Source: The Life of William McKinley
Source type: book
Document type: book chapter
Document title: “The Tragedy at Buffalo” [chapter 34]
Author(s): Olcott, Charles S.
Volume number: 2
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Place of publication: Boston, Massachusetts
Year of publication: 1916
|Olcott, Charles S. “The Tragedy at Buffalo” [chapter 34]. The Life of William McKinley. Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916: pp. 313-33.|
|full text of chapter; excerpt of book|
|McKinley assassination; William McKinley (medical condition); William McKinley (activity, conversations, etc. during recovery); William McKinley (death); McKinley funeral services; William McKinley (death: international response).|
|Emilio Aguinaldo; Edward G. Andrews; Mary C. Barber; Wilbur C. Brown; J. C. Burrows; George B. Cortelyou; Charles G. Dawes; William R. Day; Sarah Elizabeth Duncan; Edward VII; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Charles W. Fairbanks; Marcus Hanna; Webb C. Hayes; Myron T. Herrick; Edward G. Janeway [middle initial wrong in footnote]; William W. Johnston; Edward Wallace Lee; Friedrich Leopold; Abraham Lincoln; C. E. Manchester; Matthew D. Mann; Charles McBurney; Helen McKinley; Ida McKinley; William McKinley; John G. Milburn; Herman Mynter; John Henry Newman; Roswell Park; John Parmenter; Presley M. Rixey; Theodore Roosevelt; Charles G. Stockton; Victoria; Eugene Wasdin; William II.|
| This chapter includes the two following footnotes. Click on the superscripted
number preceding each footnote to navigate to the respective locations in
An unnumbered plate with photograph of Ida McKinley appears facing page 326.
The Tragedy at Buffalo
SUNSHINE in the sky above and gladness in the heart of the President
brightened the morning of the 6th day of September, 1901. It was to be a holiday:
a visit to Niagara Falls in the forenoon, a reception to the people in the afternoon.
In joyous mood McKinley passed the hours of the excursion, his nature never
more serene. He looked forward with pleasure to the plans of the afternoon,
when he was to meet the people face to face. He must have realized his hold
upon their affection, for he never sought to avoid such occasions, though many
public men have found a few hours of handshaking a severe physical ordeal. Many
a time had Mr. Cortelyou sought to save his strength, and avoid possible danger,
by suggesting that public receptions be omitted. To the Secretary and to other
close friends, the risk seemed too great to be ventured. Only a little more
than a year before, a plot to assassinate the President had been discovered.
It was part of a scheme, originating in a group of anarchists in Paterson, New
Jersey, to kill, in regular order, six of the rulers of the world. The first
two on the list had already  been murdered,
and the President of the United States was the fifth in turn. Mr. Cortelyou
conferred with the Chief of the Secret Service and the guard was increased.
Immediately before the visit to Buffalo he made every effort to have the President
omit the reception. The only reply was, “Why should I? No one would wish to
hurt me.” To the argument that there would be a crowd of a hundred thousand
people present and that it would be physically impossible to shake hands with
more than a small part of that number, he replied, “Well, they’ll know that
I tried, anyhow.” The Secretary then telegraphed to the Chief of Police to take
every possible precaution, and this was done.
