Shadows over the Queen City of the Lakes: The Execution of Leon Czolgosz 

Buffalo, with its sprawling lakeside vistas and industrial prowess, is a city of stories — some triumphant, others tragic. Each landmark and event contributes a chapter to the ever-evolving narrative of this historic city. Among the tales of grandeur stands the haunting legacy of the Pan-Am Exposition, a world's fair that showcased human achievement but also bore witness to a dark chapter in American history: the assassination of President William McKinley and the eventual execution of his assailant, Leon Czolgosz.

While Czolgosz's trial and its aftermath form the centerpiece of our journey, Buffalo's diverse historical fabric offers myriad tales waiting to be unraveled. The Buffalo Lighthouse, a beacon of hope for many mariners, has its own set of stories, including tales of shipwrecks that have scarred the nearby waters. The Buffalo Central Terminal, once a bustling hub, echoes with the footfalls of countless travelers, and among the most poignant of its tales is that of the Abraham Lincoln funeral train's somber passage.

In this exploration, we will dive deep into the shadows cast by the execution of Leon Czolgosz, but also illuminate the diverse events and landmarks that make Buffalo a city of contrasts and history.

Darkness Amidst the Lights: The William McKinley Assassination at the Pan-American Exposition

In the early days of September 1901, the vibrant energy of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York was palpable. The exposition was meant to showcase the advancements of the Western Hemisphere, and President William McKinley, seen by many as a symbol of American progress and prosperity, was there to bask in the nation's achievements. Yet amidst the throngs of attendees, a man named Leon Czolgosz lurked with a dark purpose. Deeply influenced by anarchist beliefs and inspired by the assassination of King Umberto I of Italy by an anarchist, Czolgosz viewed McKinley as an emblem of oppression.

On September 6, with a pistol concealed beneath a handkerchief, Czolgosz approached the President at the Temple of Music. As McKinley extended his hand in greeting, Czolgosz fired two shots, striking the President. The crowd reacted swiftly. The injured McKinley, even in his wounded state, urged the crowd to go easy on his assailant. Czolgosz was subdued, arrested, and swiftly taken into custody. The nation reeled from the shock, and a somber cloud descended over the exposition. McKinley would succumb to his wounds a week later, but for Czolgosz, his reckoning in the courts was just beginning.

Vengeance and Justice: The Wrath of a Nation on Czolgosz

When Leon Czolgosz was removed from the Temple of Music and taken to Buffalo Police Headquarters, he was in near death condition. Having suffered a terrible beating at the hands of President McKinley's military escort and the secret service, it was questioned as to whether or not he would survive to go to trial. The police had a terrible time trying to keep the angry mobs of Buffalo away from Czolgosz. If given the chance the mobs would tear him apart, so security and protection for the assassin was a constant problem.

On September 27, 1901, Czolgosz was moved from Buffalo to Auburn prison where he was to receive the punishment for his crime. When he arrived at Auburn, he came into contact with more people than he ever had during the entire ordeal. At 3:10am, his train arrived at the prison and he was brutally dragged from the train and shoved through a crowd of three hundred people who were constantly mauling him. Czolgosz was handcuffed and the continuous beatings made it almost impossible for him to walk. The prison guards were caught completely off guard by the crowd's reaction and had to use clubs and revolver butts to keep the mobs back. Many times he was knocked to his knees so the guards found it necessary to drag him up the stairs to the prison office. He was thrown to the ground upon reaching the office and cried out in terror, frothing at the mouth and uttering the most horrible sounds.

He stumbled into a cane seat and lay there moaning in terror, while the crowd hung on the iron gates outside and chanted, "GIVE HIM TO US! GIVE HIM TO US!" Shivering uncontrollably, Czolgosz nearly jumped out of his skin when a guard approached him and removed the handcuffs. He was then dragged through heavy oaken, iron-barred doors that led to the warden's office; in fact, he was carried. Four husky guards held his shoulders and arms. They dumped him in a chair; a limp, disheveled figure, his cries echoing down the long corridors and arousing all the other convicts. Czolgosz was in a state of absolute collapse, and when left alone rolled onto the floor, convulsing uncontrollably.

Two guards grabbed him and ripped him off the floor. Unable to stand, he quickly collapsed, screaming in pain. The angry cries from the crowd outside could be heard from the open window in the office.

Shut up! You're faking! said Dr. Gern, the prison physician. Czolgosz obeyed the order, but still continued to moan quietly and writhe in agony. Two prison guards stripped him of his clothing and placed a prison uniform on him. He was then removed to his cell where he would not emerge again until his execution

Inside the Courtroom: Leon Czolgosz Faces His Accusers

The trial of Leon Czolgosz began at 10:00 in the morning on September 23, 1901, at Buffalo's Supreme Court with Justice Truman C. White on the bench. After various witnesses were called to testify as to the events of the tragedy on September 6, Czolgosz was finally called to the stand by Clerk Martin Fisher. He placed his hand on the Bible and nodded his head in agreement with the words to the oath. However, he did not say, "I do."

