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Source: The Life of William McKinley
Source type: book
Document type: appendix
Document title: “The Trial of the Assassin” [appendix 2]
Author(s): Olcott, Charles S.
Volume number: 2
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Place of publication: Boston, Massachusetts
Year of publication: 1916
Pagination: 385-88

Olcott, Charles S. “The Trial of the Assassin” [appendix 2]. The Life of William McKinley. Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916: pp. 385-88.
full text of appendix; excerpt of book
Leon Czolgosz (trial).
Named persons
Leon Czolgosz; James A. Garfield; Charles J. Guiteau; Loran L. Lewis; William McKinley; Robert C. Titus; Truman C. White.


The Trial of the Assassin

     THE trial of Leon F. Czolgosz, the assassin, which began September 23, 1901, was a model of dignity, deliberation, consideration for the criminal’s legal rights, and swift justice. It was in striking contrast with the endless delays and tangles of technicalities which characterized the trial of Garfield’s murderer. It was all accomplished within two days and required exactly eight hours and twenty-six minutes. The Guiteau trial, on the contrary, did not get under way until after many tiresome preliminaries and then dragged along, to the exasperation of the country, for nearly two months and a half. At the trial of McKinley’s assassin, Judge Truman C. White, one of the oldest and most experienced of the Supreme Court Justices, presided. The prisoner would not employ counsel, because he did not believe in law or government. He had for several years attended meetings of anarchists and had studied their doctrines, becoming possessed of the idea that every king, emperor, president, or head of government was a tyrant and should be put out of the way. Although at first it was generally believed that he was the chosen agent of some conspiring group of anarchists, it was subsequently developed that he had acted independently. Two of the most distinguished alienists of the country examined him and agreed that he was quite sane. There could be no defense on any other ground than that of insanity. The crime had been witnessed by many and the prisoner admitted his guilt.
     Nevertheless, two of the most distinguished ex-Justices of the Supreme Court of the State of New [385][386] York, Loran L. Lewis and Robert C. Titus, were selected by the Bar Association of Erie County, and formally appointed to defend the prisoner. It was a disagreeable task, but the two gentlemen accepted the duty and saw that their client received all the rights to which he was legally entitled.
     After the evidence was in, the venerable Judge Lewis, white-haired and white-bearded, rose to address the jury. In a speech, probably the most remarkable of its kind ever delivered in defense of a prisoner, he stated first of all that he and his colleague, having been assigned to the case, found it their duty to proceed, regardless of personal feeling. He explained the law regarding insanity and then said that the prisoner was entitled to a trial under our laws. He could not be permitted to plead guilty. His guilt must be proved by the People beyond a reasonable doubt. He said the doctrine of anarchy was dangerous and criminal, but pointed out the fact that the danger was not equal to that of the belief, now becoming so common, that men charged with crime should not go through the form of trial, but that lynch law should take the place of the calm and dignified administration of justice.
     The aged jurist seemed to be struggling between a conscientious determination to perform the painful duty assigned to him, and a sense of profound grief for his client’s fatal work. In a voice trembling with emotion, he concluded this strange defense in these words:—
     “This trial is a great object-lesson to the world. Here is a case where a man has stricken down the beloved President of this country, in broad daylight, in the presence of hundreds and thousands of spectators. If there was ever a case that would excite the anger, the wrath, of those who saw it, this was one. Here was a man occupying an exalted position, a man of irreproachable [386][387] character; he was a man who had come here to assist us in promoting the prosperity of our great exposition; and he was shot down while holding a reception.
     “His death has touched every heart in this community and in the whole world, and yet we sit here and quietly consider whether this man was responsible for the act he committed. That question is one for you to decide.
     “The law presumes the defendant innocent until he is proved guilty, and we start with the assumption that the defendant was not mentally responsible for the crime he committed. We have not been able to present any evidence on our part. The defendant has even refused, on almost every occasion, to talk with his counsel. He has not aided us, so we have come here unaided to consider this important question. But I know there is in every human being a strong desire to live. Death is a specter that we dislike to meet, and here this defendant, without having any animosity against our President, without any personal motive so far as we can see, committed the act which, if he was sane, must cause his death. How can a man with a sane mind perform such an act? The rabble in the streets will say—No matter whether he is insane or not, he deserves to be killed. The law, however, says that you must consider the circumstances and see if he was in his right mind or not when he committed the deed. If you find he was not responsible, you would aid in lifting a great cloud from the minds of the people of this country. If the beloved President had met with a railroad accident and been killed, our grief could not compare with what it is now. If you find that he met his fate through the act of an insane man, it is the same as though he had met it by an accident.
     “I had the profoundest respect for President McKinley. I watched him in Congress and during his long public career and he was one of the noblest men God ever made. His policy we care nothing about, but it always met with [387][388] my profoundest respect. His death was the saddest blow to me that has occurred in many years.”
     As the concluding sentence was uttered, the speaker’s voice broke and tears flowed freely down his face. Many of those in the courtroom were unable to restrain their emotion.
     In less than an hour after Justice White began his charge to the jury, the verdict of “Guilty” was brought into court. The prisoner was executed at the Auburn State Prison on October 29.



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