At 3.30 in the afternoon the party arrived at the Exposition grounds from Niagara Falls. Mrs. McKinley was sent in a carriage to the house of Mr. John G. Milburn, president of the Exposition, while the President, Mr. Cortelyou, and Mr. Milburn drove to the Temple of Music, where the reception was to be held. The dense crowd which had assembled gave a mighty cheer of welcome and the great organ in the temple pealed forth the national anthem as the party arrived. Passing into the building, the President took his place at one end of the room. At his left stood Mr. Milburn and at his right Mr. Cortelyou. Close by were the Secret Service officers,  local detectives and the detail, of a corporal and ten men, from the regular army, instructed “to keep their eyes open and to watch every man approaching the President.” The people were permitted to enter from one door and pass out through another on the opposite side. The President was smiling pleasantly as he greeted all who passed, bestowing especial graciousness upon the timid ones and the little children. The procession was very much like others of its kind. The line was a long one, and it was not possible for all to be received by the President. Secretary Cortelyou had just stepped aside to give orders for the closing of the doors. As the line moved rapidly along and as the people in close order hurried past the President, there came a young man, of smooth face and slender figure, whose actions indicated no sinister purpose, and whose appearance was not greatly different from that of others except that his right hand appeared to be injured, for a handkerchief was wrapped about it. This fact, however, was unnoticed at the moment because he followed so closely the person ahead of him. As he approached, the President extended his hand;—but the proffered friendliness was met by two pistol shots which rang out from the revolver concealed in the seemingly bandaged hand. Instantly several of the guards seized the assailant and bore him to the  ground. As they did so, one of them, kneeling by the head of the prisoner, glanced upward and saw the President, still standing, supported by friends, and gazing with an indescribable look of wonder and reproach. While he was being helped to a chair the Secret Service men dragged the prisoner to the center of the temple and there some one struck him squarely in the face. Seeing this, the spirit of the Master, whom he had served all his life, came upon the stricken President, and he cried in a tone of pity, “Don’t let them hurt him.”
The friends now gathered about the wounded man were fanning him with their hats and watching anxiously to discern if possible the full extent of his injury. But the President’s mind was not upon himself. He was thinking of the beloved wife, who had leaned upon him so many years and whom he had always shielded so tenderly against the slightest care. As the Secretary bent over him, he whispered, tremblingly, “My wife—be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her—oh, be careful!”
The hall was quickly cleared, and the crowd was kept back by a cordon of soldiers and policemen, while the prisoner was placed in a carriage and hurried away. A wave of anger swept over the multitude; the more daring broke through the lines and were prevented from seizing the assassin only by the use  of bayonets and the determination of the sergeant in charge, who said he would be compelled to shoot if they did not let go their hold upon the wheels of the vehicle. Meanwhile the President waited patiently for the ambulance, not a word of resentment escaping his lips.
The fatal shots were fired at seven minutes past four. Eleven minutes later the motor ambulance bearing the President arrived at the Emergency Hospital on the Exposition grounds. As he was being carried into the little building he turned to Mr. Cortelyou and said, “It must have been some poor misguided fellow.” Dr. Herman Mynter, accompanied by Dr. Eugene Wasdin, of the United States Marine Hospital Service, was the first surgeon to arrive. He examined the wounds¹ and at once saw their serious nature. He informed the President that an immediate operation would be necessary, and set about making preparations. Dr. Matthew D.  Mann, who had been telephoned for by Mr. Milburn, arrived at 5.10. By agreement of Mr. Cortelyou, Mr. Milburn, and the physicians who were present, Dr. Mann was selected to perform the operation, with Dr. Mynter as his associate, and Dr. Edward Wallace Lee, of St. Louis, and Dr. John Parmenter, of Buffalo, as assistants. The President gave his full consent, after an explanation of the necessity of the operation, saying, “I am in your hands,” and at 5.20 the administration of ether was commenced.
At such a time as this, the very essence of the human spirit, which may have shrunk for a lifetime from exposure to the eyes of men, is likely to assert its presence. From the time he was ten years old, President McKinley had unreservedly, but without ostentation, put his trust in God. It was the richest, deepest thought of his inner soul, and now, as he closed his eyes, realizing that he was about to sleep, perhaps to wake no more, his lips began to move and his wan face lighted with a smile. It was the same trust that now supported him. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” he murmured. The surgeons paused. Tears came into the eyes of those about the table. “For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever, Amen.” With these words he passed into unconsciousness, while the earnest surgeons sought with all their skill to prolong his life. 
