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Source: The Illustrious Life of William McKinley, Our Martyred President
Source type: book
Document type: letter
Document title: “The Author’s Letter: From the Scene of Execution and the Autopsy of the Assassin”
Author(s): Halstead, Murat
Publisher: none given
Place of publication: none given
Year of publication: 1901
Pagination: 465-72

Halstead, Murat. “The Author’s Letter: From the Scene of Execution and the Autopsy of the Assassin.” The Illustrious Life of William McKinley, Our Martyred President. [n.p.]: [n.p.], 1901: pp. 465-72.
full text of letter; excerpt of book
Leon Czolgosz (execution: eyewitness accounts); Leon Czolgosz (last words); Leon Czolgosz (autopsy).
Named persons
Cornelius V. Collins; Leon Czolgosz; Waldeck Czolgosz; John Gerin; Murat Halstead; Carlos F. MacDonald [misspelled below]; William McKinley; J. Warren Mead; Theodore Roosevelt; Edward A. Spitzka.
This section of the book is referred to, on the tops of the odd-numbered pages within this section, as “Mr. Halstead’s Auburn Letter.”

From title page: The Illustrious Life of William McKinley, Our Martyred President: The True Story of the Assassination, in the Shadow of Death, Passing Away, Funeral Ceremonies; Together with His Ancestry, Boyhood, Student Days, His Career as Soldier, Lawyer, Statesman, Governor, and President, the Principles for Which He Stood and the Triumphs He Achieved, and His Home Life; Anarchy, Its History, Influences and Dangers, with a Sketch of the Life of the Assassin.

From title page: Superbly Illustrated with Numerous Engravings Made from Original Photographs.

From title page: By Murat Halstead, for Thirty Years the Personal Friend of the President, Author of History of the War between the States, Story of Cuba, Story of the Philippines, Etc., Etc.


The Author’s Letter
From the Scene of Execution and the Autopsy of the Assassin

Auburn, October 29th, 1901.     

