What begins as a joyous occasion and an opportunity to celebrate a nation's achievements, ends in tragedy and a test of that nation's Constitution.
President William McKinley, recently elected to his second term in office, visited the Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition with his wife Ida in September, 1901. He arrived on September 5, designated “President’s Day,” and spoke before the largest crowd assembled at the Exposition. The next day, after a morning visit to Niagara Falls, the McKinley entourage returned to Buffalo for a public reception in the Exposition’s Temple of Music. The president enjoyed shaking hands and meeting the public although his personal aides were not in favor of this policy. Political assassinations were occurring throughout Europe and the anarchy movement had spread across the Atlantic. Some precautions were taken but McKinley insisted on meeting his constituents.
Shortly after 4:00 pm, a young man with a bandaged right hand approached McKinley in the receiving line. The president offered his left hand in greeting. At that moment, Leon Czolgosz fired two shots from a gun concealed in his bandaged hand. About to fire a third shot, Czolgosz was knocked to the ground by James Parker, an African-American waiter at the Exposition, and several other men. Upon seeing this, the president is reported to have said, “Let no one hurt him.” Czolgosz was taken into custody and removed to police headquarters. Still fully conscious, McKinley was less concerned about his own condition than how the news would affect his ailing wife. The president was taken by electric ambulance to the small Exposition hospital for evaluation. Established to treat minor ailments, the hospital was not equipped for major surgery but the assembled doctors felt it was too risky to move McKinley. It was agreed that the surgery should take place at the Exposition hospital. Under the circumstances, the operation went smoothly and McKinley remained in good condition. Nonetheless, the doctors were unable to locate and remove one of the bullets. Believing it had ended up in fatty tissue and would not pose any further threat, the doctors closed the wound. According to the practice of the day, the president was then moved to a private home to recover. McKinley was returned to the home of John Milburn, president of the Exposition, where he and Mrs. McKinley were guests.
Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, on a speaking engagement in Vermont, was notified of the shooting immediately. He arrived in Buffalo the next day, September 7, and was invited by his friend Ansley Wilcox to stay at his Delaware Avenue home. Most of the president’s cabinet came to Buffalo and set up residence at the Buffalo Club, also on Delaware Avenue, just a few blocks south of the Wilcox and Milburn homes.
For several days following the surgery, McKinley’s condition improved and it was believed the president would make a complete recovery. Assured that McKinley was out of danger, Roosevelt left Buffalo on September 10, after spending four days at the the Wilcox home. He then joined his family who was vacationing in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York State. Before leaving, Roosevelt gave his itinerary to Ansley Wilcox.
Three days later, while Roosevelt was hiking on Mt. Marcy, he received an urgent telegram relayed by an Adirondack guide. McKinley’s condition had worsened and he should return to Buffalo immediately.
When Roosevelt descended Mt. Marcy on September 13, a carriage was waiting to bring him to the nearest train station at North Creek, thirty-five miles away. Roosevelt arrived at North Creek just before dawn on Saturday, September 14, 1901. It was then he learned that William McKinley had died a few hours earlier at 2:15 am. Without delay, the new president boarded a train for Albany and later another bound for Buffalo.
Ansley Wilcox was waiting for Roosevelt at the train station in Buffalo when he arrived at 1:30 pm, and later recalled, "there was great excitement in the city, and all precautions were taken for his safety…[he] was driven rapidly up to my house again, followed by a small escort of cavalry, which had been stationed off at some distance in order not to attract a crowd."
The most pressing issue upon Roosevelt’s arrival was where and when he should take the oath of office. "No definite plans had been made for swearing him in," Wilcox wrote, "and it had not even been settled where this should be done. The first suggestion had been to take him directly to Mr. Milburn's house, there to be sworn-in, but this had been objected to as unsuitable, while the body of the president was lying in the house. So he was asked to go to my house to get lunch, and immediately at arriving and being equipped with borrowed clothes, more appropriate than his traveling suit, he insisted on starting for Mr. Milburn's house, to make a call of sympathy and respect on the family of the dead president. This was done, and by three o'clock he was at my house again."
