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Source: Alienist and Neurologist
Source type: journal
Document type: article
Document title: “Medical Aspects of the Czolgosz Case”
Author(s): Hughes, Charles Hamilton
Date of publication: January 1902
Volume number: 23
Issue number: 1
Pagination: 40-52

Hughes, Charles Hamilton. “Medical Aspects of the Czolgosz Case.” Alienist and Neurologist Jan. 1902 v23n1: pp. 40-52.
full text
McKinley assassination (government response: criticism); Leon Czolgosz (execution: personal response); Leon Czolgosz (execution); Leon Czolgosz (autopsy); McKinley assassination (news coverage: criticism); the press (criticism); McKinley assassination (lessons learned); Leon Czolgosz (mental health); McKinley assassination; Leon Czolgosz; Leon Czolgosz (trial: criticism).
Named persons
Gaetano Bresci; Leon Czolgosz; John Gerin; Charles J. Guiteau; Andrew Jackson; Abraham Lincoln; Carlos F. MacDonald [misspelled below]; Giovanni Passannante [misspelled below]; Isaac Ray; Walter Scott; Edward A. Spitzka; George Washington.
Alternate article title: “Medical Inquiry and the Guillotine Commended for Capital Crime.—A Psychological Opportunity Lost.”

Running title: “Medical Inquiry and the Guillotine.”

From page 40: By Charles Hamilton Hughes, M. D., Professor of Psychiatry and Neuriatry Barnes Medical College, St. Louis, etc.


Medical Aspects of the Czolgosz Case




     “What the Jury want is light upon the dark points in the case before them.”—Isaac Ray, Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity.

     “The light of science and liberal knowledge—directly and clearly, without the intervention of refracting media.”—Ibid.

     “The criminal act itself is, in some instances, the only indication of insanity, the individual appearing rational.”—Ibid.

     “Law is like laudanum, it is easier to abuse it like a quack than to employ it like a physician.”—Sir Walter Scott.

