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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: "It is a dreadful thing to come into the Presidency this way..."

President William McKinley arrived at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 5, 1901, and spoke to a large crowd about the need for mutual cooperation among the countries of the Western Hemisphere. The following day, he returned to the Expo for an afternoon reception at the Temple of Music building. A long line of people stood inside the building waiting to shake hands with the President. When a young man with a bandaged right hand approached the President, McKinley offered to shake his left hand. Suddenly the sound of two gunshots rang out. McKinley slumped over, shot twice in the stomach by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who had concealed a gun in his bandage. Several men standing nearby wrestled the attacker to the ground while others rushed the President to another room.

McKinley underwent emergency surgery at the Exposition's hospital, which was no more than a first aid station. In the rush to save McKinley's life, the doctors present did not wait for a specialist to arrive before they began surgery. They relied on mirrors to reflect the afternoon sun because only one electric light lit the room. As was the practice at the time, they operated without masks or gloves and did not have the proper surgical instruments with them. The doctors found and removed one bullet but could not locate the second. They refused to use an x-ray machine provided by Thomas Edison because they did not know what long-term effects its use might have on the President. Typical of the time, McKinley was sent to a private home rather than a hospital to recover. He and his wife temporarily moved to the home of John Milburn, President of the Pan-American Exposition.

While delivering a speech in Vermont, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt received word of McKinley's shooting. He arrived in Buffalo the next day, accepting an invitation to stay at the home of Ansley Wilcox, a prominent lawyer. The two had been friends since the early 1880s when they both worked closely with New York State Governor Grover Cleveland. Wilcox recalled that "the family and most of the household were in the country, but he [Roosevelt] was offered a quiet place to sleep and eat, and accepted it."l The Vice President stayed at the Wilcox house for four days, meeting with newspaper reporters, members of the President's Cabinet, Senators, and other government officials who had gathered in Buffalo after the shooting. Wilcox later wrote, "From the first moment of his [Roosevelt's] arrival, and the favorable answers which were made to his questions about the condition of the President...the Vice President seemed possessed with an abiding faith that the wound would not be fatal.... So, when, on Tuesday...everything seemed to be going well...it was thought best that the Vice President...should go away in order to impress the public with that confidence in the outcome which everyone then felt."2

Roosevelt hurried to the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York State to join his vacationing family. Well-known for his love of the outdoors and the strenuous life, he embarked on a hike up Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in New York State. On his return, Roosevelt saw a man approaching and later recalled, "When I saw the runner I instinctively knew he had bad news--the worst news in the world."3 The messenger handed Roosevelt a telegram explaining that McKinley had developed an infection and was not expected to live through the night. Roosevelt hurriedly arranged for a horse and carriage to take him on the six-hour journey to the nearest train station, 35 miles away in North Creek. At dawn, as he prepared to board a special train to Albany and then to Buffalo, Roosevelt received the terrible news that President William McKinley had died at 2:15 am.

The country had been without a President for almost 12 hours by the time Roosevelt arrived in Buffalo on the afternoon of Saturday, September 14. Many people became anxious for his inauguration to take place. After stopping to pay his respects to the President's widow, Roosevelt returned to the Wilcox home. He requested that the inauguration be quiet and private. The Buffalo Courier reported the next day that "it was hurriedly agreed between the Vice President and members of the Cabinet that it would probably be better to have the ceremonies take place away from the (Milburn) house in which lay the remains of the dead President. The Wilcox house was at once agreed upon."4

Those invited to attend included the Wilcoxes, the Cabinet, U.S. government officials in Buffalo at that time, the doctors who had operated on McKinley, and officials of the Exposition. A few newspaper reporters received permission to attend at the last minute to take notes. Fearing the inauguration might take on a "circus" atmosphere, Roosevelt forbade any photographs taken of the event. The ceremony, in which Federal District Judge John R. Hazel administered the presidential oath, was brief, private, and solemn. The crowd outside milled around for hours hoping to get a glimpse of the new President. Beyond a brief press statement, Roosevelt stayed out of the spotlight for the two days he remained in Buffalo. Later his friend Ansley Wilcox, whose home had witnessed the historical event, wrote, "It takes less in the way of ceremony to make a president in this country, than it does to make a King in England or any monarchy, but the significance of the event is no less great." 5

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why do you think that the crowd, the police guards, and even President McKinley failed to realize that the man with the bandaged hand might be dangerous? Could something like this take place today? Why or why not?

2. What factors caused the doctors to operate on President McKinley under such poor conditions? What might they have done differently?

3. Why did Roosevelt leave Buffalo four days after the shooting? Do you think this action had a positive effect on the public? Why or why not?

4. Why do you think people became anxious to have Roosevelt take the presidential oath? Why did he take the oath in a private home rather than a public building?

5. What do you think Ansley Wilcox meant by his statement comparing the coronation of a king and the inauguration of a president? Explain your answer.

Reading 1 was adapted from sources housed at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society and the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.

1Ansley Wilcox, "Theodore Roosevelt, President" (unpublished manuscript, 1901; reprinted October 1919, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Library Collection, Buffalo, New York).
2Ibid.
3Eloise Cronin Murphy,
Theodore Roosevelt's Night Ride to the Presidency (Blue Mountain Lake, New York: The Adirondack Museum, 1977), 19.
4
Buffalo Courier, September 15, 1901.
5Ansley Wilcox, "Theodore Roosevelt, President" (unpublished manuscript, 1901; reprinted October 1919, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Library Collection, Buffalo, New York).

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