The cabinet began arriving at the Wilcox home as soon as Roosevelt returned. Six of the eight cabinet members were present: Secretary of War Elihu Root, Secretary of the Navy John Long, Attorney General Philander Knox, Secretary of the Interior Ethan Hitchcock, Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson, and Postmaster General Charles Emory Smith. Absent were Secretary of State John Hay and Secretary of the Treasury Lyman Gage. United States District Judge John R. Hazel was asked to administer the oath. Wilcox remembered, "The room [the library], not a large one, was far from full, and at the last moment, the newspaper men, who were eager for admission, were all let in, but were prohibited from taking any photographs."
For a few moments, no one seemed certain what to do.
The Buffalo Courier of September 15, 1901 recorded in detail what happened next:
There was a moment of extreme quietness. It was now 3:31 o'clock. Secretary Root, advancing a step forward, began to speak. His voice was low and not clearly audible. Evidently his emotions were deeply touched. Tears were in his eyes. “Mr. Vice-President, I […]” commenced Secretary Root, but his voice broke and for fully a minute he could not utter another word. His Cabinet confreres were all affected. Tears came into their eyes. It was a touching scene at this moment and about every head was bowed as there welled up in the hearts of these devoted men the memory of the beloved man whose life had been offered as a sacrifice on the alter of his country. Tears trickled down the cheeks of Secretary Root. The Vice-President’s eyes were moist and he clutched nervously at the lapel of his frock coat….
Taking a step toward Secretary Root the Vice-President said, in a voice that wavered at first, but grew stronger with each succeeding word: “I will take the oath at once in accord with the request of you members of the Cabinet, and in this hour of our deep and terrible bereavement I wish to state that it shall be my aim to continue absolutely unbroken the policy of President McKinley for the peace, the prosperity and the honor of our beloved country.” …Judge John Hazel read the oath and Col. Roosevelt repeated it after him: " I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States….And thus I swear."
Ansley Wilcox later described the historic event that occurred in the library of his home: "the new President was standing in front of the bay window on the south side of the room. Others had fallen back a bit when Mr. Root spoke. After his response, Judge Hazel advanced and administered the oath…The written oath, which Judge Hazel produced…was then signed. Then President Roosevelt made the announcement of his request to the cabinet to remain in office. The whole ceremony was over within half an hour after the Cabinet had entered the house, and the small company dispersed, leaving only the six Cabinet officers with the President, who at once held an informal session in the library."
Theodore Roosevelt remained at the Wilcox home for two days, leaving on September 16 with McKinley's funeral procession.
“A terrible bereavement has befallen our people. The President of the United States has been struck down--a crime committed not only against the chief magistrate, but against every law-abiding and liberty-loving citizen."
“President McKinley crowned a life of largest love for his fellow men, of most earnest endeavor for their welfare, by a death of Christian fortitude; and both the way in which he lived his life and the way in which in the supreme hour of trial he met his death WILL REMAIN FOREVER A PRECIOUS HERITAGE of our people."
“It is meet that we as a nation express our abiding love and reverence for his life, our deep sorrow over his untimely death.
“Now, therefore, I, Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, do appoint Thursday next, September 19, the day in which the body of the dead President will be laid in its last earthly resting place, as a day of mourning and prayer throughout the United States. I earnestly recommend all people to assemble on that day in their respective places of divine worship there to bow down in submission to the will of Almighty God, and to pay out of full hearts their homage of love and reverence to the great and good President whose death has smitten the nation with bitter grief."
“In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.”
About a year after Theodore Roosevelt's impromptu inauguration in the library of his home, Ansley Wilcox recorded his memories of the event in an essay he called "Theodore Roosevelt, President." Wilcox sent Roosevelt a draft copy of the essay on November 20, 1902, asking him to verify the accuracy of the account. The president responded a short two days later with his approval and a few additional notes regarding his breakneck journey down from the Adirondacks and back to Buffalo.
Originally published to benefit the Buffalo School Teachers Retirement Fund, Wilcox's essay was reprinted after Theodore Roosevelt's death in 1919. This marked up copy was found among Ansley Wilcox's personal papers and was likely used by the author during a reading he gave at Buffalo's Athletic Club on October 27, 1925 (the 67th anniversary of TR's birth). The notation "Kohlsat [sic] Book" on the back cover likely refers to the 1923 publication From McKinley to Harding: Personal Recollections of Our Presidents, by H. H. Kohlsaat.
