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The assassination of President William McKinley

From Niles to the White House

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

It was 120 years ago today, on the early afternoon of Friday, Sept. 13, 1901, that Teddy Roosevelt was hiking on the slopes of Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks.

On that day, a park ranger was spotted advancing on the vice president’s party with a yellow slip of telegraph paper. It stated that the president had taken a turn for the worse from the assassination attempt, and Roosevelt was again to return to Buffalo.

William McKinley was shot seven days earlier by anarchist Leon Czolgosz as the president stood inside the Temple of Music greeting thousands who came to see him at the Pan American Exposition. McKinley, who was known for wearing a scarlet carnation on his lapel for luck, had just handed his flower to a 12-year-old girl named Myrtle Ledger saying, “I must give this flower to another little flower.” Just 3 feet away stood the slightly built assassin in line behind her with a small .38 hidden in his right hand under a white handkerchief.

Scott Miller, author of “The President and the Assassin” details in the climax of his book when the two main characters finally come together on that dreadful day. From the dais where McKinley was shaking hands with the public, the sound of a firecracker echoed in the great music hall. A second report soon followed. The president clutched at his chest and began to lean forward as his expression, not of pain, nor anger, but one of confusion. As Czolgosz took aim for a third shot, a crashing wave of bodies descended on his small frame. James Parker, a 6-foot, 4-inch African American from Georgia, leveled a blow to the assassin’s neck, which took him down. In an instant, fists flew at Czolgosz as Secret Service agent George Foster screamed to his colleague Albert Gallagher: “Get the gun, Al. Get the gun!”

The beating Czolgosz was taking displeased the president who was now seated, “Don’t let them hurt him,” he said and his order was obeyed. Blood was steadily flowing now from the president’s abdomen. The president’s mind raced to what word of the shooting would mean to his wife, Ida. He whispered to his personal secretary, George Cortelyou: “My wife, be careful; Cortelyou, how you tell her, oh be careful.”

Around the fair, news of the shooting spread rapidly. The word reached the Mexico exhibit as a bullfight was about to start. “Ladies and gentlemen,” an official announced, “it is my painful duty to tell you our president has been shot.” A group of Native Americans Indian performers, still in headdresses, rode on horseback to the Temple of Music, one shouting, “Big White Feather has been shot.” In the contrast to the bloodlust for those hunting the assassin on the grounds, a solemn silence spread throughout the crowd near the back door of the music hall. Fairgoers watched quietly as the president was placed in a small electric-powered ambulance to the fair’s hospital.

On the second floor of the police station, Czolgosz told the police, “For years I read books about Socialism and grown more radical after hearing Goldman. I am a disciple of Emma Goldman. Her words set me on fire. My name is Leon Czolgosz and I don’t regret my act because I have done my duty.” These were the same words he uttered mere moments before he was electrocuted a couple of months later.

McKinley’s electric ambulance arrived at a small gray building that was more suited for scraped knees, heat exhaustion and upset stomachs than assassination attempts. The best surgeon in the area, Dr. Roswell Park, was at Niagara Falls in the middle of an operation and refused to leave. With Park unavailable, messengers were sent through the fairgrounds in search of a surgeon, as many stepped up, with the most qualified being a gynecologist, Dr. Matthew Mann.

He attempted to locate and remove the bullets that had struck the president. Repairing abdominal damage done by gunshot wounds was at best highly dangerous, even today. The lighting was poor and assistants used mirrors and bedpans to direct sunlight from the windows. Simple surgical instruments such as retractors were not to be found in the hospital. McKinley’s weight did not help in the bullet search, yet it was determined that only one bullet penetrated his stomach. He could follow the bullet’s path and feel both the entry and exit hole of the stomach and sutured the president as he felt it was lodged in the back muscles. Mann might have turned to an experimental X-ray machine available on display on the grounds. He decided not to use it due to potential shock issues because bullets are harmless once they stop moving.

What was hidden going on inside the president’s body was the growing infection that would lead to McKinley’s death eight days after the shooting, on Sept. 14 at 2:15 a.m. Ida held up bravely during her husband’s final hours as she whispered to him, “I want to go, too. I want to go, too.” William McKinley replied with his last breath, “We are all going; we are all going.” Looking around the room, he said, “God’s will be done, not ours.”

Mike Wilson is the director of SCOPE Senior Services of Trumbull County and has traveled around the nation performing as William McKinley for 30 years.

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