Sept. 6, 2022

President McKinley is Shot

President McKinley is Shot

September 6th, 1901. After being elected for a second term, President William McKinley is shot at the World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York.


Cold Open

A listener note: I have COVID, and this episode might sound a little different.

It’s September 17th, 1862, in Maryland, one year into the Civil War; and a battle is underway.

Behind Union lines, 19-year-old William McKinley and a handful of other Union soldiers huddle near a tent filled with supplies. McKinley is a commissary sergeant. And it’s his job to make sure his regiment fighting on the frontlines right now are fed and supplied. It’s almost dusk. McKinley knows that the day's combat has left his comrades exhausted and hungry.

But riding supply wagons into an act of battlefield is beyond risky. They’ll be obvious, slow targets, and destroying Union supplies is as much a Confederate victory as killing soldiers in Blue.

But McKinley is steadfast and determined to resupply his men. He rounds up a few mules and hitches them to a wagon, shouting to a small group of his fellow soldiers to do the same with another cart.

The other men are reluctant though. They know riding to the front lines right now is dangerous. But McKinley calmly convinces them that “right now” is exactly when they are needed; rations are no good to dead soldiers. The men nod and load the two wagons with coffee, beef, and bread. As they pack their supplies, McKinley points out the route he plans to take to get to the hungry troops. To reach the front lines, the wagons will cross a bridge and go up a hill. There, they will be in full view of the enemy Confederate soldiers. So they will need to be fast.

McKinley and his men push their mules, which strain to keep the heavy carts moving. As they come within view of the bridge, the guns and cannon fire grow louder.

McKinley whips the reins again, urging the mules even faster. The other wagon does the same. But as they near the bridge… a cannonball explodes on the ground ahead of them. McKinley steadies his reins. But the other wagon careens wildly… and tips onto its side, spilling its contents across the battlefield. McKinley pushes onward.

As he races over the bridge, bullets shatter the stonework, and artillery tears up the ground around the bridge. McKinley says a silent prayer and keeps his face focused on the blue uniforms of his fellow soldiers ahead.

When the Union troops see McKinley flying over the bridge, they begin to cheer. McKinley keeps his head low, driving the mules through the final stretch of open ground to some cover behind the front line. A mob of cheering soldiers surrounds the wagon as he brings it to a halt. McKinley feels lucky to be alive, and happy he’s achieved his goal. Tonight, he will serve hundreds of grateful soldiers hot coffee, cooked meat, and bread. And tomorrow, the Union will claim victory at Antietam and the Confederates will slink back across the Potomac in retreat.

William McKinley was born in Niles, Ohio, and grew up with 8 siblings. He worked hard in school, and his Methodist parents gave him a strong sense of morality and duty. His strong opposition to slavery led him to volunteer for the Union army. And after the war, that sense of service will lead him to become a lawyer, and then a politician. He will eventually be elected the 25th President of the United States, and be so popular to win a second term. But shortly after, an assassin makes an attempt on McKinley’s life, on September 6th, 1901.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is September 6th, 1901: President McKinley is Shot.

Act One

It’s May 7th, 1890, in Washington D.C.

47-year-old Congressman William McKinley stands in front of a crowded House of Representatives. As usual, he’s impeccably dressed. He wears a dress shirt with a starched collar, a vest, and a frock coat. In his pocket, he has several fine cigars, which he’s looking forward to smoking if all goes well today. At the moment, he’s about to give the most important speech of his life.

Fourteen years ago, he was elected to his first term in the House of Representatives. His friendliness and steadfastness have made him a constant pick for re-election, term after term. But so has his stance on one of the hottest political issues of the day: the tariff.

In northern states, manufacturing and industry have become a significant share of the United State’s economy. But in many parts of the country, young industries struggle to compete with the established European companies. A tariff, or a tax on foreign goods, is one way to give companies in the U.S. the opportunity to catch up on European prices on goods.

