7 World's Fairs That Became Utter Nightmares
For years, World's Fairs have given countries opportunities to tell other countries, "Look at all the cool shit we have going on! Things ain't going so bad for us, huh?" However, as with many rushes to display how much radder you are than everyone else, things have gone ridiculously wrong at times, leaving us with events that history should be embarrassed of. As it turns out, when you attempt to maintain relevancy in the world, a lot of things can fail.
Buffalo Bill Doesn't Need Your Stinkin' World's Fair
The 1893 Chicago World's Fair is mainly remembered because, nearby, H.H. Holmes was building an insane death trap that masqueraded as a hotel. However, it should also be remembered because of how much it couldn't get its shit together. Investors managed to raise a ton of money, but arguments between literally everyone involved in the creation of the fair, along with the construction woes that come naturally with a project that barely anyone was ready for, led to a massive deficit. If only there was some popular attraction that had been proven successful, with an owner that was eager to get involved with this flailing thing?
"Uh, no, not you Meatpacker Mike. But thanks for the offer."
Surfing atop a wave of fame, kickass name choices, and questionable racism was Buffalo Bill's Wild West And Congress Of Rough Riders Of The World. Buffalo Bill, born as William Cody, was known for being a brave soldier and for contributing to the near extinction of a species. He used this notoriety to open up the first Wild West Show, which glamorized the American Old West.
According to these shows, you couldn't go outside without having to fend off a posse of bandits, and the noises you made during your initial gunfight would attract Native Americans who would savagely attack you until you murdered them all too. Then, you'd finally be able to sit down, have breakfast, and repeat the whole process. Gone was any notion that much of the "Wild West" was a bunch of people trying to fend off dehydration. It was a man's world, where you'd shoot first and then shoot the questions that came out of your own mouth later, because questions are for Europeans. And people ate it up.
"For 5 cents extra, you can throw tomatoes at Sitting Bull!"
Buffalo Bill would've gladly used the fair as an avenue for his show, but the organizers refused. So, disgruntled, he took his show to Chicago anyway, as if to say, "I know that you'd really like to outdo Paris and all that, but what people really want to see are some goddamn guns." And then, to add a "motherfucker" to the end of that last sentence, he put his show right beside the fair, and it was enormously popular, stealing attention and visitors.
The Chicago World's Fair, despite all of its majesty and the plethora of exhibits that were only half finished for a majority of the fair's duration, bled money until steel tycoon George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. had a Ferris wheel built. So any grand delusions about sophistication attracting people can be put to bed, right beside the corn-fed wife that a Wild West gunslinger goes home to when he's done butcherin' Nebraska. Just give the people what they crave: violence and giant, spinning things that they can sit in.
World's Fair Vs. World's Fair
It's hard to find a better instance of how awful people can be than with human zoos. In these, people of any un-Caucasian race would enact scenes in their "natural habitat," one that was way more fitting for their "simple minds" than the great white habitat.
Yeah, that's the face I made discovering this too.
For example, if you were a painfully unlikable white man who wanted to include an exotic taste of Africa in your fair of textiles and machinery, you'd simply dress up a bunch of African people in whatever you thought looked most fitting to ooga-booga in, and you'd have them mill around a hut for a while. Your friends would delight in the degradation of a forever's worth of culture, and you'd be able to proudly contribute to a practice that lasted for far too long.
Human zoos were a big exhibit in the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931, which was used to show off all of the things gained through France's colonial expansion. "Hey, I know that a lot of you think that what we did was bad, because we tried to 'civilize' everyone and treated people pretty poorly in our march across Africa, but we got something really neat! Look at this painting! And this dress! Totally worth it! It's all GOOD. Let's clink glasses and pretend that we're not terrible."
"... Uh, maybe we should close our eyes while clinking."
"Nah, not so much," said the counter exhibition, named The Truth On The Colonies, which was established by the French Communist Party. Using what I'd like to call the "Mechagodzilla Tactic," The Truth On The Colonies was created with the specific purpose of destroying everything that the Paris Colonial Exhibition stood for.
While the first fair was meant to glorify imperialism and all the great things that happen when you bulldoze through morals, the second was meant to slap wrists and say that there was a better way to go about doing things. And, because this column is primarily about trying and failing, barely anyone attended the latter.
The State Treasurer Stole Most Of The Money
Edward A. Burke, most famous for being a state treasurer of Louisiana, was talented at a few things. He was pretty good at tax evasion, changing his name, lying about his business plans, and overthrowing newspapers.
His only flaw: crappy penmanship.