     Leon Czolgosz is number 50 of the persons executed in the electrical chair in the State of New York. The New York authorities have suppressed puerile sensations with respect to the assassin. His special fear was of taking chances to encounter the people. His reception at Auburn was rough and he was frantic with panic. There never was so quiet an execution as that of this morning. Members of the Press were denied interviews and were not permitted to be witnesses, with the exception of those representing the Press Associations. There was no popular excitement in Auburn.
     The Auburn penitentiary, built in 1817, is the oldest of the State. It is in the heart of the city, just across the street from the railroad depot. Those who escorted the assassin when he arrived were glad they had no further to go. The prison gate leading to the quarters of the officials is on the principal street—an iron-barred gap in the lofty gray stone wall, and there were not more than a dozen persons at any time who took an interest in the gate during the last day and hours of the life of the condemned. The policy of the authorities was made known peremptorily, that the passing away of Czolgosz should not be an advertisement for anarchy.
     The assassin’s appearance in the death room was at the door of the lower corridor, twenty feet distant from his cell. There was an officer on either side of him and one behind him. He stumbled when his feet touched the stone pavement of the room and again as he got on the platform, where stood the “chair.” The elevation of the platform above the floor does not exceed four inches. The “chair” is but little heavier than the usual article, strongly built and with arms. It is decorated with stout straps, and the buckles are not likely to yield. A coil of wire of the diameter of a small lead pencil hangs from the ceiling, terminating in a straight section about six inches long above the chair. To this is fastened the electrode for the head. Electric lamps are along the wall behind the chair and about the ceiling. At the left hand of the [465][466] chair, which faces the south and is near the north wall, is a closet containing the apparatus for the infliction of “legal death.” A lever as long as a finger is pointed out, that, turned down, the current is turned on.
     The chamber of death is about twenty feet wide east and west and a little longer, ventilated by a central shaft. The corridor through which the prisoners enter is the lower one—two flights downstairs from the office floor. Cells holding those who have received sentence of death are within ten paces of the door of doom. Czolgosz was dressed for the occasion in a gray flannel shirt, open at the throat, coarse trousers, split below the knee of the right leg, and a pair of new shoes. He seemed to have had a shave within a day or two. Executions are not so uncommon at this place as to cause a feeling of novelty or suggest excitement in the attendance. There have been fifteen deaths in the Auburn chair, and one is appointed next Monday of a young man who killed his sweetheart.
     There are indications that through some medium, probably Waldeck Czolgosz, whose reputation is that of inferiority to his brother, a communication very recently reached the assassin, priming him for a farewell demonstration in aid of anarchy, and promising fame for it. His last anxiety was to “make a statement.” I asked the warden how the assassin spent his latest hours. The reply was in these words: “He fell asleep after one o’clock, and I had to arouse him at half-past five to read the death warrant to him.” That document was a brief statement of what the execution was for, drawn strictly in legal terms. The warden said—this at a later hour than the reading of the warrant—the prisoner sent for him and said he wanted to make a statement, and was told “make it now.” The answer of the prisoner was, he “wanted more people.” When told he could not have an audience, he said he would not speak at all. He wanted to see his brother again, and was told the farewells were over.
     Evidently his father’s message was the production of a crafty writer. The words were carefully chosen, and it seems to have been intended to prepare the way for the proposed speech from the platform of the chair. The first Polish priest who called upon the condemned had a favorable impression of the young man—thought he meant to renounce anarchy and die a Christian. Associated with this was a persistent rumor the prisoner might be expected, in evidence of repentance, to make a confession. The anarchists had reached Czolgosz and [466][467] planned a harangue. There is not direct evidence of this as yet, but there is circumstantial corroboration of it.
     Possibly the brother of the murderer was not as stupid as he seemed but capable of playing a part. He desired to witness the death of his brother, presented himself to the officers of the prison saying, “I want to see this.”
     Warden Mead assumed at once when Czolgosz called for more people to hear him that he meant to make a demonstration in the execution room, but there was no change in the program. It was not considered that anything he would say would be injurious in a serious sense, but it was realized that the talk would be offensive. Gagging the condemned would have been easy, but the theory of this method of punishment is that it is humane—that it is instantaneous and painless, and the warden’s discretion in refusing to give the privilege for much speaking or to prevent it altogether, was good judgment.
     The chair is large enough to accommodate a much heavier figure than that of Czolgosz. A broad plank was placed on its edge across the seat and against the back of the chair, that there might not be a movement of the body to break the circuit.
     When legal death is to be inflicted, there is a leather-backed sponge soaked with salt water tightly buckled below the knee, and on the head a helmet, the top of which is filled with a wet sponge. A story is circulated that the tops of heads subjected to this treatment are shaven, but it is only in rare cases that the hair is so thick it has to be thinned to perfect the contact. In this case, that was not necessary. The words of Czolgosz in the chair were: “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people; I did it for the help of the good people, the working men of all countries.” The words “all countries” shows the delusion of the assassin that he is to be famous in “all countries,” and accepted that as compensation. The words that he did not regret having committed his crime were added with a sort of snarl, and as they were uttered the broad leather strap with a slit in it for the mouth and a breadth above that covers the nose and brow, was buckled, binding the head firmly in its place, and allowing the prisoner to breathe. This was the situation when the condemned referred to his sorrow about his father, but it does not seem to have impressed him at any time that he was sorry for his father.
