The Colombian Exposition of 1893: Killers Past and Present

1892 marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Americas.  To mark the occasion the 1893 World’s Fair would be a celebration of that event.  The city of Chicago won the right to host the fair, beating out New York in a

Field Museum Flickr

very close vote.  Planners would put on an incredible display of human achievement on the shores of the biggest lake in the United States.  Officially it was called the World’s Colombian Exposition, its nickname was The White City.  The main focus of the exposition would be Columbus’ voyage, however, the plan would be to show off all sorts of exhibits from around the world.  Any country that wanted to participate would be given a display area to showcase their culture and achievements.  As with other World’s Fairs during this time, many new inventions would be seen by the public for the first time.  However, the legacy of the White City would not be the glimpse into the future it provided, but a legacy of death.

A Celebration Built on a Lie

By the 1880s, it was known that Columbus was not the first European to set foot in the Americas.  Researchers had uncovered evidence that Leif Ericsson had landed in Eastern Canada and made it as far south as modern

Brooklyn Museum Flickr

day Massachusetts.  Usually when new evidence is uncovered, the story is retold with the new facts, however in this case a powerful organization in the United States that would use its influence to keep Columbus in a place of historical prominence.  The Italian American Association used its influence to prevent Columbus from being demoted in the history books in the wake of these new revelations.  Their lobbying efforts were successful in keeping Columbus and his voyage the main focus of the 1893 World’s Fair.  Through their continued efforts Columbus would eventually receive a national holiday, one that is steeped in controversy.   Columbus changed the course of history, there is no doubt about that.  The problem with the Columbus story is the way it has been told in schools for many years.  In most textbooks Columbus gets the hero treatment.  The part of the story that gets left out is the millions of deaths he is responsible for.   The 1893 World Colombian Exposition did not mention his kidnapping of natives who were taken back to Spain and paraded through the streets like trophies.  Nor would visitors find a description of his treatment of the natives, who he and his men tortured to make them hunt for gold.  Details like how he spread disease among the natives would go untold in favor of tales of heroism, the wonders of discovery, and the opening up of this great land to the pioneers that would follow.  Not exactly the multi-voiced truth of history that one would hope to find today.

A Celebration of Mass Murder Hides a Serial Killer

Columbus’ blood soaked legacy was not the only horror attached to the 1893 Exposition.  Blocks from the fair a man opened a building and rented out rooms to people coming from out of town to visit the fair.  Many who rented a room there never checked out.  The building was owned by Dr. H. H. Holmes, and would be known as the Murder Castle.  History would record Holmes as America’s first serial killer, and most of his killing would be done in his Chicago complex that he custom-made for murder.  There were hidden gas vents for killing unsuspecting guests.  Chutes ran from rooms directly to a sub-basement where a kiln oven awaited bodies dumped down the chute,  incinerated with no one the wiser.  Due of the shoddy record keeping at the time, no one knows how many people died in that building.  Estimates are between 20 and 200, and there is no way to do any forensic research since the building was burnt down and any remaining evidence has been long destroyed.

The Best and the Worst of Humanity

It is ironic that the first serial killer in America operated in the shadow of a celebration of the first mass murder in the history of the Americas.  The World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 is a reminder of how important multiple voices are when telling any history story.  By giving the Italian American Association too big a voice Columbus stands much taller in history than he probably should.  Today you can still visit grounds where the fair was held.  The main attraction is the Museum of Science and Industry, a museum dedicated to the technical achievements of man, much like the fair was.  While the fair did give us the Ferris Wheel, it also gave us an important lesson about how we remember history.


Additional Reading

The Chicago Sun Times “On its 125th birthday, what’s left from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition?” 4/29/2018

Larson, Erik  The Devil in the White City  Crown Publishers 2003



3 Replies to “The Colombian Exposition of 1893: Killers Past and Present”

  1. It is very shocking indeed that many continue to glorify this man who initiated the centuries long genocide and enslavement of Native Americans. Some of the stories about Columbus from reliable sources are absolutely horrifying – he was just as much about punishment as he was inflicting pain and suffering.

    I am curious though, what did you learn about Italian Americans and their lobbying to keep Columbus relevant? In the 1890’s, Italians were still very much a marginalized group on the east coast. I’m sure they’re not innocent of this, but I would think it would be more of an ‘Anglo’ thing to glorify Columbus during this period. In the 20th century, I have no doubt that Italian Americans were the driving force behind this, but it would be interesting to study what groups supported this narrative. If I’m simply ignorant of the involvement of Italian Americans during the 1890’s, please correct me! It’s important to know what groups glorify villains.

    Great post, great title!

    1. The anti-Italian attitude at the time actually helped elevate Columbus Day as Italians, with support of the Catholic Church, used Columbus as a unifying figure they could come together under. They could point to Columbus and say “You wouldn’t be here without us.”

      National Geographic 10/15/2015

  2. It is such a crazy and somewhat echoing idea that you bring up. I like how strong your stance is on this when you compare Christopher Columbus to one of the most infamous Serial killers in American history. I have known about the doctor but I did not know that the worlds fair was dedicated to Christopher Columbus. Your research on the Italian organization was done well and gave me a better understanding of why.

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