I think most people today associate presidential assassinations with either Abraham Lincoln’s, or John F. Kennedy’s. In fact, many people can remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the news that JFK had been shot in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Even those who weren’t alive then have heard and seen retrospectives in the media every year on that date dedicated to the young president’s tragic death. You might even think of the assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan in March of 1981. I’m willing to bet, however, that not many Americans are aware of a presidential assassination that occurred on an early September day in 1901, at the beginning of a new century.
|President William McKinley|
The nation’s 25th President, William McKinley, was the last Civil War veteran to serve as Chief Executive, a man who then led the United States through another conflict, the Spanish-American War, in 1898. During the first year of his second term in office, McKinley went to a more peaceful setting, to Buffalo, New York, for the Pan American Exposition. Late in that afternoon of September 5th as he stood in a receiving line greeting well wishers, a young man approached him with a gun he’d hidden under a handkerchief. Leon Czolgosz fired two shots at McKinley, grazing his shoulder with the first, and critically wounding the President with the second, which entered his stomach, colon, and kidneys.
As guards wrestled Czolgosz, President McKinley lived up to the faith he’d been professing since boyhood when he began imploring those detaining the anarchist not to be cruel to him. A short time later while preparing to go under anesthesia for emergency surgery, the President calmly recited the Lord’s Prayer.
Initially, McKinley’s prospects for a full recovery looked so good that news bulletins offered a cheery prognosis to the American public. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt even felt confident enough after being reassured that all was well to set out on a camping trip. A few days later, however, McKinley’s health began to deteriorate as gangrene set in, poisoning his system. He was not going to survive the assassination attempt after all. Roosevelt was twelve miles from a telegraph or telephone, and aides had to be sent after him to bring him back.
|McKinley's condition deteriorates|
When he realized that he was going to die, McKinley called those around him to prayer. He also reassured his stricken wife, Ida, that God would take care of them both, whispering to her, “God’s will, not ours, be done.” In turn she quietly murmured, “For his sake. For his sake,” as she took his hands and tried to smile through her tears. McKinley’s last words were, “Good-bye all; good-bye. It is God’s way. His will be done.” Then he recited words from a favorite hymn, “Nearer my God to Thee, nearer to Thee.” He died at 2:15 on the morning of September 14th, and that afternoon Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office as the nation’s 26th President.
The Reverend W. H. Chapman presided over a service for the President at the Metropolitan Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. in which he spoke of McKinley’s strongly held Christian beliefs:
How peaceful and resigned he went into the valley, covered with splendid sunshine, and found rest from his labors! He has left behind him, to his kindred and to us the rich legacy of a splendid character and an unsullied record. A life that says to others: "This is the way. Walk in it, the way that leads to moral wealth, far above all material wealth, and which leads at last to heaven and to God." May we all imitate his example, emulate his virtues and at the last be counted worthy of a place with him in the kingdom of heaven.
|The public mourns McKinley|
The Honorable John W. Griggs, who had served as United States Attorney General under McKinley, spoke of the way the President had faced death saying, “But if President McKinley was noble in life, in his death he was sublime. He taught us how to live, (and O, too high the price of knowledge), taught us how to die. . . When darkness of death was settling over him he murmured words of rest and home. I think that when the light of the eternal morning greeted his soul’s eyes, he knew that he had found them—rest and home.”
McKinley’s body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda where 100,000 people paid their last respects, many who had waited for hours in the rain. Then his body was taken by train to Ohio, where more people said their farewells before his body was interred in the West Lawn Cemetery. Later, a permanent memorial was built in Canton, at a place where McKinley had thought it would be fitting to have a monument to honor soldiers and sailors who had died defending the United States.
As for his assassin, the 28 year-old Czolgosz was put on trial shortly after the President’s death, found guilty of murder. He was executed by electric chair on October 29th.
That was, of course, a very long time ago, but it’s important to remember the sacrifices those who went before us paid for our nation’s freedoms. President Kennedy’s death, however, was 50 years ago, and millions remember that tragic event. If you were alive in 1963, do you have any memories of President Kennedy’s assassination? If you weren’t, can you share any thoughts or impressions based on what you’ve read or seen, or on what friends and family have told you? Perhaps you recall more about President Reagan’s 1981 assassination attempt?
This month, I’m offering a free give-away of my book, Who Goes There? A Cultural History of Heaven and Hell, based on Americans’ beliefs about the afterlife, then and now. In it, I mention how Americans responded to the deaths of Presidents and other public figures. To enter the contest, please leave a comment.
|Rebecca Price Janney at a speaking engagement|
Dr. Rebecca Price Janney is the author of 18 published books, mostly about people and events in American history. She's fascinated with the impact of public happenings on private lives. Although September was a tragic month for President McKinley, a much happier thing took place in Rebecca's life on an early September day (many decades later!) when she married the love of her life, Scott Janney.
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