How scandals undermined the success of a world’s fair that ushered in a new century.
In May 1901, the Pan-American Exposition opened in Buffalo, New York, with the ambitious goal of elevating the city to the prominence of Chicago, host of the dazzling 1893 World’s Fair. The Queen City of the Lakes, as Buffalo was known, reinvented itself as the Rainbow City, for the fair’s multicolored design and illumination. Despite attracting millions of visitors—although fewer than hoped for—the event ultimately failed its backers’ goal; it became, instead, infamous as the site of President William McKinley’s assassination. In a lively, well-researched history, Creighton (History/Bates Coll.; The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle, 2005, etc.) juxtaposes that momentous national event with three other scandals that beset the fair: a plan (that ultimately failed) to publicly electrocute Jumbo II, a performing elephant; a woman’s daring stunt of riding in a barrel over Niagara Falls; and the personal and professional travails of Alice Cenda, a midget called Chiquita, under contract with the shady animal trainer Frank Bostock. The scandals connect to a theme of exploitation: of workers by capitalists, which motivated Leon Czolgosz, McKinley’s assassin; of animals by unscrupulous trainers; of vulnerable sideshow performers by impresarios; and of hopeful entertainers by a culture that rewarded sensationalism, as represented by Annie Taylor, the 63-year-old who plummeted down the falls. Drawing on newspaper reports, contemporary records, and memoirs (although one schoolteacher’s banal record of her many visits to the exposition could well have been dropped), the author creates a richly detailed narrative. She reveals, for example, that at an exposition boasting its “grand illumination,” the surgeons operating on McKinley worked under an eight-watt bulb. Ultimately, the author’s choice of events that “offered a rebuttal to the grand Exposition” seems arbitrary, and setting them in the context of a president’s murder trivializes them.
An entertaining history that could have more potently exemplified power and oppression in turn-of-the-century America.