President William McKinley Assassinated
On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shot while visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York; he died eight days later. Both the man responsible for the assassination, and the man who assumed the presidency as a result, had some interesting connections to our neighborhoods.
McKinley was only the third U.S. President to be assassinated, after Abraham Lincoln and James A. Garfield, and the penultimate, followed by John F. Kennedy (though attempts were made on Gerald Ford by Charles Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, and Ronald Reagan by Jon Hinckley Jr.).
McKinley’s assassination shocked the nation, and led to the Secret Service being charged with protecting the security of U.S. Presidents, as well as some tough new laws and ugly backlash against those suspected of seditious or dangerous activities.
As a result of the assassination, Vice-President Teddy Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States on September 14th, 1901. Largely credited with ushering in the “Progressive Era” in U.S. politics (at least at the federal level), Roosevelt was also the first and only U.S. President born in New York City. In fact Roosevelt was born and raised just north of Greenwich Village and the East Village at 28 East 20th Street, now a National Historic Site and Museum.
One of many stages of Roosevelt’s storied career was as New York City Police Commissioner beginning in 1895. Among many facets of his notable tenure as Police Commissioner was his commission of new police precinct station houses across the city, starting with the 9th Police Precinct House at 135 Charles Street, now known as “Le Gendarme” Apartments.
Roosevelt was also known as police chief to roam the streets with friend and muckraking journalist Jacob Riis, who would come to expose the terrible living conditions prevalent among the poor in Lower Manhattan, including in parts of Greenwich Village and today’s East Village. At the time, however, Roosevelt and Riis were on the lookout for corrupt or inept police officers; Roosevelt is also credited with rooting out corruption in the notoriously shady and crooked New York City Police Department.
McKinley’s assassin, unsurprisingly, enjoys a less wholesome reputation. Leon Frank Czolgosz was the child of Polish immigrants who grew up in Michigan; following the loss of his job in the Panic of 1893, Czolgosz turned to anarchism, a common political philosophy among radicals of the time. Czolgosz sought to kill President McKinley, whom he saw as a symbol and embodiment of the power structure which, to his mind, oppressed him and most of the rest of the world.
It was anarchism and anarchists, Czolgosz claimed, that motivated him to shoot McKinley. In fact, Czolgosz claimed that he was particularly inspired by East Village radical Emma Goldman, whom he had seen and heard speak. As a result, Goldman was jailed and questioned for three weeks by police after the assassination, before being released without charges.
Czolgosz was caught, tried, and quickly convicted of the murder and killed by the electric chair on October 29th, 1901. Ironically, McKinley’s assassination might have been prevented if the warnings of another prominent figure in downtown life had been heeded.
Lt. Joseph Petrosino was born in Padua, Italy, and became the first Italian-American to lead the NYPD’s homicide division, appointed by then-Police Commissioner and good friend Teddy Roosevelt. Petrosino later became the head of the department’s “Italian Squad,” an elite corps of Italian-American detectives organized specifically to uproot organized crime and combat the mafia. Petrosino was considered a pioneer in organized crime-fighting techniques, many of which are still used today.
It was from this work that in 1901 Petrosino infiltrated an Italian anarchist group that had previously been involved with the assassination of King Umberto I of Italy. During this mission, he discovered evidence that this group would seek to assassinate President McKinley during his visit to Buffalo.
Though he reported this to the Secret Service, the warnings were ignored by President McKinley, who reveled in greeting and talking to the public, and thus refused to take safety precautions of which he was advised.
In fact, McKinley’s public reception at the fair was twice removed from his schedule based upon these threats. But even after Petrosino’s competence and reliability was vouched for by then-Vice-President Roosevelt, McKinley had the event placed back upon his schedule. It was at this public reception that Czolgosz found the opportunity to fire two bullets at the President.
In 1987, the small park at Lafayette and Kenmare Streets was renamed Lt. Petrosino Square.