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The red carnation

Photos assembled by Sarah Hussain
In the image to the left, an artist depicts anarchist Leon Czolgosz shooting President William McKinley. At the right, a gun-wielding burglar holds a gun to a Czolgosz-admiring "Old Anarchist" in the film "Slacker."
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OKLAHOMA CITY – About an hour into Richard Linklater’s major-league debut Slacker (1991), a mild-mannered, gun-wielding burglar (Michael Laird) breaks into the home of a man identified as the “Old Anarchist” (Louis Mackey) disarms the young man – literally and figuratively – by explaining how he has no intention of calling the police.

“I hate the police more than you, probably,” the Old Anarchist says. “Never done me any good.”

When the burglar identifies himself as Polish, the Old Anarchist (who claims later to have fought in the Spanish Civil War with George Orwell and has still has his anarchist CNT card) notes a portrait on the wall the burglar has taken an interest in. It’s of Leon Czolgosz.

“Who’s that?” the burglar asks.

Replies the Old Anarchist: “One of the true heroes of American history … Leon Czolgosz. The man who assassinated William McKinley. He was an unknown Polish émigré who happened to be an anarchist of the ‘propaganda by the deed’ variety. If there were a hundred like him around today, they could change the world.”

The Old Anarchist notes that Czolgosz’s assassination of America’s 25th president in the Temple of Music, on the grounds of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York “was the only political assassination of a U.S. president” until admitting that both Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were probably killed for political reasons as well, but that Czolgosz “was the only anarchist in the bunch.”


Czolgosz, history tells us, was said to have been born in Michigan in 1873, but records also show him to have been born in Ohio, President William McKinley’s home state. It was the good folks in Ohio, after all these years, who prevented Alaska’s Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, from being officially named Denali (meaning “the high one” in Athabascan), as it was called by Alaskan natives.

First officially called Mount McKinley in 1917, after the slain American president, President Barack Obama officially renamed the mountain "Denali," as it is known to native Alaskans. 

Ohio has played a major role. And yesterday, when President Barack Obama approved the renamed of Mount McKinley to Denali, it was to recognize the “sacred status of Denali to generations of Alaskan natives.” (Read more about the name change here).

This, of course, has irritated Ohio legislators. It was named “Mount McKinley” in 1896 by a McKinley supporter and prospector named William Andrews Dickey. But, as Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell noted this past Friday, McKinley “never visited, nor did he have any significant historical connection to, the mountain or to Alaska.”

Ohio, a swing state in national elections, is sensitive to anything besmirching McKinley or his legacy. There is even some question as to whether the executive branch can even change the name of a mountain peak.

Gov. John Kasich, reported the Cleveland Plain Dealer today, said President Obama “overstepped his bounds by making the change” and House Speaker John Boehner said he was “deeply disappointed in this decision,” noting how McKinley “led this nation to prosperity and victory in the Spanish-American war.”

In the months and years leading up to his September 6, 1901 assassination of McKinley, Czolgosz was spending time in Ohio, even meeting political radical Emma Goldman in Cleveland.

Czolgosz told Goldman he was disappointed with the socialists he had met and wanted to meet more fellow anarchists, an ideology the Polish-American had been drawn to following the devastating economic panic of 1893, which took place in the midst of America’s dark “Gilded Age.”

Much like today, Czolgosz was deeply concerned about income inequality in his day, where robber barons and plutocrats ran the show and the common man was exploited. As an anarchist, Czolgosz felt it was his duty to act on behalf of the struggling masses and take his grievances to the top – with a bullet.


So, on August 31, 1901 – 114 years ago today – Czolgosz took the train from Ohio to Buffalo (a city he had been staying in that summer), knowing the Republican president was going to be there for the Pan-American Exposition. Renting a room at Nowak’s Hotel at 1078 Broadway, Czolgosz was biding his time for a week – until September 6th – when he knew McKinley would be meeting with the public (despite concerns from his staff that he was in danger, being so exposed to possible assassins, as was happening in Europe.

