William McKinley - 25th President of the United States

August 11, 2012

William McKinley (January 29, 1843 – September 14, 1901) was the 25th President of the United States, serving from March 4, 1897, until his death. McKinley led the nation to victory in the Spanish–American War, raised protective tariffs to promote American industry, and maintained the nation on the gold standard in a rejection of inflationary proposals. McKinley's administration ended with his assassination in September 1901, but his presidency began a period of over a third of a century dominated by the Republican Party.

Soon after his second inauguration on March 4, 1901, William and Ida McKinley undertook a six-week tour of the nation. Traveling mostly by rail, the McKinleys were to travel through the South to the Southwest, and then up the Pacific coast and east again, to conclude with a visit on June 13, 1901 to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. However, the First Lady fell ill in California; causing her husband to limit his public events and cancel a series of speeches he had planned to give urging trade reciprocity. He also postponed the visit to the fair until September, planning a month in Washington and two in Canton before the Buffalo visit.

Although McKinley enjoyed meeting the public, Cortelyou was concerned with his security due to recent assassinations by anarchists in Europe, and twice tried to remove a public reception from the President's rescheduled visit to the Exposition. McKinley refused, and Cortelyou arranged for additional security for the trip. On September 5, the President delivered his address at the fairgrounds, before a crowd of some 50,000 people. In his final speech, McKinley urged reciprocity treaties with other nations to assure American manufacturers access to foreign markets. He intended the speech as a keynote to his plans for a second term.

One man in the crowd, anarchist Leon Czolgosz, hoped to assassinate McKinley. He had managed to get close to the presidential podium, but did not fire, uncertain of hitting his target. Czolgosz, since hearing a speech by fellow anarchist Emma Goldman in Cleveland, had decided to do something heroic (in his own mind) for the cause. He had initially decided to get near McKinley, and on September 4, he decided to assassinate him. After the failure on the 5th, Czolgosz waited the next day at the Temple of Music on the Exposition grounds, where the President was to meet the public after his return from Niagara Falls. The anarchist concealed his gun in a handkerchief, and when he reached the head of the line, shot McKinley twice in the abdomen.

McKinley's concerns, after unsuccessfully trying to convince Cortelyou that he was not seriously wounded, were to urge his aides to break the news gently to Ida, and to call off the mob that had set on Czolgosz—a request that may have saved his assassin's life. McKinley was taken by electric ambulance to the Exposition hospital, which despite its name and the inclusion of an operating theatre generally only dealt with the minor medical issues of fairgoers. One bullet had apparently been deflected by a button and only grazed the President. Cortelyou selected Dr. Matthew D. Mann from the doctors who hastened to the scene; he had little experience in abdominal surgery or in dealing with gunshot wounds and proved unable to locate the other bullet. Although a primitive X-ray machine was being exhibited on the Exposition grounds, it was not used, and Mann carefully cleaned and closed the wound. After the operation, McKinley was taken to the Milburn House, where the First Lady had taken the news calmly.

In the days after the shooting McKinley appeared to improve. Doctors issued increasingly cheerful bulletins. Members of the Cabinet, who had rushed to Buffalo on hearing the news dispersed; Vice President Roosevelt departed on a camping trip to the Adirondacks. Leech wrote,

It is difficult to interpret the optimism with which the President's physicians looked for his recovery. There was obviously the most serious danger that his wounds would become septic. In that case, he would almost certainly die, since drugs to control infection did not exist ... [Prominent New York City physician] Dr. McBurney was by far the worst offender in showering sanguine assurances on the correspondents. As the only big-city surgeon on the case, he was eagerly questioned and quoted, and his rosy prognostications largely contributed to the delusion of the American public.

By September 12, McKinley's doctors were confident enough of his condition to allow him toast and coffee. He proved unable to digest the food. Unknown to the doctors, the gangrene that would kill him was growing on the walls of his stomach, slowly poisoning his blood. On the morning of September 13, McKinley took a turn for the worse, becoming critically ill. Frantic word was sent to the Vice President, who was 12 miles (19 km) from the nearest telegraph station or telephone. By the evening, McKinley roused from a stupor and realized his condition: "It is useless, gentlemen. I think we ought to have prayer." Relatives and friends gathered around the dying man's bed as Ida McKinley sobbed over him, stating that she wanted to go with him. "We are all going, we are all going," her husband replied. "God's will be done, not ours." By some accounts, those were his final words; he may also have sung part of his favorite hymn, "Nearer, My God, to Thee". Sometime that evening, Mark Hanna approached the bedside. The senator addressed McKinley as "Mr. President"; when he received no intelligible response, he abandoned formality and cried out to his friend, "William, William, don't you know me?"

At 2:15 a.m. on September 14, 1901, President McKinley died.Theodore Roosevelt was hastily returning to Buffalo by carriage and rail; that afternoon he took the oath of office as president in Buffalo at the house of his friend Ansley Wilcox, wearing borrowed formal clothing and pledging to carry out McKinley's political agenda. Czolgosz, put on trial for murder nine days after McKinley's death, was found guilty, sentenced to death on September 26, and was executed by electric chair on October 29, 1901.

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