Did William McKinley’s assassination start the “White House Blues?”

January 31, 2018

Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers - Monkey on a String / White House Blues

Record label of the 1926 recording of “White House Blues,” by Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers

We noted the birthday of William McKinley on Monday, January 29.

Long-time reader Ellie commented with the lyrics to a song called “White House Blues,” starting out with a lament about McKinley’s being shot. The song was new to me, so I asked about it. Ellie gave us a good encyclopedia entry.

Ellie’s first comment:

The pistol fires, McKinley falls
Doc says, “McKinley, I can’t find that ball”
In Buffalo, in Buffalo

Zolgotz, Zolgotz you done him wrong
You shot poor McKinley while he was walking along
In Buffalo, Buffalo

Well, Doc had a horse and he threw down the rein
He said to that horse, “You better outrun this train”
From Buffalo to Washington

Yeah, Doc come a-running and he tore off his specs
He said, “Mr. McKinley, done cashed in your checks
You’re bound to die, you’re bound to die”

McKinley he hollered, McKinley he squalled
The doc say, “McKinley, I can’t find that ball”
In Buffalo to Washington

Look here, little rascal, just look what you’ve done
You shot my husband with that Ivor Johnstone gun
He’ll be gone a long, long time.

Well hush up, little children, don’t you fret
You’ll draw a pension off your poor papa’s death
He’s gonna be gone a long, long time.

Roosevelt in the White House, he’s doing his best
McKinley’s in the graveyard, he’s taking his rest
He’s gonna be gone a long, long time

Roosevelt in the White House he’s drinking out of a silver cup
McKinley’s in the graveyard, he never will wake up
He’ll be gone a long, long time.

White House Blues – one of many versions

After I asked, Ellie elaborated:

I believe this is the oldest recorded version of the song:

But, there are many others. I first came across it back in the late ’60s – early 70’s, but I can’t remember where. I thought it was in Sandburg’s American Song Bag, but I just checked, and it isn’t. There have been many recordings, including Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, all with slight differences in the words. The first one I learned had a reference to Ida’s children having another Papa on another railroad line, but that was a later addition stolen from other songs. Ida and William appeared to have loved each other. Note the misspelling of Czolgosz. That was from the version I learned, and not my mistake. :-)

Here’s a slightly more contemporary version, but quite different.

This is the latest version I’ve found (hope I haven’t overloaded with links)

Nice “talking” to you.

Dear reader: Do you have a different version you recommend? Tell us in comments.

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January 28 – Happy birthday, William McKinley

January 29, 2018

William McKinley photographed between 1873 and 1890, by Washington, D.C. photographer C. M. Bell. McKinley served in the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio, 1876 to 1891; this was probably taken close to the start of his time in Congress. Library of Congress image.

William McKinley photographed between 1873 and 1890, by Washington, D.C. photographer C. M. Bell. McKinley served in the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio, 1876 to 1891; this was probably taken close to the start of his time in Congress. Library of Congress image.

President William McKinley, 25th President of the United States, served from March 4, 1897 until his assassination in September 1901, six months into his second term. McKinley was born on January 29, 1843, in Niles, Ohio. McKinley would have been 175 years old today, and probably very cranky. 

President during the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which the U.S. took Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam from Spain, and presiding over the annexation of Hawaii in 1898, McKinley is best known for being the third president to die from assassination, in 1901. He was succeeded by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt.

This photo, published in 1902 after McKinley's death, was probably taken during the campaign of 1900. Library of Congress caption:

This photo, published in 1902 after McKinley’s death, was probably taken during the campaign of 1900. Library of Congress caption: “Photograph shows William McKinley, standing on platform, between Gov. Jos. E. Johnston and Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee, Alabama.”

Frequently overlooked as a non-entity as president, historians in the past 20 years tend to upgrade their judgments of McKinley’s political acumen and achievements as president.

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September 14, 1901: McKinley died, Teddy Roosevelt ascended to presidency

September 14, 2017

September 14, 1901, front page of the Boston Morning Journal, announcing the death of President William McKinley. Image from Timothy Hughes Rare & Early Newspapers.

September 14, 1901, front page of the Boston Morning Journal, announcing the death of President William McKinley. Image from Timothy Hughes Rare & Early Newspapers.

