Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Assassination of President William McKinley

Leon Franz Czolgosz

Leon Czolgosz, mugshot
Leon Czolgosz,

Leon Czolgosz (pronounced SHOLGUS) was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1873. His parents, who were of Polish-Russian descent, immigrated to America during the 1860s. His father, a laborer in the construction trade, was frequently out of work. Most of their lives were spent in brutal poverty. At times, there was nothing to eat and the family was often on the road. There were seven children in the Czolgosz family, a lot of mouths to feed when there is no money. Like his brothers, Leon went to work when he was ten. There was no time for such foolishness as education. When Leon was 12, his mother died while giving birth to still another child.

The Czolgosz family eventually made its way to Cleveland and settled down for a time. Leon and two of his brothers got jobs with the American Steel and Wire Company, a large wire-producing mill. They worked there for several years and received higher wages as a reward for their hard work. At his highest point, Leon was making $4 a day, a decent wage for that time. But soon, the mill cut wages and the workers went on strike. Since there were no unions to protect the workers, the mill simply fired all the strikers. It was a pattern repeated many times throughout corporate America. At that time, industry had little respect for and frequently exploited their workers.

In 1897, the Lattimer Mines strike began. Workers went on strike when a new state tax went into effect that further eroded their already low wages. While the miners were engaged in a peaceful march, a struggle broke out between the strikers and the police. The panic-stricken cops opened fire and when the smoke cleared, 19 men were killed and 39 wounded. A criminal trial ended with "not guilty" verdicts for all the defendants. The Slavic community, many of whom were miners, was enraged. Czolgosz saw it as further proof of the failure of government to respond to common people and became embittered by the systemic problems of the labor movement in America. "Yes, I know I was bitter. I never had much luck at anything and this preyed upon me. It made me morose and envious..." he later told police.

Sometime during this period, Czolgosz came into contact with the principles of anarchism. He began to read socialist newspapers and radical magazines that addressed the nation's social difficulties. He attended political meetings and came to believe there was a great injustice taking place in American society. Czolgosz saw an inequity that allowed the wealthy class to get richer while exploiting the poor. And worse, he believed that it was the structure of government itself that allowed it to happen. He became an anarchist, and believed that people were better off without any sort of government whatsoever.

Eventually, Czolgosz had no other friends except anarchists. "During the last five years, I've had as friends anarchists in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and other western cities," he said. He lived for the cause and for years knew nothing else except political rallies and meetings. It was later reported that Leon belonged to an anarchist group known as "Sila" which was based in Cleveland. But during the late 19th and early 20th century, there were many such groups in large cities. "It is estimated there are over a thousand anarchists in the city of Cleveland. They have in the last few years adopted the plan of meeting in small coteries or clubs at the homes of members," reported the N. Y. Times.

When reporters later interviewed his boss Frank Dalzer at the wire mill, he spoke of Leon's passion for anarchy. "I know that Leon is, or was, an anarchist. He attended socialist and anarchist meetings very frequently. He is a man of rather small stature, about 26 years of age. The last time I saw him, he had a light brown mustache," he said. Because of mounting pressures, both financial and emotional, Leon had some type of a mental breakdown in 1898. He returned to his father's home and became a semi-recluse. He spent his time laying around, sleeping, reading newspapers and radical literature. When it was time to eat each day, Czolgosz took his food away from the table and ate alone, apart from his father and stepmother.

Then on July 29, 1901, an Italian-American immigrant named Gaetano Bresci assassinated King Humbert I of Italy. The news sent shock waves throughout the anarchist movement in the United States. Bresci was an avowed anarchist who told the press he had to take matters into his own hands for the sake of the common man. Czolgosz was elated. He saw Bresci as a hero, a man who had the courage to sacrifice himself for the holy cause. It solidified his hatred for America and convinced him "that it was right to murder anyone branded an enemy of the people by anarchist leaders," (Nash). When he was arrested months later, cops found a folded newspaper clipping of the Bresci story in Czolgosz's pocket.

On August 31, 1901, Czolgosz traveled to Buffalo, New York where he rented a room for $2 a week. "I had made up my mind that I would have to do something heroic for the cause I loved," he later told cops. "I thought of shooting the President but had not yet formed a plan," he said. He lived in a cramped space above a noisy saloon and left only to visit the Pan American Exposition. The rest of the time, he stayed locked up in his room, brooding over the injustices he saw in life and burning with a hatred for people who caused those injustices. He came to see President McKinley as one of those people, a man who had everything, while he, Czolgosz, the common man, had nothing. On September 5, 1901, Czolgosz bought a .32 caliber Iver-Johnson revolver in downtown Buffalo.