Marianne E. Brokaw
Rauchway, Eric. Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America.
New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.
Eric Rauchway, historian and professor at the University of California, Davis, published his second book, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America, in 2003. In this monograph, Rauchway introduces the reader to the events of President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901 by way of a historical timeline. Rauchway’s timeline not only includes the assassination, but other historical events and social issues that occurred during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rauchway uses the assassination like a roadmap, guiding the reader to an understanding of how the social and historical events of the time intertwine and how these events affected default president Theodore Roosevelt. Although these events support each other in accurately relaying history, it is the story of Dr. Lloyd Vernon Briggs, a Boston psychologist, that brings the assassination and its social ramifications together. Briggs’ investigative journey to prove or disprove the sanity of McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, is at the forefront. If Briggs’ findings prove that Czolgosz is insane because of the social issues within American society, then those issues must be eliminated.
Leon Czolgosz was born in Michigan to Polish immigrants in 1873. His life was no more eventful than the life of any other immigrant child. His family worked hard and found refuge from the prejudices attached to immigrants by staying close to the Polish communities in both Michigan and, after the family moved, in Ohio. Czolgosz went to Catholic school while living in Michigan and public school while in Ohio. Other than losing his mother when he was ten years old to complications of childbirth, which was not an uncommon event for immigrant women, the young Leon lived what most would view as a normal life. According to Rauchway, “All Briggs’s data on Czolgosz’s environment and upbringing made him statistically normal . . .” (150). That was however, until Leon Czolgosz would become a self-professed anarchist and presidential assassin.
Late in the afternoon on September 6, 1901, President McKinley arrived at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. McKinley disembarked from his open carriage outside of the Temple of Music at approximately four o’clock. McKinley’s purpose for attending the Expo was to shake hands with attendees. His visit was to be ten minutes. In those brief ten minutes, Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley twice at point blank range. “I done my duty” (3) was Leon Czolgosz’s testament to his anarchist views.
Leon Czolgosz was subdued and arrested at the scene. When he was interrogated by Buffalo police he proudly professed his guilt. President McKinley would live for seven days following the shooting. On September 13, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt would spend his last day as vice president of the United States. On September 23, 1901, a mere seventeen days after the shooting, Czolgosz’s trial began. Following his court assigned attorneys’ half-hearted attempts for an acquittal based on an insanity defense, Czolgosz was found guilty and sentenced to death by electrocution. Because of the conviction of the man who openly pled guilty to murdering America’s president, Dr. Briggs and his Boston colleague, Dr. Walter Channing, a leading alienist, “who ranked among the psychologists who attributed insanity to a variety of causes . . .” (55) became involved. After all, no sane man would assassinate the president of the United States in a public forum surrounded by hundreds of people. If Czolgosz was truly insane it was imperative to know what had caused his insanity. After all, if his insanity was caused by the social issues of the time such as immigration, racism, and workers’ rights, then those issues needed to be addressed.
The book showcases the investigative work of Dr. Briggs post Leon Czolgosz’s execution. Briggs spends a considerable amount of time interviewing Czolgosz’s acquaintances and family members attempting to prove that Leon Czolgosz was not a sane man. He also researched Czolgosz’s anarchist connections and activity. While doing so, Briggs uncovered that those involved in the anarchist movement, such as Abraham Isaak, a Russian immigrant, were vaguely familiar with Czolgosz. In fact, according to Briggs’ investigation, Czolgosz only attended one anarchist event, a speech given by Emma Goldman in Cleveland, Ohio.
Although Brigg’s findings did not change history, those findings may have changed the way insanity was seen in the eyes of the law and in politics. During the Progressive Era, especially those years immediately following the assassination of McKinley and including the years of Roosevelt’s presidency, a person’s insanity, if attributed to social issues such as race discrimination, labor unrest, and poverty, would have been cause for alarm. The book, while showcasing the story of Dr. Brigg’s investigation, provides the back story of the social changes that were occurring in the United States during this era. These social reforms are reflected in the views and decisions of President Theodore Roosevelt, thus supporting Rauchway’s views of a changing America.
Rauchway provides the reader, by addressing some of the social issues, such as those previously mentioned, prior to and immediately following the assassination, a grab-bag full of material that helps to provide better comprehension of the social and political clime during this event in United States history. The material presented in this book has been well researched as evidenced by the substantial and credible sources, such as the primary sources of the Chicago Tribune and most importantly, the notes of Dr. Lloyd Briggs. Rauchway adds to his credibility and professionalism by acknowledging and thanking those professionals who aided him in his research and by dedicating four pages of text specifically “in the interest of clarity” (215) entitled “Note on Controversies, Sources, and Controversial Sources” (215).
It is not surprising, given Rauchway’s background as a college professor and his reputation as an expert in the field of U. S. economic history from the Civil War through World War II in addition to U.S. social policy, that he would include in his book the above mentioned sources and material. This extensive history and background material emboldens those readers who, prior to reading this book, may have had limited knowledge regarding this era in American History. Rauchway thus makes the book’s subtitle, The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America, a well-documented and well-supported idea that is more easily understood as the book shifts from the story of Briggs’ investigation to the progression of social reforms.
Murdering of McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America does not simply offer a historical account of McKinley’s assassination and the events that followed. It offers insight into a variety of social and political ideals faced by the new president, Theodore Roosevelt, during what historians call the Progressive Era. This book will appeal to a wide variety of readers, scholarly and non-scholarly alike. Readers interested in the topics of American presidents, social and legal reform, and progressivism are likely for find this book worth reading. Even those readers who are unfamiliar with the social climate of the United States in early twentieth century will find the book an enlightening read.
“I pledge,” Marianne E. Brokaw
Writing center 10/27/16