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The Plague at the Century of Progress

congress hotel auditorium hotel amoebic dysentery texas guinan back siphonage

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#1 eskarp


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Posted 30 November 2011 - 11:19 AM

I am trying to locate information about the amoebic dysentery epidemic that occurred in Chicago, primarily affecting fairgoers, in 1933. The Chicago Dept.of Public Health eventually traced the cause to the incorrectly installed and corroded plumbing system which the old Auditorium Hotel and the Congress Hotel (formerly the "Auditorium Annex") shared. This epidemic was no small problem. 1,200 people, most of them from out of town, contracted the disease. Later estimates indicate that around 100 people died. That's as many people as Herman W. Mudgett, the "Devil in the White City" dispatched in '93. The Public Health Department accomplished the almost impossible in getting a handle on the outbreak because most of the people that got sick became ill after they returned to their homes in other cities and states. Furthermore, many of the victims didn't actually stay at the Congress but only attended banquets there.

Several of the people that died had been misdiagnosed with appendicitis and operated upon, which killed them. Texas Guinan, the Prohibition-era "hostess" met her end that way after she contracted the disease at the hotel. In the 1930s, amoebic dysentery was unfamiliar to most US physicians, since it was primarily regarded as a disease of the tropics. After WWII, doctors that treated GIs returning from the Pacific became far more familiar with the illness, discovering that it was not so rare in the US after all.

Despite the death toll, I can locate almost no information about this epidemic. My mother, who attended the fair as a teenager, read about the disease at the time and became fascinated. She later became a physician working at one time for the U. of I. health department. She told me the bones of the story years ago. I've located a few contemporary references and one citation in the Plumbers' Union Archive (!!!) but otherwise almost no new information.

Anybody out there know more OR can you point me toward useful references? I intend to go to Chicago next summer to ransack libraries but I'd appreciate a head start.


Sharon Karpinski
MA, History.

#2 expoboy


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Posted 30 November 2011 - 04:35 PM

Fascinating story. First I've ever heard of it.

#3 CincinnatiCanine


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Posted 20 August 2013 - 06:14 PM

My grandmother's brother was one of those people who died.  My family was always told it was food poisoning but after researching my family genealogy, I discovered it was this catastrophic tragedy, during such a glorious world event, that took his life. Has anyone kept track of those who passed away due to this plumbing disaster?  My grandmother's brother was Charles T Dodge.  He died Dec 27, 1933. His new wife and young baby named Charles, were left alone.  They lived in Oak Brook. This basically changed the course of Charlie junior's future, because he was raised by another man and led a very different life than he could have, to his disadvantage.  Charlie Sr. had 4 sisters (one was my grandmother) and all sisters married and lived wonderfully fulfilling lives, never struggling for a living.  Charlie Junior lived a life of poverty. 


Such a sad consequence of The Plague at the Century of Progress.

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#4 molassesonassis


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Posted 02 May 2014 - 03:27 PM

How tragic. In all my years as a world's fair enthusiast I've never heard anything about the amoebic dysentery epidemic. Sadly the majority of the hardcore 1933-34 Chicago World's Fair enthusiasts died off in the 1980s.  


Please keep us updated on what you discover. Fascinating stuff.   

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