The text of Wilcox’s essay is reproduced below.
Theodore Roosevelt, President
Written by Ansley Wilcox in October, 1902 and Revised by Theodore Roosevelt
"The people of Buffalo will always have a special interest in the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, because it was in this city that the awful tragedy occurred which made him President, and it was here that he was sworn in, made his first proclamation, and from here be followed the body of his former chief to its last resting place.
But Col. Roosevelt was well known to Buffalonians, and he knew the city and its people well, before that memorable week in September, 1901, when he unwillingly became the central figure of the world's gaze. His last previous visit was on May 20th of the same year, when he came here as Vice-president to open formally the Pan-American Exposition, around which all our hopes were clustering. At that time, he met many of our people and made as many friends by his simple, hearty and well souled manner. It was then that he, as well as Senator Lodge, in their speeches, developing the Pan-American idea which was the underlying motive of the exposition, gave utterance to thoughts which have been seen proved pathetic, as outlining some phrases of the foreign policy of the new administration, and especially the new and more energetic hegemony of the United States on this continent - the revivified Monroe Doctrine.
Only a little more than a year before this, on Washington's birthday, in 1900, Col. Roosevelt, then Governor, had come to Buffalo and delivered an address on the higher duties of citizenship at the Saturn Club, and with his usual energy, he gave another address the same evening before the Daughters of the American Revolution, and still another before the Sixty-fifth Regiment, after a review.
So when on Friday, the sixth of September (1901), he heard of the shooting of President McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition, and instantly started for the side of his chief, he knew he was not going among strangers but to the house of friends. He hardly stopped to consult anyone of his movements, but simply came to where the trouble was fast as a special train could bring him.
It was almost by chance that I met him on Saturday noon, as he drove up to the Iroquois Hotel, and a brief conversation resulted in his coming to stay at my house and stopping there until the following Tuesday. The house was then partly dismantled, the family and most of the household were in the country, but he was offered a quiet place to sleep and eat, and accepted it.
Those were terribly anxious days, but on the whole not gloomy. From the first moment of his arrival, and the favorable answers which were made to his questions about the condition of the President - especially after his first hasty call on the family and physicians of the wounded man, at Mr. (John) Milburn's house, the Vice-president seemed possessed with an abiding faith that the wound would not be fatal. His sanguine temperament, his own rugged strength and consciousness of ability to combat disease, and his eager desire, yes, longed for recovery of another, with all his might, that did Theodore Roosevelt, when he stood in the shadow of President McKinley's threatened death. Apart from all other consideration, he did not want to have the presidency thrust upon him in that terrible way. He would not believe it possible.
So when, on Tuesday, the fourth day after the shooting, everything seemed to be going well, and even the Secretary of War, Mr. (Elihu) Root, and other members of the cabinet, and Dr. Burney, who had come here from New York, felt justified in leaving, it was thought best that the Vice-president also should go away in order to impress the public with that confidence in the outcome which everyone felt. He went to join his family at a remote spot in the Adirondacks, the Tahawus Club, where he expected to stop only for a day, and then take them back to his home at Oyster Bay. His itinerary and addresses for reaching him, if he should be needed here, were left with me but no one thought that he would be needed.
In the middle of the night between Thursday and Friday, I was aroused by a messenger asking me to send instantly for the Vice-president, as the President had suddenly become worse and was in great danger. Then began a vigorous effort to annihilate time and space. A telephone message to Albany, put me, within two hours, in direct communication with Mr. Loeb, the Vice-president's secretary. He informed me that the club where Col. Roosevelt probably was at that moment, was some hours beyond the end of the rail and telegraph lines, but that he was probably coming out that day; that he (Mr. Loeb) would try to reach him quickly by a telegram, to be forwarded by special messenger, and would also go after him on a special train as early in the morning as one could start.
It turned out that Col. Roosevelt and his family were staying a day longer in the Adirondacks than he had expected, owing in part, as I understand, to a storm which had washed out the roads and made them very bad. Being thus detained, on this Friday, the Vice-president had started for a tramp up Mt. Marcy with a guide, before the telegram from Mr. Loeb arrived. The message was sent after him and found him on his way down the mountain, just below the summit.
