The St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.

A Daring Escape from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair


John J. Dunphy

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition was held in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904 to celebrate the centennial of President Thomas Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France. Most of us, however, refer to this event as the St. Louis World’s Fair.

More than a century later, the fair still occupies a position of almost mythic proportions in the Gateway City and southwestern Illinois. St. Louis was regarded as the center of the universe that year, the travel destination of choice for anyone with the time, means and money to make the journey. Visitors to the fair returned home with stories of exhibits and amusements that almost defied belief.

The United States was still a primarily rural nation in 1904, and many Americans had never even visited a major city such as St. Louis — let alone a foreign country. A trip to the World’s Fair was much more than an opportunity to see a big city. It was a chance to see the world as well as the latest scientific and technological advances of the new century.

No sooner had Secretary of War William Howard Taft delivered the final speech during the Opening Day ceremony on April 30 than a telegraphed signal to President Theodore Roosevelt indicated it was time to power up the fair. “President Roosevelt touched an electric button in the White House,” according to a newspaper account, “and the machinery of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition started into motion.” All Americans surely marveled at the technology that permitted Roosevelt to jump-start the fair from afar.
Roosevelt had declined to be present at the opening ceremony. He had succeeded to the presidency in 1901 following the assassination of William McKinley by an anarchist and was seeking election to a full term in 1904.

Roosevelt told fair organizers that he didn’t want to be perceived as using the event for partisan political purposes. He easily defeated the Democratic candidate that November. Four years later, Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor — who was none other than William Howard Taft — won the Republican presidential nomination and, later, the presidency. St. Louis boosters took pride in noting that their city’s fair had been opened in absentia by the incumbent president, while a future president had been present at the event itself.

The fairgrounds occupied Forest Park and the campus of Washington University, which leased some of its buildings to the fair. For instance, University Hall (now designated as Brookings Hall) was used as the fair’s Administration Building. The Philippine Reservation represented the Philippine Islands, which the United States had acquired from Spain following the Spanish-American War of 1898, and was located on the current site of Fontbonne University. There could be no doubt in the minds of visitors that this was the St. Louis World’s Fair. The main gate led one into the Plaza of St. Louis with its statue of St. Louis of France. At the other end of the plaza stood the Louisiana Purchase Monument, a 100-foot column capped by a figure representing peace atop a globe.

Crossing the plaza took one to the focal point of the fair: the Cascades and Festival Hall. The Cascades emptied 45,000 gallons of water a minute into a Grand Basin. Over a half million electric light bulbs illuminated the Cascades at night. Lagoons connected to the Grand Basin provided fair-goers with a large body of water that was ideal for boat excursions. Festival Hall was crowned by a gold-leafed dome that was larger than the dome covering St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It contained the world’s largest pipe organ with its 10,159 pipes, and visitors were treated to daily concerts in an auditorium that seated 4,500. Fourteen huge statues near Festival Hall represented the thirteen states and Indian Territory, which we know today as the state of Oklahoma, that were carved out of the Louisiana Purchase.

Huge, ornately-designed buildings known as palaces bedazzled visitors with wonders that they had only read about. The Palace of Electricity highlighted electricity as the new power source of the world. In addition to displaying machines that generated electricity, this palace featured an exhibit by the DeForest Wireless Telegraph Company. Visitors were amazed to discover that this miracle of modern technology allowed wireless telegraph messages to be transmitted to Springfield, Illinois — a distance of 105 miles. Fair-goers with an interest in the culinary arts approved of an electric broiler that could broil a steak on both sides simultaneously.

The Palace of Agriculture introduced fair-goers to exciting new developments in agricultural science. Covering over 23 acres, this palace featured products from 42 states and 15 foreign countries. It also included a working dairy farm as well as cider and rice mills.

The Palace of Education and Social Economy allowed fair-goers to observe actual classes, ranging from kindergarten to college. Special classes were held for the deaf and blind. Technophiles enjoyed visiting the Palace of Machinery, which contained the generators that powered the fair. The largest engine was the 5,000 horse-power Allis-Chalmers refrigerating generator. The most powerful generator, however, was the General Electric-built Curtis steam turbine. Its 12,000 horse-power output surely astounded fair-goers. Over 500 tons of coal daily were required to power the Palace of Machinery’s generators.

The Palace of Transportation featured a revolving steam engine at its center to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the invention of that device. Visitors also viewed state of the art examples of contemporary wagons, cable cars, motor boats, locomotives and railcars. By far the most fascinating means of transportation were the 160 automobiles, which were still somewhat exotic items in the United States of 1904.

Other palaces, such as those devoted to varied industries, mines and metallurgy, and liberal arts, entertained and educated fair-goers. The Palace of Fine Arts afforded visitors a truly unforgettable experience. This building, constructed at a cost of $1,014,000, housed a collection of fine art from around the world, including paintings, sculptures, jewelry, engravings and much more.

