Vandals on the Midway after Closing

On this site and in our books about the World’s Columbian Expo we’ve discussed how quickly and painfully the fair evaporated after closing. Buildings were demolished; architectural devices inside and out of the Grand Buildings were sold; foreign and state buildings were dismantled (a few sold intact that were removed and put to other uses); fires started or were set and large chunks of the fair succumbed that way. But on the Midway, months after the fair closed it was open season for looters. Some concessions hired guards to protect their villages and buildings until they could dismantle them, while others had abandoned what was left that they didn’t want. This was the first time (January 3, 1894) since the October closing that treasure hunters and just those wanting a last look at the fair were allowed on site.

The Chicago Tribune newspaper reported on the demise of most of what was left of the Midway in an article the next day. The following is an excerpt from that article. Like most Victorian writing, it can become cumbersome and too flowery to read when all you want are the facts, but it does paint an accurate picture of the chaos that transpired along the Midway.

Five thousand people made merry in the Midway yesterday. They did it by taking a little of everything in sight and from the small boy to the seal-coated woman and silk-tied man there was no hesitation about carrying away anything that came handy. The people were afoot, on bicycles and in carriages.  

The looting or relic-hunting began as soon as the gates were opened, and lasted all afternoon. Even little pieces were folded up and put in handbags. 

Early in the day the people having charge of the Java Village secured permission to swear in half a dozen policemen and they were kept busy trying to prevent the destruction of the place. The relic-hunters waited until an officer’s back was turned. Then they boldly grabbed off some of the thatched roofs of the little dwellings and tore away the sides. In this business young and old women were equally industrious with the men. In fact one of the officers declared he had more difficulty in keeping the women from demolishing the huts than the other class of vandals. 

Everywhere it seemed to be a general free-for-all with no compunctions of conscience. One nicley dressed old lady with spectacles and gray hair plodded cheerfully along the Midway towards the west entrance, with a piece of a bamboo roof and a number of pieces of poles under one arm, and her capacious handbag in the other. A whole family of a mother and four daughters created a great deal of amusement by marching along, each loaded with rubbish. The girls were not averse to loading the stuff on their shoulders, although their clothes were of the semi-elegant sort.

At one of the little (Java) houses…could be seen the bodies of people protruding, their heads were lost in the interior. “What is der to see in dah?” asked one negro who had been waiting his turn to poke his head in the window. 

The site of the Venice-Murano Glass Works was a great place for relic-hunters. There was nothing left but debris but 100 men, boys, and girls poked around with sticks in the ashes, where the furnaces had stood, looking for bits of colored glass. They seemed perfectly happy to have discovered two or three pieces. The small boys, though, were not contented until they filled little bags with the rubbish. The gayly-colored lithographs left by Hagenbeck and other concessionaires were eagerly sought.

Curious ones were seen peering into the empty hygeia water booths looking for something to carry away. The Italian, with his capacious bag, was among them, and every old bottle he could find went into his sack.

More than half the state and foreign buildings are standing….most buildings are cleared of exhibits. The Fisheries building…Manufactures building…all the buildings have been emptied of their displays. Visitors are excluded in order to prevent the relic fiends from carrying off the property.

While I’m sure there was more to report, thus was the inauspicious end to virtually the entire Midway. Fortunately, while many of the concessions lost bits and pieces of their structures and building decorations, all of the concessions seemed to have escaped with all of their merchandise, musical instruments, costumes…and their health. The newspaper reporter I am sure would have cited any examples of items of value that were looted should they have been there for the taking.

*     *     *     *     *

As we have said previously, we are anxious to hear of any items sold as merchandise along the Midway, or verified as relics from any concession. Please let us know if you are aware of or have any such items. We are working on two World’s Columbian Expo projects: We have discussed the catalog of all tickets from the fair in the past but have not yet announced the future publication examining ALL 360 concessions at the fair and the financial aspects of each, along with other fair data and analysis. This project will provide previously unpublished information on concessions which will allow museums and collectors to link items from the fair to specific vendors. We will provide more details as the project takes shape.

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