Special Collections October 2001

Centennial of an Assassination

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In September of 1901 a woman named Wilhelmina Aschbacher was working at the Pendrick Laundry, in Buffalo, New York. Among Pendrick's regular customers were the Milburns, a prominent local family who were that month playing hosts to an even more prominent guest: President William McKinley. The President was in town to visit the Pan-American Exposition. On the afternoon of September 6, while greeting well-wishers at the expo's Temple of Music, the President was approached by Leon Czolgosz, a twenty-eight-year-old anarchist who concealed the revolver in his hand by wrapping it in a handkerchief. Czolgosz shot the President twice before being subdued. As McKinley was carried off, Private Francis P. O'Brien, of the United States Seacoast Artillery, scooped up Czolgosz's gun, a nickel-plated .32-caliber Iver Johnson revolver; the gun eventually ended up in the district attorney's office, but not before O'Brien and another soldier, Corporal Bertschey, had carved their initials in it.

That's how it was in Buffalo. While the President lay in a guest bed at the Milburn home, almost everyone else in town was snatching up any item related to the shooting, either for evidence or as a souvenir—the handkerchief Czolgosz had used to conceal the revolver, the handcuffs used to restrain him afterward, the bullets fired and unfired, the scalpels and probes and clamps and scissors the surgeons used in operating on the President. Within hours every single piece of McKinley-related memorabilia at the expo—medals, coins, buttons, plaques, trays, paperweights—had been sold, usually for many times the original asking price.

One vendor even generated new memorabilia, printing up white ribbons that declared PAN-AMERICA REJOICES. OUR PRESIDENT WILL LIVE. But these, too, soon became relics; on September 14 William McKinley died. Afterward the Milburns sent his nightgown to the Pendrick Laundry. It disappeared, although many years later a small piece of it was presented to the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (which already had in its collection the revolver, the bullets, the handkerchief, the handcuffs, the surgical implements, and dozens of other McKinley relics) by a local woman named Ruth Scholz. It had been given to her by her mother, Wilhelmina Aschbacher.

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