THE too summary judgment and execution of the degraded assassin of one of the best intentioned presidents since Washington or Lincoln, destroyed an excellent opportunity for studying thoroughly another psychological anomaly in the political history of our Republic, the third among the wretches who could deliberately murder an American president. Such characters are politically unique in American history. Regicides have aforetime had, in many instances, adequate provocation, but no adequate political cause has ever existed in this republic for the murder of an American Chief Executive. And when so strange, astounding, and normally inexplicable a deed as the assassination of an American president occurs, the psychologist, accustomed to search [40][41] out motives of mental action, would wish time and opportunity to study these anomalous characters who can without compunction and with self-laudation, stealthily kill the most benignant of men, standing for and executing the most beneficent of governments on the face of the earth. Czolgosz should have been kept alive, under durance and scientific psychological surveillance, as the botanist would keep a newly found exotic, until more might have been learned of his strange mental make-up, in order that our political future might profit by a better understanding of those anomalous integers and epochs of our anomalous present and recent past, when our presidents have been slain by citizens.
     Of the three despicable creatures who have killed our presidents and of another who attempted the life of President Andrew Jackson and failed, three have been regarded as paranoiacs. What of the last one of these wretches?
     Let justice be as sure and the penalty as swift as due regard for a knowledge of all of the facts, in similar cases tending to enlighten us as to the causes of such incomprehensible and reprehensible deeds in our fair free country, will permit. But in such cases medical and medico-psychological science have claims, to which reasonable time should be conceded, in order that the whole truth may be brought out to enlighten science, law and justice. In the first place, delay of execution should be sufficiently prolonged to elicit possible complicity and all possible incentives and to secure the life history, individual and ancestral, of these cranks. Absence of complicity or adequate motive point to insanity or its kindred states of imbecility, etc.; secondly, electrocution through the head imperils the value of an autopsy, having in view the question of mental disease or congenital defect. Thirdly, electrocution through the neck destroying the vagi or the cord only at junction with the medulla might be better for science, and ultimately for truth, the welfare of law and of the body politic. The guillotine would be still more scientific.
     The final record, in this too hasty vengeance for the good of science, says that Czolgosz, the President’s assassin [41][42] paid the penalty of the law for his crime at twelve and one-half minutes after seven a. m. of October 29th, ultimo, just forty-four days after the execrable crime and that he was shocked to death by 1,700 volts of electricity. The rush of the current threw his body so hard against the straps by which his head and body were held to the electrocution chair that the straps creaked perceptably [sic], the hands clinched suddenly and the whole attitude of the body was one of extreme tension. For five seconds the full current was kept on, then slowly the current was reduced volt by volt until it was entirely cut off, then the shock was repeated for two or three seconds. The relaxed body again stiffened as from the first shock and relaxed again upon its being turned off. A third shock of a few seconds caused the same rigidity, followed by relaxation, simultaneous with the shutting off of the current at 7:15 a. m. At 7:17 a. m. after satisfactory pulse and respiration tests on the part of the attending physicians, the prison warden pronounced the criminal deed [sic].
     The autopsy, as immediately performed by Doctors C. F. McDonald, E. A. Spitzka and prison physician Gerin, revealed to them the brain of Czolgosz as normal both microscopically and macroscopically, the cranium and other organs of the body likewise. The autopsy was completed within four hours after death. The remains of the murderer were buried and destroyed by means of a carboy of commercial sulphuric acid poured upon the body in the lowered coffin. Thus ended the legal retribution in oblivion and extinction of every physical vestige of our good President’s dastard destroyer and even his clothing and effects were burned. And thus be ever the finality of all and every one who would essay even to strike the President of this Nation while in office with assassin intent.
     When such bizarre crimes as this occur, however, so lacking in ordinary incentive, so motiveless to any right-minded American citizen, the medico-psychologist, accustomed to look for motives in all normal action, seeks to understand their cause or causes and to comprehend the factors of such a result, requires deliberate and painstaking [42][43] investigation. Was the crime of Czolgosz the product of anything in our civilization, was it the product of an anarchistic conspiracy or of newspaper suggestion, making crime too familiar and presidents too common to the vulgar mind, or of hypnotic suggestion, or did it result from a brain diseased or arrested in development?
     An autopsy on a fresh brain made within a few hours after death has settled this last question, so far as such an autopsy can settle it. No disease of brain was found, yet there was disease there sufficient to kill, the result of the electric shock, if nothing else. That autopsy was made by good men and was the best possible under the circumstances of so brief an allotment of time for it. But that brain should have been given to science for more deliberate examination and undamaged molecularly by electrocution. It should have been put away in preservative fluid and its neurones examined after staining and with due deliberation, for the causes of death in them. The chromophile cells, their proliferations and connections, with time, might have revealed something to the knowing in cytology. But the secular press of the country, having no code of ethics, though needing one badly, on the subject of the treatment of the President’s character and handling of crime, quite as much as the blatant-mouthed anarchists, having made the crime a possibility, concluded it was time to call a halt after the great sacrifice to the folly of making murder cheap and crime too familiar. It demanded that no more be said or [sic] the President’s murderer and that he be speedily and silently disposed of and every vestige of him destroyed, and for once in this country, the public press had kept judiciously silent on the subject of murder. Speedy oblivion and obliquy [sic] to this murderer became its remorseful demand. The case is, therefore, ended and disposed of and we are yet in darkness as to the real cause of this unnatural crime. We only know that a part of the daily press which so much condemns medical men for their code of ethics, has proven by this sad affair to be sadly in need of a code of ethics concerning chief executives and the public discussion of capital crime. For crime, like [43][44]

“Vice, is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen
Yet seen too oft; familiar with her face
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

