I’m a big fan of the Pan-American Exposition. Oh, sure, there are other more popular World’s Fairs—that Columbian Exposition in Chicago with its fancy White City, Midway, Ferris Wheel and Cracker Jacks. The 1939 World’s Fair in New York with its TV, Unisphere, Belgian Waffles, and portents of war. And all those Paris World’s Fairs, with their…Paris.
But give me Buffalo, 1901, the site of the Pan-American. Now that was a time. The Rainbow City, made up of bright-colored buildings. Power from new, hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls (in “the cave of the winds” visitors could pick up a phone-like device and listen to the roar of the Falls that powered the Fair). Electricity was everywhere, most spectacularly in strings of lights across the buildings and along the grounds and pathways. Every night, as the sun set, the people would stop and stare at the best free show of the exposition, the slow illumination of the thousands of lights, the colors of the buildings mixing with the glow of the sun and clouds. It was a daily magic show, a sight that one visitor called, “more than wonderful—indescribable.”
Oh, and then there was the assassination.
On September 6, 1901, while working his way through a greeting line in the Exposition’s Temple of Music, President McKinley reached out for the hand o Leon Czolgosz. Instead, Czolgosz pulled out a gun and shot McKinley. Czolgosz was tackled and taken away by the police. McKinley was rushed to the fair’s emergency hospital. Surgery was performed and he was brought to the house of John Milburn, the president of the Exposition. McKinley lingered until the 14th, when he finally died from gangrene, the result of a bullet that the surgeons could not find and remove (the x-ray was actually part of an exhibit at the fair, u the doctors decided not to try to use it). Theodore Roosevelt was rushed to Buffalo from a vacation spot in the Adirondacks. He was sworn in as President at the home of Andrew Wilcox, a Buffalo attorney, and with those words, the troublesome Roosevelt swept into office, pulling the United States along with him into the 20th century.
Or at least that’s how Eric Rauchway, in his book, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America, sees it. The assassination brought together Progressive issues, fears about immigrants and anarchists, and the struggle to understand the human mind. Czolgosz said he murdered McKinley because it was his duty; he was an anarchist. Or did he commit this act because he was insane? Was the very idea of perceiving the president as a threat so great that he had to be destroyed (the anarchist pov) evidence of insanity? Or was Czolgosz a madman who chose anarchy because the crushing disappointments of life as a poor immigrant, with no future hopes, had driven him insane?
The expert witnesses (still a new concept) brought in to examine Czolgosz before the trial had their own struggles with the concept of insanity. Dr. Carlos McDonald, one of the examiners, was troubled by the current legal idea of sanity as being able to recognize right from wrong—he wanted to expand the definition to being able to choose right, not just know it.
No matter these questions, Czolgosz just didn’t exhibit any of the symptoms associated with madness. He stuck to his anarchist story, and the examiners pronounced him sane. His defense attorneys (reluctant Buffalo lawyers, brought in to make sure that Czolgosz had some kind of counsel) argued that anyone who would commit such an unwarranted act of violence had to be insane. It didn’t matter; the jury convicted him after thirty minutes of deliberation on September 26 and Czolgosz was hung on October 29. The autopsy was minimal and the results not recorded. The body was buried in a pauper’s grave; chemicals were poured onto it and the body destroyed, supposedly to foil ghouls or angry mobs who might want to exact further punishment on Czolgosz.
The dead Czolgosz, according to Rauchway, provided a valuable platform for Roosevelt’s ideas. On one hand, Roosevelt could condemn the threat of anarchy and put out a warning that he would come down hard on anarchists and other dangerous political organizations that were a threat to the American way; on the other hand, he could promote the idea that reforms were necessary to make life better for the working-class and poor. And these poor were largely immigrants, who had come to the US to find a better life, but instead found themselves living in squalor and struggling with uncertain and hard employment. The miserable conditions of the poor, Roosevelt believed, made radical views such as anarchy attractive to the desperate laborers and factory workers. When Roosevelt suffered his own assassination attempt during the 1912 presidential campaign, he was angered that his would-be assassin was found insane for no reason other than mentioning he had had a dream where the ghost of McKinley had told him that Roosevelt was his real assassin; in all other interviews, the man, a poor immigrant named John Schrank, had clearly and calmly stated that he wanted to kill Roosevelt because he was seeking a third term and no man should be in power that long, a seemingly anarchical sentiment that played directly into Roosevelt’s theories, again offering him ammunition for his reforms. The anarchists were a danger; the anarchists provided a reason to act for change. Roosevelt was no working-class hero (he didn’t seem to have a real affection or understanding for the masses, except when it was politically expedient), but it’s unlikely that the cautious, pro-business, political machine controlled McKinley would have taken any progressive steps if he had lived out his term.
