Murdering McKinley The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America

Eric Rauchway

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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After President William McKinley was fatally shot at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901, Americans were bereaved and frightened. Rumor ran rampant: a wild-eyed foreign anarchist with an unpronounceable name had killed the Commander-in-Chief. Eric Rauchway's brilliant Murdering McKinley re-creates Leon Czolgosz's hastily conducted trial and then traverses America as Dr. Vernon Briggs, a Boston alienist, sets out to discover why Czolgosz rose up to kill his President. While uncovering the answer that eluded Briggs and setting the historical record straight about Czolgosz, Rauchway also provides the finest portrait yet of Theodore Roosevelt at the moment of his sudden ascension to the White House.

Czolgosz was neither a foreigner nor much of an anarchist. Born in Detroit, he was an American-made assassin of such inchoate political belief that Emma Goldman dismissed him as a police informant. Indeed, Briggs's search for answers—in the records of Auburn State Prison, the New York penitentiary where Czolgosz was electrocuted; in Cleveland, where Leon's remaining family lived—only increased the mystery. Roosevelt, however, was quick to affix meanings to this crime "against free government all over the world." For Roosevelt was every inch the calculating politician, his supposed boyish impulsiveness more feint than fact. At one moment encouraging the belief that Czolgosz's was a political crime, at the next that it was a deranged one, Roosevelt used the specter of McKinley's murder to usher in the Progressive Era.

So why did Czolgosz do it? Only Rauchway's careful sifting of long-ignored evidence provides an answer: heartbroken, recently radicalized, and thinking he had only months to live, Czolgosz decided to take the most powerful man in America with him.


Praise for Murdering McKinley

"Immensely enjoyable and engagingly written, [with] richly detailed and deeply contextualized analysis . . . In [Rauchway's] hands, an event most have considered to be a mere anecdote, if they have considered it at all, emerges as a moment of broad historical significance . . . Rauchway offers an astute analysis of Teddy Roosevelt and dramatizes some of the conflicts and limitations inherent in progressivism . . . An intricate and engaging narrative—part courtroom drama and part detective novel."—Leslie Butler, Reviews in American History

"A well-written, thoughtful, and probing book. [The author's] account of the assassination, trial, and execution are clear and concise, as befitting the events themselves . . . The main story—which is the assassination and the assassin . . . is what makes this book deserve a wide readership."—John Milton Cooper Jr., The Journal of American History

"Before Lee Harvey Oswald there was Leon Czlgosz, the anarchist who shot and killed President William McKinley in 1901. Murdering McKinley tells the story of this assassin and the push he gave to progressivism by making Teddy Roosevelt president of the United States."—Bruce Ramsey, The Seattle Times

"A fascinating trip through late-19th-century America, guided by a historian who not only knows his material but knows how to write . . . A compact masterpiece that explains more about the late 19th century than most historians know, and yet [this book is also] readable . . . An accurate, comprehensive, cutting-edge history of the period [and] a rip-roaring tale . . . Illuminating the society that inspired a cold-blooded murder, Murdering McKinley [is] brilliant."—Heather Cox Richardson, Chicago Tribune

"[A] thorough new history of the assassination . . . [Rauchway has] blown the dust from forgotten documents and discovered therein some troubling truths about the economic and political aspects of American justice."—Daniel Dyer, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"[A] broad social history . . . Fascinating . . . Mr. Rauchway [mixes] the tragedy of a presidential assassination and the lonely life and death of his assassin to weave a compelling tale."—Gerald J. Russello, The New York Sun

"Rauchway's Murdering McKinley ingeniously weaves together the microhistory of a murder and a boldly innovative account of the origins of the Progressive era. Once a mere footnote in American history, the assassination of McKinley in 1901 emerges as an event as pregnant with historical significance as the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy. What is so marvellous about this book is that it is not only first-class history. It is also an enthralling whodunnit."—Niall Ferguson, author of The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000

"Rauchway is that rare historian who is also a first-rate storyteller. Murdering McKinley is almost as impressive a literary feat as it is a scholarly one; a fascinating window on a turbulent time in our untold history and a damn good read to boot."—Eric Alterman, author of What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News

