Friday, August 11, 2006
Devil of a good story
I’m late to this book, but I found the two interwoven tales in Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City so compellingly crafted that it read more like a novel than a work of painstakingly researched nonfiction.
Seemed a fitting glimpse into the collective psyche of Chicago, a city not wholly unlike Cleveland in its Midwestern sensibility. Larson’s story begins aboard the R.M.S. Olympic, part of the White Star Line, on April 14, 1912. Daniel Burnham, an architect and the man behind the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, is reminiscing about the feat that was the World’s Fair.
Larson spins the yarn from Chicago’s rally and fight with Easterners to get the fair in the first place, the trials of pulling the White City together with some of the greatest minds in architecture in such a short period of time, the need to out-Eiffel the Eiffel Tower of the Paris World Exposition a few years earlier and the push to attract bigger numbers of attendees.
Interspersed throughout is a parallel and riveting tale about a charmingly mad doctor who seduced and later killed probably hundreds of young women who had come to Chicago seeking excitement of the Fair and the big city. How he managed to avoid detection by police for so long, and how he managed to build his “castle” of doom (complete with gas chamber and kiln) without any construction workers knowing what he was doing was ghastly. And that he made money from off his victims not only through insurance fraud, but also by selling their cadavers or parts of their bodies to medical schools for research compounds his macabre nature.
That the two worlds collided at the same time seems both expected and unnatural. For a while one wonders why the two stories are juxtaposed. While the two main characters—Burnham and Dr. H.H. Holmes—never cross paths, their worlds do collide at Jackson Park.
The details of both stories are rich—we see how Holmes spun his evil through a complex network of lies, charm, blue-eyed seduction and hubris through the careful archiving of letters, newspaper accounts, police accounts and even Holmes’ own prison memoir.
And we wonder at the extraordinary will and effort that brought about the World’s Fair and its lasting achievements. What a joy it must have been to research and write this book.
New stuff at the fair:
The Ferris Wheel
Notables who spoke:
Susan B. Anthony
Enjoyed performances by:
Buffalo Bill Cody
Others influenced by the fair or events surrounding the fair:
Frank Lloyd Wright
Elias Disney, father of Walt
L. Frank Baum
City Beautiful movement (Cleveland, San Francisco, Fort World, Atlantic City, St. Louis)
Creation of The Mall in Washington, D.C.
Columbus Day (Oct. 12) as a federal holiday
Chicago’s Miracle Mile and ribbon of lakefront parks
New York’s Flat Iron Building