William Boetcker: “The Inside Man”



The Columbian Exposition was the marvel of the age. More than 600 acres of exhibitions. More than 27 million thronging participants. At its entrance, a gleaming “alabaster city,” neoclassical in design and overwhelming in grandeur.{footnote}Katharine Lee Bates, a professor at Wellesley College, saw the gleaming White City as a model for all American cities of the future, and so in “America the Beautiful” she wrote: “Thine alabaster cities gleam/Undimmed by human tears.” For a great deal more about the White City and the horror that haunted its rim, see Eric Larson’s The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America (New York: Random House, 2003).{/footnote} At its heart, America’s first Midway—a fragmented collection of the world’s most amazing and amusing, including replicas of the Eiffel Tower, St. Peter’s Basilica, Blarney Castle, and an erupting volcano.{footnote}Midway Plaisance was the name of the park that originally connected Jackson Park and South Park in Chicago. During the Exposition, it was home to entertainers, vendors, and hucksters. After the Ferris Wheel, its biggest draw was “A Street in Cairo” where Little Egypt danced the hootchy-kootchy to a piece of music Americans now associate with snake-charming.{/footnote} And towering high above the whole Exposition stood the Wheel —George W. Ferris’s Wheel, the first of its kind.

The Ferris Wheel was 264 feet high. It carried 36 cars, each of which could hold 60 passengers. It was driven by steam power, but illuminated by 3000 of Edison’s new incandescent electric light bulbs, all of them pulsing in rhythm. Sightseers onboard could peer through the large plate glass windows that surrounded the cars and see beyond the Fair and the city of Chicago to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. The two-revolution ride took 20 minutes and included six stops to take on new passengers. The price was 50 cents.

One night, during one of its stops, those within earshot of the upper car fell quiet and looked upward. From the pinnacle of the Wheel a coronet solo rose up to heaven. The words to the music, appropriately enough, were “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” The soloist was a young seminary student named William Boetcker.

William John Henry Boetcker was born in Altona, a suburb of Hamburg, Germany in 1873.{footnote}Some of the details of Boetcker’s early life come from a web article at . The article seems to have some historical inaccuracies. According to official reports, the Ferris Wheel never “broke down,” and the Pope sent an archbishop to America, not a Cardinal—though the archbishop later became a Cardinal. The Cardinal then on site was an American.{/footnote} He was the third child, sandwiched among three sisters. When he was eight, his father, a factory foreman, was savagely beaten by striking workers and disabled for life. The incident marked young William’s soul.

When Boetcker was 16, he published a 500-page book of puzzles and mind problems. It caught the attention of the American-born Countess Von Waldersee. She decided that Boetcker ought to go to America to make something of himself. She gave him $65 toward the journey. So at age 18, William Boetcker booked passage on a steam ship bound for New York. After a difficult crossing, he went on to Chicago and enrolled in the city’s Congregational seminary. “He spoke no English, and the professors spoke no German, so they conversed in Latin.”{footnote}{/footnote}

In 1893 the Columbian Exposition came to Chicago. Such a flurry of activity over industry, invention, and imagination would have fascinated Boetcker. Francesco-SatolliBesides, everyone was going. Boetcker’s excuse to attend came from a Roman Catholic Cardinal.

Pope Leo XIII had sent archbishop Francesco Satolli to represent the Vatican at the Exposition; he brought with him a cache of ancient maps for public display. But one of Satolli’s honor guards —perhaps a Swiss Guard, judging by the description—took ill. Cardinal Gibbons, Satolli’s host, placed an ad in the Chicago papers asking for a man six feet tall with military training who could play the coronet. Boetcker had been a teenaged Reserve Lieutenant in the German Army, and he knew the coronet. But he was under six feet. Even so, he answered the ad, and when no one else responded, he got the position. Ironically, the Cardinal was a strong advocate of organized labor and was instrumental in gaining papal approval for Roman Catholics to join labor unions. Boetcker’s sentiments were growing in quite the opposite direction.

When he wasn’t playing honor guard to the Italian archbishop, Boetcker had some free time to explore the fair grounds. And so, with coronet in hand, he rode the Ferris Wheel to the top and there played a hymn to God. It was a moment he recounted often in his later years.

Boetcker eventually became dissatisfied with his seminary’s theological bent and transferred to the German Theological Seminary in Bloomfield, New Jersey to complete his studies. He graduated in 1897 and was ordained pastor of the new German-American Reformed Church in Brooklyn. But four years later failing health forced him to move to a smaller work, the First German Reformed Church of Shelbyville, Indiana. While he was there, he directed a brass band. His instrument, of course, was the coronet. But it is not as a musician or pastor that history best remembers William Boetcker, but as a motivational speaker.

Chicago-Theological-SeminaryThe century had barely turned when Boetcker left the pulpit to speak on matters of social justice. His concern, however, remained the hearts of men. As a Lyceum speaker, Boetcker worked to educate the common worker intellectually and morally. As the founder of the Citizens’ Industrial Association, he pushed for arbitration whenever business and labor were about to come to blows. And as president of the National Inside Association, he campaigned for internal change in the poor and wealthy alike. His constant theme was the vital importance of individual character and personal initiative. He was convinced that real positive change in the world of industry and labor could only come through individuals improving themselves from the inside out. And so he earned the nickname, “The Inside Man.”

Boetcker liked epigrams. He encapsulated his convictions in a slew of them. Here are a few examples:

“The individual activity of one man with backbone will do more than a thousand men with a mere wishbone.”

“Never mind what others do; do better than yourself, beat your own record from day to day, and you are a success.”

“We will never have real safety and security for wage earners unless we provide for safety and security for the wage payers and wage savers.”

In 1916 Boetcker published a leaflet entitled “Lincoln on Private Property.” On the backside he included a set of his best aphorisms as the “Ten Cannots.” Sometimes they are called the “Industrial Decalogue.” They summarize a solidly conservative approach to labor, industry, and the free market.

The Columbian Exposition had specific goals: “to provide stability in the face of great change, to encourage American unity, to celebrate technology and commerce, and to encourage popular education.”{footnote}”The Legacy of the Fair” in The World’s Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath (1996) .{/footnote} Boetcker would have approved. But the Exposition also represented secularization and the new idol of consumption. Boetcker preached thrift, savings, and hard work. Perhaps, then, it was more than whimsy that moved Boetcker to sound a note on God’s behalf from the pinnacle of the great fair. For Boetcker certainly believed that American industry, management and labor alike, needed to move away from the lures of greed and envy and move much nearer to God.