McKinley favors this approach; he feels tariffs will bolster the American economy; and he’s largely built his political career on this position. Now, as a seasoned congressman with strong pro-tariff views, many are eyeing him as a potential presidential candidate. If he can pass a big piece of legislation that is popular with the public, it might be enough to get him into the White House.

So today, McKinley plans to do exactly that. The speech he is about to give aims to convince his fellow representatives to vote for a bill bearing his name: the McKinley Tariff.

McKinley begins the speech he’s practiced dozens of times. He starts by outlining the basic idea behind the proposed law. He isn’t interested in raising all taxes on foreign goods. He stands behind the idea of protection, which is the practice of raising specific tariffs so that domestic industries can grow stronger without hurting others. McKinley points out that by making businesses in the U.S. more competitive with those abroad, wages will go up for the working class and the American economy overall will prosper.

He elaborates that taxes on goods where American industry is already competitive don’t need to be raised. It would be foolish, and economically detrimental, to endanger trade relations with other countries. His goal is simply to boost certain American industries to help the U.S. fully recover from a recent financial downturn.

McKinley ends his speech on a personal note, saying that his position on the tariff is not a theory, but rather a deep conviction. He believes this is the way to prosperity for all Americans, and everyday citizens are what the government is built on.

McKinley finishes his speech to an anxious silence, and he experiences a moment of doubt. He hopes he’s laid out a convincing argument in favor of putting this important bill into law. His goal of becoming a presidential candidate essentially depends on it.

But before McKinley considers his doubts, enthusiastic applause fills the room. Congressmen stand in ovation. Journalists in the upper galleries scribble away as McKinley gives a wave to acknowledge the warm reception. A few people call out to start the vote immediately. McKinley smiles. He knows there will be much more debate before a vote is taken on the bill. But he is confident that he has done a good job of highlighting the merits of the tariff that carries his name.

McKinley is right. After a few days of debate, the McKinley Tariff will be passed, 164 to 142, and it will be signed into law just a few months later. McKinley is already a rising national star, but the public response to this bill will make him even more popular. First, he will be elected as Governor of Ohio, the next stop on his way to the presidency.

But, while McKinley is making his career on bills aimed at growing the economy, many working-class families are still struggling to survive. And the widening gap between the rich and poor have led some to believe that the American dream is really a fantasy. And for one man, the struggle will become too much, forcing him to take matters into his own hands.

Act Two

It’s May 5th, 1901 in Cleveland Ohio, just a few months after President McKinley’s second inauguration.

Polish-American Leon Czolgosz walks into a hall in Cleveland. It’s his 28th birthday, but he’s not here to celebrate. He’s here by himself, to see the anarchist Emma Goldman give a speech.

In the late 1800s, the United States was thought of as a land of opportunity. Millions of people from Germany, Italy, and other European countries immigrated here for their chance to live the American dream. Among those immigrants was a couple from Poland: Leon’s parents. But when they, and many other immigrants, arrived in the U.S., they found that the reality was not what they expected.

Industrialization brought a lot of money to the United States. But the main benefactors of this new wealth were the owners of industrial companies. Meanwhile, millions of laborers work 16-hour shifts in unsafe conditions for terrible pay.

Leon’s family avoided the abject poverty of the working-class tenements. Leon’s father was a skilled laborer, and Leon followed in his footsteps, doing semi-skilled factory work from the age of 16. But during a financial panic in 1893, Leon lost his job. He began to grow disillusioned with life in America and began attending labor groups and socialist meetings. Eventually, he began to learn about a much more radical ideology: anarchism.

Today, Leon is eager to see the infamous anarchist Emma Goldman. He arrives early to the hall where she will speak and walks to an area where anarchist pamphlets and books are being sold. To his surprise, he finds Emma there, looking through her notes in preparation for her speech.

Leon is quiet and usually avoids conversations. But the opportunity to talk to such a prominent figure energizes him, so he walks right up to her. He introduces himself and says that he appreciates her work, and then asks if there’s anything on sale that she would recommend. Emma points out a few pamphlets and a book by an author she knows personally. Leon thanks her, pays for the materials, and then finds a seat near the front of the hall close to the stage.

