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Leon Czolgosz Trial: 1901

Czolgosz's Trial Is Swift

The public was outraged and demanded speedy justice. Czolgosz's trial began September 23, 1901, little more than a week after President McKinley died. The trial took place in Buffalo before Judge Truman C. White, and the prosecutor was Thomas Penny. Finding attorneys to represent Czolgosz was difficult; no one wanted to be associated with such a hated defendant. After some prodding by the president of the local bar association, Loran L. Lewis and Robert C. Titus agreed to be Czolgosz's counsel.

The anti-anarchist sentiment during this period is evident in this somewhat overzealous cartoon of admitted anarchist and assassin Leon Czolgosz. (Harper's Weekly) The anti-anarchist sentiment during this period is evident in this somewhat overzealous cartoon of admitted anarchist and assassin Leon Czolgosz. (Harper's Weekly)

Lewis and Titus had had practically no time to prepare a defense, and to make matters worse, Czolgosz obstinately refused to talk to them. Lewis could only argue that anyone who would kill the president in the face of an almost certain death penalty must be insane:

Every human being … has a strong desire to live. Death is a spectre that we all dislike to meet, and here this defendant, … we find him going into this building, in the presence of these hundreds of people, and committing an act which, if he was sane, must cause his death.

The prosecutor, however, brought out Czolgosz's anarchist affiliations and called upon the jury to heed the popular demand for a quick trial and execution:

We have shown you that he had gone to these anarchistic or socialistic meetings and that there had been embedded in his diseased heart the seeds of this awful crime.… What evidence is there in this case that the man is not sane? UJnder the presumption of the law that he is sane … how brief ought to be your meditation, how brief ought to be your consultation about the responsibility and criminality of this individual?

The prosecutor had argued to the jury that the law presumed Czolgosz was sane unless he could prove otherwise. Since the defense had been able to enter practically no evidence of any kind, there could be only one verdict. At Penny's request, Judge White closed the trial with instructions to the jury that supported the prosecutor's argument:

The law in this case presumes that the defendant was sane.… The burden of showing insanity is upon the person who alleges it.

Even if the jury believed the defense's claim that no sane man would have killed the president in such a public and blatant manner, there was still the legal definition of insanity to be overcome. Under New York law, Czolgosz was legally insane only if he was unable to understand that what he was doing was wrong on the day he shot McKinley. This legal definition was called the "test of responsibility," and was the gist of Judge White's instruction to the jury on legal insanity:

In other words, if he was laboring under such a defect of reason as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing or that it was wrong, it is your duty, gentlemen of the jury, to acquit him in this case.

Judge White's instruction was the final blow to the defense. Any chance that remained of acquitting Czolgosz on the basis of insanity was gone, since the defense had no evidence to offer that he couldn't understand the wrongness of his actions. On September 24, only one day after it began, the trial ended. After a token deliberation, the jury returned its verdict that Czolgosz was not insane and that he was guilty of murder in the first degree.

Czolgosz went to the electric chair on October 29, 1901. His final statement showed no regret:

I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people, the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.…

Czolgosz's last words, like all his other statements, contained no reason for his hatred of McKinley other than an unsupported belief that the president was an enemy of the people. Czolgosz's irrationality strongly suggested insanity, but the issue was brushed aside due to the speed of his trial and the strength of popular feeling against him in particular and anarchists in general.

Stephen C. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Glad, Paul W. McKinley, Bryan and the People. Chicago: T.R. Dee, 1991.

Johns, A. Wesley. The Man IVho Shot McKinley. South Brunswick, N.J.: A.S. Barnes, 1970.

Leech, Margaret. In the Days of McKinley. Norwalk, Corn.: Easton Press, 1986.

Restak, Richard. "Assassin." Science Digest, (December 1981): 78-84.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Leon Czolgosz Trial: 1901 - Czolgosz's Trial Is Swift