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Anarchists and Assassinations in the Early 20th-Century United States

The Walter Channing Papers, 1810-1921 contain various materials relating to anarchism and perceptions of anarchists in the early 20th-century United States. I decided to explore this collection after locating a record in our catalog, ABIGAIL, for an 18 October 1902 letter written by anarchist Emma Goldman to Dr. Walter Channing, a Boston psychiatrist. In the letter, Goldman writes about Leon Czolgosz, the person who assassinated President William McKinley, specifically his connections to her and to anarchism.

In Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America (Hill and Wang, 2003), Eric Rauchway clarifies the connection between Czolgosz, a Midwesterner who killed McKinley in Buffalo, New York, and the Massachusetts-based Channing. Dissatisfied with the “official” investigation of Czolgosz that was conducted before his execution, Channing had his associate, Dr. Lloyd Vernon Briggs, “conduct a fuller investigation of Czolgosz’s background” (Rauchway 55-56). Channing eventually published an article, “The Mental Status of Czolgosz: The Assasin [sic] of President McKinley,” which was well-received by his colleagues.


I viewed three letters written by anarchists in this collection: two by A. Isaak, and one by Goldman. Rauchway provides close analysis of this correspondence, along with other pieces, in Murdering McKinley (100-105). For the purposes of this post, I’ll provide a briefer overview of these letters while considering Rauchway’s analysis. I did not see letters from Channing to Isaak and Goldman; however, it seems that the correspondence is an attempt to learn more about Czolgosz’s connections to anarchism and anarchists. Isaak’s letters, dated 29[?] August 1902 and 6 September 1902, address an encounter with Czolgosz, during which he feared Czolgosz was a spy due to his seeming lack of knowledge of, yet great enthusiasm for, anarchism. In fact, he attaches to his first letter a transcript of a “warning” included in the September 1 issue of Free Society to alert readers of Czolgosz’s presence in Chicago and Cleveland. He does write in this letter, however, that the warning was eventually “retracted.”



In her letter to Channing, Goldman comes to the defense of Czolgosz, writing that she cannot credibly comment on his status as an anarchist. She did not know Czolgosz very well, but thought that his actions could be reconciled with anarchist thought. Czolgosz, as a worker, could defend himself against his oppressors:

You may question[?] this, since Czolgosz was not personally attact [sic] by McKinley, quite true, but Czolgosz belonged to the oppressed, to the Exploited and Disinherited millions, who lead a life of darkness and despair owing to those, of whom McKinley was one, therefore he was personally attacked by the President, or rather he was one of the victims of the McKinley regime and those McKinley catered to.

Rauchway notes that McKinley as a target did not make much sense to Goldman; targets such as Henry Clay Frick, who her friend and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman had attempted to kill, were more reasonable to her due to their roles as exploiters from the business world (103-105). Goldman even writes in this letter that “[t]he act of Czolgosz may have been inappropriate and inopportune, I will not argue this part now.” However, she is firm in her unwillingness to shun Czolgosz.

The Walter Channing Papers contain other materials relating to the Czolgosz case, including correspondence with Briggs and other physicians, photographs of Czolgosz and members of his family, and notes relating to the investigation. They might be of interest to scholars of anarchism, psychiatry, or crime in the early 20th-century United States. If any of these materials sounds exciting to you, feel free to come view them yourself here in the MHS library.

permalink | Published: Friday, 5 August, 2016, 8:00 AM