On This Day in 1901: Leon Czolgosz, Presidential Assassin.

When disturbed loner and some-time Anarchist Leon Czolgosz was convicted for assassinating President William McKinley, Judge Truman White’s sentencing was brief. The crime had been committed on Septmber 6 1901, President McKinley dying of infection from Czolgosz’s bullet on September 9. Now, on September 23 only two weeks after the President’s death, his assassin was to be condemned. He would de on October 29 only seven weeks after the assassination. Just as New York’s legal system would rush Czolgosz to the electric chair, White wasted no time or words on him:

“Czolgosz, in taking the life of our beloved President, you committed a crime which shocked and outraged the moral sense of the civilized world.”

He then passed sentence of death, ordering that Czolgosz be returned to Auburn Prison for electrocution. Crowds had been gathering outside Auburn almost as soon as it became known that Czolgosz was being held there. Even before the trial began those same crowds had been repeatedly chanting:

“Give him to us! Give him to us!”

The crowd wouldn’t get Czolgosz. Ironically, he was too well protected unlike his victim. Edwin Davis (the world’s first ‘State Electrician’) soon would. He’d already been notified of the impending execution and prepared with his customary professionalism. He would do his grim task at dawn on October 29, 1901, throwing the switch of ‘Old Sparky’ less than two calendar months after Czolgosz squeezed the trigger of his revolver.

At 7 a.m. that day the ritual began. Czolgosz declined a last meal, his head was shaved and he was issued the customary condemned clothing. Made especially for the job, his death suit had no metal zips and wooden buttons to avoid fire when the current flowed. Warden Mead was in overall charge of the grimly-historic proceedings. Leon Czolgosz would be the first presidential assassin to ride the lightning.

‘Old Sparky’ wasn’t yet the standard means of execution that it later became. It hadn’t yet spread across over two dozen states eventually adopting it, but it was firmly established in New York. Czolgosz had been surprised not to be transferred to Sing Sing but, like so many people then and now, he didn’t know that New York then had three chairs at Auburn, Sing Sing and Dannemora.

Auburn’s had been used for the very first electrocution, murderer William Kemmler on August 6 1890. With staff then lacking any real idea of how to perform one Kemmler’s had been an horrific disaster. In the words of noted electrical entrepreneur George Westinghouse: “It would have been done better with an ax.” Ironic when you consider that Kemmler himself had used one when committing his crime.

With dozens under their belt since Kemmler that of Czolgosz would be a mere formality.

Czolgosz walked in escorted by several guards and was swiftly seated. He remained silent as the death warrant was read out, glaring at the official witnesses gathered to watch him die. He broke his silence as the straps and electrodes were applied, deciding only at the very last minute to utter a final statement:

“I killed the President because he was an enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime. I am only sorry that I could not get to see my father…”

Warden Mead silently raised, then dropped his hand. The switch was thrown. Davis initially applied the full 1,700 volts then standard at Auburn, slowly reducing the voltage over the course of a minute. With a few seconds left he gave Czolgosz another brief burst of 1,700 volts before cutting the power. The doctors checked for pulse and found none. As was standard by then another jolt was inflicted to be certain, Davis obeying a fragrantly-worded command from Auburn’s resident physician Doctor John Gerin:

“Give him another poke.”

At 7:14 a.m. Czolgosz was finally certified dead. The first electrocution of a Presidential assassin had been completed.

Czolgosz was autopsied immediately after execution, a legal requirement in New York State right up to its last execution in August 1963. Dr. Gerin, and noted neurologist Edward Spitzka paid particular attention to his brain, searching for any damage that might explain Czolgosz’s crime. Despite finding chancroids they saw no actual brain defect.

Spitka’s father had examined the brain of Charles Guiteau after Guiteau’s hanging for assassinating President Garfield in 1888. He became an authority on the brains of electrocuted inmates while not approving of electrocution as a method. Doctor Gerin had been hostile to Czolgosz since his arrival at Auburn, having no sympathy even while the lynch mob had gathered outside the prison screaming for his blood.

Breaking with standard practice, Czolgosz’s body was not returned to his family for burial in spite of their request to have that happen. When his relatives arrived hours after his death they were told he had already been buried. Czolgosz was interred within the grounds of Auburn Prison in an unmarked grave where it still rests.

In order to stop souvenir hunters and Czolgosz’s supposed anarchist network from reclaiming the corpse and using it as some grisly totem, the coffin was filled with sulfuric acid so that nothing would remain after a few hours underground. His clothes, made for one use and now unfit for anything else, were burned to avoid their being sold or traded as souvenirs.

Ironically, given their failure to stop Czolgosz, the United States Secret Service were specifically tasked with protect the President. Had Czolgosz’s guards been as inexperienced and clumsy as McKinley’s there would have been a lynching instead of an execution. Today’s security procedures are far more advanced, constantly evolving and rigorously followed, with only one more president having fallen victim to an assassin.

Threats, real or potential, are investigated and suspect individuals and groups are closely monitored in the hope of stopping assassins before they make their move. That said, presidents to this day remain under constant threat. Whether from terrorism or the archetypal lone gunman, no President can ever be entirely safe.

Czolgosz is covered in my new book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York.’ Out in bookstores on November 25, it can also be pre-ordered from several stockists.

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