Dr. Roswell Park, the Medical Director of the Exposition, who was absent in Niagara Falls at the time of the shooting, hastened to Buffalo and arrived just as the operation was completed. Dr. P. M. Rixey, of the United States Navy, the President’s family physician, had left the party earlier in the afternoon to accompany Mrs. McKinley to the Milburn home, but arrived at the hospital in time to render efficient aid. These two, with Drs. Mann, Mynter, and Wasdin, made up the medical staff to whom the case was committed. Drs. Charles McBurney, of New York, and Charles G. Stockton, of Buffalo, were later called into consultation. During the week that followed they all worked together with unity of purpose and unremitting faithfulness, doing all that the best professional skill of the country could do, and for a time it seemed as though their efforts must be successful.²
The President bore the operation well. While he was still under the influence of the ether, he was taken in the motor ambulance to the home of Mr. Milburn, where he and Mrs. McKinley were guests and from which he had departed so light-heartedly in the morning. During the night his pulse improved, he was free from pain, and on the whole quite comfortable. On Saturday the conditions continued to be  satisfactory, and Mrs. McKinley was permitted to see her husband. She had resolved to be brave for his sake and the strength of will which she exerted astonished everybody. The invalid of years became the comforter and nurse, with the strong hands that had supported her now lying feebly in her own.
With the passing of the first shock of the attack, the President resumed his wonted calm. He sent for his Secretary and when Mr. Cortelyou entered the room, greeted him, as usual in his friendly way. “It’s mighty lonesome in here,” he said, with the old familiar smile. Then his mind reverted to the address which he had intended to make the beginning of a new campaign for the welfare of his country, and he asked with brightening eyes and eager look, “How did they like my speech?” It was a sign of the importance he attached to it. A man who had made thousands of speeches might be expected to forget an event so common, even if not lying on a bed of pain. But the Buffalo speech was an epoch-making occasion to which he had devoted earnest thought for many weeks. It was to be the test of popular feeling upon a new question of far-reaching significance. He was anxious to know what the people would think of his proposition. The Secretary assured him that the speech was generally regarded as one of the greatest he had ever made and had attracted the  profound attention of the public. “How was it received abroad?” was the next query. Upon being told that the comment was universally favorable, a smile of gratification overspread his face as he said, “Isn’t that good?”
The awful sound of the assassin’s bullets seemed to reverberate throughout the world. To every American home the news brought a sense of personal bereavement. To the royal palaces of Europe it brought a shock of horror and amazement. To the close personal friends, members of the Cabinet and intimate associates in official circles, who with a single mind had come to revere their chief, it brought an anguish of spirit and poignancy of grief which no words could describe. Senator Hanna, overwhelmed with sorrow, lost not a moment in boarding the first train from Cleveland. Colonel Myron T. Herrick, engaged at the moment in preparing to entertain the President in his Cleveland home, heard the sad news and started at once for Buffalo. Judge Day rushed to the scene from Canton, Mr. Fairbanks from Indianapolis, Mr. Dawes and members of the Cabinet from Washington and Vice-President Roosevelt from Vermont. The State Department was flooded with cable messages of anxious inquiry and sincere sympathy from the King of England, the Emperor of Germany, and the governments of all  parts of the world. The Milburn residence on Delaware Avenue seemed like the headquarters of some military chief. A tent for telegraph operators was installed on the lawn, and day and night newspaper correspondents thronged in and out, eager for the slightest ray of hope which they might send to the anxious world.
