The early part of the twentieth century is rife with political unrest, communists and socialists meeting to denounce a government that favors the rich and denies the poor. But the followers of such popular speakers as Emma Goldman are not the primary concern of the government agent who arrives in Buffalo, New York, in preparation for a visit to the city by President William McKinley.
Pinkerton Jake Norris meets with Detective Lloyd Savin of the Buffalo PD to discuss infiltrating the far more dangerous anarchists who may be plotting against the president’s life. These anarchists have no ideals, no goals but to destroy the network of government agencies that control the functioning of the country. Fortunately, Moses Hyde seems a likely candidate for the job of spy, a canal worker who has held any number of menial jobs, his face familiar in the area. In fact, Hyde has made the acquaintance of a potential threat to the president - Leon Czolgoz, a man who has frequently espouses anarchist views.
Smolens portrays a troublesome era in a country in flux, the industrial revolution creating opportunities for economic growth and an increasingly burdened poor class, the workers who toil for pennies, exploited at every turn by corporate interests. Hyde has few aspirations save the occasional visit to a particular lady who works in a local bawdy house, Motka Ascher.
Hyde’s job becomes more difficult when Leon Czolgoz attempts to teach Motka to read, drawing both the young woman and Moses into suspicion after Czolgoz assassinates McKinley. The country is in turmoil, Czolgoz in custody as angry mobs gather, threatening to lynch the prisoner. When Norris and another Pinkerton are kidnapped, Hyde is the only man who can navigate the treacherous neighborhood of the canals in pursuit of the anarchists who have them and are bent on more destruction.
From his detailed description of the McKinleys’ marriage to the assassination of the president to the underbelly of the anarchist’s retreat, Smolens captures the essence of the chaos surrounding the assassination, the immigrant population, the socialists’ causes, and the government’s response to domestic terrorism. All eyes are focused on the punishment of the fragile man with pale blue eyes who shook hands with President McKinley as he shot him, the rage and turmoil of the city palpable in the aftermath.
As Theodore Roosevelt steps into McKinley’s job, the country remains unsettled, the imbalance between robber barons and the poor exacerbated by obscene profits and the government’s protection of the businessmen at the expense of the workers, a new century birthed in violence.