7 Things You Might Not Know About William McKinley

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some American presidents have their faces on currency, some get memorialized in films and sketches. Then there are the others, whose all-but-forgotten names are unceremoniously attached to middle schools and parks across the country—or removed from major mountains. Here’s a look at some facts about our 25th president, William McKinley, who was born 175 years ago today.

1. HE HELPED KEEP A GANG OF COAL MINERS OUT OF PRISON.

McKinley, born in 1843 in Niles, Ohio, studied at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania and Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, but he didn’t graduate from either school. After the Civil War erupted, he volunteered for the Union Army, rose to the rank of second lieutenant, and received a brevet commission to major. Following the war he apprenticed under an attorney, studied law for less than a year at New York's Albany College, and was admitted to the bar back in Ohio in March 1867.

Nine years later, McKinley defended a group of striking coal miners who allegedly incited a riot at a mine in Tuscarawas Valley before tussling with the Ohio militia sent by Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. All but one of the miners was acquitted, and McKinley refused any compensation for his services.

2. AS PRESIDENT, HE BOOTED SPAIN OUT OF FOUR TERRITORIES.

Even though McKinley’s then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, allegedly claimed that his boss possessed “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair” while the situation with Spain was deteriorating, McKinley and Spain would eventually cut off diplomatic relations, and the United States supported Cuba in its struggle with the Spanish.

After the American battleship Maine exploded and sank under mysterious circumstances off the coast of Havana in February 1898, killing 266 sailors, McKinley demanded Spain grant independence to Cuba, and Congress authorized a declaration of war on April 25, 1898 (though they retroactively dated it to April 21). In the roughly 100-day Spanish-American War, the United States destroyed the Spanish fleet outside Cuba’s Santiago, seized Manila in the Philippines, and annexed Puerto Rico and Guam, ending Spain’s run of colonial dominance.

3. HIS HOME LIFE WAS TRAGIC.

McKinley married Ida Saxton, a cashier at her father’s bank, in 1871, and she gave birth to a daughter, Katherine, on Christmas Day the same year. A second daughter, Ida, was born in 1873, but died four months later. Katherine passed away from typhoid fever in 1875, and his wife’s health deteriorated due to phlebitis and undiagnosed epilepsy. During their time in the White House, Ida often needed sedation to enable her to sit through official functions as First Lady, and McKinley would throw a handkerchief over her face when she suffered an epileptic seizure.

4. HE ANNEXED THE REPUBLIC OF HAWAII.

McKinley reversed the policy of his predecessor, Grover Cleveland, and advocated for Hawaii to become a U.S. territory. After the Spanish-American War, the strategic importance of the islands’ location in the Pacific Ocean became more apparent, and an annexation resolution supported by McKinley passed the House and Senate in 1898. The episode marked an end to a lengthy battle between native Hawaiians and white American businessmen for control of the local government. The last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani, was overthrown in 1893, and Benjamin Harrison actually sent a bill to the Senate to approve the annexation. But Grover Cleveland became president before it was passed, and he withdrew the bill. When McKinley became president, he tried to reintroduce the bill, but was stymied by the Hawaiian Patriotic League, who kept the U.S. at bay until the events of 1898.

5. AN ANARCHIST SHOT HIM JUST MONTHS INTO HIS SECOND TERM.

During a public reception at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. on Sept. 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley twice in the torso while the president greeted guests in a receiving line. McKinley allegedly uttered, “Don’t let them hurt him,” as the angry mob descended on Czolgosz. Later, at the Emergency Hospital on the Exposition grounds, McKinley said of his assassin, “It must have been some poor misguided fellow,” and “He didn’t know, poor fellow, what he was doing. He couldn’t have known.”

6. AN OB/GYN PERFORMED THE EMERGENCY SURGERY THAT FAILED TO SAVE MCKINLEY'S LIFE.

Matthew Mann, a physician and professor of gynecology at the University of Buffalo, was chosen by a hastily assembled group of doctors to perform surgery on McKinley, but the team could not find the second bullet inside the President’s body. A brand-new X-ray machine sent by Thomas Edison arrived in Buffalo but was never used, as it was thought McKinley’s condition was improving. Instead, his health declined as gangrene set in around the path of the bullet. McKinley died on September 14, 1901, eight days after being shot and just six months into his second term as President.

7. MOUNT MCKINLEY LOST MORE THAN 80 FEET IN 2013, AND THEN LOST HIS NAME.

McKinley never set foot in Alaska and never saw the peak named for him by prospector William Dickey, a designation that was made official by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917. That’s probably a good thing, because it’s been a rough few years for McKinley’s spot on the mountain.

First, the mountain shrank. On September 12, 2013, Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell announced that North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley, was 20,237 feet tall, 83 feet shorter than previously thought. The U.S. Geological Survey and Alaska’s Statewide Digital Mapping Initiative used new radar technology to correct the earlier height of 20,320 feet, which had been recorded in 1952 using photogrammetry.

