Back in Time at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site

Since my wife chose our Maid of the Mist boat ride to the edge of Niagara Falls, I chose something equally fun – a tour of the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site! In 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo. Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn into office in the library in the home of a friend. Theodore Roosevelt was a living, breathing force, and his Presidency one of the most important. Also, Anchor Bar, where the original Buffalo Wings were created is right around the corner – one of the most important factors influencing my wife’s agreement to come here.

Portrait of TR, By The Bureau of Engraving and Printing
The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site preserves the spot in downtown Buffalo where Teddy Roosevelt took the oath of office after President McKinley’s assassination. Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley point blank while he shook hands in a receiving line at the Pan American Exposition. Czolgosz concealed a revolver by wrapping his hand in a handerkerchief. He was wrestled to the ground by the spectators (the secret service did not exist, and there was little security). The premiere, world renowned surgeon of Buffalo was doing another surgery in Niagara Falls that day, so the next best doctor (a gynecologist) was called upon to do the surgery. One bullet was diverted by a shirt button, but the other did its damage. Despite the murder of the President, McKinley and Czolgosz receive little attention at the site. Everything here is about TR.

The Assassin

Leon Czolgosz. By unknown photographer about 1900 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Our tour guide mentioned McKinley often, or rather the fact that he died, but Czolgosz only was mentioned in one of the virtual displays in the last room of the tour. Czolgosz (I love typing his name) is simply described as an anarchist inspired by Emma Goldman. A little research turns up more. So much of Leon Czolgosz’s story sounds familiar – potential mental health issues, a social outsider and a gun purchased just days before a crime.

Leon Czolgosz was born in Detroit or possibly Alpena, Michigan, and moved a lot as a child. His family finally settled in Cleveland. He worked in factories for most of his life, got fired along with his brothers when the workers went on strike, and watched the rich get fat off his labor. He was somewhat of a recluse and had a mental breakdown at one point. He was drawn to the socialist and later anarchist causes, and made attempts to join Goldman’s inner circle. They thought he was a little odd and possibly a law enforcement mole, and ignored his attempts to join them.

Emma Goldman — mugshot from Chicago, Sept 10, 1901. By Chicago Police Department [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

After McKinley died, Goldman and the rest of her anarchist circle were arrested. Only Goldman refused to condemn his actions. Goldman no longer advocated violence, although she praised those who were moved to violence, and denied encouraging him. The other major anarchists felt that Czolgosz set back their movement, and the government responded to his actions with a crackdown. Czolgosz was sentenced to death in an astoundingly quick trial, and was executed less than two months after the shooting.

The President

William McKinley, 1865.
By Matthew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
While I understand not giving a lot of space to the assassin, it seemed like McKinley could have gotten a little more. He was president, after all. McKinley was a Civil War hero, who rose from a private to brevet major. He distinguished himself at Antietam, and served on the staff of Colonel (later President) Rutherford B. Hayes. After the war, McKinley practiced law and entered Ohio politics. He served in Congress from 1877 until he became governor of Ohio in 1891. He supported heavy tariffs while in Congress, and as Governor dealt with the escalating conflicts between labor and management. Unlike many Ohio Republicans at the time, McKinley believed that labor had some rights, but didn’t hesitate to call in the National Guard when they demanded too much. His Presidency dealt with many domestic issues that make me a little sleepy – the Gold Standard and Tariffs. His foreign policy was marked by empire building. The Spanish-American War netted America control of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

William McKinley, 1896.
By Courtney Art Studio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Only a little of this history was given in the displays, although I could have missed something. The tour only mentioned that McKinley had been shot, was dying or dead. Of course, this is the house belonged to one of TR’s friends and where he took office. This site is definitely a TR show.

Roosevelt, and the rest of the cabinet, had been called to Buffalo immediately after the shooting. However McKinley rallied and appeared to get better. The cabinet dispersed, and TR headed to the Adirondacks for a vacation of mountain-climbing, hiking, hunting, swimming and doing other things robustly. McKinley took a turn for the worst as infection set in. The gynecologist who performed the surgery to remove the bullet improperly sanitized the instruments, had trouble finding the bullet, and closed the wound without following the proper procedures. TR was called back to Buffalo as McKinley faltered. There, he stayed with his good friend, Ansley Wilcox, whose house is now the National Historic Site.

The Tour

Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site
The Wilcox Breakfast Table
Despite the very specific range of material covered at the house, our guided tour was quite good. Our volunteer tour guide started by bringing us into a room in the museum that was dedicated to the Pan American Exposition, and describing the wonders of the age. He put on a hat and transported us back to 1901, he led the tour as if we were guests in the house along with TR. He pulled papers from the waste basket, which ended up being bits of TR’s statement after taking the oath, and showed us the newspaper the family read that morning with the headlines of assassination. He moved us from room to room by telling us that we needed to leave the room to let the servants clear, up or “rushed” us into the entry way by telling us we could catch a glimpse of TR as he left to visit McKinley’s widow before taking the oath of office. He didn’t slip once into a the 21st century during the tour – he was committed to his narrative and it worked! It was a great tour!

Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site
My wife finds out if she is a Captain of Industry
The museum opens in a recreation of the Pan American Exposition. There’s a Test Your Capitalist Cunning booth where depending upon your answers, you could end up a general laborer or millionaire Captain of Industry. You can look into a Mutoscope and turn a crank to see real moving pictures. You can even go on a rocket ship ride to the moon! While we explored the attractions, our guide rushed in to tell us the terrible news! President McKinley had been shot!

We rushed into the Dining Room of the Ansley home, where we learned about the family, and saw the morning headline on the newspaper on the table: New President. We learned that TR had gone immediately to visit with President McKinley’s wife (we just missed him!). When we moved from the dining room to a parlor, we were able to overhear Vice-President Roosevelt musing over the challenges the country faced and how we would endeavor to meet them (in a cool visual display). Our guide appeared and rushed us into the library so we could witness history taking place – the swearing in of TR!

Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site
TR’s Inaugural Site – Ansley Wilcox’s Library

After the swearing in, we were transported back to 2016. The tour ended upstairs in a series of rooms that gave information about Roosevelt’s presidency. There was a replica of TR’s White House office (the Oval Office wasn’t built yet) with an interactive panel in the desk where we could decide to veto or pass the legislation as it literally came across the desk. There were also more displays about TR’s children, the news of the 1900’s vs the news of today, and a series of interactive drawers where I found the little bits of information about the McKinley assassination, McKinley himself and how the house became a National Historic Site. All the displays were fantastic, and touched upon the issues we overheard TR contemplating earlier in the tour.

Anchor Bar

After we finished the tour and took one more look Ride to the Moon at the Pan American Exposition display, we hit the road. We almost didn’t stop at the Anchor Bar, but it was right on the way to the highway. We hesitated about getting our wings to go, but finally sat down at a table. The waitress come over and my wife learned that she was allergic to ingredients in the wings. I had a whole plate of delicious buffalo wings to myself. They were really good, but a little guilt probably interfered with my enjoyment. As I ate my wings, my wife picked dejectedly at her sauce-free grilled chicken. Fortunately she enjoyed our visit to the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site (maybe more than I did) so the afternoon wasn’t a bust.

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