Armed with his .32-caliber Iver Johnson revolver, purchased at a Buffalo hardware store, while McKinley’s personal secretary, George B. Cortelyou, tried to warn the president that political assassins may be lurking about a the exposition, nicknamed “Rainbow City.”

“No one would wish to hurt me,” McKinley told Cortelyou, brushing aside his assistant’s concerns. After all, McKinley had his trademark, lucky red carnation on his lapel. He had worn a red carnation on his lapel ever since he won his first political election.

But moments before Czolgosz met McKinley, a 12-year-old girl, Myrtle Ledger, met the president and when she said her name was Myrtle, McKinley is said to have replied: “In that case, I must give this flower to another little flower.” His lucky totem now in the hands of another and Czolgosz a few people behind in line, ready to strike. McKinley's luck was about to run out.

As a 1984 interview with Myrtle Ledger (Krass) noted, she kept McKinley’s carnation in a family Bible. But many years later, while moving, she went to pack that Bible and it was so old that it had “crumbled in my hand. Just fell away to nothing.”

Czolgosz was one of the next in line. His revolver hidden under a handkerchief in his right hand, McKinley extends his hand out to this son of immigrants – his left hand, since he noticed Czolgosz’s covered hand. It’s then that he shoots McKinley twice in the abdomen, with one stopped by a button on his coat. The other bullet, which pierced his abdomen, was never found.

He was tackled and beaten by a number of men and Czolgosz was heard saying, “I done my duty.” McKinley, seriously injured, insisted that his assassin not be injured, and would later say of his killer, “He didn’t know, poor fellow, what he was doing. He couldn’t have known.”

Czolgosz, meanwhile, was unbowed by those he viewed as oppressing him and the people. And he despised McKinley.

“All those people bowing to the great ruler,” Czolgosz told police. “I made up my mind to kill that ruler.”


That “ruler” would live for approximately one more week – a week that would be exactly 100 years before the world-changing attacks of September 11, 2001 - before succumbing to gangrene in the stomach which had then passed into his blood, killing him.

Secretary of State John Hay, who was serving under McKinley, is distinct in his public service for having been a private secretary to Abraham Lincoln (assassinated in 1865 by John Wilkes Booth) and an assistant secretary to James Garfield (assassinated in 1881 by Charles Guiteau) and finally secretary of state to McKinley and his successor Theodore Roosevelt.

Said Hay after McKinley’s death: “What a strange a tragic fate it has been of mine – to stand by the bier of three of my dearest friends, Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, three of the gentlest of men, all risen to be head of the State, and all done to death by assassins.”

Justice was quickly served in the case of Leon Frank Czolgosz. He was found guilty of murdering President William McKinley (who died on September 14th) and was sentenced to die in the electric chair, which he did on October 29, 1901.

Before his death he said of his decision to kill McKinley: “I didn't believe one man should have so much service, and another man have none.”

Oddly, when his body was placed in the casket, it was filled with acid to dissolve the body. Then the casket was buried in the prison graveyard there in Auburn, New York.

Interestingly, Thomas Edison on 9 November 1901 (note “9/11”) released a film called “Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison.” It is from the Library of Congress and is considered very rare. In the film, Czolgosz is placed in the chair and is attached to the electrifying apparatus. Right before they turn on the electricity to kill him, Czolgosz declared: “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!

A still from the film Thomas Edison made in 1901, showing the execution of Leon Czolgosz.

The 1,700 volts of electricity is released and Czolgosz’s body contorts some and the men on hand check to see if he is alive. He is not. It is over. And over in Buffalo, the remains of the "Rainbow City" and the Pan-Am expo lay scattered and forgotten as the cold, autumn winds blow.

As for the anarchist movement in America, there was a major backlash. Emma Goldman was arrested and jailed for three weeks before being released without charge. Anti-anarchist laws were passed and full-time Secret Service protection was put into action after Teddy Roosevelt took office. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) came to be a few years later, as "America set sail on the stormy voyage of the 20th century."

And with the 21st century now well underway, it essentially "kicked off" with the 9/11 attacks of 2001, one wonders what this portion of our stormy, American voyage will bring.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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