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This week in history: World’s Fair ends in tragedy

The closing of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition on Oct. 30 would have been a sad enough scene in its own right, but the assassination of Mayor Carter Harrison III made the event especially tragic.

As chief planner for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Daniel Burnham turned a lakefront swamp 8 miles south of downtown into a beautiful, but temporary, city.
As chief planner for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Daniel Burnham turned a lakefront swamp eight miles south of downtown into a beautiful, but temporary, city. It officially closed on Oct. 30, 1893, although the Midway remained open for one more day.
Sun-Times file

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

By all accounts, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was a smashing success for the city of Chicago. According to the Chicago Architecture Center, the fair lasted just six months but brought 27 million people to Jackson Park on the South Side. The Beaux-Arts style of buildings designed by architect Daniel Burnham influenced construction for decades following the fair, and those that attended became the first to sample Juicy Fruit, brownies and the sausages that would later become the Chicago-style hot dog.

Though a joyous celebration had been planned for the fair’s official closing day on Oct. 30, all of that excitement disappeared when news broke of Mayor Carter Harrison’s assassination two days earlier.

On Oct. 28, 1893, the Chicago Daily News published an extra edition detailing Harrison’s fatal shooting. “The murderer is under arrest,” the report announced. “He gives his name as Eugene Patrick Prendergast.”

Prendergast arrived at the mayor’s mansion that evening and told the maid who answered the door that he had urgent business with Harrison. The maid ushered him inside the hall where he waited. Roused from a nap, Harrison greeted his guest in the hall, but almost immediately, shots rang out.

“Almost immediately she heard a shot which was quickly followed by two others,” the paper said. “Then there was the sound of a heavy fall.”

The mayor’s son, William Preston Harrison, heard the shots from another room and rushed to the scene. His arrival spooked Prendergast, who ran out the door. Soon after, Mayor Harrison succumbed to his injuries.

The shooting shocked the city and dampened the fair’s closing festivities.

“Dull and cheerless dawned the last day of the great Fair,” the Daily News observed on Oct. 30. “The faint rays of the morning sun, straggling through banks of murky clouds shone upon a deserted city. There was an air of desolation over all. From every flagstaff drooped a banner at half-mast.”

In honor of the tragedy, planners canceled the Columbus Day festivities, the paper said. The few stragglers that visited the fair looked “weary and uninterested.” Many of the exhibitors had already begun to pack up their booths and prepare to leave. The Midway would be permitted to remain open for just one more day.

On that last day, talk had already turned to what to do with the buildings once the fair ended officially. According to the paper, the gates would remain open and regular price admission would be charged “as long as there is anything within the grounds to attract visitors.” Many officials agreed though that some of the buildings should be preserved.

“It will surely be a wrong to the American public if these magnificent buildings are at once turned over to destroyers,” the fair’s vice president said. “We have here a lesson in architecture which should be preserved. It may be impossible to continue the Fair another year, but certainly we may retain the buildings.”

The only remaining ceremony would be held later that night.

That evening at a sunset, a national salute would be fired on the grounds, and the flags would be lowered, the paper reported.

“With this simple ceremony the exercises will end and the great World’s Fair will be officially a thing of the past.”