- The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City: Spectacle and Assassination at the 1901 World's Fair by Margaret Creighton
Margaret Creighton's lively story of the Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo in 1901 is produced in the spirit of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, a popular read that presents the United States in miniature at a world's fair, this time at the turn of the twentieth century as opposed to the end of the nineteenth. Creighton's book is about the fair itself as opposed to a murderer, though, so the similarities in story line end there. Creighton is a professor of history at Bates College in Maine and previously published as a Civil War scholar. She works with a combination of city records and newspapers, memoirs, medical reports, trial transcripts, and secondary sources to tell the story of the fair, and of the city of Buffalo, then the eighth largest city in the country. One of many superlatives about this history is its ability to create an empathy with the city and its major politicians, their desire to translate their civic pride into a nationwide triumph, and their agony at the unexpected assassination of President McKinley, which defined the exposition in people's memories.
Eight million people walked over the Triumphal Bridge and past the Electric Tower to take in the Pan-American Exposition, paying fifty cents each to take in the exhibits. Creighton follows a series of characters through the exposition, among them the cruel animal trainer and junior-league, Barnum-style impresario Frank Bostock, "the Animal King" Alice Cenda, or "Chiquita," billed as the world's smallest woman and a money-making puppet for Bostock; Mabel Barnes, a local schoolteacher who went to the exposition twenty-seven times; Fred Nieman, an unhinged migrant who would come to be known by his real name, Leon Czolgosz, after he assassinated the president; and Jim Parker, a black waiter who helped apprehend Czolgosz and then suffered cruel prejudice in a racist era as his efforts to save the president were denigrated and denied because of the color of his skin. Creighton also [End Page 70] shows how Buffalo's location near Niagara Falls had an impact on local attendance and interest as well. She follows a few people who chose to go over the falls in a barrel. The most prominent was Annie Edson Taylor, a woman who lusted after fame and managed to skirt authorities to make her attempt, becoming the first woman to successfully brave the falls, all at the age of sixty.
There are few false steps in this story. An effort to include the story of the women's suffrage movement and employment of women at the turn of the century seems tacked on for politically correct purposes, as neither of them directly relate to the exposition or her characters. Creighton spends more fruitful time covering the efforts to convey the supremacy of whites over blacks in the exposition's displays, especially the "Old Plantation," basically an old minstrel show. She also notes how a local African American leader, Mary Talbert, ran an exhibit based on African American achievements at the fair. Her chronicle of the efforts to achieve racial equality in Buffalo come to fruition later in the book when Jim Parker's story is illuminated.
In general, this is a surefooted trail guide through the history of a world's fair that was otherwise remembered for the tragedy of McKinley's assassination.