Anthropology Days

—Rafat Mollick

Coinciding with the Summer Olympics of 1904, in both time and place, was not just the St. Louis World’s Fair, otherwise known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, but a common exhibition among a few previous world’s fairs. It might have seemed interesting to visitors over a century ago, but far fewer people actually want to see these exhibits and experiments today.

It was the dehumanizing experiment known as “Anthropology Days,” in which several indigenous peoples and groups, including Native Americans, the Ainu people of Japan, and Filipinos were exploited for entertainment and ‘science’; this horrid procedure was led by Dr. William John McGee and James Edward Sullivan, an organizer of The Olympic Games.

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition began on April 30th and ended on December 1st in St. Louis, Missouri, with 63 countries and 43 states participating in and sponsoring events and inventions. The Fair was overseen by the director and showrunner, David Rowland Francis, a former secretary, mayor, and governor of Missouri. Previous exposition workers also worked on this fair, including the likes of Frederick Skiff, who was the director of the exhibits, and Karl Bitter, a German sculptor. Visited by a grand total of 19,694,855 people in seven months, The Fair was a success, despite some of the less than politically correct exhibits.

In the middle of all of the attention-grabbing exhibits, and not exactly hiding under their shade, was the work started by McGee and Sullivan, who were in charge of the Anthropology Department for the fair. They were tasked by Skiff who believed that “a universal exposition is a vast museum of anthropology and ethnology, of man and his works,” and so he wanted anthropological studies and exhibits to be the centerpiece of the fair.

The ideas that Skiff, McGee, and Sullivan had in mind when it came to their plans for the fair were actually rooted as far back as over two millennia ago, with the philosophies of Plato, recorded in his best-known dialogue, The Republic. Through the use of his mentor, Socrates, as the central character of this dialogue, Plato’s could explain his ideas to his contemporaries. In The Republic, Socrates first explains the concept of the guardians, the social class of people of the highest moral standing who are armed and trained with valuable knowledge throughout their entire lives, who live as leaders once they reach the age of 50, and who bring forth the government envisioned by Plato as philosopher-kings.

The guardians, Plato proposed, would set up a system of selective mating in which they, the guardians, would reproduce through process of lottery, where the people would believe that, by random chance, they ended up with a partner with whom they could procreate. But in reality, the lottery would be fixed, unknown to the guardians and only known by very few higher-ranking guardians. The goal was to put the best men with the best women to reproduce to create the best children, with the process continuing on and on, if Plato were to have his way. Plato thought it wasn’t a good idea to have it known to those who would reproduce, so he kept it a secret to them for what he believed was the greater good.

Beyond the scope of Plato’s work, this idea of having people with desirable traits reproduce, and keeping other undesirable people from reproducing has been an idea mulled over for centuries, including in the seventeenth century by Italian monk Tommaso Campanella who wrote about it in his work, City of the Sun, or in the nineteenth-century by Dr. William Goodell.

However, it was not until 1883 that this idea was given a name that would define it: eugenics. The term was coined by Sir Francis Galton, the half-cousin of Charles Darwin, who, while he had more credit to his name than eugenics, was ultimately known for that. In his book, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, he proposed that desirable men and women, if unwilling to reproduce, should be bribed with money and other such incentives to get them to reproduce with one another. His purpose, like those after him, was noble at the time; who wouldn’t want humanity to improve and become better than it already is? It was an easy idea to sell, particularly when religion was losing favor to the logic of science, and other scientists in similar fields took the idea and continued to develop it.

A mere 21 years later, whatever noble intentions these scientists had had at the turn of the nineteenth century devolved into an example of grotesque immorality, although actually considered moral at the time. Under the claim that they were doing it for scientific research, McGee and Sullivan got away with being inhumane and racist, even if they didn’t realize their behavior. It’s incredible that McGee was even given the job considering he had already damaged his reputation in the past for omitting truth about his financial situation; the 1904 World’s Fair seemed as if it was an opportunity for McGee to redeem himself.

There was the idea of positive eugenics and negative eugenics. Positive eugenics refer to the genetic advancement of the human race through reproduction of the desirable human race, while negative eugenics hinges upon the idea that people who have more undesirable traits should be sterilized. Whether the first type of eugenics really is better or more ‘positive’ than the latter is of no concern; they both can and often do end up taking away the fundamental human right of choice and freedom to reproduce. Any good that could come from such genetic improvement is not worth the potential pain.

Yet there were still advocates for it, like McGee. Combining the ideas of eugenics with the idea of racial superiority, he said about races that “it is a matter of common observation that the white man is more and better than the yellow, the yellow man more and better than the black.”

Given his beliefs, in the modern day, one would think he wasn’t the right person to plan the anthropological exhibit, but he was just following the beliefs held by other scientists in his field. McGee’s stated goal a year prior to the Exposition’s arrival was to “represent human progress from the dark prime to the highest enlightenment,” believing himself already enlightened and confusing the dark prime with dark skin.