For a time the bulletins continued to gain in hopefulness. On Monday, they said, “More and more satisfactory”; on Tuesday, “The most comfortable night since the attempt on his life”; on Wednesday, “Continues to gain.” Senator Hanna received the word of two surgeons that without doubt the patient was convalescing and that his recovery was only a question of time. The whole country became optimistic. Mr. Roosevelt left for his camp in the Adirondacks, the Cabinet officers went back to Washington, and Senators Hanna and Fairbanks and Judge Day left for Cleveland to attend a meeting of the National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. The President had been expected to hold a reception there on the Thursday following his visit to Buffalo. In view of the assurances of his recovery it was determined to change the meeting into a service of thanksgiving. Thursday morning came and the surgeons announced that the President had slept well and was feeling better. The time for peritonitis and sepsis  had passed. He seemed able to digest his food. There was no pain, his spirits were good, his mind clear, his pulse strong and of good quality, and the temperature low. Dr. McBurney left for New York confident that the case no longer required his services. The news was telegraphed to the party in Cleveland and the praise service was held.
The armory was filled with a great crowd. Senator Hanna presided and delivered a speech, full of deep feeling, mingled with hopefulness, and was followed by Judge Day and Senator Fairbanks. It was an impressive meeting, typical of the sense of awful foreboding and the longing for a favorable outcome that pervaded at the moment the homes of the people throughout the land. That night the little party of friends at the house of Senator Hanna were awakened by a neighbor who called from the outside that Mr. Herrick had just learned by telephone from Buffalo that the President was worse. Instantly a special train was arranged for and the party left for the Milburn house at 5 A.M. When they arrived the last ray of hope had all but disappeared. The President’s heart did not respond to stimulants and he was slowly sinking.
In the afternoon of Friday the President knew that the time had come for him to bid farewell to the world. He called the surgeons to his bedside and  said, “It is useless, gentlemen, I think we ought to have prayer.” His eyes were half closed and again the smile of sublime faith in the future illuminated his features. A solemn silence fell upon the assembled doctors and nurses and tears could not be restrained. The dying President moved his lips and again it was the Lord’s Prayer that welled from his overflowing heart. The twilight descended and the room grew dark. He asked for his wife and in a moment she was led into the room, leaning heavily on the arm of Mr. Cortelyou. The group of friends drew back from the sacred scene as the husband and lover held the hands, and for the last time, pressed the lips of her for whom he had so tenderly cared in the days of his strength. Then, looking up, he said faintly, “Good-bye—Good-bye, all.”
Perhaps he wondered for a moment why he should be compelled to say “good-bye.” He did not know, but, as if the question were in his mind and in the minds of those present, he answered it in his next words,—“It is God’s way. His will, not ours, be done.”
The room was silent. The President put his arm around his wife and smiled at her. The family group and intimate friends about the bedside watched and waited. Then the lips moved again and the worn face became radiant. The inner soul was speaking once  more and was voiced in the lines of his favorite hymn:—
“Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee,
E’en though it be a cross—”
Fainter and fainter came the words until the whisper could scarcely
be heard. Then a moment of silence. “That has been my inextinguishable prayer,”
he murmured, almost inaudibly.
“It is God’s way.”
In the room below sat a group of Cabinet officers, Senators, and other friends, anxiously scanning the faces of the surgeons and nurses who had access to the sick-room, in the faint hope of discerning some look of encouragement. The hours dragged wearily; each moment seemed an age. About midnight these friends were permitted to enter the upper chamber for a farewell look. Senators Fairbanks and Burrows, when an opportunity came, were asked by a surgeon to enter. They paused in an ante-chamber while the surgeon ascertained whether Mrs. McKinley had retired. He soon returned, saying that she was still beside her husband, and asked them to tarry a moment longer. Her pathetic voice could be heard and the President’s moaning mingled with it. The doctor motioned to the Senators to enter. Mrs. McKinley was standing by the bedside supported by her  sister, Mrs. Barber. As she watched the suffering of her husband, who was still conscious, she was heard to say, in a low feeble voice, “I want to go too; I want to go too.” The President lay on his back, his head moving uneasily from side to side, but he heard the plaintive voice and answered, “We are all going; we are all going; we are all going.” Gently the Senators withdrew, and rejoined the group in the parlor, where every man sat in silence and where many a silent prayer was breathed.
