The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 represented a triumphant moment of success for the city of Chicago as well as for the entire nation. Yet, the grandeur of the fair was paralleled with an equally great amount of corruption and abuse. During this time known as the Gilded Age, America experienced many extremes—extreme wealth, extreme poverty, extreme greatness, and extreme horror. Inside the bubble of magnificent buildings and forward thinking ingenuity that was the fair, Americans escaped, at least for a moment, the dirt and filth of the outside world. Nearby, a man named Eugene Patrick Prendergast lived in his own sort of bubble—one that would eventually burst and lead to the murder of Chicago’s governor, Carter Harrison. As explained in Larson’s The Devil in the White City, the insanity tinted in both Prendergast’s delusional obsession and in the nation’s obsession with creating the World’s Fair ultimately led to the downfall of one and the triumph of the other.
Prendergast’s life was in many ways similar to the lifespan of the fair itself. As it is being built, many including those within Chicago, have serious doubts as to the plausibility of achieving such a difficult task. Yet, when the Fair opens, it becomes clear that Chicago has achieved something great. Those that attended feel as if they had entered a world that sees no poverty or hardship, but instead one of immense prosperity and opulence. This false sense of security and hope is the same feeling that Prendergast has during much of his adult life. Just as the Fair is a symbol of the country’s hope for the future, so is the idea of gaining office under Governor Harrison a symbol of hope for Prendergast. As he works miserably through his job in a newspaper distribution warehouse, it is his “grand hopes for the future, all of which rested on one man: Carter Henry Harrison,” that drive his ambition, just as the promise of renown and fame keeps the Fair from crumbling in its construction (Larson, 59). Ultimately, Prendergast’s insanity and delusion are no different from the insanity it takes to build the fair. It isn’t until the Fair’s success that such insane designs as the Ferris wheel and the massive Manufactures and Liberal Arts building become more then simply wild ambition. However misguided Prendergast is, his own ambition and initiative are not any crazier than the vision it took to build the Fair.
The Chicago World’s Fair was not simply a monument to man’s ability to create, but also a monument to an evolving American culture. Inside the fair, people escape from the stringent social standards of the time period. Young single women from all over the country travel by themselves to experience a world that seems to have no rules, where they too can become new people. Just as the fair allows people to live in a world of pretend, Prendergast’s imagination allowed him to invent his own altered sense of reality. Yet, at the end of the summer, the fair comes to a close, and with it, the magic of the strange “white city.” At the same time, Prendergast comes to the realization that Governor Harrison is never going to make him corporation counsel. This can be seen when he is asked why he shot the governor and replies, “Because he betrayed my confidence. I supported him through his campaign and he promised to appoint me corporation counsel. He didn’t live up to his word” (331). Prendergast’s ambition and imagination lied solely in the belief that one day he would be appointed corporation counsel. When he realized this would never happen, his world crumbled, just as the fair—despite its magnificence—eventually crumbled as well. In both cases, the incredible imaginativeness eventually came to an end.
Although the Fair was considered a huge success, it involved the overlooking of many less important disasters. Incidents like the death of workers from accidents during construction as well as careless mistakes in design were small prices to pay in the grand scheme of things. Yet, when Prendergast murdered Harrison, his crime was irrefutable. His execution on July 13, 1894 represented the nation and its moral stance in that people were looking not for answers, but for what they perceived as justice. In “Criminology,” Edward Burke explains that “They paid little attention to the report that he had suffered a sever head trauma as a child…or the fact that his grandfather had died in Ireland in a lunatic asylum” (Burke, 794). For the Fair, however, the shiny outside and wholesome appearance ultimately allowed the public to overlook all of the other issues within.
The difference between the failure of Prendergast and the success of the fair lay in the packaging; the Fair’s evils were hidden from sight, while Prendergast’s crime was clear and simple. People have long since believed that the line between genius and insanity is extremely thin. On one hand, the genius of the Fair was realized despite wild ambitions and numerous brushes with disaster. Yet on the other, similarly ambitious dreams of a man named Prendergast were marked as insane. Although one succeeded and one failed, the ingenuity of both lay not in the outcome, but in the ability to imagine something crazy and then pursue it.