     Yet the public press keeps familiarizing the people with crime, descanting on the courage of criminals on the scaffold going bravely with firm step or with stolid indifference to their doom, until these wretches have learned from them the familiar lesson that it is great to kill, and a virtue “to die game” for execrable crimes.
     One psychological lesson to be learned from the assassination is that the public press needs a code of ethics to restrain it from making vice and crime too familiar and from clothing it as though it were a virtue, in verbal garb attractive, and merited commendation and not condemnation, and a clause in the code against slander, vilification and debasingly familiar discussion of the characters and motives of our Presidents. While this quotation was designed to teach a moral lesson and is clothed somewhat in poetic fancy and therefore not altogether truthful, there is a psychological element of truth in it. The woof is fancy but the warp is truth. Vice does not entice or sway usually as a repulsive monster, but when clothed in the attractive habiliments of beauty and seductive song and passion, as the Sirens were.
     Nevertheless familiarity with crime breeds complaisance and acquiescent tolerance, and the mind automically [sic] inclines, when its normal inhibitions are withdrawn or perverted as we see in many forms of insanity, to repeat and act out familiar impressions and to give active impulsion to thoughts and deeds it would, when well, have discountenanced and suppressed. Brain disease loosens moral restraint, not only in delirium but in disease far short of that. Those who are well may easiest be morally strong. This is a truth of psychology which cannot be refuted.
     But what was the state of Czolgosz’s mind? Legally sane of course, for it would be contrary to sound public policy to extenuate such crimes on the plea of insanity in any but the most flagrantly insane. But here was a weak, [44][45] mean, contemptible and commonplace young man twenty-one years of age, unaccustomed to mingle with men of affairs or mark, ignominious of birth and station and habitual thought and action, inspired by egotism not common to his station and the delusion of imaginary duty, seeking a president for a vicarious victim for the imaginary sins of the Republican party, and willing to give his own miserable insignificant life in order that this President might die and in order that he (this commonplace man) in morbid imagination, might serve the people of his class as their God of vengeance, whom that President had in no way wronged. “I killed the President,” said he while in the chair about to be electrocuted, “because he was an enemy of the good people. I am not sorry for my crime, but I am awfully sorry that I could not see my father.” Stoic resignation, indifference and delusion in the face of certain death, courting, rather than shunning, the death consequences of his crime as though it were a glorious martyrdom! No collusion, no instigation proved, but an abiding delusion of the President’s responsibility for a condition that did not exist and which the President could not control if existing, and dominated by the egotistic delusion, the imperative conception, of his own mistaken duty to destroy that President. No hope of reward, death certain, no provision for, nor attempt at escape, no shunning of consequences, no disturbances of mental equanimity, no regrets for detection, arrest or confinement, no compunction of conscience for the crime, no loss of sleep, of appetite, no motive but an imaginary and ordinarily uncompensating one of vicarious vengeance. A complacency and self-satisfaction abides with the fool after the crime and death as one who, though execrated by the whole people for the most damnable of deeds, can calmly say “I am not sorry,” “I have done right.”
     Where are we to look for the causes of the psychic phenomenon? Are they to be found in the genius of our own institutions? Have we retrograded to that? Or in defects of this man’s brain? Would it not have been wiser to have given the subject a little more deliberation and [45][46] thorough study, both while living and after death and not to have destroyed the criminal brain? We think it would. The brains and bodies of all criminals should be bequeathed to anthropological science, for science thinks when the rest of the world is blind or sleeps, or paralyzes its reflecting powers with emotions of amazement or vengeance, or other excitations of the mind that embarrass true and calm ratiocination and conclusion.
     Something is wrong in the mental make-up of this man. What is it? It is not moral degradation. Moral degradation knows not motives of charity. The mental movement of moral degradation is for personal gain to purse, passion, etc. Is it environment or heredity? Then the breed and environment should be inquired into and their causes eradicated, and all engendering influences removed. Such criminals and crimes cannot continue to exist and republics live.
     Crank, or crazed, or criminal, these creatures are a menace to the welfare of the state. To summarily kill them in detail, as crimes are committed, is no adequate remedy. Neither does electrocution enlighten us as to the engendering and evolving causes of the murderous breed. The thoughtful psychologist would find the nests and destroy the eggs of the abnormal neurones that make up these abnormal magnicides.
     Here is a man who murders with abnormal egoism, but without animosity and not from motive of ordinary benefit, or gain, such as moves normal criminals to crime, but from an extraordinary motive of charity for others and for whose crime, in the mistaken name of charity, he knew his life would certainly be forfeited. In short he gives his life for his friend, the working world, which he deludedly regarded as having been wronged by our good, unfortunate Chief Executive.