Mrs. McKinley made no outcry. Her grief was of the kind that “whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.” At last she was led away, and told that her beloved would soon fall into the sleep of Eternity. From time to time the President would reach out into the darkness and seem satisfied when he could grasp the hand of Dr. Rixey. Once he said, “Oh, dear,” as if in distress. Finally at 2.15 the end came. Those present were Dr. Rixey, Mrs. Duncan and Miss Helen McKinley, the President’s sisters, several of his nephews and nieces, Mr. Cortelyou, Mr. Webb Hayes, Colonel Brown, and Mr. Dawes. The breathing seemed to cease. Then it was resumed for an instant. At last Dr. Rixey placed a stethoscope on the patient’s chest, and in a short time arose and said simply, “The President is dead.” In the parlor below not a sound was heard, no message came to  announce the news, but in some mysterious way all knew that the spirit of the gentle President had gone to accept a reward higher than any his countrymen had to offer.
Not since the death of Lincoln had the anguish of personal grief so penetrated every household of the nation. Indeed, the sense of loss was even more universal, for in Lincoln’s time the bitterness of the long war was intense and the South did not at first realize that they had lost their truest and most powerful friend. McKinley had done more than any other statesman to heal the rancor and in no other part of the country was his death more sincerely mourned than in the Southern States.
The funeral services began on Sunday, September 15, and continued until the interment on the following Thursday. A religious service was held at the home of Mr. Milburn, attended by President Roosevelt, who had arrived the day before and taken the oath of office, and by members of the Cabinet, relatives, and personal friends. The body was then taken to the City Hall where it lay in state until 10.30 P.M. On Monday morning the funeral train left for Washington and that night the form of the departed President reposed in the White House. On Tuesday morning, while the Marine Band, stationed on Pennsylvania Avenue, softly played the notes of “Nearer,  my God, to Thee,” an impressive procession moved to the Capitol, through a dense multitude, who stood in profound silence, many unable to restrain their tears. There the funeral services were simple and beautiful, beginning with the anthem of Cardinal Newman, “Lead, Kindly Light,” sung by the choir and closing with “Nearer, my God, to Thee.” The funeral oration was delivered by Bishop Edward G. Andrews, of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a lifelong friend of the President. After lying in state in the great rotunda, the body was taken to Canton, Ohio, where the funeral train arrived at noon on Wednesday. The formal funeral service was held on Thursday afternoon in the First Methodist Episcopal Church of which President McKinley was a member, his pastor, the Reverend C. E. Manchester, preaching the sermon.
Solemn and impressive as were these various services, the spontaneous expression of sorrow by 70,000,000 Americans was far more touching and significant. As the funeral train moved from Buffalo to Washington and thence to Canton, it passed through avenues of bared heads in every city, town, and village of its course. The President’s fondness for the old familiar hymn, “Nearer, my God, to Thee,” had profoundly touched the popular heart. The village bands, the church organs, the voices of the  multitudes, joined in its music, not by prearrangement, but by common acceptance of it as the deepest expression of their grief. Wherever the train passed, its strains could be heard, and from Washington to Canton the song never died out. More remarkable still was the total cessation of business throughout the country during the moments when the casket was being carried out of the house at Canton. At 3.30 P.M. the trains, the steamboats, the ferry-boats and tugs in the harbors, the trolley cars, and even the cabs and trucks in the streets of all the large cities and towns, paused, while men and women reverently bowed their heads and stood in silence for five minutes. Intense stillness settled upon the cities, unbroken save by the occasional prattling of a child who could not understand, or by the music of the favorite hymn, sung by some chance gathering in a public square. This silent demonstration of universal reverence, more eloquent than any eulogy, came direct from the hearts of the people and was without precedent in the history of the country and perhaps of the world.
