulled out his pocket watch and made a show of looking at the time, signaling the Secret Service that the appearance was coming to an end. Just then, the man next in line stepped forward and raised his right hand. Instead of opening it to meet McKinley's grasp, he revealed that it was covered in a clean white bandage. Underneath the bandage he held an Iver Johnson .32-caliber pistol, which he fired twice into the President, hitting him in the chest and stomach.
McKinley straightened up, staggered from one potted plant to another, and collapsed, blood seeping into his pale shirt. Secret Service agents and other bystanders tackled the shooter. A fairgoer grabbed him by the throat and tried to choke him. Through this mayhem the assailant insisted stubbornly, "I done my duty," while the President implored his avengers to have mercy, crying, "Be easy with him, boys."
In the instant before he was shot, William McKinley stood at the peak of his power. In November 1900 he had won reelection by a strong majority, carrying 52 percent of the popular vote against the same opponent he had trounced in 1896, the oratorical marvel William Jennings Bryan. Now, six months into his second term, in this late, lazy summer of the first year of the twentieth century, it looked as though the McKinley Administration would continue peaceably unbroken for another four years, going on as it had begun, a government devoted to prosperity and standing firm against demands that it become an engine for social betterment.
In 1896, McKinley had presented himself to the voters as the embodiment of conservatism, and he looked the part. His stem, square features, topped by the level lintel of a dark brow, had all the expression of a closed door. He was known to turn on the charm principally when trying to tell someone, graciously but firmly, no. He wore a carnation in his lapel, and when he wanted to turn a petitioner away, he would pluck it from his coat as his granite face cleaved into a smile, and hand over the flower as consolation.
His steadfastness made him a comforting President in an age of crisis. The early 1890s brought economic depression to the United States, and in the crash of 1893 great fortunes melted within weeks. Armies of the unemployed straggled across the roads between towns whose factory chimneys rose mute and unsmoking into the kind of clear sky that, in the age of coal-fueled industry, only bad times could bring. The U.S. Treasury, depleted of gold, shamefacedly had to sell bonds at rates advantageous to J. P. Morgan and the other barons of Wall Street. In reply to this terrible trouble there arose from the debt-pinched farmers and unemployed workers of the country a cry of protest, demanding relief: that the government should coin silver, and inflate the currency; that the government should tax incomes, rather than imports; that the means of electing U.S. senators should change so that the people could wrest control of their leaders away from the vote-buying millionaires. This howl raised Bryan to the candidacy of the combined Democratic and Populist Parties in I896. From the platform of farmers and laborers, Bryan thundered against the conservative economic policies of the government, railing that to keep the currency on the gold standard would be to "crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
Seeking to thwart this protest, the Republicans wanted a candidate who could dam the tide of revolution. McKinley, an experienced congressman and governor of Ohio, was their man. The businessmen of America-who over their morning coffee read with increasing alarm each day's report of riots, strikes, and proposed new schemes of taxation-paid for his campaign, which he organized around the theme of immobility. Nothing would budge-not the monetary policy, not the fiscal policy, not the taxation schedule. Indeed, not even the candidate: for the duration of the campaign, McKinley himself would not move. Instead of following Bryan through the heartland, McKinley stayed on his front porch in Canton, Ohio, and let reporters and citizens come to him. And he promised them that even though he would not change the policies of the government, prosperity would return to the nation.
The voters chose McKinley in November of 1896. In March of 1897 he took office, and then as if by magic his promises came true. Factories opened their gates, workers returned to the mills, and once more smoke poured cheerfully from the chimneys into sooty American skies. Though the recovery owed more to an incidental increase in the world's supply of gold than to the policies of William McKinley, the President received the credit.
