EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published in June, 2017 by the Ohio History Connection. Knox Pages has entered into a collaborative agreement with the Ohio History Connection to share content across our sites.
“The Secret Service men are a very small but very necessary thorn in the flesh.” – Theodore Roosevelt, 1906
As 1914 came to a close, Edmund Starling arrived at the White House to begin his new position as a Secret Service agent. His new boss, Joseph E. Murphy, sat down with Starling to describe the details of protecting the President, saying, “’If he plays golf, we go along. If he attends the theatre, so do we. If he leaves town, we travel with him …”
Starling even learned about the specifics of rail travel with President Wilson. As Starling recalled later, “every inch of railroad over which the special train was to travel had to be examined … switches were spiked and guarded so that no one could get to them. The crew of the train was specially selected. The engine and coaches were checked and rechecked for mechanical faults. Everyone who rode on the train had to be a certified member of the Presidential party, and the Secret Service men had to know him on sight.”
Just 13 years earlier, on another train carrying President William McKinley (a native of Canton, Ohio), a very different scene unfolded. On Sept. 4, 1901, McKinley and his wife were traveling to Buffalo, New York, to attend the Pan-American Exposition. As the train passed through Buffalo, the seacoast artillery attempted to greet the President with a 21-shot salute from three cannons.
Apparently the artillery had not properly measured their distance to the train track. As soon as they fired, the windows on the side of the first train car were shattered.
George Cortelyou, the President’s personal secretary, rushed to get the shooting to stop. In 1901, presidents did not yet have a permanent Secret Service detail. Cortelyou worried constantly and vocally about President McKinley’s safety.
As Cortelyou motioned for the shooting to cease, the artillery read his motions as an invitation to continue. The entire 21-shot salute was completed to properly welcome McKinley to Buffalo. No one was injured and the President didn’t seem to mind, so the train continued onward.
The Secret Service, originally a portion of the Treasury Department meant to investigate counterfeiting, had been experimenting with providing security for the President in the years preceding McKinley’s trip to Buffalo. After all the country had recently witnessed two assassinations, Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and James A. Garfield in 1881.
However, security remained lax, and it seemed, bowed to the whims of the President. When McKinley laughed about the shooting at his train, it was ignored. Later in McKinley’s visit he was meant to host an open house to shake hands with members of the public. Cortelyou so desperately wanted McKinley to cancel this event that he continued to remove it from the official schedule. However without backup from an official security detail, Cortelyou could not stop the President from attending this event.
By the time of McKinley’s trip to Buffalo, it was clear that the President needed security, but nothing had been codified. This is evident in a new piece from the collections at the Ohio History Connection Archives/Library.
This paper would likely have been handed out to organizers of the Pan-American Exposition and members of the President’s party that were involved with his activities on Sept. 5, 1901. The list, compiled by the Exposition, detailed the needs and rules for the day. For example, “Order will be maintained in the government Building by the Government Guard. Marines and Regular soldiers detailed for that purpose. Exposition Guards being stationed on the outside of the various entrances.” To pass these Exposition Guards, the list specifies that an individual must be wearing a badge that marks their involvement.
However, these brief security measures are buried in a list that also details music, staffing, and guest-list considerations.
Despite inconsistent security measures, the President was able to enjoy his day. He gave what is now considered one of his best speeches in the morning and enjoyed spectacular fireworks in the evening. With a morning trip planned to Niagara Falls, McKinley was looking forward to continuing his visit on Sept. 6.
Unfortunately, his erratic security detail caught up to President McKinley on the evening of Sept. 6, 1901. Despite Cortelyou’s constant protest, McKinley arrived at the Exhibition’s Temple of Music around 4 p.m. Here the President was meant to hold an open reception to shake hands with members of the public.
McKinley was actually surrounded by a large number of guards as the event began. The Secret Service supplied three agents, the Exposition offered 18 guards, and the 73rd Seacoast Artillery proffered seven soldiers (no 21-shot salutes were planned, thankfully).
However, as presidential security was not yet a strictly organized system, a few key mistakes were made that evening.
At large events, a Secret Service agent typically stood on President McKinley’s left side so that the agent could clearly see the right hand of the next citizen in line as they reached out to shake the President’s hand. In this case, an Exhibition organizer took the position next to McKinley so that he could point out important individuals in the reception line.
Typically, no one was meant to get close to President McKinley without leaving their hands clear and easy for agents to examine. However, it was hot on Sept. 6, 1901, and handkerchiefs abounded. This rule was ignored so that guests could hold handkerchiefs to wipe the sweat from their faces.
Looking for threats from anarchists, Secret Service agents were practicing a certain level of racial profiling. As the New York Herald later reported, “Far down the line a man of unusual aspect appeared. He was short, heavy and dark, and beneath a heavy dark moustache were straight bloodless lips. Under his black brows gleamed sharp, black eyes. He was picked out at once as a suspicious person.” One of the Secret Service agents, Samuel Ireland, would be blunter in saying that the man, “looked like an Italian.”
Next in line, behind this suspicious man, was “a rather tall, boyish looking fellow … of German-American extraction.” The New York Herald commented that, “his smooth, rather pointed face would not indicate any sinister purpose.”
This man, Leon Czolgosz (going by the name Fred C. Neiman), was a native of Cleveland, Ohio. Czolgosz was a fairly average Midwestern man, however in the last few years his family had begun noticing odd and paranoid behaviors.
Before getting in line to meet President McKinley, Czolgosz concealed a newly purchased gun in his right hand by covering it with a handkerchief. He offered his left hand to McKinley to shake. McKinley was slightly taken aback, but he willingly took Czolgosz’s left hand -- he figured the man must have injured his right. Czolgosz grabbed McKinley tightly with his left hand and opened fire on the President with his concealed weapon.
President William McKinley lingered painfully for over a week as doctors attempted to heal his injuries. However on Sept. 14, 1901, the President became the third to die by an assassin’s hand in less than 40 years. Czolgosz soon followed, meeting the electric chair for his crimes. While other anarchists were initially questioned, it was determined that Czolgosz acted alone.
Immediately after McKinley was shot, conversations began concerning the security of the President. Newspapers ran articles about the previous assassinations of Lincoln and Garfield. As the New York Herald commented, “President McKinley’s fearlessness and freedom in meeting his countrymen, while universally commended and appreciated, has been frequently commented upon by those who realize the risks he has incurred.”
Theodore Roosevelt, sworn in as President in Buffalo, New York, upon McKinley’s death, became the first President of the United States to experience full-time protection via the Secret Service.
With Czolgosz’s first shot, the days of unattended Presidential walks (McKinley liked to stroll across the White House grounds or through his hometown of Canton), or easily planned public Presidential events immediately ended. The level of protection expected for the President would only continue to grow.
As new agent Edmund Starling was told in 1914, “(The President) can’t order you to go away and leave him alone. That you must never do. His safety is your responsibility."