Spectacle and Tragedy at 1901 World's Fair

Spectacle and Tragedy at 1901 World's Fair {
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With “The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), Margaret Creighton, a history professor at Bates College in Maine, has written an interesting, engaging, and—at times—troubling account of a moment in time that many of us have probably forgotten.  The “rainbow city” in the title was the nickname for the 1901 Buffalo World’s Fair, and it is best remembered for a political assassination.  William McKinley, the twenty-fifth president of the United States, was shot at the exposition, and died a week later.

The theme of the World’s Fair was technological progress and electrification.  Using alternating current, the grounds of the fair were lighted at night.  Creighton does an impressive job of providing pictures and maps that help take her readers back 11 decades.  Even with that distance, it is clear that the fair was something impressive. 

There are all sorts of side stories to the fair that Creighton develops well.  Frank “The Animal King” Bostock ran the animal acts and a human oddities show.  His star performer was the “Doll Lady,” Alice Cenda, who was two feet tall, but had features that were perfectly in proportion unlike other individuals who have achondroplasia.  She often performed with a monkey trained to play musical instruments.  There were others.  Geronimo, the Apache war chief, was there as part of the Indian Congress, which re-enacted famous battles from the Indian Wars.  

The fair was about promoting a certain concept of the United States and the world.  Capitalism, technology and the new ways of the New World were central to the vision.  Although the fair was a commercial endeavor, many people were trying to use it to their own ends. Annie Edson Taylor used the publicity of the World’s Fair to go over Niagara Falls in barrel in an effort to turn herself into a celebrity.  Geronimo learned that he could make money, charging people to pose for a picture with them.  The Indians that performed in the reenacted battles made derogatory comments about people in the audiences to their faces, but not in English.     

The assassination of McKinley might not be the only story of the world’s fair, but it is the best known.  Creighton’s account is gripping.  Readers know it is not going to end well for the Ohio politician, but his assassination has never had the following of Abraham Lincoln’s or John F. Kennedy’s.  So we know the end, but not how we get there.  Creighton is a gifted writer, and unfolds events in a compelling manner.  Two bullets hit McKinley before Jim Parker, an African American waiter, and secret service agents wrestled Leon Czogosz to the ground.  One wound was superficial, but another bullet went deep into his abdomen.  Despite later recriminations, Creighton makes it clear that McKinley received prompt and competent medical attention, but surgeons were unable to recover the bullet.  His weight got in the way.  (He was 5’7” and about 230 pounds.)  For a week, he seemed to be making a full recovery, but he suffered a rapid decline, dying eight days later.  An autopsy found that the bullet had hit the pancreas, which leaked enzymes into the president’s body, causing the gangrene that killed him.  Creighton consulted with a trauma surgeon, a pathologist, and an infectious disease specialist who explained that while McKinley might have survived such a wound today, the required antibiotics and surgical devices were not available in 1901. 

What is troubling about this account is how entrepreneurs often expect various forms of corporate welfare to fund their spectacles—be it a world’s fair, a Super Bowl, or the Olympics.  (This issue has not gone away; the San Diego Chargers are currently moving to Los Angeles because the City of San Diego refuses to use public funds to build them a new stadium).  Despite the crowds, the World’s Fair lost money.  The U.S. Congress—after a lobbying effort—agreed to pay half of the remaining debt since McKinley’s death had something to do with lower turnout than expected. 

The book is also a testimony to the vapid nature of popular culture and the transitory nature of fame.  Parker was touted as an American hero and was careful not to exploit his status in an unseemly way, but he was black and there was a predictable and racially charged backlash against him.  He died destitute and ended up as a medical school cadaver.  Taylor earned money briefly as a public speaker, but died living in a Buffalo area almshouse.

All in all, Creighton has written a book that is a delight to read and offers a new window on a distant time that makes you think, which is always a good thing.

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