And even when, the following summer, the President led the nation into one of its greatest changes ever, he invoked a comfortably Christian justification so as to preserve a sense of safe familiarity. For it was under McKinley that, in I898, the United States stopped being a mere continental republic and became an international colonial empire. After a short war with Spain, sparked by conflict in Cuba, the U.S. Army and Navy occupied the former Spanish possessions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the distant Philippine Islands, across the Pacific, off the China coast. The President had not wanted colonies, and wished fervently that his generals and admirals could have left the islands in peace-but to do that meant letting some rapacious European power (probably Germany) take and despoil them. Yet William McKinley did not want to make himself the first emperor of a free people, so in the troubled hours after the war ended he petitioned God for guidance, praying on his knees in the nighttime White House for divine advice. And the Lord complied, as the President testified: "And one night late it came to me this way-I don't know how it was, but it came ... There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them as our fellowmen for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly."
The presence and approval of God let the President rest peacefully, and his fellow citizens shared in the soundness of his slumber. When he ran for election again, he found it even easier to present himself as the picture of calm stillness; his new running mate, Theodore Roosevelt, had more than enough energy for both of them. And though Bryan returned in the election season to trouble the people with visions of the problems that empire would bring, McKinley defeated him a second time.
So it was that the President found himself in 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition, celebrating the mighty United States he had helped to build. The Exposition paid tribute to the international reach of American power, glorying in its links throughout the hemisphere and across the seas. Its buildings fit loosely into a Spanish mission style, assimilated and Americanized, coated liberally with gilt-edged European baroque decorations. Throughout the grounds stood evidence of power, both figurative and literal; drawing current from the hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, the new electrical circuits of the fair gave the Exposition a glow unknown before, culminating in the Tower of Light that the Edison Company had put up not far from the Temple of Music, which housed the Exposition's largest reception space.
On September 5, the President spoke in an open-air pavilion to a crowd eager to hear him rhapsodize on the theme of what lay before the modern nation: a greater fleet of ships to ply the seas with the commerce of empire; a trans-Isthmian canal through the center of the Americas that would give those ships free passage from ocean to ocean; and a trans-Pacific undersea cable that would carry to the further shore of the western sea the most precious American cargo of all: information, ideas, and culture. On a stage decked with bunting, leaning lightly on the rail before him, holding a single small sheet of notepaper in his left hand, McKinley painted this picture of global glory to come while promising that, even so, the familiar America would not change. Specifically, though Bryan and his supporters might clamor for a federal income tax, McKinley reaffirmed his faith in that hoary standby, the tariff, which shielded American industry from overseas competition (albeit at the expense of the American consumer). The crowd, which included a slight listening man with a gun in his pocket, heard from McKinley what it had come to expect: a confidently stated platform of conservative policies meant to aid the growth of American economic might. That evening the President towered benevolently over his constituents, and the next afternoon he lay in the dust, felled by twin bullets fired from that still, slight listening man's gun.
The report of gunshots drifted out of the Temple of Music and over the crowd waiting to see the President. Men in stiff collars and bowler hats, women in bonnets, boys in straw boaters, and girls in fine dresses jostled each other in front of the Temple, anxiously pressing forward to find out what had happened behind its scarlet façade. At the front of the tightly packed throng, helmeted Exposition guards scurried back and forth, keeping would-be vigilantes at bay. Above and behind the crowd, a cameraman of the Thomas A. Edison Company cranked away, recording the scene on film.
Today, at a century's distance, we can still watch. In a darkened, silent room we can see the flickering images of onlookers, most with no hope of getting through the mass of their fellows, standing horrified and still. Faces in the crowd, turned one-quarter profile to the camera, reveal little of thoughts or emotions. Here and there, someone somehow aware of being filmed glances back at the panning camera. One man, thoroughly respectable in his pince-nez, bowler, and brush mustache, turns idly, catches sight of the camera, looks directly into the lens-and suddenly smiles before turning away.