Both national and international sympathy found wide expression. Messages of condolence came from every quarter of the globe. Every foreign newspaper of importance printed sympathetic and in most instances appreciative editorials. Memorial sermons  were preached in churches of all denominations in every section of the country. Throughout the British Empire there were demonstrations of sincere respect for the memory of the American President. King Edward ordered his court into mourning and commanded that a memorial service be held in Westminster Abbey, where he was personally represented by the highest dignitary of his court. In St. Paul’s Cathedral the service was almost the same as that for Queen Victoria. In the City Temple an immense throng sang the President’s favorite hymns. The great Cathedrals of Canterbury, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin, and other cities, and the churches of all denominations, Catholic and Protestant, Established Church and Nonconformist, throughout the Kingdom, were filled with large congregations, generally headed by the mayors and other officials, and including members of the royal family, Cabinet Ministers, naval and military officers, and other distinguished representatives of the Government. The stock exchanges were closed, flags were displayed at half-mast on the public buildings, and people in all walks of life went about the streets in the garb of mourning. Even the drivers of cabs and omnibuses tied little bunches of crape to their whips. The guns of Gibraltar fired a salute, the British Embassy at Constantinople held a memorial service, the banks and  exchanges of Bombay closed their doors, and the Dominion of Canada suspended their welcome to the heir apparent, the Duke of Cornwall and York, who with his Duchess had just arrived on a visit, in order that all might join with the Republic in her day of mourning. Never before had the British Government paid such marked homage to any foreigner.
In Germany the sorrow and friendship were no less marked. A memorial service was held by imperial command in Berlin, at which the Emperor was personally represented by Prince Leopold of Salms-Baruth. Services were also held in Dresden, Munich, Stuttgart, Cologne, and other cities, at which the highest official society was present. Emperor William ordered the flags to be displayed at half-mast on all the ships of the fleet and the Stars and Stripes to be hoisted at their maintops.
In St. Petersburg, Vienna, Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen, Rome, and many other European cities similar honors were given. The Empress Dowager of China published an edict recognizing the service of friendship which the American President had rendered to her country. Cuba and Porto Rico joined sincerely in the general mourning. From the Philippines came a great sheaf of telegrams, resolutions of public bodies, and newspaper editorials, some from friends and some from enemies of annex-  ation, including Aguinaldo himself, all expressing their deep sorrow and sense of personal loss. One orator characterized Mr. McKinley as “a man who was an enemy to the tyranny in the Philippines, and who, as a ruler, by his knowledge and tact has convinced the people that the country where the American flag floats is a country where slavery and tyranny is an impossibility.” A newspaper said: “America has lost in the person of McKinley the first of her sons, and the Philippines a friend who would have opened for this country the doors of life”; and another closed its editorial with the significant words: “We, the Filipinos, as the best offering, lay upon the tomb of President McKinley, faith in America, trust in the republican doctrine.”
The silent reverence of the multitudes, the spontaneous singing of the favorite hymn, the solemn services in churches and cathedrals, the eulogies of orators and preachers, the half-masting of flags, and the condolences of kings and emperors all meant the same tribute of respect to the memory of a man worthy to be loved. There is in every human soul a window to the light. It may be darkened in the daily pursuit of wealth, fame, or pleasure. It may at times be nearly obscured by sordidness, cynicism, and despair. Yet there is no heart so mean that the rays from a pure life will not stream into it and find  response. “Men, in all ways,” says Emerson, “are better than they seem.” A brave act brings plaudits from thousands who would not themselves be equal to it. True worth is visible even to the worthless. The world approves noble deeds and lofty character, even though at times the trend of events seems to indicate the contrary. At rare intervals, as the result of some momentous happening, the windows in the souls of men seem to open as by common impulse, and to let in the clear light of truth and goodness. So it was that the shock of McKinley’s death seemed to illuminate with the vision of a blameless life the hidden recesses of human hearts throughout the world. Political differences and international jealousies were forgotten. In the manner of his death McKinley had revealed the quality of his life, and the world saw its truth and beauty.