He was also pretty good at getting himself involved in gunfights -- once in the middle of a fucking New Orleans street with the governor of Louisiana, and another time with the former editor of the newspaper that he'd just conquered. His last occurred with the editor of yet another newspaper that criticized him, and the trilogy ended with Burke getting shot in the leg. This was a simpler, better age, where a man could make an honest living and challenge writers to a duel to the death if those ink-stained geeks got too chatty.
The World Cotton Centennial was a World's Fair held in New Orleans in 1884, and at the time, New Orleans handled almost a third of all the cotton made in the U.S. Burke was able to help convince Congress to pass a bill that would loan a million dollars toward the development of the fair, and, along with the other contributions made by sponsors, the World Cotton Centennial looked to have a pretty sizable budget.
They'd be able to exhibit deluxe cotton. None of that Hanes bullshit.
It was, instead, a financial clusterfuck. "But what part does that slimy scoundrel Burke play?" you ask. "Where was he curling his mustache and snickering during all of this?"
Honduras, that's where, as Burke had become involved in mining operations. And once it was discovered that he had probably embezzled, for lack of a better phrase, most of the money, he exclaimed that he would return to New Orleans to face down the rats who wanted to soil his good image. And he did, and he was noted for his bravery in the face of turmoil.
Or, as they taught Burke to say in Honduras, "Por que es el pene pequeno Americano es riendo?"
Burke had spent his entire career sticking his tongue out at the people chasing him, and that wasn't about to stop due to some pesky accusations. In 1926, all of his indictments were wiped away, but Burke chose to remain in Honduras until he died. He had no real reason to return to the U.S. From his perspective, the people there were just a bunch of meanies looking to undermine all of his attempts at undermining them.
The Paris Streak Ends With Financial Failure
Despite their allure of grandeur and their promise to show you that the future wasn't going to suck, a decent number of World's Fairs were not massively successful. Paris was a city that was lauded for its arts and culture and prosperity and had hosted a number of them. It was almost a safe bet to hold a World's Fair there, if you take into account every stereotype of turn-of-the-century Parisians that you can think of:
They like classy, sophisticated affairs, right? They'll go nuts for all of the technological achievements on display, right? It's Paris! It's the "City Of Lights"! Please, please be interested in diesel engines, general public. We've sunk a lot of cash into this.
"If you don't, we WILL bring back the foreigners-in-a-cage. Believe that."
The Exposition Universelle of 1900 was supposed to exclaim to the world, "It's a new century! Drop the beat!" Instead, it ended up being estimated that the cost of a single attendee would be 600 more francs than an actual ticket. It was the John Carter of World's Fairs. It was the banana stand of World's Fairs. It was the your-friend-that-decides-to-buy-an-old-dollar-store-and-turn-it-into-a-Thai-restaurant-in-a-Tennessee-town-of-894-for-christ's-sake-Will-I-can't-loan-you-any-more-money-does-your-wife-know-how-bad-it's-going of World's Fairs.
Many of the investors were never repaid, because it's hard to get your money back when your whole budgetary plan is melting quicker than that dude's face from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. People had expected the exhibits to be crowded to the rafters, which made the sites expensive. And, with less than the expected amount of visitors showing up, those concessionaires found it hard to pay their rent.
They even had to sell their commemorative medallions, which turned out to be foil-covered chocolate and cheese.
Thus, they went on strike, which shut down a lot of the exposition. It was a domino effect, all caused by the severe over-estimation of a city's demand for previews of the escalator, among less important things.
President McKinley Was Killed At One, And Technology Couldn't Save Him
William McKinley had just been inaugurated for his second term as president. Leon Czolgosz had become obsessed with anarchism and the recent assassination of King Umberto I of Italy. They both went to the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. History understands storytelling techniques better than any screenwriter in the world, and, as it would prove over the next few circumstances, it had a pretty good grasp on irony too.
"Honestly, I was just workshopping assassination ideas for a project down the line."
Irony 1: Czolgosz shot McKinley twice in the gut, and doctors rushed to find the bullets. Electricity was a big deal at the Pan-American Exposition, as the power used to light up the place was created by Niagara Falls, 25 miles away. And, for some reason unbeknownst to any man in history, the operating room at the exposition did not have any electricity. It's hard to fathom a room more in need of electricity than the one where life constantly hangs in the balance.
It's even more baffling considering that the buildings were covered in thousands of light bulbs. You could see the Pan-American Exposition from miles around, but if you were wounded, surgeons would fumble around in the dark until you died of blood loss and general architectural stupidity.
Even worse, there were 10,000 spoons when all they needed was a scalpel.