One of the fair’s greatest attractions was the Observation Wheel, which we today would call a Ferris Wheel. The Observation Wheel rotated on a 71-ton axle that was 45.5 feet in length. Thirty-six cars, each holding 60 passengers, took fair-goers to a height of 264 feet. The Observation Wheel was so popular with the public that several weddings were performed in its cars during the fair.

The Pike was a mile-long stretch located along Lindell Boulevard that was devoted to entertainment. Guests could see recreations of an Irish village, the Tyrolean Alps, Lapland, Egypt and numerous other foreign locales that most of them had never visited. An exhibit devoted to fire-fighting showed “how the perils of conflagration are met and conquered by the latest machinery,” according to a promotional booklet at the time. An animal show treated visitors to a spectacle called “Shoot the Chutes,” which consisted of elephants being forced to slide down a ramp into a pool of water.

The World’s Fair Anthropology Department featured outdoor displays of people from around the world. These human exhibits, referred to in fair publications as “the primitives,” were classified according to their “stage of development.” A series of anthropological books that accompanied the exhibits delineated the hierarchy of civilization with Filipino Negritos at the bottom and Euro-Americans at the top. Nine Alaskan Inuit families were among the primitives who were brought to the fair. In order to give fair-goers the illusion of authenticity, the Inuits were forced to wear their native cold-weather garb even during the heat and humidity of a St. Louis summer.

Geronimo, the great Apache warrior, was also on display at the fair. He sold photographs of himself for 25 cents, of which he was allowed to keep 10 cents. Geronimo also signed his autograph for fees ranging from 10 cents to 25 cents and was permitted to keep all of this money himself. In his autobiography, Geronimo noted that “Many people in St. Louis invited me to their homes, but my keeper always refused.”

Four St. Louisans found the treatment of members of one attraction morally repugnant and decided to do something about it. An exhibit that featured 10 South Africa tribesmen — referred to as “Kaffirs, ” which is now considered a slur, in old newspaper accounts — was administered by a contingent of Boer soldiers. The tribesmen fled the fairground in May of 1904 to protest the Boers’ failure to pay them according to contract. At the request of the Boer commander, St. Louis police arrested the tribesmen about a week later and handed them over to the Boers for return to the fair.

An old newspaper account noted that, during their sojourn from the fair, the tribesmen had been working as coal heavers and living with St. Louis African Americans “in perfect freedom.” The tribesmen relished their new-found liberty and abhorred the prospect of return to bondage and public exhibition.

While being escorted to the fairgrounds, the tribesmen suddenly halted in the vicinity of Thirty-Seventh and Rutger streets and began fighting the astounded Boers. Four St. Louis African Americans at the scene then entered the fray. These three men and one woman had befriended the tribesmen during their week of freedom and were determined to help liberate them.

A witness stated that the woman, Willeltha Smith, led the four in the assault on the Boers and told the Boer commander, “You dirty, bloody Boer! You should be dead!” The commander struck her in the eye.

Another witness told police that the melee drew a crowd of about 300 spectators. The Boer commander issued a riot call and soon, according to the newspaper, “every available man in the Seventh district was participating in the trouble.” The Boers and police overpowered the four St. Louisans and five of the tribesmen, who were returned to the fair. The other five tribesmen managed to escape. They were never recaptured and their fate remains unknown to this day.

Smith and the three men — William Mayberry, John McCullagh and William Smith — were arrested and taken to court. The judge dismissed the case against the men but fined Smith for disturbing the peace and interfering with an officer in the discharge of his duty.

Visitors to the fair delighted in viewing the human exhibits and remained untroubled by any moral reservations. Most white Americans in 1904 agreed with an anthropological classification system that placed Euro-Americans in a position of superiority over non-white races. Contemporary Americans, of course, would be inclined to criticize such exhibits as exploitative and degrading, while dismissing the classification system as racist nonsense. The St. Louis World’s Fair is so fascinating to us today because its exhibits accurately mirrored the United States of 1904 — our nation’s impressive scientific and technological progress as well as the racism that was so prevalent.

I hope the tribesmen who managed to avoid capture enjoyed the liberty they struggled so valiantly to achieve. Perhaps someday I’ll be fortunate enough to meet one of their descendants.

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  • Author’s note: I referred to these South African tribesmen as “Kaffirs” in earlier columns that I wrote about this incident. That was the term I found used in old newspaper accounts. “Kaffir” is now regarded as a derogatory term and I referred to these black South Africans as “tribesmen” in this article.

John J. Dunphy is the author of “Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois”(ISBN 978–1–60949–328–8)

John J. Dunphy owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL USA. Google him to learn more about this enigmatic person who is such a gifted writer and poet.