The Devil in the White City // Erik Larson

“His genius was betrayed by lofty and indomitable traits of character which could not yield or compromise. And so his life was a tragedy of inconsequence.”

Cracker Jacks. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix. Shredded Wheat. Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum. The Ferris Wheel. The Hamburger. Kodak cameras. Moving pictures. The first movie theater. Widespread use of electricity. Incandescent light bulbs. The settling of Tesla and Edison’s “power war” (Tesla won, with AC power). Hershey Bars. The inspiration for Disney World and the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. America’s first serial killer.

These are just a few of the things first introduced to the world during ‘The Columbian Exposition’, more popularly referred to as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (considered the most influential World’s Fair in history)…and the scene for Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.The Devil in the White City is an extraordinary accomplishment by author Erik Larson. It is a comprehensive and fascinating telling of the high stakes gamble by American architects, engineers, and inventors, to regain the admiration of the world by hosting the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

The driving force behind the effort was Chicago’s architect Daniel Burnham. His beloved business partner, John Root, assisted Burnham in the early stages of the project, but Root died shortly after it was underway. City leaders credited much of the inspiration for the fair to the deceased Root, an opinion not shared by Burnham. With an enormous well of good will from which to draw, along with his personal enthusiasm and tireless cajoling of his naysayers, Burnham succeeded in assembling many of America’s architects and engineers to cooperate and to commit to the exposition’s success.Larson’s rich details are invaluable. Readers enter into the tedium of bringing this extraordinary vision to material fruition.  The politics, money, the egos of geniuses, the weather, labor unions, not to mention the short calendar, serve as major antagonists in the story, underscoring the significance of the remarkable achievement.

The “Devil” in the book’s title is the charming Mr. H. H. Holmes (below). Born as Herman Webster Mudgett, Holmes had a voracious appetite for scams and murders. A respected business owner who could talk his way out of thousands of dollars of debt, he was equally adept at winning the trust of women.The mysterious disappearances of several women known to have been friendly with Holmes did not raise eyebrows in the beginning. However, with each successfully executed murder Holmes’ lust grew. His hotel, referred to as the “Castle,” was patronized by fair-goers aplenty. Holmes himself determined who stayed at his hotel and who did not. His preferred customers were women traveling to Chicago alone, especially those whose personalities presented him with the best opportunity for domination.

Behind it’s outward appearance of normality, secret passages riddled Holmes’ hotel-room walls, with peepholes for spying on the occupants. Trapdoors led into hidden staircases leading to the street. There were doors opening on to blank walls, an elevator shaft with no elevator, and an elevator with no shaft. One room had been made into an airtight steel chamber, equipped with gas hoses leading to an adjoining room. And in the basement, which was connected by a spiral chute with Holmes’ top-floor office, was a lime filled concrete pit, vats of acid and a series of furnaces.

Whichever way the women died, they all ended up in the basement for disposal. Besides the limepit, Holmes had his ovens, and barrels of acid. Their bones were the only thing that gave him bother. Sometimes he would clean them and sell the skeleton to medical laboratories. Mostly, however, he would stack them in the empty acid barrels, mixing them with animal bones, against the eventuality of being discovered. Women were not the only victims in Holmes’ castle. There was, for example an unfortunate inventor by the name of Warner, who was incinerated alive inside his newly-designed furnace. And there was also Rogers, a wealthy investor from Wisonsin, whom Holmes alternately gassed and starved until Rogers produced a check for $70,000. The man was then poisoned and his body sold for dissection.

As the Columbian Exposition met with popularity and success, an estimated dozens of women met their gruesome fates. Tortured, gassed, dissected, and incinerated – most of Holmes’ victims simply vanished.

This extraordinary juxtaposition of the improbable success of the Chicago fair with what could only be called the impossible suspect, the serial killer hiding in plain daylight, is a complex and ambitious structure for Larson’s book. The contrast between the glory of human achievement and the horror of the psychopathic mind is an uncomfortable consideration for the reader.

In this aspect, much is required. Larson does not use much ink on the killer’s psychological profile. Unlike other true crime books, the labor of making sense of the juxtaposition belongs to the reader. This is a quiet and intelligent compliment by Larson. There is plenty of imagery and description, but the author deftly stops short of saying so much that there is nothing left for the reader to think about.

Erik Larson is a modern-day nonfiction’s John Updike, with a rich and precise use of language. He teases the story out of its tangled web in a masterful fashion. The Devil in the White City deserves and receives my highest marks.

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