On September 6th, 1901, President McKinley was shot on a road that didn’t exist. You can see it here, a rock marks the spot.
McKinley had been a popular president. He’d led the country to recovery after the Crash of 1893, he’d won a couple of wars and he’d shaken a lot of Americans’ hands. He considered himself quite the master a shaking hands. As the next person approached, McKinley would reach out and grab that person’s hand first. This ensured two things:
- That McKinley could control the strength of the handshake (not too hard, not too soft). And,
- that McKinley could gently guide the person past him in seconds.
President McKinley prided himself on being able to shake 50 hands a minute.
The gates to the Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo, New York, had opened at 6am on the morning of Thursday September the 5th. The President himself would finally be visiting this World’s Fair! 50,000 people came to see the President speak. Here he is delivering that speech:
Somewhere in this crowd was Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who had decided to assassinate McKinley. Jostled by the crowd, he didn’t feel he could get a clear aim. He went back to his rented room in town and thought about how to try again.
The following day, against the advice of his secretary George Cortelyou, McKinley arranged to do what he loved best: shaking hands! He would stand in the Temple of Music, people would line up and he would shake as many hands as possible.
The Temple of Music was quite a sight. Nikola Tesla had built a massive hydroelectric power generator at Niagara Falls, 25 miles north. It was this that allowed the whole Fair to be electrically lit. Light bulbs adorned the Temple of Music:
And it was here that McKinley was shot, at 4.07pm. As he was shaking hands, he saw a man who’s right hand was wrapped in a handkerchief. Assuming the man’s hand was broken, McKinley reached out for his left hand. As soon as they touched, the man—Leon Czolgosz—shot McKinley twice with the gun he’d concealed under the handkerchief.
This is the last known photograph of McKinley, walking to the Temple of Music moments before he was shot:
McKinley was rushed to the Fair’s emergency room. Unlike the well-lit exteriors of the Fair’s buildings, no one had thought to put electricity in the emergency room. Light was fading, they would have to operate quickly and in poor circumstances. They could have used the newly-invented x-ray machine on display at the Fair too, but elected not to. They were worried about the affect it would have on the patient. Electricity gave them tools they needed to save the patient, but they either weren’t able to use them or were afraid to.
While he initially seemed stable, gangrene was developing inside President McKinley and he died at 2.15am on September 14th, 1901.
Which leads us back to that rock I mentioned.
When the World’s Fair closed its doors on November 2nd, it was almost completely demolished. Most of the land was turned into evenly-spaced, neat streets for residential use. What is now Fordham Drive, a quiet little road in Buffalo NY, is where the Temple of Music stood. A small, unassuming rock marks the spot.
It feels too small, too quiet. You get a This-Doesn’t-Do-The-Event-Justice feeling as you kneel to read what it says. As you walk away, along the road lined with houses (all almost exactly 113 years old), the noise and excitement of a World’s Fair and the horror of an assassination… they all seem so incredibly far away.