Tuesday, August 7, 2018
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America Paperback – February 10, 2004 by Erik Larson (Vintage / Random House Audio)
I will be absolutely honest and admit that I purchased the book because I was interested in the weird story of H.H.Holmes, American con-man, psychopath and serial killer. In fact, I will add to my confession, and shame, by saying that my interest was sparked by watching the episode of Timeless - a series unlikely to be renewed - where our trio of intrepid time-travelers goes back to the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition and have a misadventure in the "murder castle." I've never read anything by Erik Larsen before, but I know that he has a good number of books on the history section shelves and I’ve seen this book in passing for years.
I listened to this as an audiobook, and my initial reaction was that there was an awful lot about the 1893 World’s Fair, especially the architecture of the World’s Fair, than I was expecting or interested in. Frankly, my initial reaction was that all the detail about the planning of the Fair was getting in the way of the interesting bits about H.H. Holmes.
However, about half-way through the book, I found my interest shifting as I was sucked into the world of the Fair and the strangeness of the world right on the cusp of becoming the world we know, with lights and Cracker Jacks and Ferris wheels, but still possessing the instincts and customs of a more genteel and trusting age. I found that people like Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham were becoming my heroes.
Larsen structures his book as alternating narratives. One narrative follows the twisted path of Holmes; the other follows the life of the fair. There is no doubt that the Holmes’ narrative starts out in the lead because of the natural human interest in evil, and Holmes was evil. Larsen describes Holmes as America’s first serial killer in an age when the language did not have the term “serial killer” to describe Holmes. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861, studied medicine, married and abandoned his first wife, and, then, took the test for a pharmacy license under the name of H.H. Holmes and made his way to Chicago. In Chicago, he bought a pharmacy from a widow, who he probably conned, married a second wife, deposited the wife and his child in a suburb of Chicago, and then came up with the idea of transforming land he had purchased into a hotel in time for the upcoming Fair.
Listening to the Holmes’ arc, two thoughts come to mind: first, he was psychopathic and, second, he didn’t seem to understand how ridiculous his ideas were. For example, after scamming a brother in law, his plan to avoid discovery was to push the brother in law off of a roof. Who today would think such a thing would not be immediately seen for what it was? Likewise, Holmes built a hotel with secret rooms and gas lines to those rooms so that he could gas patrons, kill them and rob them. Women were constantly disappearing from his hotel, leaving their things behind. When the widow he bought his first pharmacy from simply disappeared, Holmes explained that she was visiting California. He courted and wed multiple wives simultaneously. His method for making bodies disappear was to have the bodies rendered into skeletons and then he would sell the skeletons to medical colleges.
Today, who could be so naive as to expect that any of this would not be discovered or noticed?
And that is partly the point. The era was a moment of transition. In the small towns that most people had lived in prior to the 1890s, everyone was under everyone’s else’s supervision. In Chicago, however, the rules changed. People were anonymous and alone in a crowd. People were easy to lose in a world without phones or extensive police agencies. If someone went to California, it would take more than idle curiosity to locate them. It was a psychopath’s utopia.
Also, the casualness of death becomes apparent in Larsen’s book. For example, Burnham’s partner plunges into the October night and dies of pneumonia within a week. Larsen also describes how the sister of one of Holmes’ victims suddenly took sick and died within a week. She was probably poisoned, but in that age it was not hard to believe that a healthy woman in her twenties could die of a sickness so quickly. I was working on a train accident fatality lawsuit during the time I listened to this book, so this passage had some significance to me:
// Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left the city did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the city’s rail crossings. Their injuries were grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards. Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. Fires took a dozen lives a day. In describing the fire dead, the term the newspapers most liked to use was “roasted.”//
In Fresno County where I live, which is a mostly rural county with a large urban population, there are only two unprotected crossings – without signals – in the entire county. The three people killed in this one accident was probably higher than the annual average for the last fifty years. Violent death was simply more common in the past.
On the other hand, Larsen presents the “White City” of the Fair as the world that was dawning. The Fair brought millions of visitors to a location with lights and cultural diversity and sanitation and police protection. The idea that the architects are the heroes of the book seems strange since architects rarely play the role of hero, but Larsen manages to invest tension throughout the story arc about the Fair. Thus, there is tension in whether the architects will get the Fair built in time, and then there is tension about whether the Fair will turn a profit in the face of the economic depression gripping the country. There is also the heroism of George Washington Gale Ferris and his eccentric idea of building a huge wheel that would carry “Pullman Car-sized” boxes for passengers, although the most heroic act of the book, I thought, was the willingness of Mrs. Ferris to ride the thing on its maiden voyage as a rain of extra bolts cascaded down from the structure.
I came to know and develop a liking for Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park. Burnham is forgotten today but contributed to many American cities.
My first term paper in history was one I wrote as a Junior in High School about Eugene V. Debbs and the Pullman Strike of 1894, so it was something of a home-coming for me to read about the events that were occurring just before that strike, and to think that Debs and Darrow probably visited the Fair, maybe they ran across Holmes and Burnham. It occurs to me now that the Pullman Strike of 1894 was in 1894 because the closing of the Fair in 1893 exacerbated the economic crisis. Larsen writes:
// Ten thousand construction workers also left the fair’s employ and returned to a world without jobs, already crowded with unemployed men. Once the fair closed, many thousands more would join them on Chicago’s streets. The threat of violence was as palpable as the deepening cold of autumn. Mayor Harrison was sympathetic and did what he could. He hired thousands of men to clean streets and ordered police stations opened at night for men seeking a place to sleep. Chicago’s Commercial and Financial Chronicle reported, “Never before has there been such a sudden and striking cessation of industrial activity.” Pig iron production fell by half, and new rail construction shrank almost to nothing. Demand for railcars to carry visitors to the exposition had spared the Pullman Works, but by the end of the fair George Pullman too began cutting wages and workers. He did not, however, reduce the rents in his company town. The White City had drawn men and protected them; the Black City now welcomed them back, on the eve of winter, with filth, starvation, and violence.//
Holmes’ story closes out with Holmes’ finally getting tripped up in an insurance swindle and an intrepid Pinkerton detective following the clues to prove that Holmes was a child-killer among his other sins. In that way, Holmes’ story arc concludes as a true crime story about a true crime story.
Although I enjoyed and learned from this book, I would have to pick a nit with the “fictionalization” of some of the narrative. Larsen tells us that everything in his book is supported by documentary evidence, but he also acknowledges that he has made reasonable inferences about what happened at times. I think his inferences are reasonable, and I credit him for acknowledging what he has done, but I think that there are times when he offers his insights into what various people were thinking or feeling that he has gone too far and stepped outside of history proper into fiction. Obviously, this book is intended for the mass market and must keep reader interest. Also, we are a long way into non-fiction novels at this point, but there are moments when I as a history reader was woken up by Larsen describing what a character felt (when I would probably never have objected to the same information being couched as something the person “might have thought,” so if you interpolate those words, the book is in the genre of history.)
In sum, don’t be confused; this is not a true crime story. It is a sociological history/novel about a particular time in American history. Your interest in this book will vary depending on whether you are buying it as “true crime” or as history.