Not long ago, Bates College history professor Margaret Creighton assigned her students the true crime classic “Devil in the White City” about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. They asked her about other fairs back then, and one immediately came to mind: The one held a quarter mile from her childhood home in Buffalo.
In 1901, the city put on the Pan-American Exposition, a spectacular celebration of technology, imperialism, and flimflam. Amid all the hoopla, an anarchist shot and killed the president of the United States.
But Creighton, a history professor, knew little about the exposition next door. No wonder: Almost all of the fair’s buildings have vanished, replaced by streets and elegant homes.
Creighton’s curiosity about Buffalo’s past inspired her to dig into the fair and the epic tragedy that defined it. “I realized,” she says, “that an entire world surrounded this assassination, very rich and compelling and full of eccentric characters.”
The story unfolds in Creighton’s lively new book The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City: Spectacle and Assassination at the 1901 World's Fair. We meet the president and the assassin, the doomed elephant, the abusive Midway tout, and his tiny human star. Plus the quirky women who sought to conquer Niagara Falls, a pair of obsessed exposition fans, and famous visitors like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.
In an interview, Creighton talks about electricity’s grand and deadly role, the fair’s embrace of American imperialism, and the human stories behing the nation’s third presidential assassination.
Q: Buffalo had a much higher national profile back then. What was it know for in 1901, when it boasted more residents than cities like San Francisco, Detroit and Pittsburgh?
Buffalo was a really big deal. It had the first electric streetlights, more asphalted streets than any other city in the country, and Niagara Falls was nearby. And it had all these fantastic state-of-the-art buildings, parks and cemetery. Even its insane asylum was celebrated for its design.
There was a lot of optimism, and people wanted to celebrate what they thought it was a magnificent metropolis.
Q: Electricity plays a huge role in your book, from the fair’s spectacular nighttime lighting to a pair of fatal electrocutions to the appearances of Edison and Tesla. Even the exposition itself focused on power. What was behind that?
The fair was designed to show off the triumph of electric power and the subjugation of nature since the power was derived from Niagara Falls.
Electricity represents this conquest. And yet you have the flip side, the dangers of electricity through electrocution. It’s an interesting and ironic set of events.
Q: On one hand, the fair celebrated American imperialism in places like the Philippines. But it also highlighted independent Latin American countries. What happened there?
Most other world fairs barely paid any attention to these republics or gave them exhibit space that was fairly circumscribed or next to colonial countries.While a lot of the Buffalo fair was infused with ideas about race hierarchy and imperialism, it also was unusual in that it gave a platform to Latin American republics, allowing them to speak and build their own exhibit halls.
Q: Not that everyone liked what they heard from these platforms. There are plenty of people at the fair who aren’t with the program, so to speak, and make their opinions known. How do you deal with them in the book?
I focus on characters who offer a kind of rebuttal to the themes of the fair as a grand celebration of imperialism and the Western Hemisphere. They protested either the condescension or the representation or the business culture at the time, and they all throw a monkey wrench into the scheme of the fair.
Q: What did you learn about the assassin, a disturbed young anarchist named Leon Czolgosz?
The impulse is to write off the assassin. He went through a quick trial and was promptly put it death. But it’s clear that this guy was also very sick. He was mentally ill. That story gets lost.
There’s also a component of motivation. Why he did do this? He talked a lot about the division of wealth in the country, the haves and have-nots, how he wanted to go to a doctor but he couldn’t afford it. We don’t talk about these motivations because we don’t want to sympathize with him.
It was a challenge to bring out these aspects without seeming to sympathize with a violent individual. It’s important to note that when Teddy Roosevelt was shot and survived, he said it’s because of the division of wealth that we produce some of these people.
Q: What affected you on a personal level about the assassination?
I was struck by the story of Ida McKinley, his wife, whom we tend to describe as this frail, sick individual. But she also demonstrated through this whole ideal a kind of fortitude.
While she was devastated, in later life she recovered somewhat. She took an interest in feminism and was able to stand on her own in ways that she hadn’t before.
Q: San Diego and San Francisco preserved the buildings from their early 20th-century pan-American expositions, and they remain big tourist attractions. But Buffalo’s world’s fair vanished, nearly without a trace. What happened?
People were desperate to save the fair, but it was not a success, and they had an economic shortfall. The feeling was that they could not keep the site intact, and the family that had given the land to the fair officials demanded that it be returned just as delivered.
Now, there’s a lot of regret. An entire fantasyland had been erased.
Q: How should Buffalo remember the fair now?
Buffalo should talk about the fair, acknowledge the racism embedded in the exhibits and what imperialism meant, and at the same time celebrate the characters who protested the top-down approach and the exhibits of power. Buffalo can make something of this history and use it as a reference to a moment in time.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is immediate past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.