Original publish date: January 30, 2020
So what did you do last Wednesday? Did you place a red carnation in your lapel or buy a small arrangement for your table? Most likely, like most Americans, you did nothing remarkable at all. Our neighbors one state to the east probably joined you in your average humpday activities. Well, most of them anyway. Some were busy celebrating Carnation Day. What? You’ve never heard of that holiday? Well, don’t feel bad. You are not alone. Carnation Day was created to honor our country’s third assassinated President: Ohio’s favorite son, William McKinley. And, it was created by an Ohioan who lived and died in Richmond, Indiana.
Most Americans remember President William McKinley solely for the way he died. His image a milquetoast chief executive from the age of American Imperialism who was at the helm for the dawn of the 20th century. McKinley’s ordinary appearance belied the fact that he was the last president to have served in the American Civil War and the only one to have started the war as an enlisted soldier. It is long forgotten that McKinley led the nation to victory in the Spanish-American War, protected American industry by raising tariffs and kept the nation on the gold standard by rejecting free silver. Most notably, his assassination at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York unleashed the central figure who would come to personify the new century; his Vice-President Teddy Roosevelt.
McKinley’s favorite flower was a red carnation. He displayed his affection by wearing one of the bright red florets in his lapel everyday. The carnation boutonnière soon became McKinley’s personal trademark. As President, bud vases filled with red carnations were conspicuously placed around the White House (known as the “Executive Mansion” back then). Whenever a guest visited the President, McKinley’s custom was to remove the carnation from his lapel and present it to the star struck visitor. For men, he would often place the souvenir blossom into the lapel himself and suggest that it be given to an absent wife, mother or child. Afterwards, he would replace his boutonnière with another from a nearby vase and repeat the transfer again-and-again for the rest of the day. McKinley was superstitious about these carnations, believing that they brought good luck to both him and his recipient.
One account alleges that McKinley’s “Genus Dianthus” custom began early in his presidency when an aide brought his two sons to the White House to meet the President. McKinley, who loved children dearly, presented his carnation to the older boy. Seeing the disappointment in the younger boy’s face, the President deftly retrieved a replacement carnation and pinned it on his own lapel. Here the flower remained for a few moments before he removed it and gave to the younger child, explaining “this way you both can have a carnation worn by the President.”
However, McKinley’s ubiquitous floral tradition can be traced to the election of 1876, when he was running for a seat in Congress. His opponent, Dr. Levi Lamborn, of Alliance, Ohio, was an accomplished amateur horticulturist famed for developing a strain of vivid scarlet carnations he dubbed “Lamborn Red.” Dr. Lamborn presented McKinley with a “Lamborn Red” boutonniere before their debates. After he won the election, McKinley viewed the red carnation as a good luck charm. He wore one on his lapel regularly and soon began his custom of presenting them to visitors. He wore one during his fourteen years in Congress, his two gubernatorial wins and both 1896 and 1900 presidential campaigns.
Years later, Dr. L.L. Lamborn recalled, “We differed politically but were personal friends. Fate decreed that we looked at political questions through different party prisms. We canvassed the district together, and jointly discussed the issues of that campaign.
The contest was fervent but friendly. I was then raising the first carnations grown in the West. In our contests on the political forum, McKinley always wore carnation boutonnieres which were willingly furnished from my conservatory. I have distinct recollection of him expressing his admiration for the flower. It was doubtless at that time he formed a preferential love for the divine flower. That love increased with his years and honors of his famous life. Through it he offered his affections to the beautiful and the true.”
Ohio Senator Mark Hannah recalled, “Oftentimes the President would wear 100 flowers in one day. Mr. McKinley always appeared at the executive office in the morning with a carnation in his buttonhole, and when it became necessary to turn down a candidate for office who had succeeded in obtaining a personal interview he frequently took the flower from his own buttonhole and pinned it on the coat of the office seeker. It was generally understood by the officials in the outer rooms that when a candidate came from the President’s office thus decorated the carnation was all he got.”
After his second inauguration on March 4, 1901, William and Ida McKinley departed on a six-week train trip of the country. The McKinleys’ were to travel through the South to the Southwest, and then up the Pacific coast and back east again, to conclude with a visit to the Buffalo Exposition on June 13, 1901. However, the First Lady fell ill in California, causing her husband to limit his public events and cancel a series of planned speeches. The First family retreated to Washington for a month and then traveled to their Canton, Ohio home for another two months, delaying the Expo trip until September.
On September 5, the President, wearing his trademark red carnation, delivered a speech to a crowd of some 50,000 people at the Exposition. One man in the crowd, Leon Czolgosz (pronounced “zoll-goss”), was close enough to the President that he could almost smell the fragrant blossom. Czolgosz, a steelworker and anarchist from Alpena, Michigan, hoped to assassinate McKinley. Although close to the presidential podium, unsure that he could hit his target, he did not fire. Instead, Czolgosz waited for the next day at the Temple of Music, where the President was scheduled to appear for a one-hour meet-and-greet with the general public.
The President stood at the head of the receiving line, pleasantly shaking hands with visitors, and wearing his ever-present lapel flower. A little 12-year-old girl named Myrtle Ledger, standing in line with her mother, asked the President, “Could I have something to show my friends?” True to form, McKinley removed the red carnation, bent down and handed it to the child. Years later, Myrtle recalled that McKinley said, “In that case, I must give this flower to another little flower,” as he gave over his personal good luck charm.
