Existing, as I do, as part of the living force, I have access to all of your planet’s so called “entertainments.” This is how I, Darth Vader, dark Lord of the Sith, came to read your Erik Larson’s historical account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City.
The book traces the paths of Daniel Burnham, the lead Architect and Director of Works overseeing the construction and operations of the World’s Columbian Exposition (as the fair was called,) and H. H. Holmes, a notorious murderer preying on travelers flocking to the event.
Though one wonders what trick of necessity would lead to Homes’ particular predispositions, in reflecting on the book title, I’m led to ponder: which one the devil?
The exuberant spectacle of the fair, which has been said to mark the genesis of your modern commercial society, was created for and by the hubris of Chicago’s elite, with little regard for the common man. Burnham in his ambition, saw this massive construction project not only as an opportunity to bring glory to and raise the reputation of the city, but to elevate his own social status and political power, to join the ranks of the elite himself.
Burnham was charged with the massive task of conducting the design, coordination, and construction of the fairgrounds and structures. The fair’s enormous size and the short construction schedule would prove powerful obstacles to overcome, but buffeted by ambition, Burnham was up to the task. He wasn’t beyond pushing craftsmen to work day and night enduring unsafe conditions. By the time construction was completed, “scores of workers” would give their lives in the realization of Burnham’s vision. When budgetary concerns arose, he sought to cut costs by laying off workers, many of whom had come great distances to work on the fair, and would be left stranded, facing poverty and homelessness.
Burnham and Chicago’s finest envisioned the exhibition displaying the aspirations of what the city could be, perfected. They wanted to break with the city’s reputation as a backwater cattle slaughtering town. Many aspects of Burnham’s “White City” went beyond architectural forms, the built environment. Burnham sought to impose a more perfect social order within the exhibition’s walls. He empowered the Columbian Guard, the fair’s police force, with a “mandate [that] explicitly emphasized the novel idea of preventing crime rather than merely arresting wrongdoers after the fact.” He exercised authoritarian control over every aspect of the management of the fair, right down to who would be sanctioned to sell official photographs of the event, disallowing visitors bringing in their own cameras and charging a prohibitive fee for camera rentals to fair visitors. In this way, he could control how the outside world would perceive his fair.
The World Fair’s grotesque display of opulence and discipline took place against a backdrop of failing banks and skyrocketing unemployment across the country. Amid this growing unrest, Chicago’s well-to-do came to fear workers riots after a confrontation between some workmen and police at City Hall. Days later, at a demonstration of unemployed workers on the Chicago lakefront, Samuel Gompers said:
“Why should the wealth of the country be stored in banks and elevators while the idle workman wanders homeless about the streets and the idle loafers who hoard the gold only to spend it in riotous living are rolling about in fine carriages from which they look out on peaceful meetings and call them riots?”
Perhaps Burnham wondered what else these workers could want from him having employed so many at such expense. But for what? Burnham wasn’t exactly meeting the social needs of the working class, he built something of little utility beyond temporarily serving the glory of the city’s elite.
Burnham would concede this lack of utility when, as he discussed plans for shutting down the fair, he mused about burning it all to the ground. When the fairgrounds indeed came to a fiery end at the hands of arsonists, the Chicago Tribune would report, “There was no regret.”
So on the one hand we have Holmes, the murderer. Killing for the chance to exercise ultimate control over his victims, intimately. On the other hand we have Burnham and his unbridled ambition for power and status and an authoritarian drive for ultimate control over an entire city made in his image.
In reading of Burnham, I am reminded of Moff Tarkin, the Imperial officer who oversaw the construction of the first Death Star. Both were driven by ambition and an amoral quest for power. Both undertook construction projects unprecedented in size. Both placed the requirements of their project and their own ambitions above the well being of their workers. Tarkin served the glory of the Empire for his own purposes, just as Burnham served the city of Chicago for his. Both would triumph, and both triumphs would end spectacularly in flames.
If there is a lesson in these two narratives, it’s that hubris, unbridled ambition and an insatiable drive for power are paths to evil, even for the best, most gifted of men. That, and if you are careless, the people you exploit in your ambition might just come back in the end to burn your shit down.