On Sept. 6, 1901, an anarchist from Michigan gunned down a popular president of the United States in the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. That was 115 years ago Tuesday.
When President William McKinley died eight days later, Buffalo joined Washington, D.C., where Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield were shot, as a presidential assassination site.
While references to that pivotal event are many in Buffalo, they are muted. The McKinley name graces a parkway, avenue, high school, shopping mall, movie theaters and, most prominently, the soaring monument in Niagara Square.
But the actual spot of the assassination, which remained unmarked until 1921, is commemorated with a plaque on a small boulder in the median of Fordham Drive in North Buffalo, where the Temple of Music once stood.
In contrast, the spots where Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were slain were preserved, although neither was opened until historical interest overcame shame and sorrow. But Buffalo’s choices were limited from the beginning.
The ornate domed Temple of Music, where McKinley had been greeting well-wishers when Leon Czolgosz shot him, was an illusion. The grand hall was made of a framework of planks and metal, covered by panels of staff – hemp or jute soaked with plaster and molded to resemble stone.
“Those buildings were like the temporary fair tents of their day, and they were already starting to wear under the rainfall,” said Cynthia Van Ness, director of Library and Archives at the Buffalo History Museum.
What’s more, the assassination was considered a stain on Buffalo, which was growing its reputation as the City of Light.
“It was described as a tremendous assault on the city, as much as it was on the president,” said Margaret Creighton, author of “The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City: Spectacle and Assassination at the 1901 World’s Fair,” to be published in October.
McKinley lingered after he was shot, dying in the large Delaware Avenue home of John Milburn, chairman of the exposition. Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated in the library of the Ansley Wilcox mansion, now the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.
Later, McKinley’s body lay in state in what is now Old County Hall, and ranks of marchers followed his horse-drawn hearse to the train station.
With that, he was gone, and the people of Buffalo were left to consider how best to commemorate the beloved president who had been slain while he was a guest at their glorious exposition.
Some people scrambled to obtain souvenirs. It was reported that James B. Parker, who helped subdue Czolgosz, sold vest buttons to curiosity seekers.
A guard was soon posted to prevent people from tearing paint chips or bits of wood from the Temple of Music.
“A carpenter has been at work repairing two or three spots damaged by the relic hunter,” The Buffalo Evening News reported on Sept. 13.
By Oct. 6, 1901, The Washington Times reported that “a few days ago a quantity of the flimsily constructed ornamentation of the structure fell down, and immediately a rush was made to secure possession of the fragments.”
There were discussions about whether to try to save the deteriorating building.
“There were some Buffalonians who tried to fight the organizers to save the Electric Tower and the Temple of Music,” said Melissa Brown, executive director of the Buffalo History Museum. “But the way it played out was, they felt it was in poor taste, that there were better ways of recognizing this event. It would have been a paying concession, and that was felt to be inappropriate.”
Meanwhile, Buffalo struggled to recover from the shock and shame of the assassination. On Sept. 23, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported, “This city is pulling itself together again after a fortnight of anxiety and sorrow, such as it has never known. What was intended to be the gala period of its history was turned into unspeakable grief, which has gone into every home with a force hard for any one not here to realize.”
The Pan-Am closed on Nov. 2.
When the Chicago House Wrecking Co. entered the grounds to dismantle the buildings, its superintendent, a man named Harris, seemed irked that there were no buyers for what remained of the Temple of Music.
“Thousands of relic hunters have annoyed us by forcing their way in to see the building, but nobody seems to want to buy the material,” he said.
Despite special mention in the catalog as the assassination site, he said, “There it stands with hardly an offer for any part of it. In view of the eagerness of the average visitor to get a peep at the temple we think this rather strange.”
On March 7, 1902, The Buffalo Evening News reported that its fragility might keep the Temple of Music from “desecration … at the hands of the dime museum sharks.”
Harris sold most of the floor of the Temple of Music to be used in a warehouse, but preserved the section where the president had fallen. He said he planned to present it to Chicago’s Field Museum. But if the donation was ever made, the Field Museum has no record of it.
Buffalo city officials installed an inlaid brass plaque in the floor of City Hall, which is now Old County Hall, at the spot where McKinley’s body lay in state.
In 1909, as plans were made to build streets and homes on the former Pan-Am site, a Buffalo city alderman proposed that the city buy the land where the Temple of Music had stood. That proposal was fiercely opposed by The Buffalo Evening News.
“The spot where Buffalo bade farewell to all that was mortal of the murdered president is in the possession of the city,” The Buffalo Evening News wrote. “That is where the casket rested, in the city hall, on the day of the funeral, and the place is suitably and permanently marked by a brass tablet. There is nothing to be proud of or to recall as an inspiration in the assassination. McKinley is best remembered otherwise. It is not best to give to the destructive class, of which Czolgosz was a representative, any permanent memorials of their deeds.”