However, this time McKinley was not in his familiar surroundings and had no replacement flower at hand. Ida, who usually sat in a chair next to the President armed with a basket full of carnations during such events, though in Buffalo, was not present at the event. Meanwhile, Leon Czolgosz edged closer to the President, his handkerchief wrapped hand concealing a .32-caliber Iver Johnson “Safety Automatic” revolver. At 4:07 P.M., the President smiled broadly and extended his hand to greet the next person in line. Czolgosz slapped it aside and shot the President twice, at point blank range: the first bullet ricocheted off a coat button and lodged in McKinley’s jacket; the other, seriously wounding the carnation-less President in the abdomen.
As McKinley fell backwards into the arms of his aides, members of the crowd immediately attacked Czolgosz. McKinley said, “Go easy on him, boys.” McKinley urged his aides to break the news gently to Ida, and to call off the mob that had set on Czolgosz, thereby saving his assassin’s life. McKinley was taken to the Exposition aid station, where the doctor was unable to locate the second bullet. Ironically, although a newly developed X-ray machine was displayed at the fair, doctors were reluctant to use it on the President because they did not know what side effects. Worse yet, the operating room at the exposition’s emergency hospital did not have any electric lighting, even though the exteriors of many of the buildings were covered with thousands of light bulbs. Amazingly, doctors used a pan to reflect sunlight onto the operating table as they treated McKinley’s wounds.
In the days after the shooting McKinley appeared to improve and newspapers were full of optimistic reports. Eight days after the shooting, on the morning of September 13, McKinley’s condition deteriorated and by afternoon physicians declared the case hopeless. It would later be determined that the gangrene was growing on the walls of his stomach, slowly poisoning his blood.
McKinley drifted in and out of consciousness all day. By evening, McKinley himself knew he was dying, “It is useless, gentlemen. I think we ought to have prayer.” Relatives and friends gathered around the death bed. The First Lady sobbed over him, “I want to go, too. I want to go, too.” Her husband replied, “We are all going, we are all going. God’s will be done, not ours” and with final strength put an arm around her. Some reports claimed that he also sung part of his favorite hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” while others claim that the First Lady sang it softly to him. At 2:15 a.m. on September 14, President McKinley died. Czolgosz was sentenced to death and executed by electric chair on October 29, 1901.
The light had gone out of Ida McKinley’s life. She could not even bring herself to attend his funeral. Ida & William McKinley’s relationship has always been a marvel to me. She was an epileptic whose husband took great care to accommodate her condition. Contrary to protocol, he insisted that his wife be seated next to him at state dinners rather than her traditional position at the opposite end of the table. Guests noted that whenever Mrs. McKinley encountered a seizure, the President would gently place a napkin or handkerchief over her face to conceal her contorted features. When it passed, he removed it and resumed whatever he was doing as if nothing had happened. A story of true devotion that is rarely remarked on by modern day historians. Ida’s health declined as she withdrew to the safety of her home and happier memories in Canton. She survived her husband by less than six years, dying on May 26, 1907 and is buried next to him and their two daughters in Canton’s McKinley Memorial Mausoleum.
Loyal readers will recognize my affinity for objects and will not be surprised by the query, “What became of that assassination carnation?” In an article for the Massillon, Ohio Daily Independent newspaper on Sept. 7, 1984, Myrtle Ledger Krass, the 12-year-old-girl to whom the President gave his lucky flower to moments before he was killed, reported that the McKinley’s carnation was pressed and kept in the family Bible. Myrtle, at the time a well-known painter living in Largo, Florida, explained how, many years later while moving, “The old Bible had been put away for years, when I took it out to wrap it for moving, it just crumbled in my hand. Just fell away to nothing.”
In 1902, Lewis Gardner Reynolds (born in 1858 in Bellefontaine, Ohio) found himself in Buffalo on business on the first anniversary of McKinley’s death. While there he found that the mayor of Buffalo had declared the day a legal holiday. Gardner recalled, “without thinking at the time that I was doing something that would become a national custom, I purchased a pink carnation which I placed in the button hole of my coat after tying a small piece of black ribbon on it. As I went through Buffalo I explained to questioners the reason for the flower and the black ribbon. Many of those who questioned me followed my example.” On his return to Ohio he explained to his friend Senator Mark Hannah what he had done in Buffalo. Later, in Cleveland, Reynolds met with Hannah and Governor Myron T. Herrick. Soon plans were made to celebrate Jan. 29, the anniversary of McKinley’s birth, as “Carnation Day.”
In 1903, Reynolds founded the Carnation League of America and instituted Red Carnation Day as an annual memorial to McKinley. Standing for patriotism, progress, prosperity and peace, the League encouraged all Americans to wear a red carnation on McKinley’s birthday. Not only did the new holiday honor the martyr’s birthday, it also encouraged people to patronize florists. In Dayton alone that year, more than 15,000 carnations were sold on McKinley’s birthday. On February 3, 1904, to honor McKinley, the Ohio General Assembly declared the scarlet carnation the state flower. After the U.S. entered World War I, people started wearing an American flag instead of a carnation on January 29. In 1918, Red Carnation Day celebrations began declining and eventually stopped altogether.
Today, the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus continues observing Red Carnation Day every January 29 by installing a small display honoring the assassinated President. Last year, the Statehouse Museum Shop and on-site restaurant offered special discounts to anyone wearing a red carnation or dressed in scarlet on that day. Yes, the sentimental association of the carnation with McKinley’s memory is due to Lewis Gardner Reynolds.
However, that is not the only claim to fame to be made for Mr. Reynolds. He would meet and fall in love with a girl from Richmond and, after moving there, he would spearhead the Teddy Roosevelt memorial effort and post-World War I European Relief Commission efforts in Wayne County. He would travel to Washington DC and take over curatorship of the Lincoln collection after it’s owner Osborn Oldroyd sold it to the US Government in 1926. He would supervise the collection’s move across the street to Ford’s Theatre, where it remains today. And, he would survive to the dawn of World War to stake his claim as the last living person to have met Abraham Lincoln.