by Brad Nelson 7/7/14
Macabre is a word that justly evokes the chill of its own sound. And The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America is all that and more.
I’ve not read a book quite like this. It’s reminiscent of that Reese’s peanut butter cup commercial: “You got peanut butter in my chocolate.” “No, you got chocolate in my peanut butter.” In “The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson mixes an account of the building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with the exploits of a roving mass murderer, H.H. Holmes.
While Daniel H. Burnham, as prime architect and mover of the fair, is making the world safe for Shredded Wheat and Cracker Jacks (both products debuted at this fair), H.H. Holmes is custom-building a one-city-block-sized castle designed for the extinction and elimination of young vulnerable women. And the fair is attracting thousands of workers as both men and women uproot themselves and come to Chicago looking for opportunity which does indeed abound. And in this mass of people, in this already large and chaotic city, a few women going missing is a relatively minor event. No one can really know if they are missing or have just moved on.
Jumping back and forth between these two scenarios, with the time split about equally for each, is bizarre. It’s like reading a tender and sentimental love story and the author then inserting random scenes of murderous violence. It’s an interesting way to tell both stories. And I can’t say that either suffered for the presence of the other, for they both reinforce each other by playing off the very character of Chicago back then.
Chicago was a bustling city in the late 19th century. And it was a dirty city. It was making its fortune on slaughterhouses. The book goes into some detail on just how smelly and dirty this city was. It would seem that H.H. Holmes sprouted from the gutter like some kind of mallignant mushroom, an inevitability given the dark and depressing surroundings.
But H.H. Holmes is depicted as an extremely socially adept man. He can charm the ladies and is equally charming to the men. Holmes was adept at talking his way out of not paying for wholesale goods sold to him. His manner was so affable and friendly, his words so carefully chosen to evoke sympathy and acquiescence, that he quite literally was getting away with murder. You’ll be amazed and think, “I could never fall for those charms.” Maybe so, but most people did, and many to their final regret.
On the other side of the book is the story of the conception and building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. At times you’ll find yourself looking forward to the murderous half of the book because this other half can get a little dull, even as interested as I am in this fair which I first read about in the excellent Empires of Light which I reviewed here.
This is perhaps the weaker half of the book, at least in the early going. As much detail as you sometimes get about the planning and the architecture, I didn’t get a real sense for the overall picture. The details chosen tended to be dry. But as the construction of the fair came closer to completion, the details surrounding it were more engaging. The picture painted was exciting and broad.
But there is a slight disconnect in the telling of the construction of this remarkable fair. One moment it seemed as if they had an impossible deadline to meet. The next moment they had met it. And there’s not a great sense of how this was achieved other than that we were told that it was.
These criticisms aside, I found the description of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to be fascinating. One of the better sections was the description of the conception and building of the first Ferris wheel (by a Mr. Ferris, of course). It was truly a monster. And by the looks of it, it seemed too light and fragile to carry such enormous weight. On paper, the calculations said it would last. But it was easy to see why there was so much trepidation when the wheel was first set in motion. Its massive axle was the largest single piece of metal ever forged up to that time, 45-1/2 feet long by 33 inches in diameter with a total weight of 53,031 pounds. Just lifting the axle into position was a feat not equaled since probably some of the largest stone blocks of the pyramids were set into place.
The fair finally did start mostly on time despite the relatively short timeline, the very ambitious plans for the fair, and the financial panic that hit during its construction.
But back to H.H. Holmes. This man was relentless in his subtle manipulation of people. He enjoyed this manipulation and it was a sexual stimulant for him. You can’t read these passages without realizing just how much of this kind of pscyhopathy (perhaps not sexual, but who knows?) exists in the halls of political power. Although most politicians will not lure young ladies into a room, gas them to death, and then sell their skeletons for profit to medical establishments, you will see the similarity, the completely psychopathic desire to lie for power, and in the great joy in lying merely for the sake of lying.
For those folks here who believe in evolution, you can certainly see why this trait has utility. In more modest degrees, it might even be constructive. But you will likely never look at a politician again and not see a bit of H.H. Holmes in them, especially in the way they can totally charm and deceive women.
Dark. Chilling. Macabre. And a page-turner of a story until the very end (which I’ll leave for the reader to find out for himself).
I read the Kindle edition (it’s just $8.99). The only other edition I’ve seen is a paperback one. But this is the kind of book that desperately needs photos. The 1893 Chicago’s World’s Fair was a visual feast. And the Kindle edition shows its weakness in this regard. What photos that are included are puny and few.
This story should be told with the grand photos of the amazing architecture (and other curiosities) of this truly unique World’s Fair that indeed did impact the course of America. It did so architecturally and, of course, technologically. One of the star attractions was the installation of Westinghouse’s AC lighting system. And it produced an effect on a scale that had never been seen before. The book does capture some of this sublime uniqueness of this fair. There may never be another to equal it.
And we can only hope there will not be equaled the diabolical exploits of H.H. Holmes. For those who say that man is basically good, they should read this book and put aside their fairy-tale delusions.
Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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