The World’s Columbian Exposition came to a rousing conclusion. A huge crowd of 716,881 people turned out on “Chicago Day,” October 9, 1893. Three weeks later, amidst more pomp and grandiloquence, the gates closed forever, and a lively debate ensued about what to do with the buildings and grounds of the White City.
But the question didn’t linger for long. Ten weeks later, on the night of January 8, a massive fire erupted and destroyed a large swath of the majestic Court of Honor. It was, said the Chicago Daily Tribune, “the greatest pyrotechnic display of the Fair.” The reporter went on to paint a vivid and grotesque picture. “A strong breeze from the lake fanned the flames, and they shot up into the air to a height of 100 feet or more. All the grounds as far north as the north lagoon were lighted up like a midsummer’s day at noon. The crowd that lined the shore could be distinctly seen in the bright light, and they could be heard, too, every time a statue or a pinnacle toppled on a crumbling cornice before taking a plunge into the fiery depths below. The crowd cheered as one after another the statues toppled and pitched head foremost, some back into the burning building, others out toward the lake.” [Click HERE to read more details of the Tribune‘s dramatic and outstanding coverage of this fire.]
But for the man whose magnificent promotion of the Exposition and management of its every news story had contributed so much to its success, this was not momentous news. In Moses Handy’s tiny Excelsior pocket diary, he scrawled one simple notation for Monday, January 8, 1894: “Fire at World’s Fair destroying casino, Peristyle & music stall.” That was it. No emotion. No elegies. He had moved on.
Handy returned to his great passion, newspaper work, first as a special correspondent for the Chicago Inter-Ocean and the New York Mail and Express (now edited by his erstwhile right-hand man from the Exposition, R.E.A. Dorr), and then as political writer and editor-in-chief of the Chicago Times-Herald. After years of nearly nonstop travel, he got to spend more time with Sarah and their seven children – although the youngest, Moses Purnell Handy, Jr., tragically died of a brain embolism at the age of eight. Handy also worked hard to help elect William McKinley in 1896, and then lobbied to secure a plum patronage job – perhaps running the Consulate in London or Paris, or the American Mission in Japan or Turkey (“Just think of the effect of [your] wonderful whiskers on the Turkish maidens!” his protégé Dorr teased in a letter). However, none of it came to be. Politics won the day, and Handy never got his consular position.
Knowing what an expert Handy had become on the subject of grand spectacles, McKinley did tap him as special commissioner of the U.S. to the Paris International Exposition of 1900 – the next major world’s fair. But in wrapping up his work there in the fall of 1897, Handy became seriously ill and he succumbed on January 8 – just like the Fair he had helped to make eternally famous.