The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City: Spectacle and Assassination at the 1901 World's Fair

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Release Date: 
October 17, 2016
W. W. Norton & Company
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The Pan-American Exposition opened in Buffalo in May 1901, the latest in a long line of world fairs. The business elite of the Queen City of the Lakes, as Buffalo was known, thought that by mounting the best fair ever, they could win worldwide acclaim and recognition. Instead, the event became famous as the only fair to host the assassination of an American president, William McKinley.

Margaret Creighton’s The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City: Spectacle and Assassination at the 1901 World's Fair, aptly reports on the events of the fair over its six-month run. Planned in the aftermath of Chicago’s fabulous White City Columbian Exposition of 1893, Buffalonians sought acknowledgement of their city’s prominence as a major metropolis, then the nation’s eighth largest city.

The Exposition reflected the state of the nation’s contradictions at the turn of the 20th century combined with a passing reference to progress in the Western Hemisphere. With one foot in the sorry past of American slavery and Jim Crow legislation and another in the innovative grandeur of a world powered by electricity, the Exposition reflected America’s divided character.

The Buffalo event represented the economic and societal conflicts of America—prosperity for the few and disadvantage for the many. It sanctioned the status quo on racial subjugation. As Creighton writes: “White showmen tried to define blackness with savages, smiling slaves and animals.” The lavishly designed fair would make its mark on American history, but not for American progress, the reason its promoters had intended and expected.

The finest chapters of Creighton’s book retell the story of the presidential assassination. Fred Neiman, whose real name was Leon Czolgosz, was a troubled anarchist who stalked President McKinley during his tour of the fair. The visit of the president was the highlight of the Exposition, attracting visitors at a rate that the fair needed in order to break even financially. McKinley was true representative of his era. He fomented global wars and conquests while protecting the rights of businesses to prosper domestically and internationally.  He also adored fairs and quickly accepted the organizers’ invitation to visit.

Creighton introduces many of the fair’s delights through the eyes of Mabel Barnes, a young teacher who wrote a diary recalling each one of her 33 visits during the summer of 1901. She loved the Midway, filled with human oddities and ferocious animal acts. She was transfixed by the splendor of the nightly display of illuminated buildings.

The animal acts were provided by Frank Charles Bostock, the self-styled Animal King, a seamy character who abused his lions, tigers, bears and elephants. The star of his show, however, was Espiridiona Cenda, renamed Chiquita, a very small person who became the fair’s mascot. She would later escape from Bostock in an ill-fated effort to live free of his control.

An important sidelight of Creighton’s story involves nearby Niagara Falls, a fatal attraction drawing many attention seeking daredevils to their death. Ultimately, Annie Taylor, tucked inside her wooden barrel, would successfully master the Falls and live. Yet she did not reap the fame and fortune she had sought.

As McKinley convalesced from his gunshot wounds in Buffalo, the fair continued on with almost no change. Spectators were pleased to hear about the president’s improved condition, and the directors planned a gala day of festivities upon McKinley’s full recovery that would certainly bring in increased attendance. But McKinley’s medical condition suddenly turned for the worse, and the president died. Nonetheless, the fair continued on because money was at stake. The assailant was quickly tried and electrocuted.

Creighton’s text offers, in effect, a travelogue, descriptive rather than analytic. It might have benefitted from reorganization into major themes represented by the events in Buffalo in 1901. What did the Pan-American Exposition really represent? What can we learn about America in 1901 from the events at the fair?

The Buffalo Exposition was a fine example of American boasting—magnificent self-promotion at a time when the nation was spreading its economic and political influence worldwide. Relying on its growing technological prowess, America ignored the social and racial issues that would divide the country for the coming century. The triumphs of civilization boasted by the fair’s organizers proved to be a façade. America’s trip toward true justice and equality would prove as perilous as a voyage over Niagara Falls. Creighton’s panoramic view of the Exposition sets the scene for the journey to come.