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Monday, August 31, 2009

President William McKinley's 1901 Visit to Memphis

Posted By on Mon, Aug 31, 2009 at 11:03 AM

I really have no idea how many U.S. presidents have visited Memphis over the years. Somebody I'll have to look through the Lauderdale Mansion guest books and make a list. But I do know that William McKinley paid us a visit here on April 30, 1901, because I found proof of it, in the form of an old stereopticon card, showing him making a speech in Court Square.

Our 25th president had been elected to a second term in office in 1900 and, for reasons that he never made clear to me, decided to embark on a goodwill tour of the country the following year, taking with him five of his cabinet members. The party left Washington, D.C., by train in mid-April and made a looping journey through the sunny Southland. Newspapers reported that the individual railroad cars, "among the handsomest ever constructed in this country," were given names. The president's special coach was the Olympia. Others were Omena, Guina, St. James, Pelion, and Charmion. Just in case anyone asks you.

After a brief stop in Corinth, Mississippi, the train arrived at the Calhoun Street Station (site of today's Central Station), on Tuesday afternoon, April 30th. An artillery squad fired a 21-gun salute, and Company A of the Confederate Veterans (yes, there were plenty of them still alive) formed an honor guard as McKinley and his entourage filed into fancy carriages for the drive to Court Square. The newspapers of the day noted the irony, "as the men in grey with the western sun beaming fiercely on their grey heads and stooped forms marched as a guard to the former leader of the blue and the Grand Army of the Republic." We were still cranky about the way that whole thing turned out, you see.

At Court Square, "the masses of humanity filled every available space" to see the president, and "every time he changed a pose, the camera fiends took a snap shot of him." Even back then, you see, the papapazzi were a nuisance.

McKinley stepped onto the makeshift platform you see here and made a brief speech, thanking Memphians for "the warmth of your welcome and the generosity of your greeting" and paying special tribute to "the valor of the Tennessean [which] has been conspicuous upon every battlefield of the American republic." Afterwards, the president and his staff attended a reception at the Nineteenth Century Club, when it was located downtown, and after that they enjoyed a gala banquet at the old Peabody Hotel, when it was located at Main and Monroe.

The Commercial Appeal devoted six pages to the banquet, even running a diagram showing precisely where each person was seated in the dining room. The dignitaries dined on lobster cutlet and "teal ducks" and a two-foot-wide ribbon of American roses ran the length of the president's table. The newspaper also noted that the president sat "with his back to the north" as if that were significant, somehow.

What's really interesting, to me, is that all this hubbub was for men only. The women, including Mrs. McKinley and her escorts, attended a much smaller reception in the Peabody Cafe — sort of like the menfolk attending a nice dinner at Chez Philippe while the women waited in the lobby. In fact, the newspapers reported, "No toasts were proposed, as it was desired to shorten the dinner in order to give the ladies the opportunity to look in on the banqueters and hear the president's speech." As long as they stood outside in the hallway, I suppose, and kept quiet!

The parties ended around midnight, and McKinley and Company returned to their trains, which departed around 1:30 in the morning. Memphis' brief brush with greatness was over.

There was just a suggestion of McKinley's later fate. One newspaper observed that the president was followed everywhere by detectives and Secret Service agents: "These precautions are always taken as a safeguard in the event of any possible attack."

The tour headed west to California, then looped back east. On the afternoon of September 6, 1901, while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, McKinley was shot down by Leon Czolgosz, whom the newspapers described as an "anarchist." The president died eight days later.

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