William McKinley, 25th President of the United States, entering the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York on September 6, 1901.

Yet Another Assassin Strikes

For the third time in 36 years, an assassin would strike down the President of the United States.  Yet again, questions of presidential disability (and ultimately, succession) took center stage.  And yet again, those questions would go completely unanswered.

While shaking hands with guests at a reception held at the Pan American Exposition's Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York, at 4:07 p.m. on Friday, September 6, 1901, one of those in line, Leon Frank Czolgosz, would fire two shots from a concealed .32 caliber Iver Johnson revolver.  And while following the latter's murder some would note coincidences between the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy, the similarities between the assassinations of James Abram Garfield and William McKinley were noteworthy as well:

  • In both cases, the assassins fired two shots at their intended targets.
  • In both cases, they fired from point-blank range; Charles Guiteau from behind President Garfield, Leon Czolgosz from the front.
  • In both cases, the first bullet fired would fail to penetrate their target, striking bone and causing only superficial injury.  In McKinley's case, Czolgosz's first shot literally bounced off the President's sternum.
  • In both cases, the President would survive the attack itself, only to die as the result of post-attack complications believed exacerbated by improper medical care.
  • In both cases, the health of the President would be initially seen as rallying, then slowly deteriorating, then rapidly failing.

A remarkable 11 minutes after he was shot, President McKinley was arriving at Emergency Hospital in Buffalo.  Over the next hour the President was prepped for surgery, and McKinley's anesthesia had put him "under the influence" at 5:29 p.m.  So far, so good. 

But there was a slight problem - the physician performing the operation to address bullet wounds inflicted upon the President of the United States was a gynecologist by specialty.  An experienced surgeon who specialized in gunshot wounds (a rarity in that time), Dr. Roswell Park, held residence in nearby Niagara Falls.  By sheer coincidence, at the time the President was shot, Park was operating on another patient.  Advised that he was urgently needed to tend to a patient in Buffalo, Park quipped "I have a patient here."  When pressed to leave without being told McKinley was the victim, he retorted "I don't care if it's the President of the United States... I'm not leaving this patient."

So the doctors attending to the President, not truly understanding the extent of his injuries (i.e., that it wasn't necessary to operate on him within two hours of being shot) and lacking not only the necessary knowledge of gunshot trauma to effectively treat the President, but simple surgical instruments.  Like... retractors.  Park would eventually arrive on the scene at 6:23 p.m., roughly mid-way through the surgery, and after the fatal bullet wound had been sutured.

Contemporary news reports were indicative of the mourning the nation was experiencing for their fallen leader, with some speculating on the situation as well.  While most thoughts were rightly fixed on providing the most current medical reports and conveying the nation's hope for McKinley's recovery, questions of presidential disability would once again be raised in the American consciousness.  Some decried the notion that Vice President Roosevelt had no clear means of acting as President on McKinley's behalf; others lauded the usually bombastic and "take charge" Vice President for exercising restraint during the period.

A rock and plaque commemorating the spot where Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley on September 6, 1901.

Vacationing in Vermont, the Vice President Visits the Victim, then Vacations Again

Another similarity between the Garfield and McKinley assassinations existed in how their Vice Presidents responded to the shootings.  Having completed a western swing in which four days earlier he had proclaimed his now-famed axiom "Speak softly and carry a big stick," Vice President Theodore Roosevelt had gone east for an extended vacation in Vermont.  As Chester Arthur did two decades earlier, upon learning of the shooting Roosevelt would drop everything and rush to the President's bedside.  Believing he would survive and recover, the Vice President not only dismissed suggestions that he temporarily fill in for McKinley as Acting President; he resumed his vacation, opting to go hiking in the Adirondack Mountains in eastern New York.

Almost immediately after the Vice President's departure however, McKinley's condition began to take a turn for the worse.  While his doctors were putting forth regular reports which suggested the President was stable if not quite on the way to a full recovery, in truth McKinley's pulse rate was abnormally high, his temperature hovered around 103 degrees, he was suffering from diarrhea and cramping (thanks, no doubt, to a regular series of enemas which were administered), and was being administered whisky, calomel (a laxative) and laudanum (opium).

It's entirely possible McKinley's medical team either didn't see the signs or ingored them out of hope for an optimistic outcome; on September 12 for example, the President was complaining of abdominal pain (caused by gangrene setting in); later that day, doctors were allowing him to eat eggs, toast and coffee.  Sadly, that would be his last meal.  Later that day he began slipping in and out of a coma, and in one day's time, reports released to the press from his doctors went from this...

The President has spent a quiet and restful night and has taken much nourishment. He feels better this morning than at any time. He has taken a little solid food and relished it. Pulse, 120; temperature, 100.2 degrees.

to this...

The President's physicians report that his condition is grave at this hour. He is suffering from extreme prostration. Oxygen is being given. He responds to stimulation but poorly. Pulse, 125; respiration, 40.

Another photo of the 25th President, taken on the day he was shot.

Slipping in and out of a coma, de facto White House Chief of Staff Mark Hanna and other McKinley handlers saw that the end was near.  On the 13th they once again summoned the Vice President, who would be tracked down by a park ranger roughly 12 miles into the woods, and at least as far away from a telephone or telegraph office.  Roosevelt would later say that as soon as he saw the ranger approach him, he knew McKinley would die.  At 2:15 a.m. the following morning, Saturday, September 14, 1901, that premonition came true as McKinley died from "gangrene of those parts injured (by the bullet) involving the stomach, pancreas, kidney, and other tissues absorbed."

The Aftermath

The Cabinet, which by now had also gathered in Buffalo, hastily made arrangements for now-President Roosevelt to be sworn in, as well as for the funeral of the deceased President.  Roosevelt meanwhile would promise to maintain much of McKinley's programs and vision for the fallen President's second term.

Leon Czolgosz, who plead guilty to the crime only to have that plea rejected by the presiding judge, would undergo a two day criminal trial before being convicted of first degree murder just ten days after the President's death.  On October 29, 1901, Czolgosz's sentence was carried out at Auburn Prison, where he was electrocuted by three, 1,800 volt applications of electrical current.  Having outlived his target by just 45 days, he was pronounced dead at 7:14 a.m.