In some of my earlier posts about Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893—also known as the Columbian Exposition—I talked about how it was a grand spectacle, a vision so inspiring that some visitors reportedly wept when they first entered the fair’s Court of Honor (whose ivory coloring lent the event its “White City” nickname). I would have loved to see it.
But I know the reality wasn’t so pristine.
For one thing, many African Americans felt excluded. They helped staff the fair, but they weren’t given their own exhibit to showcase how far a generation of freedom had brought them. Ida B. Wells, with contributions from Frederick Douglass and other African American activists, detailed this slight in her pamphlet The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition. “Theoretically open to all Americans,” the pamphlet notes, “the Exposition practically is, literally and figuratively, a ‘White City,’ in the building of which the Colored American was allowed no helping hand, and in its glorious success he has no share.” Racist logic pervaded the fair’s design too, particularly in the Anthropology Building, whose exhibits were arranged to show the “evolution” of man, with the works of darker races on the outskirts and the creations of the palest peoples at the center.
For another thing, the fair’s six-month run coincided with the Panic of 1893, an economic depression that sent the country into a financial tailspin. Banks collapsed, railroads went under, and thousands of homeless descended on Chicago in hopes of finding employment at the fair. Against this backdrop of upheaval and ruin, the Columbian Exposition’s exhibits on progress and the advancement of humanity probably rang a bit hollow.
And of course, there’s the little matter of Henry H. Holmes, a serial killer who constructed a “Murder Castle” near the fair and preyed upon its visitors.
To see how I incorporated all this in Witch in the White City, my dark historical fantasy/mystery set at the fair, click here.