Then, the mountain cut its ties to McKinley. Although the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain in 1975 to Denali, a name used by the Koyukon Athabaskan people, for decades Ohio representatives had been blocking name-change requests sent by the Alaskan state legislature to the United States Board on Geographic Names. Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 that reverted the name of the area to the Denali National Park and Preserve, but the name of the mountain itself had remained steady until 2015. Associate director for the National Park Service Victor Knox said in June of that year that he had “no objection” to a January bill submitted by Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski that would rename the peak Denali. The change became official in 2015, stripping the 25th president’s name from the highest peak in North America.

But, you should use a non-permanent marker on those atlases—the Ohio delegation, including Speaker John Boehner and Representative Tim Ryan, were quick to denounce the decision and have said they're exploring legal avenues to challenge the decision. And in late 2017, Donald Trump considered reversing the decision, though the Alaska senate told him thanks but no thanks.

The Time Abraham Lincoln Stopped a Murder Trial in its Tracks

Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer, circa 1847
Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer, circa 1847

One day at the end of May, 1841, William Trailor hopped into a one-horse buggy and began the long journey to Springfield, Illinois, where he planned to reunite with his brothers Henry and Archibald. Joining him was his friend and housemate, a handyman named Archibald Fisher.

In Springfield, the men decided to go for a walk after lunch. But as the afternoon wore on, the brothers somehow lost sight of Fisher. When they returned to Archibald's Springfield home for supper, Fisher wasn't there. The brothers looked briefly for Fischer, but may have assumed he was still out enjoying himself.

But when Fisher failed to show up the next morning, the brothers began to feel uneasy. They spent the day in a fruitless search for the missing man. The same was true of the following day. William eventually left Springfield without him.

According to the local postmaster, rumors circulated that Fisher had died and left William with a large sum of money. True or not, the local postmaster knew about William's trip to Springfield and alerted the postmaster in that city of a possible crime. News of the missing man (and William’s supposed financial windfall) quickly spread.

Within days, all of the Trailor brothers would be arrested—charged with the disappearance and murder of Archibald Fisher.

 

Nobody could find the body. “Examinations were made of cellars, wells, and pits of all descriptions, where it was thought possible the body might be concealed,” wrote Abraham Lincoln, then a young defense lawyer in Springfield. “All the fresh, or tolerably fresh, graves at the grave-yard were pried into, and dead horses and dead dogs were disinterred.”

As locals searched for Fisher’s corpse, both Springfield’s mayor and the Illinois state attorney general ruthlessly interrogated Henry Trailor. For three days, Henry maintained his innocence. But he also began to show signs of cracking. “The prosecutors reminded him that the evidence against him and his two brothers was overwhelming, that they would certainly be hanged,” William H. Townsend wrote in the American Bar Association Journal in 1933, “and that the only chance to save his own life was to become a witness for the State.”

With that bait, Henry confessed: He claimed that his brothers, Archibald and William, had clubbed Fisher to death and had taken all of his money. Henry insisted that he had taken no part in the murder. Rather, he had simply helped his brothers dump the body in the woods.

News of Henry’s confession ignited the public's curiosity, prompting hundreds of people to rush to the forest where Fisher’s body was reportedly hidden. “The story related by Henry Trailor aroused the most intense public indignation, and the murder became almost the sole topic of conversation,” Townsend wrote. “Business was practically suspended as searching parties and amateur detectives scoured the woods and by-ways.”

There, in a dense thicket, investigators found buggy tracks and signs that something large had been dragged through the grass. A nearby pond was partially drained and a dam destroyed, despite protests from the dam's owner. Yet the body continued to elude investigators. The public became antsy.

“It was generally conceded that only a speedy trial and swift punishment could allay the clamor of the populace for the blood of the prisoners and avert the disgrace of a lynching,” Townsend wrote. By June 18, the murder trial had already begun—and a conviction seemed assured.

The courtroom, muggy from the summer humidity, was packed with spectators. Called to the stand, Henry Trailor repeated his confession, claiming that he had helped dispose of Fisher's body. Additional evidence was provided by a local woman who had seen two of the Trailor boys walk into the woods with Fisher—only to see them return alone. Furthermore, investigators claimed they had found human hair in the area near the buggy tracks. The tracks themselves, they noted, had led suspiciously to the pond, as if somebody had tried to dump something.

When the prosecutor rested his case, it seemed like there was no hope for the Trailor brothers.

But the defense had a secret weapon—a 32-year-old lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. The future president calmly stood up and called his one and only witness to the stand.

 

Dr. Robert Gilmore was a widely respected physician in those parts of Illinois. Sitting in the sauna-like courtroom, the doctor patiently explained that he knew Archibald Fisher well—the man had twice lived in his home. Years ago, Gilmore explained, Fisher had suffered a serious head injury from a gun-related accident and had never fully recovered his wits. The poor man was prone to spells of amnesia, blackouts, and derangement. It was very possible that Fisher had just wandered off.