In the hushed courtroom, District Attorney Thomas Penney started his interrogation of Leon Czolgosz, the man accused of assassinating President McKinley. The atmosphere was tense as Penney systematically probed into Czolgosz's background — from mundane details like his place of birth and residence to more personal ones regarding his family and drinking habits. Czolgosz's responses varied from quiet whispers to moments of seeming confusion, requiring questions to be repeated. At times, the tension heightened, like when Czolgosz hesitated or didn't answer, prompting Penney's evident frustration and a stern interjection from Judge White.

The climax of the interrogation came when Czolgosz was asked if he had any reasons as to why the court should not proceed with the trial. Seeming dazed and overwhelmed, Czolgosz simply said he had nothing to add. Yet, when given a chance to address the court, he made a definitive statement, asserting his sole responsibility for the crime, denying any external influence or payment for his actions. The gravity of his statement hung heavy in the air, wrapping up the intense exchange between the accused, the attorney, and the court.

From Verdict to Voltage: The Final Moments of Leon Czolgosz, Assassin of President McKinley

Judge White then turned in his seat and looked directly into the prisoner's eyes. "Czolgosz, in taking the life of our beloved President, you committed a crime which shocked and outraged the moral sense of the civilized world. You have confessed that guilt, and after learning all that at this time can be learned from the facts and circumstances of the case, twelve good jurors have found you guilty of murder in the first degree."

You have said, according to the testimony of credible witnesses and yourself, that no other person aided you in the commission of this terrible act. God grant it may be so. The penalty for the crime for which you stand is fixed by this statute, and it now becomes my duty to pronounce this judgment against you. The sentence of the court is that the week beginning October 28, 1901, at the place, in the manner and means prescribed by law, you suffer the punishment of death. May God have mercy on your soul. Remove the prisoner.

Czolgosz stood erect as the sentence was pronounced to him. He did not tremble. In fact, he never moved a muscle. His execution would be carried out by the electric chair at Auburn Prison.

Statistics show that by 1901, Leon Czolgosz was the 50th person to die in the electric chair in the state of New York. Those assigned to guard him while he was in Buffalo, and later at Auburn, were relieved when the prison physician approached the lifeless body and proclaimed that he was dead. However, the events that ultimately led up to his execution were without incident. Members of the press were denied interviews and were not permitted to witness the execution. There was no formal ceremony at the prison.

The images showing the execution of Leon Czolgosz are from a collection of original films shot by Thomas Edision at the Pan-American. However the "execution" shown in these films is actually a reinactment and does not depict the actual death of Czolgosz.

On October 29, 1901, Leon Czolgosz was led from his cell and slowly walked the twenty feet down the corridor to the door of the death room. He stumbled when his feet touched the stone pavement of the room and again when he got onto the platform that held the chair. It was there that he got the first look at the instrument that was about to take his life.

The electric chair was a plain looking, but heavy piece of furniture. It was decorated with wide leather straps and heavy buckles. From the ceiling came a coil of wire no wider than a common pencil to which the electrode for the head-piece would attach. Electric lamps were along the wall behind the chair and about the ceiling. The chair was large enough to hold a man much heavier than Czolgosz, so a broad plank was placed on its edge across the seat and against the back of the chair, that there might not be any movement of the prisoner's body to break the circuit.

Just before the electrocution was to begin, a leather-backed sponge soaked with salt water was tightly buckled below the knees, and on the head was placed a helmet, the top of which was filled with a wet sponge. The top of Czolgosz head was shaved so that perfect electrical contact could be made.

As he was being strapped into the chair, Czolgosz blurted out, "I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people! I did it for the help of the good people, the working men of all countries!" The guards quickly finished preparing him. Then they slowly stepped away from the platform, turned, and walked away.

After what seemed like an eternity, the signal was given to throw the switch and send the current through his body. Czolgosz immediately gave a gurgled cry and his body lunged upward. He seemed to tremble with a slight rigidity as his body was converted into a piece of iron. As the 1,700 volts of raw energy exploded into his body, Czolgosz arched his body backwards and remained still. The current flowed for a full minute and was gradually backed down to 200 volts. After the electricity was turned off, some time passed without anyone saying a word. Then one of the prison officials said, "Give him another poke."

The current was turned on at 1,700 volts for another full minute without any reaction from Czolgosz's body. After this round was finished, the medical examiner went up to the lifeless body and pronounced Czolgosz dead. His eyes were open and seemed to be staring out at everyone in the room. The matter was finished. Justice was served.

The Echoes of History: The Fading Legacy of the Pan-American Exposition

Back at the Pan-American Exposition, the Temple of Music stood quiet and empty. The fair long since over. The crowds long gone. All around were signs that the elements had begun to lay claim on the buildings as pieces of plaster and wood lay scattered in every direction.

The Temple was an empty shell. Chairs were littered all about and a musty smell hung in the air. A small fence was built to surround the spot where President McKinley had been assassinated. Only a month prior, McKinley uttered the words, "Expositions were the timekeepers of progress." Now, the only progress that needed doing was the removal of the Pan-American Exposition. Buffalo had a black spot on its history. The Rainbow City was now an abandoned eyesore that many wished would go away.

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Last updated October 1, 2010

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