Alt History of the World Fairs

Almost every day that I allow myself online (a.k.a. daily), I end up in an argument about my credibility as a historian. As Owen’s alter ego Ira might put it (with appropriate snark), “How dare you claim to be a historian when you believe [fill in the blank some detail about whatever topic is under discussion]?”*

Well, quite possibly because as a historian, I am used to having to revise my understand of “what actually happened” based on re-evaluation of what we accept as historical sources. 

For example, Bede’s history of the English church. You have all heard of Bede, right? “The Venemous Bede” as 1066 and All That put it. Bede is one of our most important historians for the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, intimately interested (you might say) in the mission of Augustine to Canterbury and the subsequent conversion of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes to Christ. Bede had at his disposal a great library (for the early eighth century) which the founding abbot of his monastery had assembled over multiple journeys to Rome. Bede was Rome’s man, and he was damned (figuratively speaking) if he was going to let the Irish or the Britons (a.k.a. Welsh) have the limelight for converting the English. So when he wrote his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum he naturally downplayed the contributions of previous missionaries to the island—leaving later generations with the image of Pope Gregory the Great inspired by the beauty of the young Angles for sale in the Roman slave markets as the proximate cause of the English Church: “Non Angli, sed angeli,” you might say.

History is full of such myths. The easiest test for them is whether challenging them makes people mad at you.

My Unauthorized Bearfriend Owen Benjamin has been theorizing a lot of late about history, taking off from Howdie Mickoski’s argument about role of the World Fairs in erasing the history of the civilization that was actually in North America before Columbus arrived (if Columbus even existed). Yes, you heard that correctly. According to Mickoski (and, latterly, Owen) the World Fairs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were purposeful exercises of “programming” a new historical narrative in which the United States and Europe were touted as the Enlightened heirs of Imperial Rome while at the same time wiping out the evidence for the actual Empire that had existed around the world prior to ... well, when?

One of my friends shared a video in my Telegram chat of Mickoski talking with alchemist Jay Weidner just a few days before Owen picked up on the theme, so happily Owen’s discussion didn’t come at me completely out of the blue. Let’s just say, I was skeptical—and spent a tea time discussion with my Dragon Common Room wondering how Mickoski could claim to have studied the photographs of the fairs so carefully and still argue (calmly, with no hint of nuttiness) that there is no evidence that the buildings were built in the way we have come to believe: to wit, out of wood in a matter of months, only to be dismantled once the fairs were over.

Another of my friends easily found a whole series of photos showing the construction of the buildings for the Omaha World Fair of 1898 (alias the Trans-Mississippi Exposition). What looks like stone in the photographs (as Owen and Mickoski read them) was wood covered in staff or plaster of Paris, while the buildings themselves were wood frames, raised like so many barns in a matter of months: 

Here was the evidence that Mickoski claimed did not exist. Photograph after photograph of the buildings going up. And yet, it is—I admit—hard to look at the photographs of the finished buildings and not think something magical has taken place: 

How could something built out of wood and plaster look so much like stone? How could palaces rise out of the midwest plains with almost no mechanical help other than ropes and pulleys? How could these buildings not have been there already when we can barely build concrete boxes now?

Mickoski proposes (and Owen concurs) that the buildings in the photographs are evidence of a great Empire that was wiped out (allegedly) in the mid-nineteenth century (or thereabouts) when city after city across the American Midwest “caught fire” (think the firebombing of Dresden in 1945), while those with the memory of the previous civilization were (according to Mickoski) re-homed in “insane asylums” (a.k.a. containment camps for those who could not be re-educated) while their children were sent by train out into the Midwest to be raised in the new dispensation. (I know, I get a little lost, too.) 

Move over Philip Pullman. Mickoski and Owen are serious. We are living in a reset. Just like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (written after Frank L. Baum visited the Chicago “White City” of 1893), we have been tricked into thinking the cities were (or weren’t) real. Put on the green glasses, and the whole world changes. Was there an explorer called “Christopher Columbus”? Owen says, no. “Columbus” is just a reverse euhemerism of the goddess “Columbia,” whom Owen suggests (could it be?) the inhabitants of the “Americas” (another Italian?) worshipped before ... well, again, when? (NB: The statue at the Chicago Columbian Exposition was called “The Republic.” More wizardry? Could it be?) 