Lincoln, Garfield, then McKinley.

September 14, 1901, President William McKinley died in Buffalo, New York, eight days after having been shot at Buffalo’s Pan American Exposition a sort of World Fair.

Within hours, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took the oath as president.

Ken Burns explained the events of the day well in his long series of films on the Roosevelts:

Interesting to read the newspapers from an era before television, radio or especially internet.

Front page of the

Front page of the “3:00 p.m. edition” of the Buffalo Enquirer, September 14, 1901. Image from Nate D. Sanders Auctions

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115 years ago: September 14, 1901, President McKinley died

September 14, 2016

On the Threshold, illustration from Harpers Weekly, September 14, 1901

“On the Threshold,” illustration from Harper’s Weekly, September 14, 1901

On September 14, 1901, President William McKinley died in Buffalo, New York, from gangrene from gunshot wounds he suffered eight days earlier.

Teachers should be mining the “On This Day” feature at the New York Times, which usually features an historic cartoon or illustration from an antique Harper’s Weekly. It is a favorite feature, to me.

Some time ago “On This Day” featured the illustration from Harper’s upon the death of President William McKinley, on September 14, 1901.

At the Threshold

Artist: William Allen Rogers

his post-dated cartoon was published as President William McKinley lay dying from an assassin’s bullet. He had been shot on September 6, 1901, by anarchist Leon Czolgosz (pronounced chol-gosh) at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The president died on September 14. Here, McKinley is led to the Hall of Martyrs by grief-stricken personifications of the North and South. Between pillars topped by busts of the two previously slain presidents, Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield, the angel of death prepares to place a laurel wreath of honor upon McKinley’s head. (Images related to Garfield’s assassination also showed a reconciled North and South.)

There is much more at the Times site.

Robert Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln, was present when McKinley was shot. Accounts I have read but not confirmed say that Robert Lincoln had been invited to attend Ford’s Theatre with his father and mother, the night his father was shot. As a member of President James Garfield’s cabinet, Robert Lincoln had been awaiting Garfield’s arrival at Union Station in Washington, D.C., when Garfield was shot.

And as a visitor in Buffalo, Robert Lincoln had as a matter of respect lined up to shake President William McKinley’s hand.

Astounding if true. Four U.S. presidents have been assassinated. Robert Lincoln was close to the first, the assassination of his father, and present for the next two. Where can we confirm that story? U.S. National Archives publishes a magazine, Prologue, which detailed the unusual, and sad, case of Robert Lincoln and his brushes with presidential assassins and assassinations.

McKinley’s death catapulted the do-gooder, Theodore Roosevelt, into the presidency, probably to the great chagrin of corrupt Republican politicians who had hoped that by getting him nominated to the vice presidency they could get him out of New York politics, banishing him to the eternal ignominy of Vice Presidents of the U.S. who never went on to achieve much more in their lives.

The rest is history.

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June 7, 1898, President William McKinley at his desk

June 7, 2016

Library of Congress description: William McKinley, full-length portrait, seated at desk, facing right, June 7, 1898. Library of Congress image

Library of Congress description: William McKinley, full-length portrait, seated at desk, facing right, June 7, 1898. Library of Congress image

If you think the office looks smaller than today’s Oval Office, you’re right. Creation of the Oval Office came 11 years after this photo, when President William Howard Taft expanded the permanent structure of the West Wing of the White House in 1909. On the right of the photo is the massive globe map of the world probably most famous from photos with Teddy Roosevelt, who succeeded to the presidency in 1901 when McKinley was assassinated.


I get email (sorta): How long could U.S. survive without a president?

March 31, 2013

A brilliant and vexing former student, Bryan Sabillon, asked a question — on Facebook:

Remember how you said America can’t go two hours without a president? What’s the worst that can happen if it just so happens to take three-four hours? Or is it uneventful?

Interesting question — to me, at least, and maybe even to Bryan.  Here’s my response, with a few links added:

Did I say that? (Some context would be nice. No I don’t remember saying that.)

Technically, can’t happen now with the 25th Amendment and succession laws; if a president dies, another is there, probably without regard to swearing in.

