Just two weeks to go and the World’s Columbian Exposition will close forever—123 years ago, that is. Rough estimates show that about 25 million people came through the gates in the 6 months—just 6 months—the fair was open. They came from everywhere in the world—South Sea islands, Lapland, the Caribbean, as well as Egypt, Japan, Great Britain, and Brazil.
And they came right in the middle of what the World Health Organization calls the fifth cholera pandemic, 1881-1896. The Exposition directors worried about how all these folks might get along with one another, and hired a private police force to maintain the peace. And one of those directors was concerned about the possibility of a cholera outbreak.
Bryan Lathrop was the president of Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery and a director of the Exposition (as was his real estate magnate uncle, and founder of the cemetery, Thomas Barbour Bryan). Lathrop had gone to Europe with the cemetery’s landscape-gardener O.C. Simonds the year before the fair opened. They toured the continent’s great estates, botanical gardens, and parks looking for new ideas for their impeccable, park-like graveyard. But when they sailed back to the US and their ship docked in NY harbor, Lathrop and Simonds were peeved to discover that the boat would be quarantined for 2 weeks. There had been a cholera outbreak in Hamburg, Germany and US officials were taking no chances.
Imagine being stuck in NY harbor with no cell phone, no internet. What do you do? Well, you think and you worry. (Does the ability to text anytime, anyplace, relieve 21st century people of worrying?) So that’s what Lathrop did. He worried about the possibility of a cholera outbreak at the fair. Not an unlikely concern, by any means. What would they do with the sick and the dead? Although a London physician named John Snow had pretty well figured out cholera’s profile in the 1850s, people still didn’t really know how to manage it. Lathrop was concerned that an epidemic at Chicago’s event-to-end-all-events would lead to disaster. And as a cemetery director, he was naturally concerned with the prospect of cholera being transmissible by corpses (apparently it’s not). Hundreds, thousands of potential corpses. Way too many to bury quickly.
So cremation seemed like the solution. But in the 1890s that was a long, slow process, requiring several cords (128 cubic feet per) of wood, taking a couple of days to get up to full heat, and an equal number of days to cool down. Not the quick disposal method Lathrop was seeking. He asked Simonds to look into alternative fuel sources when they finally returned to Chicago—specifically what modern factories were now using for clean, hot, efficient furnaces
Simonds discovered that the new fuel of choice was–-oil! And so Graceland Cemetery installed, in 1892, the world’s first oil-burning crematorium. As it turned out, the exceptional hygiene at the fairgrounds—clean drinking water, plenty of sanitary ‘comfort stations’, and a thorough cleaning of the sidewalks and buildings everyday in the wee small hours—prevented any outbreaks of disease at all. (And the police force at the fair had little to do, as visitors mostly behaved very well.)
It took a while for Chicagoans to warm up to the idea of cremation instead of burial, but slowly Graceland’s revolutionary crematorium was used more and more frequently, until it was no longer new and threatening. But technology has changed drastically since 1892, and despite updates to the retort over the years, by 2010 it was no longer feasible to keep it up to city requirements. The historic furnace was taken out of service and removed from its original location under Graceland’s chapel.
Ironically, serial killer Henry Holmes had beat the cemetery to developing an oil-fired retort. He had installed a glass-bending kiln in the basement of his “murder castle” in Englewood a few years earlier … which he used, not for bending glass, but for incinerating the remains of his human victims, some of whom he met at the World’s Columbian Exposition, just three miles east of his hotel.
Images by author or retrieved from public domain.
Copyright Barbara Geiger. All rights reserved.