As Owen sees it, this civilization (allegedly) was technologically far in advance of our present-day so-called “Enlightened” world, including such marvels as world-wide (on the Flat Earth) travel by airships, which magically vanished (could it be?) after the Hindenburg implausibly and spectacularly caught fire right when there was a camera crew there to film it.

I know, right? Could it be?

Here’s the thing: Mickoski and Owen are right to be skeptical, particularly about anything caught on camera. They are also right to read the World Fairs as propaganda for a New world Order centered on a world-wide Empire, just (I would argue) not (quite) the one they are hypothesizing. I have Mickoski’s book on order, so I do not know how in-depth he goes about the origins of the World Fairs (according to the standard narrative), but the blurb on Amazon highlights only the late nineteenth-early twentieth century fairs in Chicago (1893), Paris (1900), St. Louis (1904), and San Francisco (1915). The title of the book, however, includes the date range 1851-1915, which makes me think Mickoski must spend some time talking about the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park, London, in 1851. 

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was housed, famously, in a giant greenhouse constructed not out of wood and plaster, but iron and glass, the prefabricated sections being made off-site, and the whole assembled in record time in a matter of months. The Exhibition opened May 1, 1851, and closed October 15 the same year, attracting some 6,063,986 visitors over the summer, including Queen Victoria, who visited 34 times in all, 15 times in the first month. (It was her husband Prince Albert who had helped to kick the whole thing off, so she was doubly pleased.) The Crystal Palace, as the greenhouse was called, covered 772,784 square feet, plus a gallery of 217,100 square feet, yielding a total of 990,000 square feet of exhibit space for 13,937 exhibitors, 6,556 from outside the British Empire—meaning more than half came from within. The Exhibition cost its promoters 169,998 pounds sterling, but brought in over two-and-a-half times that amount (451,273 pounds sterling by September 24, 1851). If World Fairs became de rigeur for showcasing the grandeur of Empire, the Crystal Palace set the bar very high.

Just look at it! Was this a marvel of engineering—or an engineered marvel? A fairy tale cathedral—or a temple of industry? The Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson, better-known for his Arthurian verses, wrote an Ode for the Opening Ceremony that perfectly encapsulated the enchanted dream of an Empire filled with wonders “out of West and East”: 

UPLIFT a thousand voices full and sweet,
    In this wide hall with earth’s inventions stored,
    And praise th’ invisible universal Lord,
Who lets once more in peace the nations meet,
    Where Science, Art, and Labor have outpour’d
Their myriad horns of plenty at our feet.

O silent father of our Kings to be
Mourn’d in this golden hour of jubilee,
For this, for all, we weep our thanks to thee!

The world-compelling plan was thine,—
And, lo! the long laborious miles
Of Palace; lo! the giant aisles,
Rich in model and design;
Harvest-tool and husbandry,
Loom and wheel and engin’ry,
Secrets of the sullen mine,
Steel and gold, and corn and wine,
Fabric rough, or Fairy fine,
Sunny tokens of the Line,
Polar marvels, and a feast
Of wonder, out of West and East,
And shapes and hues of Part divine!
All of beauty, all of use,
That one fair planet can produce.
    Brought from under every star,
Blown from over every main,
And mixt, as life is mixt with pain,
    The works of peace with works of war.

             Is the goal so far away?
             Far, how far no tongue can say,
             Let us dream our dream to-day.

O ye, the wise who think, the wise who reign,
From growing commerce loose her latest chain,
And let the fair white-winged peacemaker fly
To happy havens under all the sky,
And mix the seasons and the golden hours,
Till each man finds his own in all men’s good,
And all men work in noble brotherhood,
Breaking their mailed fleets and armed towers,
And ruling by obeying Nature’s powers,
And gathering all the fruits of peace and crown’d with all her flowers. 