Dr. Gilmore then calmly told the court that he had proof to back up his theory, and proceeded to drop a bombshell: Archibald Fisher was alive and staying in his home.

The courtroom murmured in shock.

Dr. Gilmore continued. Fisher had suffered from a terrible bout of memory loss and had no recollection of his time in Springfield. In fact, Fisher had wandered all the way to Peoria before regaining his senses. The only reason the man had failed to show up to the courtroom today was because his health prevented it.

Lincoln scanned the crowd with glee. “When the doctor’s story was first made public, it was amusing to scan and contemplate the countenances and hear the remarks of those who had been actively engaged in the search for the dead body,” he would later write in a letter, “some looked quizzical, some melancholy, and some furiously angry.”

At first, many were skeptical of the doctor’s claims, but officials were quick to confirm that Fisher was indeed alive. He’d eventually show up to court, later explaining how, indeed, he had no memory of ever visiting Springfield.

To the prosecution's great embarrassment, much of the evidence was proven bunk: It was soon discovered that the controversial path in the forest was, in fact, created by children who had been building a rope swing; meanwhile, the hairs in the woods belonged to a cow. It also became awfully clear that Henry Trailor had been coerced into making a false confession—when the officers had threatened Henry's life, Henry told them what they wanted to hear instead.

All of the charges would be dropped and the men's lives spared. “We have had the highest state of excitement here for a week past that our community has ever witnessed,” Lincoln would write after the trial.

In fact, the case enchanted Lincoln so much that he tried to immortalize the events in a short story written in the style of the true-crime genre. The future president, of course, was justifiably proud of the outcome: It wasn't every day that a single surprise witness helps solve a mystery and saves two people from the hangman's noose.

 

To read Lincoln's own account, check out this excerpt at Smithsonian.

A Brief History of Presidential Funeral Trains

Funeral Train of President Abraham Lincoln
Funeral Train of President Abraham Lincoln
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

The body of President George H. W. Bush will be transported by train along a 70-mile route to College Station, Texas, where it will be taken to its final resting place at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M University. The train—Union Pacific 4141, named for the 41st president—is painted robin's egg blue (just like Air Force One) and will tow a special transparent viewing car, allowing the public one last chance to pay their respects to the former head of state.

It's the first time a president's body has been moved by funeral train in almost 50 years.

Funeral trains, however, used to be something of a tradition for departed politicians: Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were all transported to their final resting places by a ceremonial train. (As were other government figures, including Robert F. Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur, and Frank Lautenberg.)

Lincoln's funeral train, the first, was arguably the most memorable. Traveling 1654 miles from Washington D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, the train chugged at a steady speed of 20 mph and stopped at 180 cities over the course of 13 days. The steam engine featured a portrait of Lincoln at the front and carried nine cars covered in elaborate mourning bunting. According to Olivia B. Waxman at TIME, "When it was in transit, a train traveling 30 minutes ahead of the Lincoln Special sounded a bell to alert those in the area that the funeral train was approaching. Those who could only see it at night camped out at bonfires along the route." Millions of people turned out to show their respects.

The next presidential funeral train was for another head of state who sadly also succumbed to gunshot wounds—James A. Garfield. According to the James A. Garfield National Historic Site blog:

"All along the route mourners stood at trackside, heads bowed as the train went by and church bells tolled. Bridges and buildings were draped in black. At Princeton, New Jersey, students scattered flowers on the track and then retrieved the crushed petals after the train had passed to keep for souvenirs. The train was met in Washington by the Chief Justice, Garfield's entire cabinet, and Presidents Grant and Arthur."

In many cases, the funeral trains traveled through places beloved by the presidents. Ulysses S. Grant's train was saluted as it passed through West Point. McKinley's train made haste to reach his beloved home in Canton, Ohio. (Many onlookers, not content to just bring flowers, made mementos by placing coins on the tracks and watched as the train flattened them.)

Meanwhile, FDR's funeral train—which embarked on a nine-state, three-day ride—carried much more than the president's remains: It also carried some of the most important people in government, including Roosevelt's family, the vice president and his family, every Supreme Court Justice, and most of the administrative cabinet. According to the MacMillan synopsis of Robert Kara's book FDR's Funeral Train, "Many who would recall the journey later would agree it was a foolhardy idea to start with—putting every important elected figure in Washington on a single train during the biggest war in history."

In some cases, the deceased had a special connection to the train itself. Eisenhower's body was transported in a car named "The Old Santa Fe." It was a familiar place: Ike had ridden the same car when he made his first campaign speech in 1952. Similarly, Bush—a train lover—had been acquainted with his funeral train for more than a decade, having given the 4300-horsepower locomotive his seal of approval back in 2005. At the time, he even gave the train a two-mile test drive and called it, "The Air Force One of railroads."

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