In the place of people giving a shit about designing functional rooms, doctors used a pan to reflect sunlight onto the table where McKinley was being treated. There must be methods more advanced than a Dungeons & Dragons puzzle that we could use to save our president's life.
Irony 2: A big draw at the Exposition was the X-ray, which had only been recently devised. If this was The Empire Strikes Back, C-3PO would have told Doctor Solo that the possibility of successfully using an X-ray that has been scarcely tested is approximately 3,720 to 1. And Doctor Solo would've replied, "Those are really not good odds. Never mind."
Incidentally, confused accounts say McKinley shot first.
The X-ray wasn't even tried out, for fear that it would do little good. But you know what does less good? Looking at the blueprints for the construction of an operating room at a World's Fair, seeing that its only initial light source is a caveman tactic, and thinking, "What could go wrong?"
People Get Angry When They Can't Watch A Bull Die
By World's Fair standards, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 went pretty well. A fire destroyed one of the buildings a week and a half before the fair was supposed to end, and, like many fairs before it, race relations there went no further than, "Stand beside this canoe and look stoic, ethnic person that I don't understand," but that was par for the course at this point. History makes me sad.
For Geronimo, it was either pose for tourists or prison for life.
A few months after the fair started, at the Norris Amusement Company Arena, which bordered the fair, bullfights were planned to take place, despite their being illegal in Missouri. Richard Norris, who had organized the construction of the arena, did not care for petty things like laws and ended up selling thousands of tickets.
Meanwhile, Missouri Governor Alexander Monroe Dockery, bearing a vital last name and scrotum, was bombarded with pleas from the humane society and religious groups to stop the bullfight. He gave in and arranged that anyone who broke that law would be arrested.
"Actually, if you break any law, you'll be arrested. But especially that law."
He did not count on people starting a riot because they weren't getting to see a slaughtered animal or getting a refund. In what I'm sure was a totally justifiable way to act when you've had your bloodlust blue-balled, the crowd threw rocks at the officers and then proceeded to torch the place. Then, less than a week later, the main bullfighter scheduled to perform was shot by another bullfighter in a dispute over pay.
I've never gotten involved in a riot because I'm gangly and easily pushed over, but I have watched a guy in a tight, sleeveless, button-down shirt and copious hair gel try to get laid at a club, fail, and then shove a bouncer for no reason other than, "BRO!" I imagine that the two events are pretty similar.
Many good bros were lost that day.
The Baby Raffle
Imagine, for a second, that the year is 1909. You haven't yet been ravaged by syphilis or Kodiak bears, so, to simultaneously celebrate this momentous occasion and your 9th birthday, your family decides to take you to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. "I'm so proud of you," your father says, delirious from the gangrene caused by Tuesday morning's Kodiak attack.
A true Kodiak moment.
You enter and are wowed by the scale model of the coal mine and the dioramas and the baby raffle. You go home that night, and when you wake up the next morning, you wonder if the baby raffle was an infection-related fever dream or something that actually fucking happened.
Yes. Yes, it did.
In what can only be explained as the product of someone reading a Jonathan Swift novel and saying, "This guy has it all figured out," the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held a baby raffle. I know I've said the phrase "baby raffle" a few times, but it's extremely important that you understand that you're not misreading it. I'm going to say it again. They held a goddamn motherfucking baby raffle.
Sadly, babies were not the hosts.
If you've never had the pleasure of attending one, a baby raffle is defined in Webster's Necronomicon as "Anytime people auction off an infant, because our species has been forsaken." A month-old orphan boy named Ernest was being raffled away as a prize. How do you get people entered into this contest? Probably by conducting a search for people who look the most like they'd be into murdering month-old orphans.
The orphan had been "property of the Washington Children's Home Society" and was donated, I imagine, since you couldn't award standard raffle prizes like a Nook or a flashlight/pocket knife yet. And to put a cherry on top of this dessert made entirely of raffled orphan children, his whereabouts after the raffle took place are unknown to this day.
But theories abound.
So not only was there a baby raffle, taking place in an area full of premature babies in prototype incubators, but the grand prize was just misplaced at the end of it. Just keep repeating to yourself: It's only a World's Fair ... it's only a World's Fair.
So, anytime someone tells you that it would be really great to have lived in any part of the past, remind them that there was a slight chance that if you existed in 1909, you could've lost your parents, gotten raffled off to a stranger, and then have gone missing for all of eternity.
Daniel has a blog.
For more from Daniel, check out 5 Ways 'The Fast and the Furious' Is Better Than You Realize and 5 Famous Movies With Insane 'What If' Scenarios.
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