The Mermaid in a Case of Glass: Entertainment at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition

11:49 AM

In 1898, Omaha was a boom town, thanks to the convergence of a few mutually supportive industries. There was the railroad, there was meat packing, and there was vice. Buoyed by this growth, and hoping to buoy it higher, a group of Omaha businessmen decided to throw a fair. They were headed up by Gurdon Wattles, who had built a fortune creating Omaha's public transportation, which he did with a combination of ambition and ruthlessness -- he was a notorious strikebreaker, and wasn't above provoking violence to push his agenda.

But we're here to discuss his ambition, and it found its most complete expression in the fair I mentioned, the Trans-Missippi Exposition. The event lasted six months and was set in what was functionally a temporary city built in north Omaha on 180 acres of land, about where Kountze Park is now. The event attracted 2.6 million people, including  William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, and showcased the western half of America, including an Indian congress and a performance by Buffalo Bill, who had started his Wild West show in Omaha.

It also showed the world what Omaha had to offer. There were the railroads -- the event was timed to open alongside the new Burlington Railroad station. There were the stockyards, represented by cattle, including an event called "Live Stock Day," where 3,000 animals were displayed.

And there was vice. It wasn't to be found on any of the official documents, but it wasn't hard to find either. There was prostitution, as there always was in Omaha. In fact, the famous Everleigh sisters, Ada and Minna, who would own one of Chicago's most famous brothels, got their start in Omaha after being stranded by a theater company, and opened a popular, if temporary, brothel alongside the Exposition.

There was gambling, as there always was in Omaha. A syndicate offered to build gambling houses directly on the fairgrounds, but were turned down. According to the Omaha Bee, the syndicate went ahead and struck a deal with the police chief and built their own gambling den near the fair.

There was liquor, as there always was in Omaha. Brewers proudly displayed their wares, creating a minor controversy among the religious, as the Expo was open on Sundays.

And there was questionable entertainment, as there always was in Omaha. Daily performances included "Balloonists, Day-light fire-works, High wire walking, High Diving, Log Rolling, Boat race," according to the secretary's report from the event. There were also lumberjacks demonstrating logrolling during something called "HooHoo Day." There was a midway with a miniature train, an ostrich show, and something called "Hagenback's Trained Wild Animal Show," featuring animals that could have been trained better. A young lioness named Daffy managed to bit one trainer trough his hand and another in his thigh, causing quite a lot of blood loss.

(There was also a Secret Societies day, which, appropriately, had no events, and the members of the secret societies in attendance gave no indication of their membership in the organizations, but instead kept it a secret.)

And there were the various novelties that crowded the midway, as they had at the original midway, at Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, which directly influenced the Trans-Miss event. (We may have taken the world's fair from Chicago, but, then, they got the Everleigh sisters from us.) The midway's itinerant performers were the subjects of a March 13, 1898, poem in the World-Herald by Will M. Maupin, a longtime Nebraska newspaperman, and he described the scene better than I could:

THE FAKIRS ARE IN TOWN

The exposition time draws near,
Which fact is plain to see;
The fakirs come with games so queer
To humbug you and me.
Two-headed pigs, six-legged cows,
Men ossified and brown –
Great men they are, with haughty brows,
The fakirs are in town.

Kinetoscopes and graphophones,
The couchee-couchee dance,
The solo fiend with strident tones,
And men with games of chance.
The mermaid in a case of glass,
The juggler of renown –
These are the fakes of this great class
Of fakirs in the town.

Fat-women and two-headed girls,
The woman with a beard;
The dwarfs and the Circassian pearls
Who have at courts appeared.
The Harlequin and Pantaloon,
The gaudy, painted clown,
Arrived two months ahead of June –
The fakirs are in town.

The Indian and the Chinaman,
Koreans and Kanaks;
The agile man from far Japan,
Monstrosities in wax.
The Indian doctor with his dope
Now salts the dollars down.
Oh who can hope to ever cope
Wit fakirs in the town.

They come from far and likewise near
To live in Omaha,
And think the exposition here
Will hosts of suckers draw.
Now this advice we give to you –
Don’t meet it with a frown –
When you come here have naught to do
With fakirs in the town.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.