To discourage assassination attempts, the Secret Service normally made sure everyone’s hands were empty before they approached the president. But on that hot summer afternoon, the president’s bodyguards let the crowd of overdressed Victorians clutch handkerchiefs and mop their perspiring faces.
So, few noticed when a man with “a short cropped heavy black moustache” stepped up to McKinley. “[W]ell dressed, of medium height, rather narrow shoulders,… about 25 years of age,” he extended a bandaged right hand toward the president.
Two shots rang out.
“There was an instance of almost complete silence, like the hush that follows a clap of thunder,” wrote a reporter. “The president stood stock still, a look of hesitancy, almost of bewilderment, on his face. Then he retreated a step while a pallor began to steal over his features.”
Secret Service agent George Foster saw “the President draw his right hand under his coat, straighten up and, pressing his lips together,” give the assassin “the most scornful and contemptuous… look possible.”
Foster grabbed the attacker’s left arm, but the assassin’s gun hand remained free — and aflame, as firing two rounds had ignited the linen bandages concealing his pistol.
Before the assassin could get off another shot, a “herculean” Black bystander “pushed his way through the crowd” and punched the shooter, crushing his nose. “6 feet 4 inches tall with 250 pounds of muscular enthusiasm,” Big Jim Parker — a former constable — seized the assassin’s flaming right wrist and wrenched it skyward, aiming the pistol at the ceiling. With his free hand, Parker grabbed the assassin’s throat and “spun the man around like a top.”
Next, Parker and Foster tackled the attacker and “bore him to the floor.” The killer proved “very strong,” and Parker knew the shooter’s revolver was close to his head, so he kept punching until he “knocked the pistol from the assassin’s hand,” “split the assassin’s lip and knocked out several teeth.”
“I believe that if he had not been suffering pain he would have shot again,” Parker later explained.
Nearby cops and soldiers piled on and also rained blows on the assailant. One eyewitness — a white woman — described Parker as “infuriated” and asserted he “would have killed” the shooter if the police had not hauled away the attacker. However, other sources reported Parker worked with two Secret Service agents to restrain the assassin while shielding him from the mob’s blows.
The frenzy ended when McKinley insisted they stop beating his attacker. Buffalo police dragged the shooter off to jail.
Having secured his assassin’s safety, the president’s concerns turned to the First Lady, a fragile invalid, imploring an aide to “be careful how you tell her.”
A Civil War veteran, McKinley had seen plenty of gunshot wounds, and likely assumed he was doomed. Blood drenched his vest. One bullet had glanced off his sternum, but the other penetrated deep into his ample potbelly.
His handlers rushed the president to the fair’s emergency room. In a dim tent, surgeons searched for the deeply buried bullet. Mysteriously, the physicians failed to capitalize on technology available at the Pan-American Exhibition. The doctors did not request the use of electric lighting (widely displayed at the fair); instead, they used a pie tin to reflect sunlight from outside the tent onto the wound. Although the fair displayed the first X-ray machine, McKinley’s doctors declined to use it, for fear of adverse side effects. (Worse than death?)
So, the surgeons sewed up the wound, left the bullet in the president, and hoped bed rest would heal him. Over the next few days, McKinley began to rally; his physicians issued optimistic press reports.
Then, he took a turn for the worse. Eight days after the shooting, gangrene killed the president.
While the country mourned their fallen leader, the reputation of Big Jim Parker fluctuated.
Immediately after the attack on McKinley, fairgoers hailed Parker as a hero. A crowd of “crazy souvenir hunters” mobbed him, demanding to buy articles of his clothing as “trophies” of his heroism “in preventing a third shot.” The ex-cop complied, selling his coat buttons for $25 each (equivalent to about $800 in 2020). A company paid him “a large sum of money” to sit for a photograph and permit the sale of his image. Through the press, Republican Party boss Mark Hanna promised Parker a government job that never materialized.
Over the next several days, the nation’s newspapers lauded Parker — an unusual instance of positive press coverage of an African American during the long nadir of American race relations: the grim reign of racial terror stretching from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Nevertheless, Parker kept his feet firmly on the ground; he knew good times rarely lasted. Born into slavery in Atlanta in 1857, he experienced emancipation as a child. As a young man, Parker worked as a constable — until tightening Jim Crow white supremacy eliminated Black southerners not just from law enforcement, but also from politics and economic opportunity. The ex-cop adapted, moving North to find work as a waiter. His employer at the fair — a catering company — had laid him off just before the attack on McKinley, but now happily rehired him. Parker never missed a shift.
In his public statements, he struck a tone of patriotic modesty: “I did what every citizen of this country should have done. I am told that I broke his nose — I wish it had been his neck. I am sorry I did not see him four seconds before. I don’s say that I would have thrown myself before the bullets. But I do say that the life of the head of this country is worth more than that of an ordinary citizen and I should have caught the bullets in my body rather than the President should get them. I can’t tell you what I would have done and I don’t like to have it understood that I want to talk of the matter. I tried to do my duty. That’s all any man can do.”
Parker declined to profit further from his heroism. He “steadily refused… large sums to appear in museums or travel with theatrical companies…. I happened to be in a position where I could aid in the capture of the man. I do not think that the American people would like me to make capital out of the unfortunate circumstances. I am no freak anyway. I do not want to be exhibited in all kinds of shows. I am glad that I was able to be of service to the country.”
