The Presidential Assassination Songbook

by Mark Steyn

Rick, re “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere” (which, notwithstanding the tune and lyrics, is a helluva title):

There were several mournful ballads written in honor of the assassinated McKinley but they didn’t have a monopoly of musical memorials. One that retained a degree of popularity and was regularly performed until into the 1920s was the apparently anonymous “McKinley’s Lament”, a folky number in the manner of railroad ballads, and full of detail:

Mr McKinley, he went there for fun
But Czolgosz he shot him with an Iver Johnson gun…

Which is true. He did. Also this plea from the First Lady:

Doctor, doctor, do all you can
Man shot my husband with a handkerchief over his han’…

Which is also true. Czolgosz made it appear he’d injured his hand and had bandaged it with his handkerchief, under which he concealed his weapon. Also:

McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled
Doc says, ‘McKinley, I can’t find that ball…’

Which again is true. In an emergency operation at the Buffalo fairgrounds, the doctors removed the first bullet, but couldn’t find the second. Also to the point is this couplet:

Jailer told Czolgosh, ‘What you doin’ here?
Took and shot McKinley, gonna take the electric chair…’

Which he did. Seven weeks later. No Gitmo or 20 years of appeals in those days.

I first came across the song when riffling through the work of Eleanor Farjeon, the British children’s author. At the beginning of the First World War, Miss Farjeon spent a Sunday evening with D H Lawrence at which he sang several Negro spirituals but also “set our brains jingling with an American ballad on the murder of President McKinley with words of brutal jocularity sung to an air of lilting sweetness”. Lawrence loved the song. Mary Laleeby Fisher, a ten-year-old pupil of his in 1915, recalled that he liked to teach her some of his favorite tunes: “The two that stand out in my memory are the old traditional English song, ‘Barbara Allen’, and a song from America about the assassination of President McKinley.” She grew so fond of the song’s “brutal jocularity” she could sing it word-perfect to the end of her life.

Eleanor Farjeon in turn taught the tune to a member of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole, to entertain Sir Ernest and the lads during conversational lulls round the Antarctic campfire:

Roosevelt in the White House, he’s doing his best
McKinley in the graveyard, he’s takin’ his rest…
Roosevelt in the White House, drinkin’ out of a silver cup
McKinley in the graveyard, he’ll never wake up.

McKinley died almost a century to the day before 9/11. What’s the connection between the two events? Eleanor Farjeon, who learned “McKinley’s Lament” from D H Lawrence, subsequently had her own children’s hymn “Morning Has Broken” recorded by Cat Stevens and turned into a monster pop hit. Cat then converted to Islam, changed his name to “Yusuf Islam”, and after 9/11 was banned from entering the United States by the Department of Homeland Security. On national security grounds, not musical ones.

(For my own take on the Kennedy assassination’s musical accompaniment, see here.)

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