Friday, January 22, 2016

The devil in Chicago

Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City (2003) is a study in contrasts: mankind at its best and at its worst, both occurring in the same place, Chicago, at the same time, the early 1890s.

Reading David McCullough's The Greater Journey late last year, I learned a little about the world's fair held in Paris in 1889, a reminder of which remains to this day, the Eiffel Tower. So I found it interesting to read Larson's account of how the United States hoped to top that wildly successful event with a fair of its own, one honoring the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in the New World. Many of the best architects of the day, headed by David Hudson Burnham, gathered to design what became known as the White City because the buildings were all whitewashed. They even hoped to build a tower that would be better than the one Eiffel built. Instead they settled for the first Ferris wheel, which in its own way proved to be a marvel of design and engineering.

H.H. Holmes
Meanwhile, close to Jackson Park where the fair was built, a master criminal and diabolical serial killer sometimes called H.H. Holmes set up shop. He built a hotel to profit from visitors coming to Chicago for the fair, but he equipped his hotel with special rooms for killing some of his guests (as well as wives, girlfriends, associates and others) and dissecting and burning their bodies.

Larson alternates between the story of the great fair, which ultimately did pass the Paris fair in attendance, and the story of Holmes and his crimes. Amazingly, although numerous visitors to the fair, many of them single women, were reported missing, and many of those disappearances led directly to Holmes and his hotel, Chicago police never considered the young businessman a suspect. That had much to do with the great charm of Holmes, who was loved even by his guards when, a few years later, he finally ended up on death row in Pennsylvania.

This proves a fascinating book, one that deserves the popularity it has enjoyed for the past decade.

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