Tribune Print Share Text

An anarchist and the president

The assassination of William McKinley

Created date

October 25th, 2011

The president's admirers called it the McKinley grip. With his hand extended, the commander-in-chief would clasp well-wishers fingers, making it impossible for them to squeeze back. Then, with his free hand cupping their elbows, he would gently move them along. William McKinley could work his way through a receiving line of several hundred people in a matter of minutes using this handshake. But on the afternoon of September 6, 1901, at Buffalo, N.Y.'s Pan-American Exposition, the president had greeted no more than a dozen visitors when anarchist Leon Czolgosz jammed a .32 caliber Iver Johnson pistol into McKinley's ribs and fired. In The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century (Random House, 2011), journalist Scott Miller tells the story of these two men and the maelstrom of social, political, and economic events that led to their fatal encounter.

Setting the stage

At a time when immigrants streamed into America, the age of industry was booming, the nation's factories, steel mills, and mines hungry for cheap labor. As captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie and George Pullman reaped millions, members of the working class grew tired and resentful of long hours, scanty pay, and dangerous work conditions. Over the years this cloud of discontent provided fertile ground for anarchists who were disgusted with the wealthy and convinced that violence was the best, if not the only, solution. So-called social revolutionaries such as Johann Most preached a codified doctrine called the propaganda of the deed, which encouraged physical violence against political leaders as a means of inspiring the masses to action. Among Most's contributions to the world of literature wasThe Science of Revolutionary Warfare: A Handbook of Instruction in the Use and Manufacture of Nitroglycerine, Dynamite, Gun-Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Arsons, Poisons, Etc.; just the kind of pamphlet that appealed to shiftless and socially stranded people like Czolgosz. Miller's history of anarchy in the U.S. is perhaps the most valuable part of the book, for it provides a clear explanation for an utterly senseless act of brutality the murder of a president. Disillusioned by his own experiences working in factories, Czolgosz, in his warped vision, saw McKinley as an instrument of the rich and powerful, as the arm of imperialism, and his assassination, a chance at acceptance and fame. With a novelist s eye for detail, Miller beautifully recreates that fateful afternoon in September when McKinley arrived at the Exposition's Temple of Music to greet the hundreds who awaited their moment with the president Czolgosz among them. Stylistically and structurally, this book reads as though Miller has lined his shelves with past works; amazingly, it s his first. Let's hope it's not his last.