“… And then almost at midnight we came home through the half-deserted [Midway] Plaisance with the strange mixture of color, with strains of broken music and snatches of song. On leaving the White City lying under the white moon light—to the prosaic cars that whirled us back to Chicago along the shore of the lake that rippled and danced under the magical moonlight. So the days and night run on—these enchanted exposition days.” – Lilian Whiting, World’s Fair visitor, October 8, 1893, the night before “Chicago Day.”

All was in readiness as a nervous, but joyous sense of anticipation hung in the air that early autumn evening. Lilian Whiting went to bed in her hotel room imagining what glorious new spectacle the coming day—“Chicago Day”—might bring. In three weeks, this World’s Fair, this dream-like White City with its gilded alabaster palaces showcasing the culture and technology of the modern world, would be no more.

It had been a glorious “Gay Nineties” summer, wandering about the Midway Plaisance gaping at the “native villages” representing forty-six nations, soaring to the heavens aboard the stupendous Ferris wheel or sampling the rich array of art, music, machinery, history, and innovation presented inside the enormous Beaux Art-styled exhibition halls centered in Jackson Park. This former swampland elegantly landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted.

As the nation approached the end of the nineteenth century, the seeds of modern America were being sewn right here in Chicago during this fabled World’s Columbian Exposition. The Fair formally opened on May 1, 1893 to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus.

It was a watershed event in the nation’s history, but more importantly for the people of Chicago, it was an opportunity to showcase the glorious triumph of a city that had been decimated by the firestorm of October 8-9, 1871, leaving three hundred dead in its wake, ninety thousand people homeless, and flattening nearly four miles of commercial and residential real estate in its path from De Koven Street on the West Side to Fullerton Avenue on the north.

The 1893 World’s Fair was more of a celebration of Chicago’s stunning triumph over the hardships of the calamitous fire and its dominant position as the “Metropolis of the Mid-Continent” than old Columbus planting his flag in the soil of the Americas in 1892.  Everyone, it seemed, sang Chicago’s praises. Sarah Bernhardt, star of the international stage, beamed, “I adore Chicago! It is the pulse of America!”

And so in a joyous spirit, citizens of Chicago and the world poured through the gates of the fairgrounds that bright October 9th morning, beginning at 6:30.  It was an ideal Indian summer day—light breezes and brilliant sunshine.

Mayor Carter Harrison advised the factory owners, bankers, retail emporiums, and every employer in the city that this was a public holiday created for all people. Harrison, the popular and affable former Kentuckian, implored all Chicagoans, regardless of their station in life, to join together and make Chicago Day and all its pageantry the event of a lifetime. The Chicago Day Committee confidently predicted that Jackson Park could comfortably accommodate a million people.

And so they came, an immense throng of 716,881 people, transported by the city’s elevated lines, ferry boats, cross-town street cars, and the cable lines. Train men and police tried in vain to prevent fair-goers from climbing up to the roofs of the car lines, but were unsuccessful. The street cars were so densely packed that the chassis were no longer visible. Chicago hotels, rooming houses, and private lodgings throughout the city were filled to capacity. Many hotel patrons were forced to sleep on fold-up cots placed in the corridors, creating potential fire hazards.

Floats representing forty-six nations assembled at the 62nd Street gate, led by Chicago’s very own ornate “I Will — Chicago Typified” float. The official city motto, “I Will,” debuted at the fair. Charles Holloway, a famed American visual artist, won a newspaper contest sponsored by the Chicago Inter-Ocean to design a symbol of Chicago’s might. From a lump of clay, he designed a bust-statue wearing a breast-plate bearing a simple, two-word inscription “I Will,” signifying the determination and resolve of its people to overcome the misfortunes of the 1871 Fire.

The enormous cavalcade of floats, billed as “the largest assemblage in the Western Hemisphere,” entered the grounds at 6:15 p.m., but an orderly procession it was not. The crush of people simply would not get out of the way, as they elbowed and pushed their way forward. Many spectators spilled over directly into the parade route, upsetting horses, carriages, uniformed Zouaves, the mounted Chicago Hussars (white-plumed and one-hundred strong), “Vikings and Valkyries in Valhalla,” “Queen Isabella’s Court,” and all other costumed marchers. Undeterred, the procession of floats inched forward.

