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The Assassination of William McKinley: Anarchism, Insanity, and the Birth of the Social Sciences.

The Assassination of William McKinley: Anarchism, Insanity, and the Birth of the Social Sciences. By Cary Federman. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018. Pp. xxxvi, 275. $110.00.)

Aside from a role in Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins, Leon Czolgosz may rank as the presidential assassin whom nobody knows, and, in fact, to hardly know him may have been to know him well. As Cary Federman's book makes abundantly clear, he was also the one whom contemporaries analyzed so thoroughly that they overlooked the real man completely. As a study of experts misapplying their own specialties to understand a sick, sad man about whom even a real name and birthdate elude capture, The Assassination of William McKinley hits the spot.

Anyone interested in McKinley's sorry end has simply picked up the wrong book. The Assassin of William McKinley would have suited it better, for it is not the act that Dr. Federman delves into, much less the circumstances; it is the way in which various experts in the social sciences tried to make sense of Leon Czolgosz. Social scientists had defined types; all they had to do was fit the man into one of those types and hey, presto! all became clear. Into his features criminologists read arrogance and perversion; into his past they read alcoholism or a venereal disease that had brought him to Buffalo, a dead man walking. His poverty and his surroundings made him what he was; the deep reading he never made into political literature fixed his mind in anti-social fantasies. Assuming he was Polish, anti-Catholicism must have embittered him into becoming a killer; or was it his alleged homosexuality? Or did his being "tired, achy and neurotic" (29) prove a physical and moral degeneracy brought on by masturbation? Because social scientists identified him as an anarchist, lurid pasts burgeoned to explain him--strikes that he could not have taken part in, giving rabble-rousing speeches that his lips could not have uttered. His very silence at the trial spoke eloquently not of inarticulateness or feeble-mindedness, but of a would-be martyr's cold-eyed calculation. On one matter, the criminologists, anthropologists, and political scientists were agreed: He could not possibly be crazy, like Charles Guiteau. He knew what he was doing when he pulled the trigger, and he knew the consequences of his actions.

Told in stultifyingly professional prose, Federman's analysis will never draw the wide readership it deserves, for it is a cautionary tale of how far, in seeing others, the experts of a century ago and historians since then have configured the world to fit their own unique perspective. The special expertise that they bear becomes the magic elixir with which all things are transmuted into their true form. Federman explores the intellectual bases of so many of the new professions at the turn of the last century with sophistication and with an enviable control of the literature. No one hailing the rise of professionalism in Gilded Age and Progressive America should turn away from this book and its cautionary tale.

University of Kentucky

Mark Wahlgren Summers

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Title Annotation:THE AMERICAS
Author:Summers, Mark Wahlgren
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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