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1 LEON 1873-1901
His mother should not have come here; the trip was arduous, she was getting on in years, and Leon was in her womb, a stowaway on the ship to the new world. Childbirth would kill her, eventually, though that was a few years away. Still, she had had enough of regeneration.
Imagine her family seeing her off at the dock, peasants in the old country, sturdy Slavs, thickset and ruddy-cheeked, and her husband's, Paul's, hardscrabble Poles. They have ridden donkey carts to get to the shipyard, they have walked, they have hitched rides in the backs of wagons. Crying for the son and daughter they will never see again. She is standing high on the deck of the ship, rocking in the water. Her bony fingersthat is what Leon remembers about her, her fingers: delicate, elongated, so light, so sharp, clenched tight around the rail as if someone she cannot see is hell-bent on denying her station on the deck. Babies are tugging at the hem of her dress; Leon's father is silent as their families watch the impossibly large ship slip away from them only to vanish into a speck, then merge with the sun until they all disappear over the horizon. That empty space somewhere in front of them all, that nothingness out there they could only imagine, that was America.
And so Leon Czolgosz arrived in this country an embryonic being, and he was born in this new land. That was 1873.
Then blink your eyes and let time reemerge twenty-eight years later: October 29, 1901. Men in uniform are marching in lockstep down the corridor on either side of a prisoner, their movements efficient, coordinated, precise. When they reach the chair, they turn and push him into the seat, though it isn't necessary; he does not resist. Immediately other men strap in his arms, shackle his legs, buckle belts around his neck and head. In the death chamber, everyone has a job to do. There are the men who tape electrodes to his skin, the man who shaves the circle of hair from his head, the man who wrenches water from a sponge onto the bald patch. One man will raise his hand to signal to another that it is time to pull the switch. There is a priest, though the prisoner has insisted he wants no representatives of an organized church; there are witnesses in chairs facing the electric chair as if it were a theater stage. It's not a simple thing to execute a man but they do it well. There's an economy of movement, procedures stylized as ritual. It's a testament to the prison personnel, the efficiency of it all. You do something long enough, you perfect the process. It's a testament to science, to engineering, the management of the place.
A man raises his hand, slow and deliberate, like taking an oath, a priest in some secular American faith. The switch is thrown and an eighteen-hundred-volt charge sends the body of the prisoner into sizzling convulsions, a frenzy of such intense motion that his matter seems atomized, his form transported. The witnesses in the room can smell the burnt skin; how could you not? Then the body becomes definite again, something real, and settles back in the chair. A doctor places his stethoscope on the heart, listens once, twice, then nods to a man who throws the switch for the second charge.
Again: the precision. The swift sequence of commands and response.
The corpse is taken from the chamber, and a saw cuts the top of the prisoner's skull, his brain is scooped out, his ears and face are measured again for evidence of dementia. The brain was not the cause, the doctors determine. But still it must be destroyed; whatever it is, all of it must be eradicated.
So they strip him of his clothes and carry him outside. Men take his arms and legs and swing his limp naked body into a pit they have dug in the night. A man lifts a metal canister and pours its contents in. The liquid sizzles, then smokes. The men watch as the skin melts into nothing and the acid—it is sulfuric acid they have poured in—works through the layers of muscle, fat, tissue, then bones. There is a heart, a liver, a stomach, intestines, organs that are no longer identifiable as the acid devours what remains.
More signals. A man in a beaver pelt hat on the edge of the pit nods his head, another carboy of acid is poured in until there is no body there, only mist at the bottom of the hole that rises up . . . up . . . up. . . .
And Leon Czolgosz vanishes into a speck, that nothingness out there on the horizon.
Blink your eyes again. He reappears.
2 The times
This was the Gilded Age, the Age of the Robber Barons; the Gay Nineties fell within it—Leon's years. The age of the giants, the money gods. Bell invented the telephone. Edison invented the phonograph, recorded voice, recorded music. Edison invented electric light. Edison was working on moving picture shows. Industry was taking over. Railroads were covering the nation in long lines of track; forests were hacked down to form roads that would never end. Fathers who had traveled west in horse-drawn wagons now stepped into a railway car in San Francisco and stepped off in New York. This thing, this organism, America, was growing more complex: there were trolley cars over ground to take you through the cities; tunnels and pipes coursed underneath. And there was talk of horseless carriages, automobiles. The cities were taking over. The work was in the factories. Children worked, women worked.
