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MURDERING MCKINLEY by Eric Rauchway

MURDERING MCKINLEY

The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America

By Eric Rauchway

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-8090-7170-3
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An exploration of the personalities and sociopolitical forces that brought together President William McKinley and assassin Leon Czolgosz on Sept. 6, 1901.

McKinley was downed by two assassins, Rauchway (History/UC Davis) argues. Czolgosz fired two shots into the president, but it was vice-president Theodore Roosevelt who proceeded to make most Americans and many historians forget about him. Rauchway first examines the assassination, the immediate capture of Czolgosz, his speedy trial only weeks after the murder (the jury deliberated for 25 minutes), death by electrocution a month later, the perfunctory autopsy, and the gruesome burial, during which sulfuric acid was poured over the body. American political and social institutions functioned very differently then, the author demonstrates. Although Czolgosz was identified early on as an anarchist, he was never part of any official organization. (The oxymoronic nature of an anarchist “organization” is not lost on Rauchway.) Emma Goldman charmed the future assassin when he heard her speak in Cleveland; Czolgosz followed her to Buffalo shortly before the killing, but he was not known to the principal anarchists of the day. Among the most interesting parts here are the summaries of post-mortem interviews with the killer’s family in Cleveland conducted by Lloyd Vernon Briggs, a young physician who was attempting to determine if there were any psychological or medical reasons for his decision to shoot the president. Briggs discovered that Czolgosz had, in fact, led a fairly typical working-class life but had lost his job in a steel mill after the Panic of 1893. He was also, submits Rauchway, deeply concerned that he had developed syphilis and might have believed he was dying. The author argues as well that Roosevelt’s progressive beliefs arose in part out of his desire for a society that would not create men like Leon Czolgosz.

Occasionally sluggish prose, but serviceable enough to convey ideas of great consequence. (15 b&w photos)