Moreover, the ex-cop rose to the occasion as a spokesman for his country’s long-beleagured Black community. “I am a Negro, and am glad that the Ethiopian race has what ever credit comes with what I did. If I did anything, the colored people should get the credit.” He described receiving letters of admiration from African Americans “telling me they were proud of me, and I could not after that turn myself in to a dime museum freak.”
Affirming the Black community’s traditional loyalty to the Party of Lincoln, Parker mused that “old Father Abe freed me, and now I have saved his successor — provided that bullet” the shooter “got into the president don’t kill him.”
After McKinley died, mainstream press accolades abruptly ended — and a campaign to erase the Black hero’s role began in earnest.
At the assassin’s trial, Foster — the Secret Service agent who helped Parker tackle the killer — perjured himself, claiming he “never saw no colored man in the whole fracas.” No other witness mentioned Parker’s role. Instead, witnesses heaped praise on every white cop, soldier, and Secret Service agent who beat or restrained the killer. The Buffalo Courier concluded “not a scintilla of evidence had been developed to show that Mr. Parker grappled with” the killer “or knocked the weapon out of his hand.” Moreover, the Courier accused the ex-cop of shameless profiteering: “making capital” from unearned fame “which the press unwittingly but generously gave him.”
Illustrators even eliminated Parker from the scene.
When Black newspapers asked Parker why the prosecution never called him to testify, the ex-cop replied tactfully, “I don’t say that it was done with any intent to defraud, but it looks mighty funny, that’s all.” The African-American press stated the truth more bluntly: “There is a systematic effort to rob Parker of his honors.”
Anarchism inspired McKinley’s killer, Leon Czolgosz (surname pronounced “Choal-gauche”). Born in Alpena, Michigan, to Polish parents, he had toiled since early childhood in Detroit’s steel mills. Radicalized by hard labor, he drew inspiration from the rhetoric of anarchists like Emma Goldman.
However, other leftists rejected Czolgosz. Alienated by his social awkwardness, they mistook him for a corporate spy.
Just before his execution by electric chair that October, Czolgosz stated, “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people — the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.”
Most American workers did not appreciate the gesture. The whole country grieved the popular leader’s death. With Lincoln and Garfield, McKinley became the third president assassinated in a 36-year span.
McKinley was also the third Western leader in three years to die at the hands of an anarchist assassin. (The others were the Austrian Empress Elisabeth and King Umberto I of Italy.) The most feared terrorists of the age, anarchists had also targeted civilians and law enforcement with bombings in the US and Europe. The president’s death intensified government anti-terrorism efforts, which unfortunately included indiscriminate repression of organized labor and immigrants.
Nothing improves one’s reputation like an untimely death.
Americans widely honored McKinley after his assassination. Impressive monuments went up in Buffalo and his native Ohio; many schools and streets still bear his name. For many decades, his stern face adorned the $500 bill. In 1917, President Wilson officially named the continent’s tallest mountain after his Republican predecessor.
In 1975, Alaska formally asked the US government to restore the peak’s native name, Denali. In 2015, President Obama agreed.
I thought Republicans were supposed to believe in states’ rights (and guns). But, leaving that aside, the real question is, Does McKinley deserves the honor more than Alaskans and Americans deserve the right to name the country’s tallest mountain?
As a young man, McKinley served with distinction in the Civil War. He was an effective Congressman and did no harm as Governor of Ohio. Throughout his political career, he toed the party line and served the interests of big business; in both presidential races, he vanquished the Populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan, an eloquent opponent of plutocracy. Thanks to dumb luck — a peak in the boom-bust cycle, enhanced by the Yukon Gold Rush — the economy grew steadily under McKinley.
Like every president between Grant and FDR, McKinley endorsed racism and did nothing to relieve the plight of African Americans during the long nadir of US race relations.
Indeed, racism fed McKinley’s decision to accede to the acquisition of an overseas empire. The Spanish-American War — an ignoble beat-down of a fading colonial power — yielded de facto US control of Cuba and outright seizure of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. While he was at it, McKinley annexed Hawaii.
McKinley had the third-highest mountain in the world named after him for 98 years. That’s not bad. If Ohioans want to honor him, then they should consider making their highest point — Campbell Hill, 1,550 feet — the new Mt. McKinley. Its stature is more in line with the quality of McKinley’s legacy.
In the wake of the assassination, Black voices strived valiantly to keep Big Jim Parker’s legacy alive. Lena Doolin Mason lauded him in verse. Booker T. Washington and others contrasted the loyalty of the freedman ex-cop with the villainy of McKinley’s “red handed anarchist” killer. They decried the injustice of granting white immigrants rights denied to US-born Blacks. Finally, they compared anarchist violence to lynching. In the Richmond Planet, journalist John Mitchell, Jr. wrote, “a mob which will take a human being from the officers of the law, and burn him at the stake in the presence of six thousand applauding people is just as anarchistic” and “cruel” as Czolgosz. Mitchell “always insisted that the assassination of colored men would lead to a similar treatment of white ones. Yes, President McKinley is the victim of the same lawlessness which he and the nation have tolerated.”
Ultimately, Parker quit waiting tables and hit the lecture circuit to tell his own story, speaking primarily to African American audiences. However, within a few years, even the Black public lost interest. Paid speaking gigs dwindled, then vanished. The ex-cop sank into alcoholism, wandering city streets, recounting his tale to any who would listen, hoping to earn a few coins to buy booze. After a 1908 arrest in Philadelphia, the city confined him in a hospital “insane ward,” where he died. Jefferson Medical College dissected his remains.
An anarchist killed President McKinley, but mainstream American racism murdered Big Jim Parker.