Was it a coincidence that the Crystal Palace, having been moved to Sydenham Hill in 1854, burned down on November 30, 1936, only months before the Hindenburg went up in flames on May 6, 1937, thus, in effect, erasing the marvel that Tennyson had hymned as the beacon of an Arthurian rebirth? Well, consider this argument, posted on Owen’s Instagram:

Aha! Could it be we have found the ancient Empire that built the great palaces in the American Midwest? Owen talks about the ancient builders as the Tartarians (I think I found the source of this theory; book on order, will report later), but I will lay my bets as a medievalist on King Arthur. Did not Geoffrey of Monmouth describe Arthur’s empire as covering the known world? Did not Geoffrey describe the glories of Arthur’s court at Camelot, to this day eluding firm identification? I am ready to believe that Arthur founded Camelot in what we now call Chicago—just look at the architecture of my university! Pure medieval Gothic, built to a scale never achieved at those lesser schools in Oxford and Cambridge. We even have a tower modeled (allegedly) on one of the colleges at Oxford. Could it be that the one at Magdalen is, in fact, modeled on ours

After all, everyone knows (as Geoffrey explains in his dedicatory epistle to Robert of Gloucester) that Bede (yes, that Bede—the Venemous one!) and Gildas (one of Bede’s sources) left out all the good bits about the history of the kings of Britain, especially the bits about Arthur and his empire. This was the argument Geoffrey’s younger contemporary William of Newburgh (d. after 1198) made when calling out Geoffrey (d. c. 1155) as a liar: nothing Geoffrey said about Arthur could be verified in Bede—and Bede was the greatest historian the English had ever known

I paraphrase. Here is what William actually said, having demonstrated how Bede was the more reliable narrator for the history prior to the coming of Augustine to Canterbury and the conversion of the Saxons to the “easy yoke of Christ”:
Now, since it is evident that these facts are established with historical authenticity by the venerable Bede, it appears that whatever Geoffrey has written, subsequent to Vortigern, either of Arthur, or his successors, or predecessors, is a fiction, invented either by himself or by others, and promulgated either through an unchecked propensity to falsehood, or a desire to please the Britons, of whom vast numbers are said to be so stupid as to assert that Arthur is yet to come, and who cannot bear to hear of his death.... 

Moreover, [Geoffrey] depicts Arthur himself as great and powerful beyond all men, and as celebrated in his exploits as he chose to feign him. First, he makes him triumph, at pleasure, over Angles, Picts, and Scots; then, he subdues Ireland, the Orkneys, Gothland, Norway, Denmark, partly by war, partly by the single terror of his name. To these he adds Iceland, which, by some, is called the remotest Thule, in order that what a noble poet flatteringly said to the Roman Augustus—“the distant Thule shall confess thy way”—might apply to the British Arthur. Next, [Geoffrey] makes [Arthur] attack, and speedily triumph over, Gaul—a nation which Julius Caesar, with infinite peril and labour, was scarcely able to subjugate in ten years—as though the little finger of the British was more powerful than the loins of the mighty Caesar. 

After this, with numberless triumphs, [Geoffrey] brings [Arthur] back to England, where he celebrates his conquests with a splendid banquet with his subject-kings and princes, in the presence of the three archbishops of the Britons, that is London, Carleon, and York—whereas, the Britons at that time never had an archbishop. Augustine, having received the pall from the Roman pontiff, was made the first archbishop in Britain [remember what I said above about Bede’s prejudice against the previous missionaries to the island? Right.]...

Next this fabler, to carry his Arthur to the highest summit, makes him declare war against the Romans, having, however first vanquished a giant of surprising magnitude in single combat, though since the times of David we never read of giants. Then, with a wider license of fabrication, [Geoffrey] brings all the kings of the world in league with the Romans against [Arthur]; that is to say, the kings of Greece, Africa, Spain, Parthia, Media, Iturea, Libya, Egypt, Babylon, Bithynia, Phrygia, Syria, Boeotia, and Crete, and he relates that all of them were conquered by [Arthur] in a single battle... Indeed, [Geoffrey] makes the little finger of his Arthur more powerful than the loins of Alexander the Great; more especially when, previous to the victory over so many kings, he introduces him relating to his comrades the subjugation of thirty kingdoms by his and their united efforts; whereas, in fact, this romancer will not find in the world so many kingdoms, in addition to those mentioned, which he had not yet subdued.