A few historical examples suggest no big problem; these are nullified if missiles are in the air at that moment, though:

1. When Tyler succeeded Harrison 1 (first death of president in office), John Tyler was more than 24 hours out of Washington. Worse, many people thought that while the duties of the president fell to the VP under the Constitution, that should be a temporary condition settled by a special election. Despite all this uncertainty, nothing bad happened in the interim.

U.S. Sen. David Rice Atchison, from Missouri; photo by Matthew Brady

U.S. Sen. David Rice Atchison, from Missouri; photo taken by photographer Mathew Brady at the United States Capitol at Washington, D.C., March 1849. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, via Wikipedia. Photo taken the same month some say Atchison was acting President, for one day.

2. On March 4, 1849, [James K.] Polk’s term expired. But it was Sunday, and incoming Pres. Zachary Taylor refused to be inaugurated on Sunday. So did incoming VP Millard Fillmore. Some argue that David Rice Atchison, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and then-third in line for the presidency under the laws then existing, was president for one day. He didn’t claim that, but in any case, spent most of the day sleeping, as the outgoing Senate had been working late for several previous nights. Some argue that because the Senate had adjourned sine die on its last session, not even Atchison was president. In any case, nothing happened.

President of the Senate Vice President Chester...

Official Senate bust, President of the Senate, Vice President Chester A. Arthur (it’s a bust; he was not really that pallid) Photo from Wikipedia

3. When [James] Garfield was shot, he did not die immediately, but hung on for more than a month before infection took him. Vice President Chester A. Arthur did not assume duties of president, nor did anyone else, in that period. A lot of stuff got delayed, but no big deal. Government continued during the long dying process, and until Arthur was sworn in.

4. Similarly, when [William] McKinley was shot, they thought he’d survive. VP Teddy Roosevelt took off to hunt in the Adirondacks. When McKinley took a turn for the worse, guides had to be dispatched to find Teddy climbing a mountain (Mt. Marcy); by the time he got to Buffalo, McKinley had been dead for several hours. Nothing of consequence happened as a result of there being no president on hand (and they were in Buffalo, New York, not Washington, anyway).

5. Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke on October 2, 1919, that left him blind in one eye and unable to walk. He was kept out of the presence of the VP and cabinet for months; when he finally returned to cabinet meetings in 1920, he was clearly unable to function as president. It’s an interesting case with his second wife essentially taking over the office under the guise of intermediary and care giver to the president. This one may have had some consequences – the Senate never did ratify the Treaty of Versailles, for which Wilson was campaigning when he was stricken, and so the U.S. never joined the League of Nations, dooming it to failure years later as World War II erupted. But perhaps Wilson couldn’t have gotten it ratified had he been fully active, anyway. Perhaps Wilson could have influenced the election of 1920, which Warren G. Harding won (who would die of a heart attack in San Francisco, making Calvin Coolidge president). But all of that is pure conjecture.

6. The funniest (in retrospect) was when Ronald Reagan was shot. At a press conference at the White House as Reagan was being prepped for surgery, a reporter asked some cabinet officials “who is in charge?” Perhaps reacting too much to the question as a challenge to whether the government was leaderless and vulnerable, Secretary of State Al Haig grabbed the microphone and said “I’m in charge here!” In reality, Vice President George H. W. Bush was in full communication mode of the modern presidency; control of the “football,” the nuclear strike code case which accompanies the president at all times, could have been an issue, but was not.

President Obama waving

President Obama at an airport; the Marine in the background looks to be carrying the “nuclear football.” Photo from Cryptome (Is this an AP photo? Anyone know?)

Under the 25th Amendment and the Succession Act, it’s difficult to imagine how the U.S. could be without a president at any time; the confusion around the death or disability of a president offers a window of a de facto gap, but that should last only minutes under the procedures and precautions now in effect (some of which we saw on 9/11).

Worst that could happen now? If missiles were incoming, and confusion over who has control of the football went on for more than 10 minutes, a retaliatory strike could be late in getting launched. It takes about 15 minutes for intercontinental ballistic missiles to get to their downward path, or to register on known radar, so a ten minute delay might be encouraging to a Russia that hoped to knock out the U.S. before a retaliatory strike could occur; but that’s probably not realistic. And, even that would be of no great consequence if the secret “missile net” many people think the U.S. has, actually exists.

Is this a class question, or are you involved in some odd drinking game again?