Authorities took steps not only to execute the assassin Czolgosz but obliterate his memory – and his body. After being convicted, he was electrocuted and buried in an unmarked grave on the grounds of Auburn Prison. But first, sulfuric acid was poured over his body and all his possessions were destroyed lest they become relics, said C.A. Gable, a librarian and scholar who created a documentary history of the McKinley assassination at McKinleydeath.com.
For their part, city leaders moved immediately to memorialize the president in formal Victorian style. The soaring McKinley Monument was planned to center Niagara Square, the hub of the street radius. Just four months after the assassination, on Jan. 27, 1902, the legislature authorized $105,000 to pay for the 93-foot-tall marble monument flanked by four lions, which was dedicated six years later.
“It was a big deal and a beautiful way to recognize him,” said Brown, director of the history museum. “There were discussions about being appropriate and not sensationalizing the assassination.”
“That they would not want to commemorate the exact spot doesn’t surprise me,” Gable said. “For Americans at the time, the overwhelming emotion was severe embarrassment. Americans were very embarrassed that this had happened in a democracy.”
The Milburn House
From the day the president was taken to the Milburn House, curiosity-seekers gathered there.
“The atmosphere was heavy with the perfume of flowers on the surrounding lawns,” The Buffalo Evening News reported on Sept. 7.
And crowds did not shrink after McKinley died.
“Many wanted souvenirs and the shrubbery in front of the house was attacked time and time again,” The News reported on Sept. 23. “Nobody took more than a small twig, but if the relic hunting keeps up, Mr. Milburn will have to purchase a new lot of brush to enclose his lawn. One man had a chisel and wanted to chip a brick out of the house. He felt hurt when a policeman stopped him.”
Creighton, the author, said the attention included “people going by with loudspeakers pointing out the room where McKinley breathed his last.”
In 1904, Milburn moved away.
“I don’t know whether being beleaguered is one of the reasons why he left, but it must have been challenging for him,” she said. “So there was this interest in the site, but there’s a difference between curiosity-seeking and those who want to preserve it for posterity.”
A fire in the home later damaged the room where McKinley died, and interest in the building waned, according to Creighton.
In the early 1950s, Canisius High School owned the Milburn house, and Jesuit clergy lived there. In 1957, it was demolished for parking. Today a historical sign marks the site where McKinley died.
“The bulldozers were on the march in that time period,” said Van Ness, the director of archives at the Buffalo History Museum.
On June 28, 1921, the Buffalo Historical Society placed a bronze plaque on a small boulder in the median of Fordham Drive near Lincoln Parkway, where the Temple of Music stood.
“People do comment on how small it is,” said Brown of the history museum. “I don’t think it’s a deliberate attempt to diminish this. I think the reason there hasn’t been a bigger marker is that nobody has been able to write the check, not because there isn’t interest.”
The Association for a Buffalo Presidential Center, which formed 20 years ago to promote Buffalo’s connection with presidents, would like to see a bigger marker, said the group’s president, Maryanne Saccomando Freedman.
“I think there should be something bigger and more striking, but I think it has to remain in good taste and with consideration of the people who live on that street,” Saccomando Freedman said.
The Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shot that killed President Kennedy, draws many visitors.
“Dallas makes it a focal point of their tourism,” Saccomando Freedman said. “Buffalo downplayed it. Buffalo had such a sense of remorse and shame that we didn’t do very much for a very long time.”
Saccomando Freedman praises the Fordham Road neighbors who landscape the memorial with plantings and American flags.
“That is a wonderful thing that they are doing, but there needs to be some governmental responsibility,” she said.
The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site tells the story of the Pan-Am and McKinley’s assassination, but focuses on the life and work of the man who took the oath of office on Delaware Avenue, not his predecessor who drew his last breath down the street. “McKinley’s death brings in Teddy Roosevelt, a high-profile president who represents positive energy and the future,” said Creighton. “It’s part of the same story, but it’s the positive part, so you can acknowledge the event, but you don’t have to dwell on the tragedy.”
Saccomando Freedman points out that the city could well have lost the Wilcox mansion too.
“I think the only reason the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural site is still there is that it became a restaurant,” she said.
Without the actual Temple of Music, visitors could never be immersed in the place where history pivoted, the way they are at Ford’s Theatre or the Texas School Book Depository.
“If you really want that experience of authenticity, you need some sort of wholeness to it, not a fragment here or a paint chip or a railing there,” she said. “Cities are where history is made touchable, visible. When you lose those buildings, you lose the ability to experience that place.”