McKinley first president on film

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

Thomas Edison, inventor extraordinaire, made a short film of McKinley, making him the first president to appear on film.

In the work, historian Carl Anthony describes McKinley as looking a bit “reluctant, even a bit bewildered by the whole process.”

This historian is reminded of the way people act when they are not used to being filmed, as in old home movies. The movements are awkward and seem a bit ingenuine.

In McKinley’s film, he walks across the front lawn of his home in Canton with an unidentified companion, maybe Mark Hanna, McKinley’s campaign manager. McKinley’s companion hands him a note that states he has won the 1896 Republican presidential nomination. McKinley then tips his hat, puts on his glasses, reads the note and goes on his way. This reaction is typical of how unruffled McKinley usually was.

According to Anthony, “He (McKinley) was coaxed into doing it by his brother, Abner McKinley, one of those classic get-rich-quick fellows always with a new scheme for making money and a propensity for getting free railroad passes. Abner was an investor in one of the first very ‘moving picture’ companies and he felt sure that getting his brother as one of the subjects would boost interest in the new technology.”

And so began the practice of capturing presidents on film. McKinley’s first inauguration was also the first presidential inauguration captured on film. We see the crowd making its way toward the capitol. Then several shots of the parade are shown. Finally, we see McKinley speaking to the crowd. Visitors to the National McKinley Birthplace Museum in Niles are treated to a short video of McKinley’s inaugural address. We also hear him speak.

Sadly, McKinley’s death announcement at Milburn House in Buffalo, N.Y., as well as his funeral services in Canton, were also the first to be captured on film. We see a crowd waiting in the front yard and then a procession including President Theodore Roosevelt approaching the house. This funeral was also widely covered in the media, including newspapers. A large selection of stereoscopic images of the funeral and gravesite were produced so that families who could not attend the services would be able to see the events from their own homes. Many homes had a stereoscope, a viewer in which cards having a dual image shot at slightly different angles was inserted, allowing the viewer to see images not otherwise available.

Years later, the assassination of another President, John F. Kennedy, would be given worldwide television coverage that lasted three days. And of course, other assassination attempts, such as those on presidents Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, were also captured on film. But it took McKinley giving the go-ahead to get all of this presidential film coverage started.

If you would like to see the films mentioned, the online links are:

∫ McKinley accepting the presidential nomination —

∫ Scenes from McKinley’s first inauguration —

∫ Scenes from McKinley’s funeral —

Scarmuzzi is curator of collections at the National McKinley Birthplace Museum in Niles.