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Another Day on the Assassination Vacation

Posted by Laurie Frost on August 1, 2009

When we left Sarah Vowell she was visiting the grave of James Garfield and on the way to William McKinley’s in Canton, Ohio, which she describes as “a gray granite nipple on a fresh green breast of grass.” The website for his home, now the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, has copyright notices, but the mausoleum is a national historic landmark, and I found this on a National Park Service webpage.mckinley2

McKinley was in his second term of office when he was assassinated by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, in the Temple of Music, now, along with all but one of the event’s buildings, demolished. But pictures and movies remain. Vowell notes that the Library of Congress has some reels of film by Thomas Edison of the Exposition, and among these is a re-enactment of Czolgosz’s execution in the electric chair.  Here’s a link. (Did you know that the electric chair was first used at New York State’s Auburn Prison in 1890? This is the kind of thing Sarah Vowell knows.)

Beckitemscredit: NPS

For Vowell, the essence of the exposition’s spirit — and of the McKinley administration — is well illustrated by the logo for the event, the allegorical picture of blond North America and brunette South America:

Their handshake takes place in Central America on the future site of the Panama Canal. Miss South America smiles, unaware that two years later, the U.S. Navy would swoop in and hack her arm off at the elbow so that cargo ships could sail through the blood of her severed stump.

In the logo, most of the United States and Canada is blanketed in Miss North America’s billowy yellow dress. But one delicate foot pokes out of the southeastern edge, shaped like the state of Florida, as if she’s poised to step on Cuba.

When the Spanish reportedly blew up the battleship Maine, an initially reluctant McKinley — and an eager vice-president Theodore Roosevelt — found themselves at war in Cuba (Guantanamo Bay is a relic of this Spanish-American War). Vowell finds the optional wars of their time have quite a lot in common with those of ours; considering the Maine monument at the southwest entrance to Central Park is her occasion to recall these lessons unlearned.

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credit: Library of Congress LC-B2-2694-9

Now back to McKinley’s assassination. He lived eight days, and since initially he appeared to be improving, Theodore Roosevelt saw no reason not to go hiking in a fairly remote area of the Adriondacks.3b21880r

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Left: Lake Tear-in-the-Clouds, Adirondack Mountains, where Roosevelt ate lunch the day before he became president [credit: LC 11134-3].   Right:  Vowell, an eager urban walker but a miserable mountain hiker, says that the Tawhaus Lodge where Roosevelt’s family was staying looks well-maintained today, not that she is eager to hike back up there [credit: LC-D4-16785].

By morning September 13, 1901, it was obvious that the president was dying. A ranger reached the vice-president’s party that afternoon with the news. McKinley was dead by 2:30 the following morning, but it would be 3:30 in the afternoonof the 14th, after a rough night of hard riding down dark mountain roads, before Roosevelt took the oath of office in Buffalo.

In Buffalo, Vowell visits the home of Roosevelt’s buddy Ansley Wilcox, now known as the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, where the oath of office was administered in its library.

116259prcredit: LC-HABS NY,15-BUF,12-2

librarycredit: NPS

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And here we have the memorial to McKinley in downtown Buffalo, New York, or, as Sarah Vowell calls it, “the-sorry-you-got-shafted shaft” [credit: LC-D4-70292].

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