(Update:  Sheesh.  Turns out he just saw “Olympus Has Fallen,” and wondered.

Everyone knows we’re really safe, so long as Morgan Freeman is anywhere near the presidency, even Speaker of the House.)

(Anyone else seen the movie?  Is it a scenario not already contemplated under the 25th Amendment?)

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Voice of America video on Al Haig’s life, featuring the famous quote:


The Presidential Library that isn’t a Presidential Library

March 9, 2013

Campaign poster showing William McKinley holdi...

Campaign poster showing William McKinley holding U.S. flag and standing on gold coin “sound money”, held up by group of men, in front of ships “commerce” and factories “civilization”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Things you learn looking for documents:  The U.S. National Archives now manages the presidential libraries and museums — except for one:  The William McKinley Memorial Library and Museum.

President William McKinley Memorial Library and Museum, in Niles, Ohio.

President William McKinley Memorial Library and Museum, in Niles, Ohio. McKinley was born in Niles. Photo from the LIbrary’s website.

To be more accurate and fair, National Archives manages the documents for the presidential libraries starting with Herbert Hoover, though there are usually special arrangements with each of the libraries.

Separately, the Ladies of Mount Vernon Association manages the research facilities at Mount Vernon, Virginia,  (and the rest of the grounds) associated with George Washington, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, is operated by a separate foundation, too.  The Teddy Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota stands apart from the National Archives system, too (much TR material can be found at Harvard, too).

The idea of a specific library to hold papers from a president’s term is a mid-20th century idea.  Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover were the first, with the idea coming about the same time.  Private foundations built and operated them until after the Nixon library, and since then Congress authorized the National Archives to get into the act and coordinate the work, and then made the links official, for libraries from here on out.

For presidents prior to Hoover, papers generally became the property of the outgoing president.  Collection was spotty.  The idea of library dedicated to one president is such a good one, though, that private groups have gone back to set them up for Washington and Lincoln.

And McKinley.

Modern texts don’t show well the high regard McKinley had from Americans before he was assassinated.  Within a few years after his death, the people of Ohio and his birthplace, in Niles, got Congress to approve a memorial.  Eventually the local library moved into the memorial building.

The National McKinley Birthplace Memorial Association was incorporated by a special Act of Congress on March 4, 1911.  The purpose of the Association was to erect a suitable structure marking the birthplace of President William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States. The result was the National McKinley Birthplace Memorial.

McKinley was born in the city of Niles, Ohio on January 29, 1843. The city donated the site for the Memorial which consisted of an entire city square. The architects were McKim, Mead & White of New York and the erection of the Memorial was done by John H. Parker Company, also of New York. Groundbreaking began in 1915 with the corner stone being laid on November 20, 1915.

The building was dedicated on October 5, 1917.

The cost was more than half a million dollars, all of which was donated by the American public.

The 232 foot by 136 foot by 38 foot monument is constructed of Georgian marble with two lateral wings–
one wing houses the public library called the McKinley Memorial Library, and the other wing houses the
McKinley Museum and an auditorium. The Museum contains artifacts of the life and presidency of McKinley.

In the center of the Memorial is a Court of   Honor supported by 28 imposing columns. It features a heroic statue of McKinley sculptured by John Massey-Rhind. Surrounding the statue are busts and tablets dedicated to the members of    McKinley’s cabinet and other prominent men who were closely associated with him.  These bronze busts, mounted on marble pedestals, weigh between 800 and 1100 pounds each.

As a presidential library, the McKinley Memorial Library in Niles is unique.  While it does not offer the vast research resources of the National Archives, it does offer a memorial from the people of Ohio and the U.S., a more down-home look at  reverence for presidents and the keeping of the history of our heroes.

Memorial to President William McKinley in Niles, Ohio

The memorial to President McKinley in Niles. Photo from the McKinley Memorial Library and Museum.

The “official” list of other presidential libraries and museums in the National Archives’ network, listed at the American Presidency Project at the University of California – Santa Barbara:

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Digital Archives
Harry S. Truman Library and Museum
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Library
John F. Kennedy Library and Museum
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum
Richard Nixon Library and Museum
Richard Nixon Library Foundation
Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum
Jimmy Carter Library
Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library
George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum
Clinton Presidential Center
George W. Bush Presidential Library
George W. Bush Presidential Center

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