A salute to a fallen president

WAY BACK WHEN

September 08, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Lingering in a shadowy first-floor corner of Baltimore's main post office on busy East Fayette Street, out of the way of passers-by, is a 98-year-old bronze bust of the 24th president of the United States, William McKinley.

It is a memorial to the man assassinated by an anarchist 100 years ago this week, on Sept. 6, 1901,at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, N.Y. McKinley had just entered the Hall of Music when Leon Czolgosz, 28, approached the president and fired two shots from a $4.50 revolver.

As recounted in an article Thursday in The Sun by former editor and reporter Joseph R.L. Sterne, McKinley was taken to Milburn House, where he died a week later from the effects of his wounds. As his life slowly moved toward its close, and surrounded by family, government officials and physicians in the death chamber, McKinley quietly and faintly began to utter the words from the hymn, "Nearer, My God, to Thee."

Before the president sank into unconsciousness, Dr. M.D. Mann, copied on a piece of paper what were reported to be McKinley's last words: "Good-by, all; good-by. It is God's way. His will be done, not ours."

McKinley's funeral train, which stopped in Baltimore on its way to Washington from Buffalo, and then again on the long journey to Canton, Ohio, where he was buried, drew enormous crowds to Union Station (now Penn Station).

The train, trailed by two other trains carrying the new president, Theodore Roosevelt, and cabinet and government officials, slowly steamed up the Northern Central Railroad to Harrisburg and points west. Mourners lined the right-of-way and gathered at rural grade crossings hoping for a glimpse of McKinley's casket, which rode in the observation car.

Czolgosz was tried, found guilty and electrocuted on Oct. 29, 1901.

The bust of McKinley in Baltimore's post office dates nearly to the time of the assassination itself. Unveiled on the 60th anniversary of McKinley's birth in 1903, the bust was placed by the McKinley Memorial Association of the Baltimore Post Office, whose members were postal workers and officials.

Mounted on a marble pedestal, the bust shows McKinley in a three-quarter pose that The Sun described as "frowning in heroic proportions." McKinley is dressed in a bow tie, wing collar and double-breasted Prince Albert frock coat.

At the Jan. 29, 1903, ceremony in the former main post office on Calvert Street, postmaster S. Davies Warfield said, "Shortly after the death of Mr. McKinley, the association was formed, being composed of those connected with the postal service in this city, for the purpose of erecting in our midst a suitable memorial. This takes definite shape today in this bronze bust of Mr. McKinley, which will evidence for all time to come the respect and love we all had and have for him.

"It was my privilege to know Mr. McKinley, and the action taken by those in the postal service at the time of his death will always be to me the most pleasant recollection of my administration. Never in the history of this country was there such universal sorrow as when he was taken from us, and his character, both in public and private life, will ever be a conspicuous example to the generations to come. It was destined that his life should be cut off in the midst of his labors, but he met the end in the same Christian spirit which marked his entire life," he said.

In accepting the bust, Phillips Lee Goldsborough, custodian of the post office building, said, "There comes a time in every man's life when his duty is fraught with pleasure. Such a time has now arrived in mine. As custodian of this building for the Treasury Department of this Government, I accept this bust of him who in the highest sense was a brave solider, a wise statesman, a model man and a devoted and consistent Christian."

Goldsborough continued, "As we pace hither and thither through this corridor we can look upon the face of William McKinley as represented in this bronze bust. It will be an incentive to us to emulate his virtues and example. In life he led a life that was great, and his death was sublime," he said.

In 1923, The Sun lamented that for the first time, the bust had not been decorated with flags and flowers to commemorate the anniversary of McKinley's birthday. It seems that the custom had originated with Edward Kelly, a custodian of the post office and friend of McKinley's and, with Kelly's death, the bust went undecorated.

McKinley's bust was later joined by one of President Warren G. Harding, but both were banished to an anonymous corner of the post office when Democrats came into office.

But in 1958, The Sun reported: "The bronze statues of two Republican presidents, relegated to an obscure corner of the Post Office for twenty years of Democratic stewardship, regained a cherished position of prominence yesterday."

When the old building was torn down in the late 1920s, both McKinley and Harding had been dispatched to the parcel post building storeroom at St. Paul Street and Mount Royal Avenue, where they rode out the New Deal and the administration of Harry S. Truman, before making a triumphal return to the post office on Calvert Street.

In 1972, when the new post office opened near the Shot Tower, the two busts again rode across town and were placed in the building.

Today, they languish, unvisited in a dusty, closed postal museum, illuminated only by the light from windows facing the street.

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