It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
The Pan-American Exposition looms large in Buffalo’s story, but until now there wasn’t a book-length history to tell the story of the international showcase marred by the tragic assassination of President William McKinley.
Western New York native Margaret Creighton’s wonderfully informative, evocative and illuminating “The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City: Spectacle and Assassination at the 1901 World’s Fair” more than fills that void.
Creighton’s flowing narrative, punctuated with descriptive details, forgotten figures and resonant issues, splashes technicolor on what could have been a conventional black-and-white canvas.
Four compelling subplots are woven into the narrative. There’s disenfranchised Leon Czolgosz, who goes to Buffalo to assassinate the president; Annie Edson Taylor, the first woman to go over the 170-foot falls on the Canadian side in a barrel; Jumbo II, the largest elephant in captivity who “Animal King” Frank Bostock plans to publicly electrocute; and “freak show” performer Alice “Chiquita” Cenda, a 2-foot midget also under Bostock’s thumb.
Creighton uses the lens of social class, race, gender and animal welfare to explore issues that would become thornier later in the 20th century, and are still grappled with today.
The Pan-American Exposition, which opened May 1, 1901, and closed six months later, occurred during the grand era of world’s fairs. The spectacles had become hugely popular, and Buffalo, as the nation’s eighth-largest city, was eager to capitalize.
Expecting a hefty bid from Detroit, 40 Buffalo businessmen emerged from a four-hour meeting pledging almost $500,000 to bring the world’s fair to the Queen City.
McKinley telegraphed congratulations after Buffalo’s selection. “May there be no cloud upon this grand festival of peace and commerce,” he said, without the benefit of a crystal ball.
More than 8 million people passed through the fair’s turnstiles to attend the exhibits and midway, and enjoy the architecture, fountains and dazzling displays of electricity supplied by the currents of Niagara Falls.
With stunning colors and bright lights, the fair’s appearance stood in stark contrast to Chicago’s triumphant White City fair eight years earlier. The color scheme gave the fair its Rainbow City name, but it did more than give the fairgrounds a pretty face.
The choice of color on exhibition buildings also expressed the Pan-American directors’ idea of civilization. Loud primary colors were used on the southern end of the fair in reflecting “the progress of the race,” giving way to more muted palettes of light greens, yellows and grays as the fair moved northward. The fair’s focus, the nearly 400-foot-tall Electric Tower, was painted in hues of ivory, cream and gold.
“The savage races have manifested a fondness for strong colors, while civilized man prefers grayer notes,” said muralist Charles Yardley Turner, one of the art directors.
The Pan-American Exposition, unlike past world’s fairs, did stand out for displays that promoted advancements throughout the Western Hemisphere. Buffalo encouraged Latin American countries to show off accomplishments in commerce, education and the arts.
But signs of racism and conquest were everywhere. Plains Indians were used to re-enact losing battles with the recently “tamed” West. Darkest Africa featured African villages with cannibals, witches and wild dances. The Old Plantation presented African-Americans, including Laughing Ben, “who spent hour after hour roaring with mirth,” re-creating the “good old days” of slavery before the Civil War.
“Slave families sang and danced and laughed as they picked real cotton,” Creighton writes.
Creighton tells of the successful effort by Mary Talbert and others in the black community to bring a Negro Exhibit to the fair. “While African-American newspapers lauded the show, hoping that it would dispel the ‘gloom’ directed at the black community, the Negro Exhibit might as well have been off in the center of Lake Erie for all the attention white publicists gave it during the Exposition season,” Creighton writes.
Among the characters unearthed are Mabel Barnes, a 23-year-old schoolteacher who visited the fair 33 times, recording her observations in three volumes that would find a home in the archives of the Buffalo History Museum; Jim Parker, an ex-slave who waited in line at the Temple of Music to shake hands with the president, and was the first to wrestle Czolgosz to the ground; and the ill-fated Maud Willard who, unlike Taylor, did not survive the Whirlpool Rapids.
The most shocking event in the fair was the public slaughter of 700 dogs, many taken from animal shelters or snatched off streets. It was held over two days in front of 20,000 spectators. The Indian Congress, made up of several tribes, carried out the executions with Geronimo, on loan from an Oklahoma prison, killing the first dog with a bow and arrow. The dogs were then eaten.
The fair’s financial strains, and attempts to attract middle-class visitors, is a recurring storyline. The working class were an afterthought, Creighton writes.
Ticket prices were costly, and the reduced Sunday rates mattered little since churches condemned the midway as inappropriate entertainment for “the Lord’s Day.”
McKinley’s address to 50,000 visitors from a covered bandstand is typical of Creighton’s descriptive accounts.
“The motion-picture crews filming the event did not have the technology to capture the vibrant colors: the purple swags and drapes on the stage, the scarlet-coated musicians, and the blue robes of Chinese diplomats,” Creighton writes. “They got a good look at the crowd, though, with its straw hats and parasols stirring like whitecaps on a human sea. And they filmed the president, taking in his big bowtie and his wide white shirt, and capturing him bobbing with emphasis.”
McKinley’s travels at the fair, and Czolgosz’s stalking and shooting of the president, are recounted. So, too, are the doctors’ attempts to save McKinley until his death eight days later.
“Ida McKinley was not told of the downturn in her husband’s condition, and Dr. Rixey gave her opiates. Nurses and doctors talked in hushed voices near her room and walked softly,” Creighton writes. “The weather, on the other hand, could not be muffled. Echoing the alarm, an electrical storm settled over the Niagara frontier, and the sky stuttered with flashes.”
The pall McKinley’s death cast over the fair and the city is recalled, as is successor Theodore Roosevelt’s swearing-in at the Ansley Wilcox House, now the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.
The United States has reduced its participation in world’s fairs, and isn’t even among the more than 100 countries planning to exhibit at the 2017 fair, being held in Kazahkstan. But there was a time when Buffalo’s hosting of a world’s fair was a major civic, national and international event.
“Rainbow City, intended as a scripted and neatly schemed production, became an improvised performance – where the rich and the powerful, the poor and the desperate, the human and the animal, and the natural world, in all its fragile fury, met in dynamic alchemy,” Creighton writes.
Creighton’s research is drawn mostly from newspaper accounts, along with memoirs, legal and medical records and scholarly literature. Those sources, she noted, posed challenges.
“The truth of bygone days, as any historian knows, is a slippery thing. ... The papers here were big boosters of the Pan-American Exposition, and served as proud spokesmen for its backers and its ideals. Yet they knew a good story when they saw it.”
So did Creighton. In her capable hands, “The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City,” which reaches bookstores Oct. 18, is primed to join the ranks of the best history books to be written about Buffalo.
Mark Sommer is a veteran Buffalo News reporter. email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City: Spectacle and Assassination at the 1901 World’s Fair
By Margaret Creighton
274 pages, $28.95.