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September 6, 2020

The Execution of Leon Czolgosz, the Man Who Assassinated President William McKinley in 1901

The Execution of Leon Czolgosz, or Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison, is a 1901 silent film produced by the Edison Studios arms of Edison Manufacturing Company. The film is a dramatic reenactment of the execution of Leon Czolgosz by electric chair at Auburn Correctional Facility following his 1901 conviction for the assassination of William McKinley. It is considered an important film in the history of cinema.

Throughout 1901, Edison had produced and released numerous films about the assassination, due to intense public interest. For the final film in the series, producer Edwin S. Porter sought permission to film the execution itself but was denied. Instead, they filmed outside the prison the day of the execution, then recreated the execution on a set.

The film comprises four shots. Two of them are actual footage of the outside of Auburn Prison on the day of the execution. The other two are recreations of the execution with actors, cut together in an early example of continuity editing.

The film begins by showing railroad cars in the foreground with the overshadowing walls of a state prison in the background. The second camera position, from a higher elevation, pans slowly showing the yard interior of the prison and some of the large buildings. There is a dissolve from the exterior to the interior, a set of a stone wall with an iron barred door. Uniformed men are visible; they open the door and remove a man in civilian clothes. The camera then dissolves to another set in which there is a chair with wires attached. The man in civilian clothes is brought in and strapped to the chair. At the end of the film, two of the six witnesses examine him with stethoscopes.

Clipping of a wash drawing by T. Dart Walker depicting the assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz at Pan-American Exposition reception on September 6, 1901.

Czolgosz had shot McKinley on September 6, 1901. Eight days later, the nation’s 25th president succumbed to his wounds. He was succeeded in office by Theodore Roosevelt, the vice president. McKinley had been elected to a second term in 1900.

Czolgosz was executed seven weeks later on October 29, 1901. While some American anarchists described his action as inevitable, motivated by the country’s brutal social conditions, others condemned his actions, arguing that he hindered the movement’s goals by damaging its public perception.

Czolgosz’s brother, Waldek, and his brother-in-law, Frank Bandowski, were in attendance at the execution. When Waldek asked the warden for his brother's body to be taken for proper burial, he was informed that he “would never be able to take it away” and that crowds of people would mob him. Although post-trial Czolgosz and his attorneys were informed of his right to appeal the sentence, they chose not to after Czolgosz declined to appeal, and because the attorneys knew that there were no grounds for appeal; the trial had been “quick, swift, and fair.”

Scene of the shooting inside the Temple of Music. The spot where McKinley was shot is marked with an X, near the bottom-right corner of the picture.

McKinley was shaking hands in a reception line in the Temple of Music on grounds of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, when the 28-year-old anarchist approached him. He had a .32-caliber Iver Johnson revolver which he had purchased four days earlier for $4.50 and which he concealed in a handkerchief in his right hand.

McKinley, perhaps assuming the handkerchief was an attempt by Czolgosz to hide a physical defect, reached out to shake the man’s left hand. Czolgosz moved in close to the president and fired two shots into McKinley’s abdomen. The president rose slightly on his toes before collapsing forward, saying “be careful how you tell my wife.” McKinley’s aides wrestled Czolgosz to the ground before he could fire a third bullet.

President McKinley greeting well-wishers at a reception in the Temple of Music minutes before he was shot on September 6, 1901.

George B. Cortelyou, McKinley’s secretary, had feared that an assassination attempt would take place during a visit to the Temple of Music and took it off the schedule twice. McKinley restored it each time.

McKinley suffered a superficial wound to the sternum. The other bullet, however, entered his abdomen (it was never found). McKinley was rushed into surgery and seemed to be on the mend by September 12. Later that day, however, the president’s condition worsened and, on September 14, he died from gangrene that had remained undetected in the wound.

Witnesses said McKinley’s last words were those of the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.”

One of the last photographs of the late President McKinley. Taken as he was ascending the steps of the Temple of Music, September 6, 1901.

The “last posed photograph” of President McKinley, in the Government Building on September 5, 1901. Left to right: Mrs. John Miller Horton, Chairwoman of the Entertainment Committee of the Woman’s Board of Managers; John G. Milburn; Manuel de Azp√≠roz, the Mexican Ambassador; the President; George B. Cortelyou, the President’s secretary; Col. John H. Bingham of the Government Board.

Czolgosz, a Polish immigrant, grew up in Detroit and had worked as a child laborer in a steel mill. He had lost his job during the economic Panic of 1893. As a young adult, he gravitated toward socialist and anarchist dogma. He claimed to have killed McKinley because the president headed what Czolgosz regarded as a corrupt government. The unrepentant killer’s last words were, “I killed the president because he was the enemy of the good people — the working people.”

Soon after taking office, Roosevelt declared, “When compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance.”

The Temple of Music was demolished in November 1901, along with the rest of the Exposition grounds. A stone marker in the median of Fordham Drive, a residential street in Buffalo, marks the approximate spot where the shooting occurred.

Congress subsequently enacted legislation that charged the U.S. Secret Service with responsibility for protecting the president, an assignment that has been expanded in subsequent years to also cover the vice president, their respective family members and the president’s top aides.


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