"Rauchway's fascinating book deftly weaves together social, cultural, and political history. This is truly a pathbreaking work, and a wonderful read for all of us who are intrigued by the emergence of the radically new progressive era."—Elizabeth Sanders, Cornell University

"With a 'You Are There' style that makes us practically smell people we usually see in static photos and flickering silent film clips, Murdering McKinley places an anonymous oddball assassinating a non-entity of a President at the center of the cataclysmic events roiling America at turn-6of-century. Erudition harnessed to an addictive tale told in butter-smooth prose—history writing at its best."—John H. McWhorter, author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America

"A gripping detective story, Murdering McKinley packs an astonishing amount of history—about law, medicine, technology, race, immigration, and political reform—into its tale of why Leon Czolgosz, professed anarchist and suspected lunatic, murdered his president. One could not ask for a more riveting narrative or a better introduction to the inter-connected challenges that faced America at the opening of the twentieth century."—Rosalind Rosenberg, Barnard College

"An exploration of the personalities and socio-political forces that brought together President William McKinley and assassin Leon Czolgosz on Sept. 6, 1901. McKinley was downed by two assassins, Rauchway (History/UC Davis) argues. Czolgosz fired two shots into the president, but it was vice-president Theodore Roosevelt who proceeded to make most Americans and many historians forget about him. Rauchway first examines the assassination, the immediate capture of Czolgosz, his speedy trial only weeks after the murder (the jury deliberated for 25 minutes), death by electrocution a month later, the perfunctory autopsy, and the gruesome burial, during which sulphuric acid was poured over the body. American political and social institutions functioned very differently then, the author demonstrates. Although Czolgosz was identified early on as an anarchist, he was never part of any official organization . . . Emma Goldman charmed the future assassin when he heard her speak in Cleveland; Czolgosz followed her to Buffalo shortly before the killing, but he was not known to the principle anarchists of the day. Among the most interesting parts here are the summaries of post-mortem interviews with the killer's family in Cleveland conducted by Lloyd Vernon Briggs, a young physician who was attempting to determine if there were any psychological or medical reasons for his decision to shoot the president. Briggs discovered that Czolgosz had, in fact, led a fairly typical working-class life but had lost his job in a steel mill after the Panic of 1893. He was also, submits Rauchway, deeply concerned that he had developed syphilis and might have believed he was dying. The author argues as well that Roosevelt's progressive beliefs arose in part out of his desire for a society that would not create men like Leon Czolgosz . . . [This book] convey[s] ideas of great consequence."—Kirkus Reviews

"This ambitious book paints a fresh picture of American culture a century ago and finds there the confused stirrings of our own age. Rauchway's lens opens on the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz and keeps that event in focus throughout. The author's aim is to get us to understand in new ways the dawning 20th century, when so many of our present political and social struggles took form and solutions were proposed. For instance, the involvement in Czolgosz's case of 'alienists' and criminologists provides Rachway (The Refuge of Affections) with openings into such varied issues as nativism, racism, industrial conditions, and social work. As for politics, he deals skilfully with now mostly forgotten issues—such as tariffs and currency policy—that rarely appeal to readers, but which here gain clarity through Rauchway's deft brevity. Most important, he shows how the nation's culture, and Theodore Roosevelt, who gained the presidency on McKinley's death, got caught up in a debate about the reasons for the murder. Was Czolgosz spurred by his psychological state or by anarchist ideology? Did the murder's origins lie within the assassin or in the social conditions that produce desperate people? These are issues that continue to divide Americans. And the book shines in dealing with them, making an important contribution to historical understanding. Rauchway's explanation for Roosevelt's 1912 loss as 'Bull Moose' candidate of the Progressive Party—that he was caught between opposing interpretations of the roots of the nation's ills—is especially provocative. That alone should make the book controversial."—Publishers Weekly

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Eric Rauchway has written about history for The Financial Times and The Los Angeles Times. He teaches at the University of California, Davis and is the author of The Refuge of Affections. He lives in Northern California.
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  • Eric Rauchway

  • Eric Rauchway has written for the Financial Times and the Los Angeles Times. He teaches at the University of California, Davis, and is the author of The Refuge of Affections. He lives in Northern California.
  • Eric Rauchway William and Yolanda Summerhill
    Eric Rauchway