Half an hour later, Emma walks out to greet the crowd. She has a strong voice that carries well. And in a slight German accent, she explains why other ideologies are not radical enough to liberate the working class. The labor movement, socialism, even communism - all of them seek to reform the government. But Emma tells the crowd that the best solution is no government at all. If every person is well-educated, she reasons, then people can be left alone to make reasonable decisions without government interference. As long as each person’s choices don’t interfere with other people’s ability to choose, government is not necessary.

Emma then turns her speech to the President of the United States, William McKinley. Most Americans supported him when he recently intervened to help Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain. But Emma decries it as an imperialist power grab. She says that McKinley himself is not the problem, but that leaders like him enable big businesses to oppress the working class.

Some in the crowd cheer with every line of Emma’s speech. But others watch apprehensively. They’ve heard that anarchists are associated with violence, and that makes them hesitate. Emma has something to say about that as well.

She tells the crowd that true anarchists don’t see violence as a way to accomplish their goals. But, she says she is sympathetic to the impulse. She understands the passion that drives people to lash out instead of standing by and watching atrocities being committed.

Hearing this, many in the crowd shift uneasily. But not Leon. Emma’s words burn in his mind. He is unsure of what to do with his newfound passion, but for the first time in years, he feels he has something to fight for, and more importantly, someone to fight against.

In the next few months, a plan will start to form in Leon’s mind. When he hears that President McKinley will be speaking at a World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York, he takes a train there to put his plan in motion. He will buy a gun, the same model of revolver another anarchist used to kill the King of Italy one year earlier. The sentiment among most anarchists is that a prominent assassination in the U.S. would only hurt their cause. But Leon has already made up his mind. He is determined to kill the President of the United States.

Act Three

It’s September 6th, 1901, in Buffalo, New York; four months after Leon Czolgosz attended Emma Goldman’s speech in Cleveland.

President McKinley has been on the road making speeches about his agenda for foreign trade. This World’s Fair is his last stop. He’s exhausted, but he stands in the concert hall, ready to greet his supporters.

At a signal from McKinley, two men open the main doors. People rush in and line up in a cordoned area. As each person gets to the front of the line, the President greets them with a warm smile and a quick hello. But one man is not here for a handshake. Leon Czolgosz stands in line too, holding a pistol covered by a handkerchief.

The flow of people stops momentarily as a young girl and her mother reach the front. The girl asks President McKinley if she can have the red carnation pinned to his lapel. And with a smile, McKinley unfastens the flower, bends over, and hands it to the girl.

Leon’s hands begin to sweat with the pause in movement in the line. He's growing more anxious. But then finally, as the line gets moving again, it's his turn to step in front of the president. Immediately, Leon notices McKinley sees the handkerchief in his right hand. For a moment, Leon panics. But then McKinley politely offers his left hand. Leon doesn’t take it. Instead, he raises his pistol and fires twice.

The President staggers backward, hand on his abdomen. Chaos erupts in the hall. Leon tries to take a third shot, but McKinley’s team of security wrestles him to the ground. Two others of McKinley’s staff help the President into a nearby chair. Bystanders scream and run for the exits.

The President is quickly taken to a hospital for emergency surgery. One of the bullets was deflected by a button on McKinley’s suit, but the other went straight through his stomach. In the coming days, McKinley’s condition will worsen as gangrene takes hold. With few available treatments for infection, McKinley knows his time is short. A few days later, he calls in his loved ones for a prayer. And finally, on September 14th, 1901, President McKinley is pronounced dead.

At the time of his passing, William McKinley is a popular leader. His legacy will be somewhat overshadowed by the explosive presidency of his famous successor, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. But McKinley’s involvement in foreign policy, and his focus on economic growth, will lead some historians to label him as the first modern President, one whose achievements were cut short when he was shot in Buffalo, New York on this day, September 6th, 1901.


Next onHistory Daily.September 7th, 1876. A failed bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota begins the downfall of notorious criminal Jesse James.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Brandon Buerk.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.