Source: Medico-Legal Studies
Source type: book
Document type: essay
Document title: “The Assassination of the American President”
Author(s): Bell, Clark
Volume number: 7
Publisher: Medico-Legal Journal
Place of publication: New York, New York
Year of publication: 1902
|Bell, Clark. “The Assassination of the American President.” Medico-Legal Studies. Vol. 7. New York: Medico-Legal Journal, 1902: pp. 248-50.|
|full text of essay; excerpt of book|
|McKinley assassination (personal response); anarchism (personal response).|
|John Wilkes Booth; James A. Garfield; Charles J. Guiteau; Abraham Lincoln; William McKinley.|
|From title page: By Clark Bell, Esq., LL. D., of the New York Bar.|
The Assassination of the American President
The act of the assassin brings
us face to face with a profound conviction that our criminal system is seriously
at fault, when dealing with crimes of the magnitude of this one on the life
of the President.
There can be no doubt whatever that as the law now stands, there is no punishment that could be awarded by a judicial tribunal at all adequate to the crime.
As at present arranged it is out of the power of the judiciary to “fit the punishment to the crime,” as is commonly said to be the duty of the judge.
The punishment the law metes out to this criminal if McKinley had lived is a mere mockery.
It is difficult to imagine a suitable punishment for the horrible wretch now that McKinley is dead.
The death of the man who occupies the executive chair of a nation in its legal consequences, in the eye of the law as it now stands, is simply murder, no more so than if it was the coachman or the gardener of the President.
This is where our law needs reconstruction. The act was intended by the assassin wholly outside of the personality of the victim.
It was not in the slightest degree personal, nor in any sense due to any official act of the President nor from any personal feeling against him. It was a crime against our civilization as a people.
It was not even in condemnation of any act of Mr. McKinley’s life in the high office he held.
It was a blow struck in the face of mankind, against any attempt to establish a form of government for the regulation of the rights of the citizens of a great nation. 
It was the same spirit that smote the King of Italy, and the other members of ruling families, of the thrones of the Old World in recent crimes of a like character.
It was not in revenge for alleged wrongs, as the Nihilist threatens the rulers of Russia.
It was the outcome of that spirit of anarchy that is new to our day, not the killing of unjust rulers to redress public wrongs, but was an apparently concerted effort to prevent the existence of a government here, based on the will of the majority of the people, to govern the American nation under its written constitution.
How are we to meet this wonderful condition? The assassin of Lincoln acted from entirely different motives. Booth was not an Anarchist.
Guiteau, who slew President Garfield, was simply a lunatic, and the post-mortem examination of his brain by the committee of the Medico-Legal Society showed it to be physically diseased. It was the act of an insane mind.
It was fortunate for us that this was a demonstration, and not a mere opinion. It is an incontrovertible fact that Guiteau’s act had not the slightest tinge of anarchy in either its design or execution.
This assassination of President McKinley is not the work of an insane mind.
It is apparently the culmination of a preconceived design and a carefully cemented plan.
In dealing with the wild beast or the deadly rattlesnake we consider, that the right to inflict death, as to an enemy of our race is an inherent right. Measured by every standard available to human reason, the Anarchist who decides to prevent the organization of human government by the assassination of him who has been chosen to act as the head of the government becomes the deadly enemy of the race, far more terrible than the hyena, the tiger or the rattlesnake. 
It is not the question of the loss of a single life. Mr. McKinley disappears, in the magnitude of the crime against the rights of the American people.
Have the people, who are the real parties to this controversy, the right, to so reform their laws as to place the Anarchist on the same plane as the poisonous serpent or the deadly wild beast?
The movement to class an attempt at an assassination, by statute, with the same penalties as if it was successful, does not reach the case. The combination that slew the President may strike in the same deadly manner at his successor.
It is a stupendous question in our criminology how to prevent this crime. The death of the assassin is no adequate punishment for such a crime. The nation is now exposed to its repetition at every public function. We should consider whether our time honored custom of shaking the hand of the Executive should be continued. Apparently no precautions can prevent a recurrence if the custom continues.