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    Follow the Stories | Palm Springs, California (2009)

    U.S. Secret Service Archive


    • This impressive collection of government papers from the early 20th century almost ended up in the garbage. Karl, who brought the collection to the Palm Springs ROADSHOW in June 2008, almost didn't take the boxes full of material that a friend offered him — but once he saw an engraving signed by Theodore Roosevelt, he changed his mind. A closer look revealed that the papers once belonged to John Elbert Wilkie, head of the U.S. Secret Service from 1898 to 1913, and included personal accounts from Wilkie and other agents of the September 1901 assassination of President William McKinley.

    • Before being appointed to head the Secret Service, John E. Wilkie was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune . Under a pen name, Wilkie, in a hoax intended to increase the Tribune's circulation, published a story that purported to investigate what has come to be known as the "Indian Rope Trick": a magician hurls a rope into the air, whereupon the rope remains stiff and erect, allowing his assistant to climb it. The story was a fabrication, and the trick itself a fiction invented by Wilkie. The Tribune would print a little-noticed retraction some months later.

    • The Secret Service, which Wilkie headed for 15 years, was created as a division of the U.S. Treasury Department in 1865 to deal with the tremendous amount of counterfeit money in circulation in the wake of the Civil War.

    • By Wilkie's time, the Service's brief had expanded to encompass the mission with which it is most closely associated today: the protection of important government officials, in particular the president.

    • Despite the efforts of Wilkie and the Secret Service, President William McKinley was mortally wounded by two gunshots on September 6, 1901, while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. This image shows an excerpt of an official incident statement given by A.L. Gallaher, an agent assigned to guard President McKinley the day he was shot. Doctors removed one bullet from McKinley but were unable to locate the second. He survived for a week and seemed to improve for a time, but eventually he succumbed to gangrene and died on September 14. The assassin, Leon Czogolz, was apprehended at the scene (and severely beaten by spectators), and executed later that fall.

    • Certainly every president receives death threats, but as attested by letters such as this one to McKinley's vice president and successor, Theodore Roosevelt, the early 20th century was a volatile and violent time.

    • The international anarchy movement, largely a European phenomenon, was in full swing. Czogolz may or may not have been an anarchist, but he was inspired by them: when he was taken into custody, law enforcement officials found a newspaper clipping in his pocket that told the story of an Italian anarchist's assassination of King Umberto I of Italy.

    • In McKinley's first term, as assistant secretary of the Navy, Col. Theodore Roosevelt commanded a cavalry regiment known as the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, an unnecessary conflict that McKinley crassly characterized as a "splendid little war." Roosevelt was added to the ticket over the objections of McKinley's fixer, the industrialist Mark Hanna. After McKinley's death, Roosevelt would retain Wilkie as head of the Secret Service, as indicated by this autographed engraving, which reads "To John E. Wilkie with the high regard of Theodore Roosevelt Feb 26th 1909."

    • On examining Karl's collection, ROADSHOW appraiser Ken Gloss did raise the concern that it could be subject to replevin, the legally compelled return of goods to the person or entity from whom they were unlawfully taken. In other words, Gloss speculated it was possible that the government could make a claim to recover John Wilkie's papers as government property. But as Karl explained, he believes that the papers had already been owned by Wilkie's son, so Karl's possession of them — and, if he chooses, his potential sale of them for as much as $10,000, according to Gloss's estimate — would seem to be on the up-and-up. Watch the full appraisal of this item in our ROADSHOW Archive.
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