Earlier that afternoon Mayor Harrison rang the Liberty Bell, on loan from Philadelphia. Surrounded by 200,000 spectators, Harrison accepted a ceremonial gavel crafted from a piece of wood from old Fort Dearborn and a building in the downtown district that had survived the Great Fire intact. Chicago’s five-term mayor was in high spirits as he welcomed Chief Pokagon, son of the Potawatomi leader who had once “owned” Chicago before the arrival of the white man. The old chief, in the spirit of friendship, ceremoniously handed the original title deed wrapped in birch-bark, to Harrison.

Clutching the deed in his hand, Harrison spoke of his own special connection to the native people: “There is Indian blood in my veins, and I trace it back to Pocahontas and I’m proud. This pluck; this Phoenix-like leap from the ashes of despair has given Chicago its fame throughout the world, and it is with the poets that we can dream of our city’s wonderful construction as the product of magic rather than man’s ingenuity.”

Carter Henry Harrison, Sr., was elected to five terms as Mayor of Chicago, but was assassinated in 1893 before completing the fifth term.

Carter Henry Harrison, Sr., was elected to five terms as Mayor of Chicago, but was assassinated in 1893 before completing the fifth term. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Harrison, a widower, was engaged to a comely young New Orleans woman named Annie Howard. She waited for him in her carriage outside the gates of the fair while he was lustily cheered under the October sun.  Deeply humbled, his eyes seemed to glisten in joy as he shook a thousand hands before police guard led him away from the rostrum.
A brilliant pageant of fireworks lit the evening skies along the south lakefront. The world seemed so full of vigor and possibility for young and old alike.

The next day, the press reported that three Chicago Day visitors had suffered accidental death while in transit to the fair and the birth of one child inside the grounds. Rushed to Mercy Hospital, Mrs. John Tucker of Red Bud, Illinois, gave birth to a baby boy. Mayor Harrison happily agreed to stand in as the infant’s godfather. Carter Harrison relished the social functions of his office and serving as the “World’s Fair Mayor.” He had won a record fifth term of office solely for the purpose of claiming that great honor. His enthusiasm for the job never waned.

The World’s Fair was set to close on October 30th. Preparations were made for special ending ceremonies and the opportunity for Chicagoans to glimpse the majestic buildings one last time before dismantling and tear-down.

Harrison led a delegation of visiting mayors from City Hall to Jackson Park’s Music Hall on October 28th. Attired in his customary slouch hat, frock coat, and red neck tie, he sang Chicago’s praises: “This World’s Fair has been the greatest educator of the nineteenth century. It has been the greatest educator the world has ever known! Come out and look upon these grounds upon the beautiful White City. The past has nothing for its model. The future will be utterly incapable of competing with it, aye, for hundreds of years to come.”

Returning home to his Ashland Avenue home exhausted from his labors, Harrison took an early-evening nap before dinner. A few minutes past eight o’clock, the doorbell rang. Mary Hansen, one of the home’s maids, answered and admitted a clean-shaven but shabbily attired young man who said his name was Patrick Eugene Prendergast and he desired an audience with the Mayor.

Half-awake, Harrison came down to the foyer from his bedroom to greet the caller whose face seemed vaguely familiar. Prendergast announced himself before producing a .32-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver purchased from a hardware store earlier that afternoon. He fired three shots in rapid succession from point-blank range.

Harrison fell mortally wounded. Moments from death, he cried out for his son Preston and his fiancée, Annie Howard. Within a few weeks’ time, the couple were to be married. “Don’t move me, boy,” Harrison gasped to his son. “I’m fatally hurt.” Twenty minutes later, the city’s revered World’s Fair mayor expired before a physician could arrive.
Like a vapor in the night, Prendergast vanished from the scene, fleeing north on Ashland Avenue and flagging down an east-bound streetcar on Van Buren Street. At Des Plaines Street, he exited and walked to the police station, where he promptly surrendered. “I am Patrick Eugene Prendergast, and I have just shot the Mayor,” he proclaimed. He showed no emotion and offered no immediate explanation.

The killer revealed his motivation to Inspector John Shea, as an angry mob formed outside the precinct. Prendergast, one of society’s down-and-outers, eked out a thread-bare existence distributing newspapers on the West Side. Relatives described him as a normal young man; however, there was a history of family mental illness, and he labored under the delusion that Harrison was to make him city corporation counsel.

Prendergast, a frequent visitor to City Hall, had been making a nuisance of himself in the corridors, claiming he had devised a “clever new scheme” to elevate Chicago railroad tracks in an efficient manner. Each year pedestrian fatalities at unprotected city crossing grades claimed dozens of lives. As corporation counsel, Prendergast believed he could implement his “scheme.”

