Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003)

I was drawn to Erik Larson's account of the Chicago world's fair of the late 19th century (officially, the 1893 Columbian Exposition) more for the promise of its true-crime trappings than its history. But in the end the history proves to be more interesting by far. It's true that the crime Larson has incorporated, essentially the pinnacle of the career of serial killer H.H. Holmes, is lurid and intriguing. Entering into the wide-open economic boom of Chicago at the time, Holmes, who was also a wily businessman, found a way to build a hotel that was literally a chamber of horrors. Here's Wikipedia: "... the upper two floors contained his personal office and a maze of over one hundred windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors openable only from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions." Select rooms were soundproofed and fitted out with gas lines for convenience in torture and murder. It was easily accessible to the fairgrounds and Holmes was operating it at full capacity during the fair. But Larson is somehow altogether too genteel about telling this half of his story, shrinking from the horror of it and even, in the alternating chapters devoted to it, taking on an almost schoolmarm tut-tutting tone, his distaste for these events all too plainly overwhelming any fascination. One would likely have to count this a virtue, but the result is that the story in Larson's hands lacks the punch one would expect from knowing the details of the case. Larson clearly has a good deal more interest in the machinations and various events of the fair itself and that is where this book really shines. I had long been vaguely aware of its outsize impact, notably on the architecture of Chicago and even the U.S. writ large, but Larson really lays out the whole thing well here: the scope and ambition, the disasters that attended the rush to pull it together in such a compressed time frame, the stellar participants (Frederick Law Olmsted, Louis Sullivan, Eadweard Muybridge, Scott Joplin, Buffalo Bill, many others), and even handfuls of fun facts I had not really known before, such as that this was the occasion for the invention and first appearance of the Ferris Wheel, which was intended to rival the Eiffel Tower in a Paris exposition of the previous decade. Other products introduced include Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, and even the hamburger. The fair was a huge success on many levels, including its historical impact, and Larson has done a great job of framing its importance and filling in the fine points and the details that tell. As for the true crime that's incidentally packed in here, probably one of the other accounts of H.H. Holmes has what I was hoping to find on that.

In case it's not at the library.

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