     No time was lost in turning on the current, and the manifestation [467][468] that it was doing the appointed work was in the sudden, intense rigidity of the muscles of the man in the chair. His form seemed to be animated with a demoniac energy, as if his limbs and body were instantly converted into a substance of iron tenacity and that there was in every fiber a shuddering spasm. The number of volts administered was 1,700. The current was continued at that power for one minute, then turned off gradually until there were 200 volts. The only words spoken by a spectator came from an unprofessional person, and escaped the notice of the officials. It was, “Give him another poke.” This was as the full force of the current was turned on a second time and continued for a minute. Then the body was subjected to medical examination. The doctors spoke to the warden who announced to the witnesses, “Gentlemen, the prisoner is dead,” and stated the time 7 o’clock and 17 minutes.
     When the prisoner was on the platform before being seated his eyes were restless and glaring, and he seemed to be seeking the people to speak to. That which he said was entirely in accordance with his conduct and the doctrines he had declared. It was precisely consistent for him to claim that the murder of the President was to help the working man. Possibly the activity of the attendants prevented the utterance of shocking insults to persons and other examples of vindictiveness. Public opinion toward the brother and brother-in-law of the assassin is not quite kindly; they are accused of a desire to claim the body of the assassin, believing that money might be made out of the possession of it. The brother professed the desire after the autopsy to see the body and that it should be cremated. Finally he relinquished the claim of the family to the body to J. Warren Mead, warden of the prison, authorizing the disposition of the body by burial in the cemetery attached to the prison, as provided by the law of the State, with the understanding that no part of the remains be given to any person or society, and the entire body buried. This was scrupulously carried out, and in addition the remains were placed in an unmarked grave, drenched with acids and covered with quicklime sufficient to immediately destroy them. No fragment of the murderer will ever be identified, and the exact place of his interment is not of record. The law was fulfilled in this case in the early morning of the first day it was lawful in New York to execute the prisoner. His sentence was that the execution occur within the week after the 28th of October; and the absolute destruction of the assassin according to law occurred next day. [468][469]
     There is confusion of reports as to the place where the autopsy took place. It was within ten feet of the fatal chair, and commenced a few minutes after the retirement of the witnesses of the execution. The physicians were John Gerin, M. D., and Carlos F. Macdonald, M. D., and E. A. Spitzka, all of whom state “the examination revealed a perfectly healthy state of all the organs, including the brain.” There was a call from the brother after the autopsy, who desired to view the remains, but was spared the sight and told he could see the grave. He declined to do that.
     It occurred to me as the prisoner was dead, the restriction upon the admission of persons to the execution might be removed, and upon inquiry there was no objection to my attending the autopsy as a witness. I did so. All others present were officers of the prison and the medical gentlemen with their assistants.
     The spectacle was interesting; the assassin had been dead but a few minutes, and was lying at full length on his back on the table provided for the surgeons, his body white as marble, his face not at all distorted. One might say he was as if sleeping, but that would not describe the expression of the features, though that was almost of perfect repose. The head rested on the back part of it, so as to elevate the chin, and allow the forehead to slope downward. There was no sign of a great agony; the hair had not been removed for the electrode, but was full of water from the sponge, and in disorder. If there was any mark on the head made by the deadly shock, it was not visible. There was a red blotch on the right leg below the knee. The body was lying east and west, the face looking toward the east. The red blister under the right knee, a part of it on the calf of the leg, extended about two-thirds the way round, leaving a space in front untouched. The one feature indicating sudden and unusual death was the mouth, which was the highest point of the body with the exception of the chin. The strong throat, with a distinct Adam’s apple, was prominent. The lips were slightly parted with more than the curl they had in life. On them was an expression of being startled. This seemed more positive as it was noticed and studied. A good set of teeth was displayed, partly obscured by what seemed to have been a slight froth, leaving a scum like a cobweb. This seems more revolting in description than it was in the reality, which was merely as if bubbles had subsided.
     There was nothing in the appearance of the body of the emaciation [469][470] from imprisonment so often referred to. Any physician would say the corpse was that of a well nourished young man. The figure was of good proportions, his limbs especially so. The arms were not muscular. Evidently he was not a man who had cultivated his muscles by exercise or expanded or hardened them by labor. The arms were of a young man of leisure, smooth, round and fair. His hands were not in any way notable. He had high insteps, neat ankles and long toes. The muscles of the legs were better developed than those of the arms, indicating he was swift of foot. He was not noticeably spare in body; his chest was round and symmetrical—not lean, but the ribs quite distinct. With his head thrown back, it seemed to have been well posed in life, more so than is shown in his pictures—all of which that are familiar having been taken in prison. Nothing in his face or his person gave indication of heavy feeding or drinking, or of evil indulgence. There were none of the inevitable traces of confirmed dissipation.