Although it was convenient for Roosevelt to find Czolgosz sane (and perhaps the tool of like-minded conspiricists; a number of anarchists and political rabble-rousers were arrested in Chicago, in hopes of finding that they, particularly the notorious Emma Goldman, had put Czolgosz up to the murder), not everyone was so sure. Two Boston doctors, “alienists” who studied the mind, set off to find out what had really led Czolgosz to take his fateful action.
Dr. Lloyd Vernon Briggs traveled to the Auburn State Prison where Czolgosz spent his last days (and, incidentally, one of the prisons Alexis de Tocqueville studied during his visit to the US) and found out not only about the hushed and hurried autopsy, but also about how Czolgosz had been a quiet, untroubled prisoner, obviously very intelligent—a real problem, the warden believed, for someone born to a working-class existence (and an idea many agreed with).
Briggs went to Czolgosz’s hometown, Cleveland, and interviewed his family. He found out that Czolgosz had been the best-educated of his family, a talented mechanic who even in the dull world of a nail factory quickly rose to more skilled positions. However, the jobs came and went with the unsteady economy. Family members knew Leon was dabbling in radical politics but he was not a regular attendee of meetings or a leader or even stalwart follower in the political community. He increasingly isolated himself, avoiding contact with all others, eating by himself and particularly avoiding women. He was taking medication, but no one knew why. Eventually he moved out of the city to a small farm owned by the family, and then asked family members to buy out his share in the farm so he could use the money to move west. Instead he went to Buffalo and shot McKinley.
Briggs and his mentor, Dr. Walter Channing presented their conclusions about Czolgosz to a Boston audience in January, 1902. Both concluded Czolgosz was insane, but for different reasons. Channing simply theorized, as did many others, that anyone who believed that the president could pose a threat and therefore needed to be killed was inherently insane; anyone who was of sound mind would not take such actions. Briggs, however, based his diagnosis on a more scientific method, that is constructing a portrait of Czolgosz’s life and background. He stated that the environment in which Czolgosz lived, a world of despair and hopelessness, had led him to lose touch with reality and deluded, commit the terrible act.
The two theories are representative of two different worlds of science as it changed from the 19th to the 20th century, as the study of the brain and psychology developed. Channing chose to study and define insanity in terms of how Czolgosz’s behavior just didn’t make sense. He acted in a way that a normal person wouldn’t act and therefore was just mad. Briggs on the other hand, looked for a why—what made him act in this abnormal way, with the implication that others could similarly be driven insane. Channing's theory was based on observation and comparison to what was considered "sane." Briggs idea was the result of fact-finding and educated guesses (am I making sense? this is explained much better in the book. Speaking of...).
Rauchway offers his own theory—Czolgosz was in despair because he was poor, he had no hope of a brighter future, he didn’t seem to fit in with any of the political groups he tried to join, and he believed he was sick. The medication he was taking would have been prescribed for someone with syphilis. The doctors who examined him at the prison didn’t find any evidence that Czolgosz was syphilitic, but that didn’t mean that a quack doctor in Cleveland might not have led Czolgosz to believe he had the disease. This dovetails nicely with Czolgosz’s isolating himself from his family, and would have made him feel he had nothing to lose. If he murdered McKinley, surely he would be executed, but if he believed he didn’t have much time left anyway, than he had nothing to fear anyway. He was going down and might as well strike a grand blow in the process.
This is a very slight book (so far I think I’ve matched about half its length), but Rauchway covers a lot of ground. In addition to his grander themes of Roosevelt and his use of the assassination for his political agenda and turn of the century discussions of insanity, he covers the lives of immigrants, robber baron economy, racism, anarchist groups, the Haymarket riots, Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, and probably a bunch of other stuff I’m forgetting. It’s an interesting little book; Theodore Roosevelt is always charismatic and worth reading about and the time period is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating in this nation’s history, a time when science was bringing so many changes to the way people lived, in ways good and bad. If I have a complaint, it might well just be that I wish Rauchway had chosen to set the scene in Buffalo, 1901, a little more, to give more of a sense of the fair, the time, and the place. Otherwise it’s an enjoyable, quick read.