Giants made of money were written of but never seen, gods of the new industrial age. They owned everything and lived in some magical place beyond human imagination. Carnegie was the god of Iron, Rockefeller was Oil, Jay Gould and Leland Stanford were Railroads. J. P. Morgan was Steel. Horatio Alger wrote of Ragged Dick transforming himself from street urchin into millionaire, armed only with ambition, wits, and know-how; in one hundred books he pulled the trick, but in truth the gods had already snapped up all the money. There wasn't any left. That is why we needed to churn out silver money. That is what Bryan said. Silver was for the workingman, the ones who got to the table too late, after the goodies were eaten.
3 The Party December 17, 1892, 7 p.m.
And there were parties, galas the likes of which had never been imagined.
Back then . . . in New York . . . music is playing, a string orchestra, men in white jackets so pristine they shimmer like moonlight in the night. Men in silk suits and women in silk dresses swirl on the ballroom floor, spin in unison, in rhythm with the violins, the harps, the falsetto crooning some song that was auditioned last Saturday night at Lucy Vanderbilt's and is fast becoming all the rage. From eye level, if you are a dancer on the floor, or a young man sipping martinis at the bar, the silk swirls in circles, wrapping round, waiters' corkscrews. But if you are gazing from above, if you are Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, if you are Jay Gould, or John Rockefeller, or some other god gazing down, the men and women, rich as they are, beautiful as they are, flowing to the music like champagne, would seem like cogs in a machine just invented to manufacture steel tubes at twice the speed and a third of the cost.
Or you may be Morris Vandeveer, beaming up at the musicians (angels of sound! the finest New York City has to offer) as they tune up on your balcony. You have had the balustrade completely redone for this party: last week a band of Italians straight off the boat finished sculpting a line of gargoyles who now poke out from the rails, laughing and crying and howling, all in gold foil (Price be damned! Just tell me how many zeroes), proud of this party you are hosting, this celebration of life! of America!, brushing a speck off the epaulette of a waiter strolling by, bending over to sneak a peek at the French maid, herself bent over (quite!) dusting. The mansion you have recently purchased, then refurbished, repainted, reupholstered, and reappointed, from the newly stocked wine and champagne cellar in the basement to the glass-roofed atrium on the penthouse floor. It is four buildings, really, tunneled together underneath and merged by removing the interior walls and planting a courtyard in the middle that is a patch of woods and pasture and gardens smack in the center of the fast-growing city. Morris is wearing a black silk suit covered by a white silk robe as he waltzes from guest to guest, holding a crystal goblet that is always filled with champagne and yet he is always drinking it. (As the knocker sounded, marking the arrival of the first guests, Morris was naked as a babe, innocent in thought and—if one took a liberal attitude toward the efforts being made by this girl, Lily, who lay next to him in bed, using an experienced tongue and gentle nibble of teeth—deed.) His garb gives the appearance of pajamas, something ludicrous and silly, which is how Morris Vandeveer appears, kissing each newly arriving guest on each cheek, directing the servant to hand over a glass and fill it to the brim.
Money is everywhere. It is fruit that falls from the trees, it is manna, something you pluck from the ground and stuff in your mouth as you run, a waterfall that rushes down the curving grand staircase of the Vandeveers' mansion on Fifth Avenue where this party is being held. It must be a waltz the orchestra is playing. A perfect world, purchased for an evening.
The visitors to Chateau Vandeveer have arrived in lavish carriages that wait for them on the avenue outside. Every man—drivers and guests—wears a hat. Most wear a mustache. The guests wear tails, black ties, top hats made of beaver pelt. The drivers outside pull wool caps over their ears to fend off the cold as they chat over cigars and pipe tobacco, strap onto their horses burlap feed bags stuffed with oats. Those garish futurists who use the horseless variety will tinker with the engine, unscrew a bolt or a nut, try to figure out how the magical machine is able to transport them without legs. Someone starts a fire in a pail and they warm hands, toss apple cores to shoe away the bums, the street urchins gazing at their grubby, unshaven faces in the polished glass, rubbing mud on as if it were makeup, slicking back their hair as if their refurbished image would transport them into the cab of the owners, their clothes, their lives. . . .
While the guests linger and wait for the meals and the usual, unusual festivities, there is the customary chatter, of strikes and immigrants, anarchists and moral decline.
"We are becoming a nation of swarthy Europeans, of Jews, of Negroes," someone says.
"At the Van Pelts' last month the anarchists tried to beat down the doors during the ball. We were trapped inside and on the last bottle of champagne."
"That's rich," says Morris Vandeveer, floating by, tossing out, like pansy petals, toast wedges dolloped with caviar, flights of champagne just carried like newborn chicks from the cellar.
"We are doing our damnedest to turn Darwin on his head; by water we bring beasts to our shores."
"Are we not a Christian nation?"
"Rockefeller had it right," someone howls. "God gave me my money!"
"Here! Here!" and the clink of glasses.