     I cannot find a comparison of the entire effect of the body before the physicians had investigated beyond the measurements of the face—and they were engaged in that when I entered the room—that seems so apt as to say: He looked like a recumbent marble statue, that might be reproduced as that of a young Greek athlete—a runner of races at Grecian games.
     The body was, of course, quite flexible at this time, not a trace of rigidity in it, and as it was turned about by the surgeons the arms adjusted themselves easily to the movements. The face had been restored, it seemed to me, to something like naturalness, as before the man became a murderer, but the countenance was not a pleasant one—not a thoughtful one—not one touched by high intelligence, certainly not a line in it engraved by intellectuality. There was a plain trace of the expression of vanity, shadowy evidence of the fact that his grand passion was egotism.
     The examination made by the physicians was most thorough. It was radical. The was the dignity and the warrant of science in the ruthless investigation. The word “ruthless” I use as not quite but almost a synonym for the radical, in that nothing was held too unsearchable, and that comprehended in its relations there was also delicacy in the perfection of the work.
     There is a line to be drawn in giving details, some things to be indicated not stated, left to intuitive perception rather than to unlim- [470][471] ited description. Perhaps it is on the frontier line to say his skull was scrupulously bared by the knife, after the head and face had been subjected to every conceivable measurement. One of the doctors handled the instruments and another took down the report that he made in professional terms of all that was ascertained—and this was especially painstaking touching the face. It took long to do this. There was not the rudeness of haste in anything done. The skull naked, it was measured as the hatter measures the head. This perfected, the skull was encircled by a metallic band and with an artist’s lead pencil a black line drawn around it. Upon that a fine saw was used to cut through the bone. That done, the crown was taken off and its peculiarities scientifically recorded, and that very minutely. The skull was pronounced normal with these peculiarities—a marked distinction between the sides of the head, the left being somewhat rounded at the right, in comparison with the left, flattened.
     Upon the brain itself now exposed, there were no traces of disease, but testimony that the man died under excitement filled the brain with blood. Robust persons are executed in a perfect state of health by electrocution. In an instant, when in full vigor, they are stricken dead. It was noticeable that one effect of the tremendous shocks of electricity was to discolor the blood. I inquired of one of the medical gentlemen what the physical effect was as it would appear to one who could possibly be conscious—this did not seem to be a problem beyond the grasp of science—while the current of 1,700 volts was passing through the brain. The reply was: “It would be as if one were struck on the top of the head with 1,700 sledge hammers.”
     The object of universal interest in the autopsy of Czolgosz is whether there was anything in the brain that indicated idiocy or would signify a condition of irresponsibility. The proof is there was not anything of the kind. The public would not care for a detail of the whole proceeding of the doctors, nor would it be seemly in other than a medical work to continue the details. The autopsy was done with extreme gravity and painstaking. When the brain was exposed and its condition declared, I left the medical gentlemen to the completion of their arduous task.
     It is due the State of New York to say the assassin was handled from the day of his crime to the moment of his disappearance in quicklime, with eminent good sense, perfect propriety, the inflexible policy [471][472] being to spurn aside all sensationalism, have the duty of the State performed without hesitation or consenting in any way to the wretched sentimentalism giving murderers a promise of fame, however miserable. The decisions of Warden Mead and State Superintendent of Prisons, Cornelius V. Collins, of the correct thing to do from first to last, have not been seriously challenged in any case, and the last determination to which they came after the execution, to preserve the correspondence of Czolgosz directed to Auburn prison, is a position thoughtfully and well taken. There are some thousands of letters that may be useful to Congress in national legislation to promote the emigration of anarchists from our country.
     On the way to Auburn I visited the grounds of the Exposition in Buffalo, and the scene of the shooting of the President. Passing through the splendid city, along the street that is a continuous park, on one side the old-fashioned Milburn residence, whose front is beautiful and venerable with ivy, a house which takes its place in history for ever; on the other side, a little nearer the center of the city, the Wilcox residence, with a front row of lofty pillars as was the way of colonial Virginia, Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office to be President of the United States. In the midst of the pomp of the buildings of the Exposition now fading with the glories of Indian summer, I entered the Temple of Music by the door that Czolgosz passed in and had but twenty or thirty steps to make to meet the President, who extended to him his hand! There is now a railing about the spot, marked by a star where the President stood.
     This temple is inside a mere shell; it is already visited by thousands of pilgrims. When I was there at an early morning hour yesterday, no other visitor was present. There was a great array of empty chairs, and all around the imposing rotunda the flags of our country were almost the only but the sufficient decoration. On the outside the adornment is elaborate, possibly too much so to be permanent. But the temple is a shapely dome, and one wonders whether it may, with the removal of some redundancies, be a fit model for the magnificent memorial structure that shall be a stately monument worthy to bear through the ages the memorably good name of the martyred President McKinley.

[author’s signature]



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