     A sheriff may wisely execute the law, as he must, in lawful duty bound, but he cannot wisely decide all the questions involved in a case like this, nor can courts, without all the possible evidence. Carboys of vitriol obliterate the victim, but they do not solve the problem. [46][47]
     This magnicide must take his place, in the minds of psychologists, with Guiteau, Passanante, Bresci, and other historic regicides, for the deliberated study and verdict of psychological anthropology. It is a pity that science should be crippled in her honest endeavors after truth by the too hasty executions of these mental anomalies among civilized mankind. It were better for the governments concerned, for science and for the world, that haste to execute vengeance should wait on scientific deliberation in these cases. They are morally and politically unique, and out of harmony with liberal modern governments regulated by law, and aiming at Justice. It were better that in the lawful punishment of these peculiar criminals, the guillotine should substitute electrocution. No trace of microscopic truth, that might illuminate the honest researches of science, should be effaced from the brains of criminals executed for capital crime. They should all be examined, as a debt crime owes to the state, and with spinal cocainization they might profit science by being examined ante-mortem, without barbarity.
     In the calm afterthought of this world-startling tragedy, though we are yet bowed and stricken in the shadow of its overmastering sorrow, let us resurvey the astounding drama and calmly as we may seek to fathom its deep or uncover its shallow meaning, deep if the culmination of a collective design, shallow if but the product of an individual conception.
     A benignant, virtuous, revered, truth and duty tried and proven, people’s President is stricken, not with personal malice aforethought, in the ordinary sense of that word, not stealthily in the stillness, seclusion and security of the night time nor in some sequestered spot, but openly in the full light of day in the midst of the victim’s admiring, honoring thousands, each and all ready to prevent or avenge the deed, and who would have stayed the assassin’s hand, but for the covert unexpected shot. This deed of blood is done without personal malice or vengeance, without chance of escape, without incentive to anger, without hope of reward or other personal gain, without excitement or any of the ordinary [47][48] motives that move to passion or to crime, without proven confederates and disclaiming and without accomplices. Indifferent, calm, daring, reckless, hopeless of benefit or safety to self in any way, solicitous only that the fatal missive might fail to prove fatal to his victim and satisfied at the denouement of death to his victim, this man of mean station, insignificant birth, humble and low in remote as well as immediate heredity and in social affiliation, lowly and unconnected with men of high political motives, erratic and unsteady in occupation, irascible and unregulated in conduct, from youth up not consorting with criminals and without vicious criminal record, and with facial and cranial contour commonplace and degenerate in aspect, this personified insignificance emerges from obscurity and startles the world as the chief actor in a tragedy whose victim is among the first and greatest of the earth in character and station. He perpetrates in full public view, environed so that escape is impossible and without attempt at concealment, but glorying in the awful deed, for the like of which men have aforetime been rent asunder, a crime, judged from the ordinary standpoint of personal risk, of the utmost daring, a crime which, if it had proceeded from a conspiracy of numbers, would be of untold significance to our country’s welfare, a crime whose only motive seems to have been founded in delusion and a significant and fatal egoism and to prove, in his death, his devotion to the delusion that he, of all others, was the one on whom devolved the duty of murdering the President and sacrificing himself.
     Gloomy, almost silent and resigned, as though his despicable act were a virtuous deed, submissively like a martyr, but without a martyr’s cause, he pays the inadequate penalty of his egoistic delusioned life, for taking the life of one so exalted and so good that battalioned patriots would have gladly gone to heroic death in battle array, that he might have lived. His miserable career was cut short, cut too short for pure vengeance or justice, if the latter could be requited in that way, for the destruction of such a valued life, cut too short and too completely obliterated for the interests of that great psychological science which would search out and find, if [48][49] possible, the cause of these psychic monsters that murder great men without provocation, men who are exalted and good, benignant and beneficent to their race and kind. The full light of psychological and psycho-anatomical and physiological science should have been thrown upon this magnicide, living and dead, for the benefit of future jurisprudence and for the good of this fair land, where brains rightly endowed, rightly organized, with minds working through them rightly, do not compass the death of our Presidents.
     It is not seemly that learned lawyers appointed by the court to defend such criminals should apologize for the part they take and join in the furor of passion for hasty execution, while there yet remained possible facts to have been elicited, scientific and otherwise, in explanation of this as yet inexplicable, unimpassioned, unsoundly minded murder of an American President. There was a woman in the case, and a marked element of evil psychic suggestion, revealed in the later conduct and final act of Czolgosz, and in his reticent speech from time to time, which might have been brought out more fully, had the inquiry been more prolonged and conducted on broader lines of medical inquiry.
