The Story of the Discovery of the Autopsy Notes from the McKinley Assassination

For over a century, a collection of family papers had been kept in a closet, in a box around the size of a shoebox. They had been loosely but carefully placed there, perhaps by the man who created them. And more than a century later, a woman looking through the box, an inheritance from her deceased father, discovered them.

Sifting through them she saw the product of the work of her great-great-grandfather, Dr. Matzinger. Dr. Herman Gustavus Matzingerm, born in 1860, graduated from Buffalo Medical College in 1883, and became clinical assistant at the Buffalo State Hospital in 1888. Dr. Matzinger also served as part of the initial interdisciplinary staff of the Gratwick Research Laboratory, which opened in 1902, focusing on cancer etiology and immunology studies. This occurred after the event for which Matzinger is best known: his medical services provided during the assassination of President William McKinley. Matzinger was called in to be the primary dissector for the autopsy of the deceased president. And he was the only doctor in charge of analyzing the samples from McKinley’s body and the weapon to determine cause of death. 

Kept in a Shoebox

This woman, a resident of the Northeastern United States, knew of the work of her ancestor, and she had been told about the existence of the papers. She knew where they would be, but it was not until she opened the box and sifted through it that she understood fully what had survived: important documents both in the history of medicine and in presidential history. There was a notebook, with notes in her ancestor’s hand. She flipped through it, reading Dr. Matzinger’s detailed observations about the existence or absence of bacteria and the growth from samples taken from the bullet and the wound. She read the reports he kept and his notes, along with a handful of letters. She understood their significance. And it was remarkable that they had survived the near century since Dr. Matzinger’s death in 1931.  

She picked up the phone and called us. She then sent the papers to us for a closer look. When they arrived, we held in our hands the lab notes and original autopsy report of the assassination of President William McKinley, the first time the notes had been outside the family of Dr. Matzinger himself. These moments are always exciting for us, perhaps more so in this case, considering the weighty subject of presidential assassination.   

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