Newly Discovered Papers From President McKinley’s Assassination Are for Sale

The archive belonged to Herman Matzinger, who performed the autopsy on the 25th president and conducted a bacteriological analysis to rule out the possibility of poison-tipped bullets

Papers, notebook and other artifacts on a table
The archive was found by a direct descendant of Herman Matzinger, the doctor who performed McKinley's autopsy. Raab Collection

On September 6, 1901, a gunman shot President William McKinley at close range at an event in Buffalo, New York. Eight days later, the nation’s 25th president was dead.

Now, 122 years after the assassination, the original autopsy report and other rare papers related to McKinley’s death are for sale for $80,000.

Raab Collection, a historical documents dealer, is offering up documents that once belonged to Buffalo physician Herman Matzinger. Matzinger, along with Harvey Gaylord, performed McKinley’s autopsy after he died on September 14, 1901.

In addition to the autopsy reports, the collection of documents includes unpublished medical notes, letters and ephemera, such as tickets to McKinley’s funeral service. Historians didn’t know the archive existed until an unnamed direct descendant of Matzinger discovered it.

“It had never been outside the family,” Nathan Raab, president of Raab Collection, tells the Washington Post’s Michael E. Ruane. “This person found it in a proverbial shoebox, passed down to her by her parents.”

Original Autopsy Report From the Assassination of President William McKinley, 1901, Discovered

McKinley was in Buffalo for the Pan-American Exposition when a former mill worker named Leon Czolgosz fired two shots at him. One bullet bounced off a button on his coat, while the other penetrated his abdomen. Surgeons operated immediately but could not locate the bullet.

Though McKinley initially appeared to be healing, his condition took a turn for the worse, and he eventually succumbed to the injury. McKinley’s vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, was sworn into office later that day.

Czolgosz, meanwhile, was found guilty at trial and executed on October 29.

After the president’s death, rumors began to circulate that the shooter had dipped the bullet in poison. Some medical experts blamed McKinley’s doctors for botching the surgery. The government commissioned a formal report to investigate these claims.

After Gaylord and Matzinger conducted the autopsy together, Matzinger worked alone to test various samples from the wound, as well as from the assassin’s revolver and bullets. He grew and monitored cultures from the samples in agar and gelatin.

The physician then injected some of the cultures into rabbits and a dog, which he watched for any signs of ill health. “It is unclear if these animals were his personal pets or laboratory animals, or how he thought they would resolve the question of whether the bullets were laced with poison or bacteria,” writes Live Science’s Harry Baker.

The dog, he wrote, was “acting well” after several days.

In the end, his bacteriological analysis found no evidence of poison. He concluded that “any infection developed later” and resulted from “trauma and complications from the shooting,” according to Raab Collection.

Today, medical historians think McKinley died of a bacterial infection that developed along the bullet’s pathway and around his pancreas. At the time, however, germ theory was still in its infancy, and doctors did not yet have antibiotics at their disposal.

The Matzinger archive “gives us new and fascinating insight into an important moment in American history, the nation grieving, demanding answers about a fallen president,” says Raab in a statement. “We’ve never seen anything on the market like it.”

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