Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Assassination of President William McKinley

The Nation Waits

At 4:18 p.m., McKinley arrived at the emergency hospital at the Expo. An examination by doctors determined that the wound was indeed of a serious nature and required extensive surgery. The room was not equipped to handle such a procedure but necessity dictated immediate action. While he lay on the examining table, the bullet that was caught in his clothing fell to the floor. Ether was administered to the president and as he drifted off, McKinley said a prayer, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done..." As the afternoon sun began to fade, one of the attendants held up a mirror to reflect light into the wound so the surgeon could see what he was doing.

When the abdomen was opened, the doctors found that the stomach was severely damaged by the bullet which had passed completely through and lodged somewhere near the spine. Although the doctors undoubtedly tried as best they could, the bullet could not be found. McKinley was a big man; his size and girth did not help the situation. During the operation, someone at last had put together an electric light over the table. Another attempt was made to locate the bullet by probing into the President's abdominal cavity. Still it could not be found. Ironically, not too far away, in the Technology Building, a new invention called an X-Ray machine sat idle. Amidst concern over the patient's weakened condition, the procedure was halted. The incision was closed, but the surgeon neglected to drain the wound. The President was then taken back to the Milburn house for recuperation.

Mrs. McKinley stayed by his side, devastated by the attempt on her husband's life. She had already lost two small children and now her husband lay dying before her eyes. She spent the next few days in confusion, shock and disbelief. The President later regained consciousness and, typical of his character, attempted to console those around him.

Meanwhile, the news of the assassination attempt spread throughout the world. Telegrams from every national leader poured into the White House and the Pan American Expo. When it was learned that the assassin was an anarchist, people became angry. There was a great deal of speculation about an organized plot to kill the President. Emma Goldman was tracked down in Chicago a few days later where she was arrested on suspicion of murder. Her defiant attitude and comments to the press did not improve matters. When asked about Czolgosz, she championed the anarchist cause." Am I accountable because some crack-brained person put a wrong construction on my words? ...I think Czolgosz was one of those down trodden men who see all the misery which the rich inflict upon the poor, who think of it, who brood over it and then, in despair, resolve to strike a great blow for the good of their fellow man!" Goldman said.

Over the next few days, the President's condition actually improved and reports from the Milburn residence indicated growing optimism. Doctors also stated that the wound seemed to be healing properly and that the patient's pulse was back to normal. "The crisis has passed. The strain on the heartstrings of the Nation has been relieved...President McKinley will fully and speedily recover from the wounds inflicted upon him by the Anarchist Czolgosz," said the New York Times on September 10. But the truth was bleak. Unknown to his physicians, internal infection had already set in and flowed through McKinley's bloodstream. He was dying and no one knew it. Ironically, the headline in the Times on September 11 read "President Will Get Well Soon."

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt

By September 13, the President was decidedly worse and sinking fast. Gangrene had developed along the path of the bullet. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, who was in the backwoods of the Adirondack Mountains, was quickly notified of the situation. He rode out of the forest on horseback and boarded a train to Buffalo. McKinley slipped in and out of a coma over the next few hours. During the afternoon of September 14, McKinley awoke long enough to comfort his family and friends who stood vigil beside his bed. "Good bye all. It is God's way. His will, not ours, be done. Nearer my God to Thee!" he said softly. A few minutes later, as his beloved wife wept by his side and sobbed "I want to go too, I want to go too!" McKinley died. Shortly afterwards, the forceful and charismatic Theodore Roosevelt, at age 42, was sworn in as the youngest President in American history. It would be his destiny to usher in the 20th century with his own swaggering style of bravado and a towering ego that, in a very real sense, was a reflection of America itself.

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