Policing the White City

Our third and final entry in The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest explores the intersection of law enforcement, imperialism, and American racial hierarchies through the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago intended to reflect the high point of U.S. and white Western civilization and, according to reports published by some of Chicago’s most famous detectives, the police that patrolled it did the same.[1] The centerpiece of the exhibition, the White City, was a sprawling downtown full of water features, glittering towers, and grand facades done in the French Neoclassical style. However, as the scientific advancements, historic recreations, and white domes attracted millions to the fairgrounds, the Chicago police also feared the temptation of millions of wallets and naïve tourists would attract visitors of a seedier element.

In an effort to police the impeccable international city with an impeccable international police force Chicago police utilized the new technologies and tactics developed by police departments in the U.S. and across Europe throughout the 1890s. Enabled by a number of scientific and bureaucratic advancements they had imported from departments around the globe, the Chicago police attempted to put the cutting edge of policing into practice in the White City.

For instance, the criminal file, complex systems of identification, new vehicles, and modern investigative techniques were all in use at the Columbian Exposition, and each had been recently imported to the U.S. from police departments in Europe. In many instances, the European detectives who invented and utilized these innovations were the veterans and masterminds behind new systems of coercive governance in colonies abroad, making late nineteenth and early twentieth century police departments in Europe—and invariably the U.S.—the product of a growing sense of globalism and a lasting imprint of imperialism on the intellectual and urban landscape.

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Ferris wheel at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

During the exposition, Chicago detectives specifically worked with the Bertillon method, a system of identifying criminals based on bodily measurements, which had been developed by M. Alphonse Bertillon of the Paris police department. Likewise, for months, the Chicago police reportedly collected criminal files and familiarized themselves with the faces of the most notorious wrongdoers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe should any of them appear on the fairgrounds.

Like the technologies and tactics utilized by the police, the men recruited to the force were also of an international makeup and intended to represent the pinnacle of white Victorian manhood. Historians like Gail Bederman, Kevin Murphy, and Michael Tavel Clarke have shown how “[l]ate Victorian culture had identified the powerful, large male body of the heavyweight prizefighter (and not the smaller bodies of the middleweight or welterweight) as the epitome of manhood,” and how these racialized, gendered, and embodied values became deeply engrained in police departments across the United States.[2] Images of Victorian manhood often deliberately excluded men of color. Despite a slowly growing presence of African American patrolmen in the Chicago police department—, of the 2,000 job openings for the “Columbian Guard,” the policemen of the White City—, not a single man of color was hired for the force.

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The title of this photo, “Cannibals carrying their master” underscores the larger themes of imperialism, Orientalism and the “Other” at play at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill, 1893, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For a year before the official start of the exposition, the Chicago police recruited dozens of detectives from cities across the United States and from around the world as they culled the corrupt, lazy, and “unworthy” members from their department. Each major police department from Europe was asked to detail, and provide the salary for, two of their own officers to patrol the city should any of their hometown villains make an appearance. In total, 600 foreign police reported for duty at the exposition, all of them white, tall, and fighting fit.[3]

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Columbian Guard at Chicago’s World Fair, 1893

To walk around the exposition, it was nearly impossible not to internalize the intended argument that the future of the United States was unassailably white. Where people of color did exist at the exposition, they were relegated to the outskirts, or the metaphorical past. Along the Midway, the main thorough fair at the exhibition, American Indians participated in “outdoor living exhibits” as part of an anthropological and chronological journey through Western civilization. Nearby, one of the largest living exhibits on the Midway was the Dahomean Village, a sensationalist view of a West African village portrayed through stereotype and colonial trope.

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Parade of Arabian circus, at World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1893, Prints and Photographic Division, Library of Congress

African Americans at the fair also received little representation. After mostly excluding Black exhibitors from other halls, the exposition never fulfilled their initial intention of creating, a hall for the literary accomplishments of Black Americans. As the fair progressed, the Haitian building became a center of organizing and activism. Under the editorship of Ida B. Wells, and with writing and collaboration from Frederick Douglass, a group of activists wrote, published, and distributed a pamphlet entitled “The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” In the pamphlet, which over 10,000 tourists received, lynching, and the police who enabled it, were as much on trial as the exclusive white organizers of the exhibition.

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Statue of the Republic and arch, at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, Charles Dudley Arnold, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Like the event itself, the police at the Columbian exposition may have represented the current high water mark of modern science and technology, but it also served as a reflection of the white society’s evolving commitment to imperialist thinking and white supremacy—after all, this was the event where historian Fredrick Jackson Turner rolled out his “Frontier Thesis.” The police force’s internationalism, both in officers and in tactics, only emphasizes that the project of subordination along racial lines was not unique to the United States, but an undertaking shared and collaborated on by imperialist powers on either side of the Atlantic.

Matthew Guariglia is the editor of The Metropole’s Disciplining the City series and a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut. His most recent work on the dangers of overzealous government surveillance appeared in the Washington Post for its “Made by History” series earlier this summer. 

[1] W. McClaughry and John Bonfield, “Police Protection at the World’s Fair, “ The North American Review, Vol. 156, No. 439 (June, 1893), 711-716.

[2] Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, 8.

[3] Christopher Robert Reed, All the World is Here!: The Black Presence at the White City, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002, 74.

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