The idea of a World’s Fair seems anachronistic today. These events, which showcase things like technology, science, and architecture, seem dated at a time when you can circumnavigate the globe in a day and the Internet can virtually take you to the ends of the earth. It was not always so. The Eifel Tower debuted at Paris’s World Fair in 1889 and the Space Needle in Seattle was unveiled during the 1962 World’s Fair. Erik Larson’s book about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair - The Devil in the White City, is a sort of Dark Side of the Moon of the literary world, sitting on the best seller list for more than a decade.
So it is no surprise that the 1901 World’s Fair held in Buffalo, New York, forever infamous for the assassination of President William McKinley, would get its own treatment. Margaret Creighton’s book, The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City, examines McKinley’s untimely demise along with the sometimes seedy world that emerged in the Queen City for six months at the turn-of-the-century. While the Buffalo World’s Fair is occasionally interesting, Creighton’s book is ultimately not worth the price of admission.
If people think of Buffalo these days, it is likely in connection with its eponymous chicken wings or maybe its long suffering football fans, but 116 years ago, Buffalo mattered in this country. It was one of the ten largest cities in our nation and a major hub for commerce. Town fathers were very keen on replicating the success of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition eight years prior and positioning Buffalo as a place of importance as the country climbed out of recession and emerged into the 20th century.
Creighton offers a workmanlike account of the planning and implementation of this major event, but ultimately, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The McKinley assassination has been written about numerous times and nothing in Rainbow City sheds any new light on the incident. Part of what made Larson’s book such a phenomenon was his discovery of a lost piece of American history – that a serial killer lived among, and murdered people at, the Chicago World’s Fair – but there are no revelations of the sort here.
McKinley’s shooting and the nearly two week drama that followed before he finally succumbed act as the anchor for Rainbow City but because the story is already well-known, Creighton must lean on thinner material to fill the remainder of her 274 pages. She focuses primarily on several thrill seekers who go over Niagara Falls in wooden barrels (one dies, one survives) and Frank Bostock, the purveyor of an animal and human oddities exhibit who treats his four-legged troupe as poorly as he does Alice Cenda (aka Miss Chiquita), who, at two-feet tall, he bills as the world’s smallest woman. Bostock’s callous treatment of his menagerie (including Jumbo II, an elephant he attempts to electrocute publicly) made me cringe, while his de facto imprisonment of Cenda (keeping her from another performer she would ultimately marry) made me sad.
With enough human (and animal) suffering in the world, I am not particularly interested in reading about its historical antecedents. This extends to the exhibits featuring cultures from other countries (invariably portrayed as wild savages) and an antebellum display with a pro-slavery slant on pre-Civil War plantation life. And in a world where Jackass has lowered the common denominator for what amuses us, it was difficult to muster much interest in people doing a header over a 165-foot waterfall for the sake of public notoriety.
One bright spot is the story of Mabel Barnes, a twenty-three year-old second grade teacher from Buffalo who kept a meticulous diary of her thirty-three visits to the fair. Barnes can almost be thought of as a blogger from another age (although her journaling took several years to complete) and imagine that had she lived in our time, her exploits would have been plastered all over social media. As a sort of tour guide for the common man, Barnes is more than able and her unabashed joy at the spectacles and sights she sees does lend the book a happy gloss.
Creighton does try to reach for some larger themes – while there is wanton animal cruelty, there are also SPCA workers monitoring the treatment of the animals. Racial attitudes at subsequent expositions were more nuanced and less rose-colored when it came to the treatment of slavery, and women’s suffrage would of course become a cause celebre, resulting in the passage of the 19th Amendment less than two decades later. McKinley’s assassination sent shockwaves through the nation, but his successor’s advocacy for the environment, dislike of corporate trusts, and his muscular foreign policy were so profoundly influential TR is one of four Presidents honored on Mount Rushmore.
Ultimately, whatever “fall” Buffalo suffered had little to do with its ill-fated World’s Fair. The city continued to prosper for decades after, but began its decline when alternate sea routes opened and steel manufacturers shut down their plants and moved their production to other countries. But for McKinley’s assassination, the entire thing would have been a footnote in history, but as it is, not substantive enough for a book-length treatment.