This article, “What connections did President McKinley’s assassin have with West Virginia?” by Larry Shockley, originally appeared in the Charleston Gazette on February 18, 2009. It has been slightly edited here.
One of the most enduring stories in the history of West Virginia concerns the identity of the assassin of President William McKinley.
According to a newspaper article published shortly after the shooting, several books about the history of the state of West Virginia, as well as the archives of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, President McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, lived in Kanawha City where he was employed at a nail mill as a wire drawer shortly before he took McKinley’s life.
Recently located historical evidence that includes interviews with the assassin’s brothers, a newspaper article that appeared during the time period, and contradictions in the initial evidence, point to the conclusion that this popular story is based more upon myth than reality.
On Sept. 6, 1901, the twenty-fifth president of the United States, William McKinley, was in Buffalo, NY, at the Pan-American Exposition promoting the expansion of trade and commerce with foreign countries.
While receiving visitors at the Temple of Music, he was fatally wounded by two shots fired point-blank from a .32 caliber pistol that had been purchased just three days earlier by a self-confessed anarchist by the name of Leon F. Czolgosz (pronounced Tchollgosh).
Immediately after the shooting, Czolgosz not only confessed to the crime, but virtually sabotaged any attempts by his defense to have him labeled as insane when he said, “I fully understood what I was doing when I shot the president. I realized that I was sacrificing my life. I am willing to take the consequences. I want it to be published — I killed President McKinley because I done my duty. I don’t believe in one man having so much service and another man having none.”
Questions surrounding the background of the assassin and the circumstances that led up to Sept. 6, 1901 began even before the president passed away. It was known that Czolgosz was born in Detroit, was 28 years old and came from poor, Polish-German parents. But beyond a few simple facts, little was known about him.
Five days after the shooting, newspaper accounts circulated that Czolgosz had lived for a time in West Virginia.
In its Sept. 12, 1901, edition, the Parkersburg Daily Morning News ran a story on its front page headlined: “Assassin Czolgosz said to have been married in Charleston.” The story said “[i]t seems that Czolgosz, the anarchist who attempted the life of the president, was at one time a resident of Kanawha City, where he was employed in a nail mill as a wire drawer.”
The article also revealed how a man giving his name as Czolgosz, his home as Cleveland, and the same address as the anarchist, was employed at the nail factory and that Chief of Police Starks and Constable Howard Smith had once arrested him as the result of “some trouble with a woman.”
When the situation was discussed with other employees of the nail mill, some of them remembered that a “quick-shot marriage” had been conducted by Father Joseph Stenger and that both of the parties had been from Ohio.
According to the article, the man had initially given his last name as Czolgosz when he went to work at the factory, but changed it to Neiman shortly afterwards. When asked about the change, he explained that his stepmother’s name had been Neiman, that he was very small when his father married her, and that he had then been known by both Neiman and Czolgosz.
Constable Howard Smith was out of town the day that the article was written so he was not interviewed, but Chief Starks was interviewed while on his beat. He said that a lady passenger had approached him on a train one day and explained that she had come from Cleveland to find her lover, who worked at a nail mill in the area.
After the girl “gave good reason why the young man should marry her and do it right away,” the Constable claims he “took charge of the girl” and placed her in a boarding house on State Street. After leaving the boarding house, Chief Starks and Constable Smith went to the nail mill and arrested the man who, after a brief discussion, agreed to marry the girl. The couple decided that they wanted to be married by a Catholic priest.
Father Stenger initially refused to marry the couple without first communicating with the girl’s priest from her Cleveland parish, but after receiving a “favorable response,” the couple was married by Father Stenger at the Catholic parish in Charleston.
The article notes a slight ambiguity surrounding the documentation for the marriage. While a search through the county marriage records did not yield a marriage involving an individual by the name of Czolgosz, a record of what one could conclude was the name of the couple in question was apparently located.
A marriage license was awarded to Frank Nauman and Emma Wisiemki on Jan. 14, 1900. Not only was Constable Howard Smith a witness to the license, the Rev. Father Joseph Stenger was listed as the officiating minister as well. Nauman listed his age as 23, his residence at the time as Kanawha County and his birthplace as Buffalo. Wisiemki listed her age as 17, her home as Cleveland and her birthplace as Germany.
Despite the fact that the name on the license as “understood by the clerk” was Nauman and the name used at the mill was Neiman, the article concludes that the individual who lived in the area, worked in the mill, married Emma Wisiemki and wounded the president were one in the same.
And so the 109-year-old story that Nauman/Neiman/Czolgosz were one and the same hinges on the shaky conclusions of one newspaper article. But as is generally the case with stories of world significance, certain facts come into dispute over time.
On Sept. 11, 1901, the day prior to the Parkersburg article, the Charleston Daily Mail published a story contradicting a story from an “evening contemporary” that claimed Nauman and Czolgosz were one in the same.
Under the headline “Doubtful Identity. No Credence in the Report that Czolgosz Formerly Worked Here,” the Charleston article claims “[i]t is hardly possible” that Nauman and Czolgosz were the same person.
Rather than deducing that Nauman must be Nieman from a marriage license and that Nieman must be Czolgosz from an undocumented mill worker explanation, the author of the Charleston article records that police officers who saw Nauman claim that he bore no resemblance to printed photographs of the man who killed the president.
A great deal of other evidence disputes the accuracy of the initial reports that Czolgosz was from the Kanawha County area. Not only does the name in the marriage records (Frank Nauman) not match the alias used by Czolgosz at the time (Fred Neiman), there is also a significant age discrepancy.
Whereas Czolgosz at the time has been listed as 28, the age of the groom in the marriage records was 23. There is also a more compelling discrepancy pertaining to the likelihood that Czolgosz/Nieman would have any interactions with a woman that would necessitate marriage.
In his book, “Murdering McKinley,” Eric Rauchway uses interviews with members of the Czolgosz family to dispute the notion that Leon had even been interested in any girl, much less had fathered a child with one and had then married her.
Citing interviews conducted by Dr. Lloyd Vernon Briggs, a psychologist who was assigned to gather evidence for a postmortem in the Czolgosz case, Rauchway attempts to lay to rest claims that Czolgosz had fathered a child.
Three of Czolgosz’s brothers apparently disputed the notion that Leon would have been involved with a woman. His brother Waldeck claimed that he was sure that Leon had never associated with a girl, and claimed that if Leon had been involved with a girl, that he would have known about it. Another brother claimed that Leon never looked at girls, while a third Czolgosz brother claimed that Leon was always very shy and would rather walk across the street than have to talk to a girl.
So although the story of Czolgosz and his supposed ties to the Charleston area are likely based more upon myth than fact, in the case of Leon Czolgosz, myth has triumphed over reality.