We are all familiar with the tragic events of September 11, 2001, but almost exactly 100 years earlier, America suffered another national tragedy when 25th U.S. President William McKinley was assassinated.
McKinley’s administration bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which was the time that America became a leading world power. He was the last president to have fought in the Civil War, having enlisted as a private in 1861. During the conflict he was promoted several times by his commanding officer and future U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes. He left the war with the rank of major and later became a lawyer and served as a U.S. congressman and as governor of Ohio.
He won the presidency in 1896 on the strength of the Republic Party machine. His administration is most remembered for the Spanish-American War – “a splendid little war” – which netted the country Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philippine Islands. Hawaii was also annexed during his tenure.
McKinley easily won re-election in 1900 and traveled to Buffalo the following year to attend the Pan-American Exposition. The exposition was a goodwill festival that was intended to placate the fears of our Latin American neighbors who had just witnessed two of their lands come forcibly under American control.
McKinley was greeting a line of visitors at the exposition’s Temple of Music when anarchist Leon Csolgolz fired two bullets into the president. Csolgolz was angered over McKinley’s imperialistic and pro-corporate policies. He may have been suffering from mental illness, but we will never know, because in a rush to judgment that is unbelievable when contrasted to twenty-first century practices, Csolgolz was tried and convicted within two weeks of McKinley’s death on September 14, and executed a month later. The Temple of Music, which was a temporary structure, was demolished just days later. Today the site of the shooting is marked by a boulder in the middle of a residential street.
Prison officials feared that Csolgolz’s grave would become a site of veneration for anarchists and hastily buried his body in an unmarked plot after spraying it with sulfuric acid to hasten decomposition. McKinley’s body was interred on a hilltop in his hometown of Canton, Ohio. The domed stone structure was described in Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation (a fascinating and surprisingly hilarious account of visits to the sites of the first three presidential assassinations – JFK’s was too recent to supply levity) as “a gray granite nipple on a fresh breast of grass.”
McKinley’s assassination made a president of former-VP Theodore Roosevelt, who furthered his predecessor’s policy of Latin American imperialism by building the Panama Canal. McKinley is remembered today only in the name of America’s highest peak. This may change if Alaska has its way, as the state has tried for decades to officially rename Mount McKinley back to its Native American name of Denali. This move has been consistently blocked in congress by representatives from McKinley’s former district in Ohio.