Does [Geoffrey] dream of another world possessing countless kingdoms, in which the circumstances he has related took place? Certainly, in our own orb no such events have happened. For how would the elder historians, who were ever anxious to omit nothing remarkable, and even recorded trivial circumstances, pass by unnoticed so incomparable a man, and such surpassing deeds? ... Since, therefore, the ancient historians make not the slightest mention of these matters, it is plain that whatever this man [Geoffrey] published of Arthur and Merlin are mendacious fictions, invented to gratify the curiosity of the undiscerning.
Could Geoffrey make things any worse? Of course: 
Moreover, it is to be noted that he subsequently relates that the same Arthur was mortally wounded in battle, and that, after having disposed of his kingdom, he retired to the island of Avallon, according to the British fables, to be cured of his wounds; not daring, through fear of the Britons, to assert that he was dead—he whom these truly silly Britons declare is still to come.**

So there. 

Reading William, I feel like I am scrolling through my Telegram feed of occult symbolism and alternate histories! “The remotest Thule”?! “The three archbishops of the Britons”?! “Vanquished a giant”?! “The subjugation of thirty kingdoms”?! Here it is—the Lost History of Arthur’s Empire! “Certainly, in our own orb no such events have happened”?! Well, clearly the Earth is not an orb! And Arthur sailed West to Avallon with a fleet of 1000 ships.

Do you see what I am trying to show you? EVERYTHING THAT WE BELIEVE ABOUT ARTHUR DEPENDS ON WHETHER WE ACCEPT WILLIAM’S ARGUMENT OVER GEOFFREY’S IN READING BEDE’S ACCOUNT OF THE CONVERSION OF THE ISLAND.*** According to William, Bede says nothing about Arthur; therefore, Geoffrey is a liar. In William’s words: 
Therefore, let Beda, of whose wisdom and integrity none can doubt, possess our unbounded confidence, and let this fabler, with his fictions, be instantly rejected by all.
Are you surprised to learn that William was hailed in the mid-nineteenth century as “the father of historical criticism”? And yet, we know that Bede was, if not lying about the exclusive role of Rome in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, at the very least stretching the truth.****

Does this mean that there was a great Empire in the American Midwest centuries before Columbus arrived (if he even existed)? Does this mean that the World Fairs were purposefully designed not to celebrate, but to destroy the evidence of this Empire by burning down the buildings that were already there? 

Let’s just say that I’m skeptical—but not because I believe William of Newburgh should have the last word. I’m skeptical because, among other things, I have read William’s other great work of history—a commentary on the Song of Songs in which he reads the bridegroom and bride of Solomon’s love song “historically” as Mary and Christ—and, therefore, I do, in fact, know a thing or two about the way in which “history” depends on fable and myth.  

And if you are mad at me for being skeptical about the stories you think you know about Arthur and/or Columbus and/or the World Fairs, well, I have a few stories to tell you, too, starting with the fables of the Venemous Bede about the beautiful blond Angli whom Gregory the Great saw for sale in the slave markets of Rome.

*Yesterday’s discussion on Facebook ended with “how anyone can call themselves a historian and believe ‘Jesus’ said anything, is just mind blowing. Clearly, biblical history isn’t the specialty.” Acktually, it is, but not in the way he means! (NB: My claim was that Jesus insisted “my kingdom is not of this world.” YMMV.)

**The History of William of Newburgh, trans. by the Rev. Joseph Stephenson (London: Seeleys, 1856), Preface.

***It is, of course, somewhat more complicated. There are other sources, including Gildas and Orosius, but Bede used those, too, so the argument always comes back to Bede eventually, just as William insisted. For a good account of the proofs for and against the existence of Arthur, see Michael Wood, In Search of England: Journeys into the English Past (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000).

****See Walter Goffart, Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550-800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), for the lowdown on how Bede downplayed the role of the Irish.


  1. Rachel, thanks for addressing my latest question. Owen went there. I am too skeptical of Owen and other's statements although I do not have your expertise in historical records or your life experiences. It is a whirlwind of information and assertions. You said something to the effect in telegram that those World Fair buildings and structures were built by people who possessed skills that were lost. I think if there is a need or demand for such buildings, the skills will be rediscovered and workers will make them happen.

    1. I think it is the skills that have been lost more so than the history, but there is so much about the past we don’t know, it is foolish to claim that we know much for sure!

