McKinley Down the Memory Hole

With President Obama’s renaming of Mount McKinley in Alaska, another bit of American history slides down the memory hole – this time it involves an assassinated American president.

My interest in President William McKinley goes back to my days as a staffer at the House Ways and Means Committee. As a former committee chairman who rose to the Presidency, McKinley’s portrait hangs in the main hearing room. (Note: As the oldest committee in the House, it has had many chairmen; McKinley’s portrait has never been relegated to one of its lesser hearing rooms.)

I once mused to a member of the House Archivist’s staff that black bunting should be placed on his portrait to commemorate the assassination date; he gave me a kindred-spirit look and agreed.

By a sad coincidence, September 6 will be the 114th anniversary of McKinley’s assassination in 1901 in Buffalo, New York.

McKinley was attending a World’s Fair-type exhibition and doing what presidents used to do back then (even after President Garfield’s assassination in 1881) – shaking hands with people who had lined up to see him. Leon Frank Czolgosz (an American citizen and anarchist) joined the line and shot McKinley point blank. Emma Goldman, a famous anarchist of the time, favorably compared Czolgosz to Marcus Junius Brutus, one of Julius Caesar’s assassinators.

A mere 45 days after McKinley’s Sept. 14 death from his wounds, Czolgosz was tried and executed.

Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley: In the lifetimes of many Americans, they had endured the assassinations of three presidents – the latter a Civil War officer and veteran. The people’s shame was intense. Hence the naming of American’s highest mountain peak after McKinley.

Emotions fade, of course. McKinley also lacked a perpetual public-relations machine, such as the one that operates the JFK museum in Boston. Ads for that museum appear everywhere in the city, to ensure tourists for whom JFK is strictly an historical figure will visit and learn the museum’s carefully edited JFK story.

How bad is it for poor McKinley’s history? A few years back, my husband and I stopped in Buffalo on our way to Niagara Falls. The city has a museum about the assassination and Teddy Roosevelt’s swearing-in as the new president, but where, we wondered, was McKinley shot? Surely that was a noteworthy spot?

It took some research, but we found it, sort of. In an ordinary single-family housing development is a boulevard with a landscaped divider. In that divider is a plaque stating that somewhere nearby, President McKinley was shot.

The plaque was nicely maintained by the locals, but it gave us pause. Imagine living in a house where your den contained the exact spot where McKinley was shot and lay bleeding!

Apparently, nobody bothered to mark the exact spot, but contemporary maps showed the location of the Music Pavilion, wherein the assassination took place. When the exhibition was demolished, a property developer purchased the land, built houses, etc.

Thus, within a few years, Buffalo had shrugged off the assassination, probably to avoid the notoriety. And with the hyper-energetic Teddy Roosevelt as a successor, McKinley’s story faded quickly out of the national consciousness.

President Obama’s renaming of Mount McKinley is the final link in the chain of forgetting.

In a generation or two (post-Caroline Kennedy), will certain landmarks once named for JFK be re-named in deference to the sensitivities of ethnic groups or to mark future significant events? Call me a cynic, but I doubt it.

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About the Contributor

Joanne Butler

Joanne Butler

Joanne Butler of Wilmington is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former professional staff member of the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.