Lone Assassins: Forty Years after the Fatal Assassination of JFK, during Which Time Conspiracy Theories Have Flourished, Andrew Cook Returns to the Idea of the Unaided Assassin, and Finds Several Twentieth-Century Examples

By Cook, Andrew | History Today, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Lone Assassins: Forty Years after the Fatal Assassination of JFK, during Which Time Conspiracy Theories Have Flourished, Andrew Cook Returns to the Idea of the Unaided Assassin, and Finds Several Twentieth-Century Examples


Cook, Andrew, History Today


THE TWENTIETH CENTURY saw a number of historically significant assassinations, some carried out by lone assassins, others involving one or more accomplices. With JFK's assassination oil November" 22nd, 1963, and the shooting two days later, live on television, of Lee Harvey Oswald, a new age dawned. For the first time the vivid immediacy of such acts was brought into the homes of millions. News broadcasts, Films, books and documentaries debated and speculated upon every facet of these tragic dramas. Perhaps because of the apparent lack of motive or the randomness of some assassinations, the public did not always find the "lone assassin' theory a believable one, and increasingly became receptive to conspiracy theories.

As Henry Steele Commager, who studied the conspiracy phenomena, said in 1967:

   There has come in recent years
   something that might be called a
   conspiracy psychology. A feeling that
   great events can't be explained by
   ordinary processes. We are on the
   road to a paranoid explanation of
   things. The conspiracy theory, the
   conspiracy mentality, will not accept
   ordinary evidence ... there's some
   psychological requirement that force
   them to reject the ordinary and find
   refuge in the extraordinary.

Despite the mid-century climate change in the public's perception c such events, significant circumstantial similarities in lone assassinations an their perpetrators are in evidence dating back to the death of another American Chief Executive.

President McKinley's speech at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo New York, on September 6th, 1901, had been well received and he was i high spirits. That afternoon, although he had already met well-wishers earlier in the day, the President overrule his secretary George Cortelyou and agreed to another 'meet the people' opportunity at 4pm. Members of the public would be herded into the 'Temple of Music', a large ornate theatre within the exhibition, through two large doors on the right hand side of the stage. They would pass a gauntlet of soldiers, police, detectives and secret service agents, a total of around eighty guards in all. There would therefore be enough room to see each person before they reached the President to shake his hand on the large stage.

However, the last-minute change of plan allowed critical security oversights to be made, providing twenty-eight-year-old anarchist Leon Czolgosz the opportunity he had been waiting for. Having heard a speech in Cleveland earlier in the year by anarchist firebrand Emma Goldman, Czolgosz was determined to strike a blow against those who, in Goldman's words, 'used the yoke of government to repress their fellow men'.

McKinley's security chief, Charles Foster, who usually stood to his immediate left so that everyone approaching the President would have to pass him first, was re-positioned. No one in the queue was checked to ensure that their hands were empty. With the temperature in the high 80s that day, many people were carrying handkerchiefs to wipe their hands and faces. Czolgosz had wrapped his right hand in a handkerchief which he had tied as a sling Within the sling he concealed a .32 calibre Johnson revolver. Approaching the President he calmly raised his left hand to shake McKinley's--as McKinley reached out to take his hand, Czolgosz's right hand flew up and fired off two shots from the gun. The first shot broke a button on the President's waistcoat, causing a minor flesh wound. The second ripped through his stomach, causing the fatal wound that would not only kill McKinley, but which would mark the first significant lone assassin murder of the twentieth century.

On arrest Czolgosz gave his name as Fred Nieman, which police later realised translated as 'Fred Nobody'. Born in Detroit to Polish parents (1873), he and his seven siblings had led an unsettled early life as the family moved from town to town in search of work. …

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