That Gordian City, So Excessive, So Satanic

Song of the moment: Africa Toto

So, I had part of a post all written out about some of the cool things that happened in the science world this week (visible quantum states, LHC energy records, a split-second break in parity), but I’m scrapping it. If you want to read about these things, click on my Twitter feed on the right there. I Tweeted articles on all of them.

Why would I turn down the opportunity to talk about science? Well, I’ll tell you why- because tonight we’re going to talk about the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (commonly known as the Chicago World’s Fair).

I’m reading this book, The Devil in the White City, and I find myself having to constantly look something up or marveling over the Fair’s influence. In other words: I am learning so goddamn much that I feel the need to share my newly acquired knowledge with you, galleons.

Maybe it will amuse you to see the gaps in my knowledge. Maybe you’ll learn something along with me. Come along and we’ll see.


First and foremost, let’s talk about the Fair itself. I can’t claim to have known much about the World’s Fair before reading this book. I knew Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had performed there (thanks to posters in his museum from the event). I knew L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City had been inspired largely by the Fair. I knew it was a colossal event. But that was about it.

Here are some pretty major (and minor) things I did not know:

~The World’s Fair changed the future of electricity by accepting the bid by Westinghouse to run the Fair on an AC system (patented by dear Nikolas Tesla) instead of General Electric’s (our good friend Thomas Edison’s company) bid to run the Fair on a DC system, the prevailing electrical standard.

For the record, given my weird aptitude for electrical knowledge and my love of Nikolas Tesla, I feel I really should have known that one.

~It was at the Fair that Cracker Jack and Shredded Wheat were first introduced to the world.

~Among the enormous workforce that built The White City (as the Fair is also called) was a carpenter named Elias Disney. Yes, he was the father of Walt Disney. Apparently, he used to regale his son with stories about the creation of this magical city. I’m sure young Walt completely ignored him, right?

~The head gardener (under the command of landscape architect Frederick Olmsted) of the Fair was named E. Dehn.

Just think about it for a second. Say it out loud if you need to. Get it now? I thought that was amusing.

~Okay, here’s a big one. See, the Chicago World’s Fair was a reaction to a World’s Fair event held in Paris. The Paris Fair had been a huge success, with people coming from all over the world to see it. And the crowning architectural glory of the Fair was a massive steel tower. I’m sure you know it- it was designed by Alexandre Eiffel.

Yeah, I didn’t know that’s why the Eiffel Tower was built. But there’s even more I was unaware of.

At the Chicago Fair, the architects wanted to create something that would “out-Eiffel Eiffel.” Problem was, no engineer could come up with something suitable. Finally, one man did. It was a huge, slightly terrifying machine. It was rejected twice because it seemed too fragile and unstable and dangerous. It dominated the Fair, becoming its emblem.

Come on. You know what it is.

Would it help if I told you the engineer’s name was George Ferris?

I want you to know that I spent three chapters agonizing over what the better-than-Eiffel’s-frakking-tower marvel was. I looked up pictures of the Fair, scanning the skyline for an architectural mindblower. All I saw were a bunch of buildings and a Ferris Wheel. It just didn’t occur to me that it was the Ferris Wheel itself that was so incredible. I’m an idiot.


In terms of interesting tidbits from the book that are not directly related to the Fair, I present to you:

~The term sang-froid is French for composure (sometimes excessive). I knew sang meant “blood,” but that’s about as far as I could go. I don’t really know French.

So yeah, term of the day for me.

~Performers would pay professional applauders (known as a “claque”) to enthusiastically applaud and demand encores. Even Adelina Patti, the diva of the time (and one of my favorite sopranos), paid.

~The Whitechapel Club.

In London in 1888, there were a string of vicious murders in the Whitechapel district. Young prostitutes were sliced apart, with body parts hacked off and organs removed from the abdomen. 5 mutilations and murders are attributed to the serial killer who is now known as Jack the Ripper, with more possible.

Like much of the rest of the world, Chicago followed the story of the Ripper with a morbid fascination. The Whitechapel Club, as it came to be known, was a press club. Its members were journalists who brought with them stories of hideous murders and acts of violence from the city of Chicago. Headquarters of the club was a bar decorated with mounted skulls, a coffin, a hangman’s noose, and various other assorted weapons. The leader of the club held the title of “the Ripper.”

It gets stranger. The coffin in the club’s headquarters was once used to transport the body of a deceased club member. The remaining members took the body to the shore of Lake Michigan and burned the dead man on a pyre, all while wearing black robes and singing hymns to the dead, such as:

Then stand to your glasses steady
And drink to your comrade’s eyes
Here’s a toast to the dead already
And hurrah for the next who dies.

Then they brought the coffin back to headquarters. Don’t believe me? Here’s an article from 1891 that gives a bit more detail on club practices and ideas. Gruesome, thoroughly morbid, and utterly fascinating.


That’s all for now. I’ll probably have a few more tidbits that strike my fancy in the next few days, but I promise not to prattle on about all the research I’ve been doing into architecture and landscaping. I know next-to-nothing about either enterprise and feel I should learn more about them in order to really appreciate this story. But, I’m planning a serious post on serial killers and psychopathy, because I find the subject fascinating.

Also, sorry to disappoint you by not spending tonight talking about the ol’ healthcare reform bill that just passed the House. I figured every other blogger would be doing that, and I really wanted to be unique.

I’m a rebel like that.

One response to “That Gordian City, So Excessive, So Satanic

  1. Your observations are great. I am preparing to return The Devil in the White City to my library, however before doing so I am taking notes. I will include some of your commentary into my notes as well.
    The book is well researched and and enlightening. We wil discuss it in our library reading group next week. It will prove interesting to hear a discussion regarding this work. Your reaction to the writing prarallels my own reactions to the author and the books content. i

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