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Unpacking the warehouses for the Buffalo History Museum's 150th birthday

Happily, Ever After

The legend on a little note card in one of the display cases in the Buffalo History Museum’s Ever After exhibit says: “Objects derive meaning only from the stories they tell…” One of the objects in the case is Harman Blennerhassett’s telescope. Handsome, brass, substantial, about two-and-a-half-foot long, four or five inches in diameter.

Blennerhassett was confederate and co-conspirator with Aaron Burr in an allegedly treasonous plot to start up an independent nation in western territories, probably including the recently acquired Louisiana Territory and Spanish lands further west. Burr was eventually tried and acquitted on the treason charge. But when the plot was exposed, Blennerhassett’s mansion and farm on an island in the Ohio River were occupied and plundered by the Virginia militia. Blennerhassett fled, but was later arrested and imprisoned until after the Burr trial.

Blennerhassett was born in Ireland and was a lawyer there, but then immigrated to America, purchased the island homestead, and set up as a farmer. He was said to be a man of refined tastes and interests extending from the artistic to the scientific. Hence his possession of an excellent telescope. An information label for the telescope says it was acquired by the Buffalo Historical Society at auction, following confiscation, most likely, by the state militia and/or federal authorities.

After his release from prison, Blennerhassett relocated to Mississippi, where he became a cotton planter, then later moved to Canada, where he practiced law, and finally, went back to Ireland. But apparently never got around to recovering—or maybe even seriously trying to recover—his confiscated household items.

The exhibit—part of the museum’s 150th birthday celebration this year—comprises a random display of items from its warehouse and library that don’t get shown very often. The warehouse contains some nearly 100,000 objects and artifacts, and the library another 250,000 books, manuscripts, photos, maps, and miscellanea.

Among the more unusual items from the warehouse collection is a 162-year-old piece of wedding cake from the nuptials of former Buffalo Mayor Grover Cleveland to Frances Folsom in a White House ceremony on June 2, 1886. Shades of Miss Havisham. An informational note for the wedding cake says it was heavily laced with alcohol—it looks like one of the more durable variety Chistmastide fruitcakes—which must be at least part of the reason for its still-recognizable-as-cake condition. But you wouldn’t be tempted to try a bite.

Also on display, on the subject of presidents, is the nickel-plated Iver-Johnson .32 caliber revolver Leon Czolgosz used to shoot President McKinley in the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo in 1901, along with the handkerchief the assassin used to partially conceal the gun, and the handcuffs that were fastened on him when he was subdued and rushed off to jail to save him from the crowd that probably otherwise would have beat him to death on the spot.

The assassination gun is displayed among other weapons—guns and swords—including a Civil War cavalry saber and pistols reminiscent of pirate weapons in N. C. Wyeth illustrations for Treasure Island.

There is a wall of oil portraits of known and unknown persons by artists known and unknown. Among the remembered artists, Tony Sisti (portrait of Jacob Morrison) and Virginia Cuthbert (portrait of Brigadier General Owen Augspurger). Among the lesser remembered artists, maybe the most impressive of the bunch, William Wilgus, represented with two superb portraits, including a stunningly forceful self-portrait. Wilgus lived from 1819 to 1853. He was commissioned by the first mayor of Buffalo, Ebenezer Johnson, to paint a picture—which is in the Buffalo History Museum collection—of the mayor’s elegant domicile, the so-called Johnson Cottage.

There is also, with reference to Alice in Wonderland, a mad tea party, as an imaginative way to display a hodge-podge assortment of the museum’s extensive collection of ceramic wares. The Mad Hatter isn’t there in person, but his hat is, with the “In This Style, 10/6” tag. The Dormouse is there, in one of the teacups. And the March Hare is present. Or is that the White Rabbit? On the table, among the ceramics, are several timepieces, including the White Rabbit’s pocket watch. Along with an ominous-looking little potion bottle, empty, with the label: “Drink Me.”

The Ever After display was put together by museum staffer Anthony Greco.

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