     Something more should be sought in legal inquests into supposed crime than mere technical legal guilt or innocence. This opportunity too was lost by the too speedily or too rapidly concluded trial and execution.
     Czolgosz’s egoism was unbounded and morbid. His mind was evidently weak and he appeared as a mental tool of wrong teaching, environment and influence. Unbounded egoism, projecting self into unnatural spheres and phases of action out of normal harmony with environment, is a characteristic of insanity and it was sufficiently prominent in the case of this murderer, to have justified more extensive inquiry into the mental make-up of this strange assassin.
     Let me close this essay of suggestion, (for absolute, positive conclusions cannot be formed without more definite data than the trial afforded, as to the true mental status of Czolgosz), by a few quotations from that Corypheus of medico-legal observers, who did so much in his day to [49][50] infuse justice and scientific truth into causes, where, before the law, the question of mental defect or insanity was involved. “Much of the unwillingness manifested by jurors,” (and I may here add judges) “to abide by the result to which the above distinctions (criminal and insane homicides) would necessarily lead them, arises from the feelings of horror and indignation excited by the perpetration of cold-blooded murders, which incapacitate them for discriminating with their usual acuteness between the various causes and motives of human action.”—I. Ray, § 260. Isaac Ray had traversed the “dark and bloody” ground we have gone over, many years before us.
     Here is another apt quotation from his experience: “Notwithstanding the great similarity, for the most part, between these cases, (criminal and insane homicide) one will occasionally occur where, from defect of information no little knowledge of insanity and of human nature is required to find one’s way through the mists of doubt and obscurity in which it is involved.” What a pity for psychological science, medical jurisprudence and the cause of true patriotism, that the possible medical aspects of this cas celebre were not diligently inquired into. There was some sort of mental defect in the stolid, reticent wretch who killed the President, expecting popular applause for the dastard deed.
     Was there moral or mental defect, teratological degeneracy or disease of the brain or nervous system, not revealed in the imperatively hasty autopsy? We shall never know. As a contribution to science the trial was in this regard a miscarriage.
     The lamented President and his detested murderer are dead and only darkness reigns where light might have shone. We have the horror and the sorrow of the awful tragedy, but are still inquiring for the why. Another magnicide has gone the final way of all flesh and we know no more than before of the mysterious mental make [sic] of these marvels of psychology, among a free people and in a fair government. [50][51]
     The alienist and neurologist would have sought more light on the health of this anomalous murderer and the causes of his singular conduct, but they will seek in vain in the records of his trial, and here again the plaintive plea of Isaac Ray in reference to similar cases in history “must give us pause” that we may reflect. “The absence of particulars in some of the cases we find recorded,” (he says, referring to particulars as to bodily health affecting the mind, and developing the incubative stage of insanity,) “leaves us in doubt, how general this change really is; but a careful examination would no doubt, often, if not always, show its existence.”—§ 257.
     Thus another case goes into history imperfectly developed in its medico-scientific, medico-legal aspects, because of the clamorous public demand for speedy vengeance. Blinded by the vengeful clamour and the righteous indignation of a personally stricken people, we are left sitting in the dark, still wondering how such a deed could have been done, by a man in his sound and sober senses, in Fair and Free America, and appalled at the possibility of a sane man murdering an American President.
     Prima facie, the man who under all the circumstances thus far brought to light in the Czolgosz trial, would murder or attempt to murder an American President, cannot be mentally sound or naturally normal in mind, even as a criminal, and there are some minds so constituted that they would wish to know more of the causes which could culminate in so terrible and unnatural a tragedy in this country, at such a time in our glorious political history, at such a place, and with such a man for its victim, and such an anachronistic psychic anomaly in crime for its despised chief actor. Legal tribunals, in such momentous causes, should seek to reach something more than conviction or acquittal. They should search for all possibly to be acquired truth of science pertaining to such singular cases.
     Law should concern itself, not alone with the question of complete or non-responsibility, but with degrees of responsibility and considerations of public safety. There are terato- [51][52] logical mental defectives incapable of living in harmony with the lawful regulations and duties of free and equal government whose organic mental misadaptability should be understood. Such persons should be sequestered and supervised and denied the franchise or any part in government. They are more dangerous to society, if allowed the freedom and privileges of rational citizens, than the ordinary criminal or lunatic who is now executed or secluded from lawfully organized society, and all social and law-regulated political life. Among its new acquisitions the United States should establish a colony for cranks and sequester and supervise them there, as Belgium does her lunatic colony at Gheel.



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