  2. Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

    A sophisticated civilization in the American Midwest. Ah, such fun! And it kept it's business to itself, as well; no meddling in other nations. So shy was it, that it did not cry out to it's neighbors for aid while it's cities inexplicably all caught fire at once...and apparently it's citizens died to the last trying to save them. tragic. Lucky stroke for the new Americans, though.

    And kudos to those early Americans for so thoroughly scrubbing the historical record! Why, I stubbed my toe on a rock the other day and now, with this new insight, my old confidence in the natural origin of said stone, and others I see scattered about, is utterly shaken. I tip my hat to the intrepid investigators that uncovered this magnificent plot!

    Still, was it such a loss? Any civilization with so little understanding of flammability was destined to meet a bad end. And just how was it that their stone buildings burned so efficiently? My head is aswirl with questions.

  3. If I had read "1066 and All That" just before college, it would have saved me months and even semesters of study and reading!

  4. I listened to Owens stream about this, and also heard the crow777 stream with the guest making these claims. All rubbish. Do the basic maths on resources to build 1000 ships: The Spanish Armada was only 130 ships to the English 200 ships, some of the largest fleets ever sailed, no? I thought the forests of Spain had been consumed to make their fleet, and once lost they no longer had the resources to rebuild a world conquering navy...
    A thousand ships eh? Just use logic to disprove the fantasy.
    I do love Owen but he can get carried away.

    1. Ah, but King Arthur had thirty kingdoms’ worth of forests! Could it be?!

  5. As someone who has admired your previous work - not only your two scholarly monographs, From Judgement to Passion and Mary and the Art of Prayer, but also your Mediaeveal History Lectures on Unauthorized TV, and your Milo book, I say this with all due respect: You need to get out of this crackpot rabbit hole of Benjamin and his ilk. From flat earth, to Columbus didn't exist and the Word's Fairs were really a cover-up of a great ancient empire in the Americas, etc...the mind reels.

    I'm far more open to certain alternative readings of things than what we're told by the mainstream (whether it has to do with current or historical events), but this Owen Benjamin guy (and his buddies like Mickoski) are utter lunatics selling imaginary history and crackpot theories to gullible internet fanboys and girls. Right. Exit this mind-destroying sinkhole populated by clowns like Benjamin, regain your balance and perspective, and get back to the serious scholarly work you're so good at.

    1. Shame on me! If you have read my first book, you know how hard it is to understand William's perspective. Do you agree that he is the father of historical criticism? What do you think of my reading of his commentary on the Song of Songs? For that matter, what do you think of my reading of the psalms of the Office of the Virgin Mary? Is Mary the Lady of the Temple that Margaret Barker has described? Was I wrong to describe Milo as a holy fool? If you are disillusioned with me now, consider what that says about the nerve I have hit, when nothing I said previously made you mad (or made you think I was mad).

      Also, please point in the post to the place that I made a definite historical claim other than that Bede most likely exaggerated the importance of Augustine's mission. Have you read Walter Goffart on Bede's reliability? I gave you visual proof of how I think the Fair Buildings were built, showed you the imagery used to promote the Crystal Palace, showed you the building on my own campus and provided links to the model at Magdalen. And gave you a full passage from William's critique of Geoffrey to show you where the Arthurian legend came from. Which bit didn't you think I proved? That Arthur was never in Avallon? Have you read Michael Wood's account of Glastonbury? Please, let me know what proofs I did not provide for you. I seem to have missed something.

  6. Just a couple questions about how the Rockefeller’s investment to establish UChicago coincided with the Worlds Fair in 1893. As Rockefeller would have had a business interest in securing an energy monopoly based on oil production, could the establishment of the University in conjunction with the Worlds Fair to destroy a history and promote a reset be a way to hide evidence of alternative methods of energy? As such, why would it be in his interest to keep some of the remaining old buildings gothic buildings located to the north of the Midway (imo used to hide one history to promote a new one with WWII). On another note, your analysis about William’s critique of Geoffrey’s King Arthur narrative is something I was unaware about as how Historians of the time fought against one another to promote different narratives. It has made me reconsider whether King Arthur could actually have Historical legitimacy, or merely a story about how to integrate the old pagan beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons with Christianity.

  7. Indeed!


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