Approaching the Mayor and corporation counsel Adolph Kraus one day, Prendergast explained the urgency of his mission and the desire for Kraus to step aside. Harrison appreciated a good jest. Winking at Kraus, he said: “Oh, I think we might arrange that. Why don’t you move on now and we’ll see what we can do!” Those very words sealed the Mayor’s doom.
In his delusional state, Prendergast believed the Mayor had affirmed his appointment, but when he heard nothing, his feeling of betrayal drove him to commit this act of madness.

Joyous October, with its lingering memories of fireworks, the Ferris wheel, Hussars on horseback, and the parade of forty-six nations, yielded to November’s gloom and early chill. Not since the funeral train conveying the martyred President Abraham Lincoln passed through Chicago in 1865, had its citizens borne such grief. Dozens of workmen descended on City Hall to drape one thousand yards of black mourning cloth with white bunting in conspicuous places.

Across the city, emblems of mourning were displayed—in businesses, hotels, and private residences. Men signified their grief by wrapping black cloth around their high silk hats—a lost funerary custom.

Solemn memorial services were held across the city. In Festival Hall, cold and cheerless, according to a Chicago Tribune account, where Harrison delivered his final speech to the visiting mayors at the World’s Fair, Chopin’s Funeral March played in the background as hotel magnate Potter Palmer reflected on the tragic events of the week. Palmer noted the terrible irony: This was to have been the gala closing day of the World’s Fair.

On November 1st, thousands of mourners lined the streets and filled the chapel of the Church of the Epiphany on Adams Street to observe the solemn rights before interment in Graceland Cemetery where so many famous Chicagoans of an earlier day were taken for their eternal rest. A writer noted that, “Governors and ex-governors, former mayors and citizens that have been prominent in the history of Chicago paid a last tribute to the dead Mayor by following the funeral car. The procession, 5,000 strong, was two hours and fifteen minutes in passing a given point.”

The parade of mourners gathered at City Hall before continuing to the Church of the Epiphany and on to Graceland. Darkness had gathered by the time the cortege reached the gravesite. In unison the German singing societies, at the request of the family, sang “Peaceful Rests the Heart.”

On November 6th, five days after the funeral, former Cook County State’s Attorney Luther Laflin Mills delivered an emotional eulogy to four thousand people gathered at the People’s Institute: “In future time when calm history reviews this latter half of the nineteenth century in America it will write of a marvelous city that lay at its heart, of its brave endeavors and splendid victories of its trade, its commerce its schools, its churches, its charities, its humanities, its civilization, and the civic pride of its citizens pervading and inspiring. It will write of the many noble men who made it great, but at the summit of its recognition, history will place, measuring him by his qualities and acts and with whatever faults he had, and taking him for all and all, at its typical representative and most universally loved of its citizens, Carter H. Harrison.”

It was a bitter November and a sadder Christmas as the winter winds came howling down on Chicago. With the fair over, real-world problems returned. The ranks of the unemployed swelled. Jobs at the fair had ended as the national depression descended on Chicago, driving many into the streets to beg for money and food. The White City was not even spared. Arsonists and looters torched several of the buildings before the wrecking companies arrived to deal the final death blow to a dream, now flickering away. To many, the “I Will” spirit of October, broken by tragedy and economic despair, symbolized a different time and place as the problems of daily living and new crises multiplied.

In May 1894, a strike at the Pullman Palace Car Company precipitated a bloody riot that left thirty workers dead. The famed Clarence Darrow, trying his first criminal case, failed in his attempt to save the life of the delusional sociopath Patrick Prendergast, executed on the gallows of the Cook County Jail on July 13, 1894.

Annie Howard, the mayor’s grief-stricken fiancée whose engagement announcement appeared in the Chicago Times the very same day as the assassination of her intended, left Chicago and eventually married stockbroker Walter Parrott in London in 1896. She died in 1904.

The coming century, bringing with it the horrors of assassination and a world war, vanquished the last remnants of the Victorian Era and eroded the unshakeable belief that progress, faith in technology, and the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural uplift symbolized by the White City would be our manifest destiny.

About the author

Richard Lindberg is a Chicago historian and the author of seventeen published books about the Windy City including “Chicago Yesterday and Today” and the award-winning, “The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago’s Democratic Machine.”

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