He hurried back; as soon as possible got a wagon and drove out over the rough roads to the nearest railway station, in the dark of Friday night. It is safe to say he lost no time on that drive.
Saturday, September 14th, about 1:30 pm, he arrived in Buffalo again and left the train at the Terrace Station. President McKinley had died early Saturday morning, and he was then the constitutional President of the United States. Naturally, there was great excitement in the city, and all precautions were taken for his safety. He was met at the station by a single private carriage (Mr. George L. Williams) and by Mr. Williams and myself and was driven rapidly up to my house again, followed by a small escort of cavalry, which had been stationed off at some distance in order not to attract a crowd.
No definite plans had been made for the swearing him in, and it had not even been settled where this should be done. The first suggestion had been to take him directly to Mr. Milburn's house, there to be sworn in, but this had been objected to as unsuitable, while the body of the President was lying in the house. So he was asked to go to my house to get lunch, and immediately at arriving and being equipped with borrowed clothes, more appropriate than his traveling suit, he insisted on starting for Mr. Milburn's house, to make a call of sympathy and respect on the family of the dead President. This was done, and by three o'clock he was at my house again.
Then without any preparation, and almost without announcement, the members of the cabinet came down to administer the oath of office.
They were the Secretary of War, Mr. (Elihu) Root; the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. (John) Long; the Attorney General, Mr. (Philander) Knox; the Secretary of the Interior, Mr. (Ethan) Hitchcock; the Postmaster General, Mr. (Charles Emory) Smith; and the Secretary of Agriculture, Mr. (James) Wilson. With them were Judge (John) Hazel, of the United States District Court, and Judge Haight, of the New York Court of Appeals, Senator Depew, and a few friends who happened to know of it.
President Roosevelt met with them informally in the Library as they came in. The room, not a large one, was far from full, and at the last moment, the newspaper men, who were eager for admission, were all let in, but were prohibited from taking any photographs. Therefore the newspaper accounts of what was said and done in the brief ceremony which followed are generally correct, but all professed pictures of the scene are shams, except as they may have been sketched from memory.
The Secretary of War, Mr. Root, was head of the cabinet, among the six who were present - the Secretaries of State and of the Treasury not being there. He was also an old and intimate friend of Col. Roosevelt, and his chief advisor at this trying time. Without any preliminaries, he addressed the new President, calling him "Mr. Vice-president," and on behalf of the cabinet requested him to take the oath of office.
President Roosevelt answered simply, but with great solemnity: "Mr. Secretary - I will take the oath. And in this hour of deep and terrible national bereavement, I wish to state that it shall be my aim to continue, absolutely without variance, the policy of President McKinley, for the peace and honor of our beloved country."
It is characteristic of the man that when, the next day, some newspapers published this statement without the word "honor" - referring only to "peace and prosperity" - he was concerned about it, and asked earnestly whether he possibly could have omitted a word to which he intended to give special emphasis.
The new President was standing in front of the bay window on the south side of the room. Others had fallen back a little when Mr. Root spoke. After his response, Judge Hazel advanced and administered the oath to support the constitution and laws. It was taken with uplifted hand. The written oath, which Judge Hazel produced, in typewritten form, on a sheet of ordinary legal cap, was then signed.
Then President Roosevelt made the announcement of his request to the cabinet to remain in office. The whole ceremony was over within half an hour after the cabinet had entered the house, and the small company dispersed, leaving only the six cabinet officers with the President, who at once held an informal session in the library.
I was asked to produce the "Messages and Papers of the President" - the volume containing the proclamation by President (Chester) Arthur of the death of President (James) Garfield, and did so. This was considered in the cabinet meeting, which only lasted a few minutes.
After this meeting the President took a walk with Mr. Root, and then returning to the house, drafted his proclamation of the death of President McKinley, and appointing Thursday, September 19th, a day of national mourning. This was issued to the press that evening.
So began President Roosevelt's term of office. The next day, Sunday, came the local funeral ceremonies over his predecessor, and early Monday morning he started with the funeral train for Washington.
It takes less in the way of ceremony to make a President in this country, than it does to make a King in England or any monarchy, but the significance of the event is no less great."
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