The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City by Margaret Creighton. W.W. Norton, 2017 paper.
The Pan American Exposition opened in Buffalo, New York, in May of 1901 and closed in November. It celebrated our ‘victory’ in the Spanish-American War in 1898, a triumph for imperial America at the expense of imperial Spain. Even back then, world fairs were financially a losing proposition and this one was no exception. The Exposition had some other unhappy distinctions. And Margaret Creighton tells that story.
The attendance figures sound impressive: 200,000 daily and on good days as many as 300,000 paid admissions. Its promoters, however, felt they were competing with the Chicago World’s Fair for attendance. The Buffalo fair was a days’ journey by rail for forty million people. Canadians were next door. Hence the Buffalo Exposition had a much bigger potential draw than was the case with Chicago.
Some wealthy businessmen and several politicians with public money to spend had agreed to subsidize the Exposition. But the promoters had to hustle to keep money coming in. That meant creating exciting press coverage. Press releases were frequent and there were a number of special-event days designed to attract attendees, often for a second visit. But then a downer. While visiting the Fair, William McKinley, just beginning his second Presidential term, was shot and mortally wounded by a drifter, Leon Czolgosz, on 6 September.
Czolgosz, was born into a Polish immigrant family. An unemployed steel worker, he contended that the capitalist economy in America was disproportionately favoring the well-off. He considered himself an anarchist, though, Creighton notes, his ideology was thin.
McKinley seemed to be doing fine, recuperating in a mansion near the Fair. But he took a turn for the worse on 13 September and died early the next morning of an infection that the medicine of the time couldn’t stop. The McKinley assassination put a dent in the attendance and hence revenue.
Given the theme of the Exposition – electricity and its blessings, Czolgosz’s death by electrocution was an unwelcomed outcome of that celebration. He was one of the electric chair’s first victims.
Close to Niagara Falls, the Exposition was always an opportunity for individuals to seek press attention by passing over the Falls in a barrel. Annie Edson Taylor was a school teacher of middling success who had taught in different schools in the Upper Midwest. Most people thought her aim was to commit suicide, but she made it over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls on 24 October. Her stunt had the advantage of all the publicity linked to the Exposition. She lived for another thirty years, dying at the age of ninety-three. Taylor stayed out of the poor house for most of the rest of her life by selling souvenirs of her stunt on the streets of Buffalo, a facsimile of the original barrel by her side.
Like most state fairs, carnivals, and circuses, World’s Fairs had a midway. The Pan American Exposition was no exception. Its most popular midway attraction was owned by Frank Bostock, which included a dozen or so elephants including Jumbo II, which was said to be the largest mammal in captivity.
The star attraction of this midway, however, was Chiquita, “The Cuban Doll,” a very small midget, around whose stature Bostock had created an act. But love conquered Chiquita’s height problem. She fell in love with a musician in the show, Tony Woeckener. “Little Tony,” was scrawny but not a midget. Chiquita and Little Tony were carrying on in secret.
To keep together they needed a union of some sort and so fled to Buffalo and got a quick marriage. But alas, Bostock found out about their relationship and subsequent ‘flight.’ To justify his intervention in their happy post-marriage, he claimed that The Cuban Doll had been kidnapped and that sensation got a flock of journalists to follow the fate of The Cuban Doll and Tony.
Bostock, it turned out, had another problem. Jumbo II, his elephant star of the show was not behaving, and misbehaving elephants were not safe to parade amongst the attendees as the elephants did several times daily. It was decided that Jumbo should be ‘retired’ by a public execution. And there was a good crowd drawn that day to watch poor Jumbo’s demise. But the electrocution didn’t work, despite several tries and obvious suffering on the part of the animal.
Neither those who opposed capital punishment nor cruelty to animals had yet found their voice. But the author points out that those missing voices were soon to follow.