The ‘science’ developed and used by McGee here reeks of confirmation bias, as the information that he sought was based on what he already believed. He himself believed that ‘colored’ races were of lower social structures simply because the color of their skin was not white; this idea was perceived à la Lewis Henry Morgan, an anthropologist who, six years before Galton coined ‘eugenics,’ wrote a book titled Ancient Society in which he classified human beings into three hierarchical social groups: savages, barbarians, and civilization. That is the justification Dr. McGee and the others used to treat human beings, unlike himself, like lesser animals.

Today, ‘savage’ and ‘barbarian’ are emotionally charged words that insult people by making them out to be primitive, unthinking animals. This idea still has it roots in the concepts of what we today call ‘third world’ versus ‘first world’, and yet, it’s clear that McGee’s views on the subject were not objectively academic as they should have been.

McGee exploited the indigenous and others that were on display by keeping them in falsified replicas of villages within the six hundred acres of The Exposition. It was one thing, very bizarre, really, for The Fair organizers to put these people on display; it was even worse to have them be used in the name of science to ‘prove’ that the white race was ‘superior.’

The visitors of the fair would look on, in particular, at Filipino tribes like the Igorot, Negritos, Moros, and Bagobos because they were different, ‘uncivilized,’ ‘savage,’ ‘barbaric,’ etc. Although, for some, it could have been seen as an attempt at an educational experience about the tribe or race, however, the exhibitionists lined up each tribe in replicated villages that fetishized the actual villages in their home countries—they weren’t ‘true to life’, they were more trope than accurate—and the exhibits simply kept them there. The onlookers were fascinated by how different the tribes’ customs were in comparison to their own culture, even though fairgoers weren’t really seeing these tribes live their actual lives, and viewers could not comprehend those differences because they had no true contexts; instead, they, like the scientists, began to see these differences as signs of the tribes’ inferiority.

An official souvenir  postcard featuring Palace of Liberal Arts from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
An official souvenir postcard featuring Palace of Liberal Arts from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

One of the largest differences seen, and which brought in some of the most visitors to the fair, was in the exhibit that revolved around the Igorot’s habit of eating dog meat, which in and of itself was and is controversial. The Igorots only did that very rarely in their own homes; eating dog meat was only meant to be done on special occasions and ceremonies. As it wasn’t common practice, the Igorots should not have been seen as monsters or inferior. Heck, even if it was common practice among them, it wouldn’t have made them any less human nor worthy of being publicly shamed. But the fair directors would make the Igorot people eat dog meat every day so that visitors could get an entertaining show, which begs the question—who were the real primitive monsters?

The ethics of putting human beings on display could be argued, but in the case of the 1904 World’s Fair it was unquestionable that, despite some attempts made for educating visitors, this attempt was more pseudoscience than science, and it was certainly unethical; it only served to intensify a level of racist propaganda that America fueled-up on at the time.

The major difference between The Louisiana Purchase Exposition and other world’s fairs that put people on display involved the poor in the Summer Olympics of 1904, which is where some of the worst exploitation occurred. Dubbed the “Special Olympics” by Sullivan and the “Savage Olympics” by others, McGee and Sullivan had the unfortunate tribesmen—including the Ainu tribe of Japan and the Igorot—take part in sports while spectators watched in the stadium of Francis Field.

Throughout each event, including archery, foot races, and a javelin throw, the tribesmen performed worse than the professional athletes who actually knew how to play/perform these feats, and were fit for the games. Rather than being the celebration of world cultures and goodhearted competition, The 1904 Olympics made the ‘savages’ to be inherently inferior in mind and body, in comparison to the ‘civilized’ white man, and these so-called ‘results’ are what McGee and Sullivan considered ‘a success’. There were many reasons why The 1904 Olympics was considered a disaster, but this was by far one of the biggest reasons.

As if to justify what was going on, William Howard Taft, 27th President of The United States, and himself a former governor-general of the Philippines, declared that, “Filipino participation would be a very great influence in completing pacification and in bringing Filipinos to improve their condition.” Taft was clearly pulling the wool over people’s eyes, maybe even his own, by trying to explain that the Philippine exhibit was for the Filipinos’ benefit.

From the popular foods to the engineering and agricultural achievements, and to the buildings full of interesting exhibits from around the world, The St. Louis World’s Fair was certainly an eventful and enjoyable fair for the people who had the chance to visit. While St. Louis will be remembered for all of those good achievements, it is important to also remember the stains of racial and ethnic exploitation and abuse that have been left on the fair and the people.

Thankfully, even though it has not come to a halt, research on eugenics and ‘experiments,’ such as the ones at this fair, has slowed down today, although unthankfully, it is due to the destructive Nazi eugenics program that placed a negative stigma around the eugenics movement. Yet, despite this slowdown, research in this field still continues in the modern day. While U.S. science does not often apply eugenics into practice, illegal actions have occurred because of the basic principles of eugenics; for example, in between five years, about 150 women prisoners in the United States were sterilized against their will.

The movement and science holds very much true, particularly in China and other countries. For one thing, Chinese scientists have currently attempted to genetically alter the DNA of human embryos, risking the sanctity of the process of life for the sake of science. As an idea, eugenics is never going away; it will continue to be practiced by those who either don’t understand the risks or are willing to take these harmful risks for the sake of questionable ideology.