First Chapter of Al Capone and the 1933 Worlds Fair

Jul 27, 2017 by

Forty Years Later

Forty years after the Columbian Exposition and Dr. H. H. Holmes’s macabre, psychopathic murders of many young women in 1893, Chicago decided it was time to have another world’s fair. The times and the reasons differed, though. Orville and Wilber Wright had left the earth for twelve seconds in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. The Titanic had met black ice in the Atlantic and already been resting on the bottom of the ocean for two decades. The beau arts tradition of 1893 had been left in the dust for a modernist vision of the world promoted by industry, architecture, and advertising. The intervening years had rendered Holmes’s crimes quaint by comparison with the mechanized slaughter of World War I and gangsters duking it out over the fruits of Prohibition in the streets of Chicago. Humanism was dead. Technology and materialism had taken its place—a very different God indeed. The secular world was using Thompson submachine guns and offering sex through peep holes and in back rooms. The 1933 World’s Fair would hold its breath and hope Al Capone didn’t pull the whole thing under. When the Great Depression came crashing down, many thought people would never spend money on a fair in the bleakest times America had ever known. In 1933, when the fair opened, 15 million people were unemployed, and one-third of the banks had failed. Men from the J. P. Morgan and DuPont empires had plans to overthrow the government and replace Franklin D. Roosevelt with a fascist government modeled on that of Italy. Only when General Smedley Butler revealed the plans to Congress was the coup thwarted. While the Columbian Exposition of 1893 showed that Chicago had arrived, the 1933 World’s Fair declared that the city and the nation would

But a party had been going on. Bathtub gin and speculation and America’s insatiable appetite for modern conveniences and getting rich quick had fueled the 1920s. F. Scott Fitzgerald christened it the “jazz age” and said the “gaudiest spending spree in history was beginning.”1 Fitzgerald was right. Sleek wooden rumrunners bumped off the shores of Lake Michigan with men bringing in the booze that made its way to the speakeasies on every corner of the city of Chicago. People simply wanted to drink, and Alfonse Capone was there to make sure they could. For a price. That price was murder and an ongoing war between the Italian from Brooklyn and anyone who challenged his rule. Men in long coats carrying machine guns rode crouched down on the running boards of black Cadillacs and held the city in their grip. The whole country watched in fascination as gangland culture appeared in movies, fashion, and common slang while gun-toting men habitually wiped each other out with .45 Automatic Colt Pistol slugs. The mayor of Chicago, William Thompson, owed his election to Al Capone and men who threw grenades at opposing polling stations. Another mayor, Anton Cermak, had tried to clean up Chicago until an assassin supposedly hired by Capone shot him dead. The government had erred badly in legislating American morality, and Al Capone had moved in to fill the resulting demand with murder on a scale that would have shaken even a psychopath like Dr. Holmes. In 1933 Adolf Hitler had just become chancellor of Germany, and Benito Mussolini had risen to power in Italy. The hubris of holding a world’s fair during these times seemed to invite disaster. President Roosevelt had just told the country it had nothing to fear but fear itself, then passed the Banking Act of 1933, essentially closing banks to stop people from withdrawing their money. Charles Lindbergh’s baby had been kidnapped and murdered just the year before. But Chicago saw the 1933 World’s Fair as a way to rehabilitate its sagging reputation as a Wild West town of gangsters and also as a catalyst for economic recovery. If the city could pull off A Century of Progress, then maybe it could get rid of Al Capone and the awful darkness of the Great Depression.

This was the thinking after the worst gangland shooting in American history, ironically named for a holiday of love. When people left the fair, they wondered why Chicago was so dingy compared to the shimmering metropolis on the lake. Coal burners that dropped soot down from on high still fired the city. The Union Stockyards slaughtered over a million hogs a year, with the smell wafting into Chicago when the wind blew from the South. Steam locomotives still lumbered into the city and killed pedestrians. The trains had yet to be confined to Union Station, and the soot from their coal-burning engines contributed to the brown dense fog that sometimes enveloped the city. Many buildings manufactured their own electricity in boiler-fired dynamos tucked away below ground. The Chicago River had been reversed, but in bad storms it spewed sewage into Lake Michigan. A book published to promote the 1933 World’s Fair gives a snapshot of the best statistics the organizers could offer up: 3.475 million people lived in Chicago in some 400,000 dwellings; they drove 396,533 automobiles along 226 miles of parklike boulevards; they attended 1,800 churches and sent their children to 360 public schools. Only 11 percent of the population owned a car in 1933. Horses delivered milk, blacksmiths dotted city blocks, and carriages competed for space. Few people had flown in a plane. Yet the city had come a long way: from a dot on a map drawn by Antoine Charles Louis Lasalle, it had become an Indian trail, a trading post, a US government agency, and then a sprawling town of log cabins. When the Illinois and Michigan Canal opened in 1848, Chicago began to grow quickly, and three years later the village of Chicago became the city of Chicago. A reason for a world’s fair nearly a hundred years later was born. Even the Civil War would do little to slow Chicago’s expansion. By 1870 the city was growing at a clip of 500,000 people per decade. It experienced a setback in October 1871 when Mrs. O’Leary’s fabled cow kicked over a lantern; the Great Chicago Fire left the city built of wood a smoking ruin and 100,000 citizens without homes. The “I Will” spirit burst forth and Chicago roared back, surviving the financial panic of 1873 and labor troubles that culminated in the Haymarket riot, then breaking into the modern era with the world’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building.2 In 1893 the “Paris of the Prairies”3 launched the World’s Columbian Exposition, while the city’s stockyards became meat supplier to the world, dispatching 1 million creatures each year.

Alderman John J. Coughlin would be the only elected official in power during both world’s fairs. In a black-and-white photo taken at the Rainbow City of 1933, he proudly wears his medal from the 1893 fair. His confident smile makes clear that Chicago was ready to do it again.

Use Promo code RLFANDF30 for 30% Discount

The following two tabs change content below.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, and carted back and forth between Virginia and Baltimore, I blame my rootless, restless personality on my father. He was and is a traveling salesman with a keen gift of gab, great wit, a ready joke, and could sell white tennis shoes to coal miners. [read more...]

Related Posts


Share This