[On April 26th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was killed after a nearly two-week manhunt following his assassination of Abraham Lincoln. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of different assassinations and their contexts!]
On the still highly relevant but tricky question raised by our third presidential assassination.
First, it’d be disgenuous of me not to share this earlier post on William McKinley’s 1901 assassination, in which I argued for a couple reasons why (despite the killing’s obvious horror and tragedy) I couldn’t entirely mourn McKinley’s death. I can’t say that my position on that has evolved in the last couple years; while certain orange current commanders in chief have pushed most everybody further down the list of worst US presidents, I would still say that McKinley likely and comfortably occupies a spot in the top ten. To be honest, McKinley’s inaction in response to the 1898 Wilmington coup and massacre—and, more exactly, in response to the most heart-rending letter from an American citizen to her president I’ve ever encountered—would be enough all by itself to merit his inclusion on the worst-of list, and it’s far from the only black mark on the McKinley administration. Obviously McKinley did not deserve to die and his assassination was a national tragedy, but his was far from a good presidency and I won’t pretend otherwise.
When it comes to the specific details of his assassination, I think they reflect a particularly clear version of a question that has become part of many contemporary conversations about terrorists or mass shooters: where was he radicalized? Unlike the obviously Confederate or strikingly personal motivations of the Lincoln and Garfield assassins, the factors that pushed former steel worker Leon Czolgosz to shoot President McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6th, 1901 were far less immediately apparent. Historians have generally boiled those factors down to anarchism, one of the late 19th century’s most consistent boogeymen and often a short-hand for cultural fears of various groups (Eastern and Southern European immigrants, Jews, communists and socialists, labor activists, and intellectuals, among others). Czolgosz had attended a speech by the radical activist Emma Goldman on May 6th, 1901 in Cleveland, and the moment has become a particularly clear touchstone for arguments that he was radicalized into an anarchist perspective by the experience and saw assassinating the president as his way to contribute to the cause.
That may well be the case—but at the same time, it’s difficult for me to believe that Czolgosz went from having no radical opinions on May 5th to assassinating the president on September 6th, and so attributing the change solely or even mostly to Goldman feels like both a simplistic answer and a way to further demonize such socialist activists. I’ve seen some historians make the case that it was the violent suppression of an 1897 strike by Slavic miners at Pennsylvania’s Lattimer Mines that truly angered Czolgosz and set him on the path toward political violence, and to my mind that narrative makes a great deal of sense, both in terms of the longer arc of an individual’s radicalization and as a event sufficiently egregious (it came to be known as the Lattimer Mines Massacre) to engender political violence. Yet even then, I’m highlighting a single event or moment as the source of Czolgosz’s radicalization, when the likeliest explanation is both multi-faceted and gradual, a lifelong series of stages that led him to the Exposition grounds with a pistol hidden beneath his handkerchief. We would do well to remember the long arc when we consider the radicalization of today’s politically violent actors as well.
Next assassination studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other assassination contexts or connections you’d highlight?
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