When President William McKinley was murdered at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901, Americans were bereaved and frightened. Rumor ran rampant: A wild-eyed foreign anarchist with an unpronounceable name had killed the commander-in-chief. Eric Rauchway's brilliant Murdering McKinley restages Leon Czolgosz's hastily conducted trial and then traverses America with Dr. Vernon Briggs, a Boston alienist who sets out to discover why Czolgosz rose up to kill his president.
This ambitious book paints a fresh picture of American culture a century ago and finds there the confused stirrings of our own age. Rauchway's lens opens on the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz and keeps that event in focus throughout. The author's aim is to get us to understand in new ways the dawning 20th century, when so many of our present political and social struggles took form and solutions were proposed. For instance, the involvement in Czolgosz's case of "alienists" and criminologists provides Rauchway (The Refuge of Affections) with openings into such varied issues as nativism, racism, industrial conditions and social work. As for politics, he deals skillfully with now mostly forgotten issues such as tariffs and currency policy that rarely appeal to readers, but which here gain clarity through Rauchway's deft brevity. Most important, he shows how the nation's culture, and Theodore Roosevelt, who gained the presidency on McKinley's death, got caught up in a debate about the reasons for the murder. Was Czolgosz spurred by his psychological state or by anarchist ideology? Did the murder's origins lie within the assassin or in the social conditions that produce desperate people? These are issues that continue to divide Americans. And the book shines in dealing with them, making an important contribution to historical understanding. Rauchway's explanation for Roosevelt's 1912 loss as "Bull Moose" candidate of the Progressive Party that he was caught between opposing interpretations of the roots of the nation's ills is especially provocative. That alone should make the book controversial.