In our time we know too well the emotions that rippled through that crowd. We know how it feels to believe that not only news but history has just happened. We know how an icon of an epoch can crumple. We can imagine reacting almost any way at all-except, perhaps, smiling. Whether it was a reflex to the camera lens, bloodlust, political cynicism, or nerves, that smile-that overwhelmingly inappropriate, incomprehensible smile-had a meaning that remains inaccessible to us now. The strange smile shares two important characteristics with the assassination itself: we know that it happened, and that it was the product of a mind now closed to us. And for us, a troubled century later, the smile matters as much as the murder. Because it, along with the millions of other reactions to the killing, gave the assassination a meaning that the killer alone was powerless to provide. Those meanings of the McKinley assassination, to Americans then and now, tell us how we make sense-or fail to make sense-of the madness that history visits upon us.
The assault on McKinley dropped an uncertain mantle on the shoulders of the Vice President, who could not know and would not hope that he would soon become President. The assailant had accomplished the astounding: he reduced Theodore Roosevelt, however briefly, to dithering inactivity. Suddenly irresolute and unable to see his way forward, Roosevelt felt strangely like an ordinary, helpless citizen.
Despite his low opinion of the vice presidency, Roosevelt could not have aimed more unerringly for the office if he meant to. He had become inescapably popular during the Spanish-American War of 1898, resigning his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to lead a cavalry group of Rough Riders in Cuba. As a Manhattanite who could credibly don a cowboy hat, he proved irresistible to reporters, who found in turn that the amateur naturalist, historian, and full-time politician could endlessly produce quotable copy. Moreover, with his flashing spectacles and clacking, oversized teeth, his brushy mustache and ready grin, he presented an image already so near to caricature that he endeared himself to cartoonists. The Republican Party dared not leave idle a politician so beloved of the press. Yet Roosevelt kept making trouble; except during election season, when he remained scrupulously loyal, he trained a harsh fire on the corruption among his fellow Republicans. There was only one safe place for a party's most popular troublemaker: the visible, and powerless, vice presidency.
Roosevelt's war record made him a choice candidate for governor of New York in 1898, and he won the election that autumn. He immediately became a headache for the state Republican boss, Tom Platt, most significantly by supporting a tax on corporation franchises. As the governor's two-year term drew to a close in 1900, rumors surfaced that Platt might prevent Roosevelt's renomination. The two men were lining up for an ugly fight when the sitting Vice President, Garret Hobart, died. This vacancy on the national ticket gave Platt the upper hand. He could withhold renomination from Roosevelt by making him an offer he could not refuse. The Rough Rider would ascend from the governorship to serve party and country gloriously and impotently at the President's right hand. When Platt put this case to him, Roosevelt realized he had been outmaneuvered, and he glumly accepted the job. When McKinley won reelection, Platt and his fellow party stalwarts believed they had finally neutered Roosevelt. On the eve of the inauguration, Platt told his friends he was "going to Washington to see Theodore Roosevelt take the veil."
The vice presidency was every bit as dull as Roosevelt feared. The constitutional limits on him were bad enough. The Vice President was, on paper, a "functionless official," as Roosevelt wrote, "who possesses so little real power," that, regrettably, "his political weight ... is almost nil." But the attentions of the press made his situation even worse. McKinley was, as one reporter complained, habitually "silent," and a terrible chore to a press that wanted ballyhoo. Roosevelt presented no such obstacle to coverage. But if the Vice President spent too much time in the headlines, he risked, as Roosevelt feared, making the President "jealous."
Excerpted from MURDERING McKINLEY by ERIC RAUCHWAY Copyright ©2003 by Eric Rauchway. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted April 21, 2011
Posted August 9, 2009
I was initially wary of buying this book, due to the subtitle, "The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America," but Eric Rauchway makes a compelling case that the life and death of both President William McKinley and his poor American-born assassin Leon Czolgosz set the stage for a progressive era in American politics, as best heralded by Theodore Roosevelt's rise to power. Though the inquiries into Czogosz' motives are as intriguing today as then, the political and economic context of the times are a necessary yet not especially riveting addition to the narrative. Czolgosz' family roots (Polish) fueled anti-immigration xenophobia that seems to flare up with each new generation of immigrants to America. This well-written history is a worthwhile purchase, especially for those who became interested in McKinley with Sarah Vowell's excellent "Assassination Vacation."Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.