Fortune and fate at the Chicago's World Fair
Some years ago, while following one of the blind alleys that writers so often encounter when hunting anxiously for their next "big book idea," Erik Larson stumbled across the gruesome particulars of Chicago serial killer Herman W. Mudgett, alias Dr. H. H. Holmes.
"I was suitably horrified," Larson recalls from the comfort and safety of his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife, Christine Gleason, M.D., head of the neonatology department at the University of Washington medical school, and their three daughters. "I actually read a little more about Holmes," Larson says, "and then decided that he was a kind of slasher and that I wasn't that interested."
Instead, Larson tracked another small detail that played a bit part in another Gilded Age murder mystery. Which led him to begin reading about the big Galveston hurricane of 1900. Which resulted in Larson's thrilling 1999 best-selling narrative of that catastrophe, Isaac's Storm. Which proved to be a turning point.
According to Larson, although he had always known he wanted to write books, he approached a book-writing career obliquely. After college he got a job as a gofer in a publishing house and "convinced myself that I was actually kind of writing because I was working in publishing." Next he made the mistake of seeing the movie All the President's Men and "decided that's what I want to do: bring down a president." Unsure of his exact course toward that end, he determined to let fate rule, so he applied to only one journalism school. He got in. Eventually, he took a job with the Wall Street Journal, reluctantly accepted a transfer to San Francisco, where he met the woman who would become his wife, then a day after marrying her, moved with her to Baltimore where she had been hired by Johns Hopkins University. "I was going to write novels," Larson says, "but once again I took the oblique path and freelanced."
Larson says that in Baltimore he finally grew desperate to escape "the grind of doing periodic pieces" and wrote his first book, The Naked Consumer, which was barely noticed. His second book, Lethal Passage, was a critically acclaimed book about gun control that had a political impact "but didn't sell at all." By the time Larson published his third book, Isaac's Storm, in 1999 to critical and popular acclaim, he and his wife and their growing family were living happily in Seattle. And Larson himself had finally "hit upon something that I really enjoy doing—narrative historical nonfiction."
The pleasure Larson takes in the genre is evident in the vibrant detail of his newest book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. The devil in question is Dr. Holmes, the figure Larson rejected as a book subject some years before. "The White City" is the extraordinary Chicago's World's Fair of 1893, officially known as the World's Columbian Exposition because it was designed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America, but unofficially called "The White City," because of its enchanting and trend-setting architecture.
According to Larson, even while working on Isaac's Storm he continued to be tantalized not so much by Holmes himself but by the fact that Holmes lured young women to their deaths at his macabre World's Fair Hotel almost under the very lights of this great international attraction. "Interestingly," Larson says, "other people have written about Holmes but, to my surprise, the fair has always been almost parenthetical. And I kept thinking, here's this marvelous magical fair and as counterpoint to that was this dark, dark creature sort of feeding off the fair. I couldn't really tell one story without telling the other." He decided to tell both.
It was, frankly, a brilliant decision. Larson contrasts the story of Holmes with that of Daniel Hudson Burnham, the chief architect of the fair. Burnham cajoled and directed the nation's greatest architects and designers—Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan—to transform a swampy park on the shores of Lake Michigan into an astonishing wonder that logged more than 27 million visits during its brief existence, 700,000 of those visits coming in a single day. Burnham inspired George Ferris to design and build a 25-story circular amusement ride that eclipsed in size the tower Alexandre Eiffel had recently built in Paris and was capable of carrying nearly 2,000 people at a time, the first Ferris Wheel. Burnham's fair introduced to the world "a new snack called Cracker Jack and a new breakfast food called Shredded Wheat." It was visited by the likes of Buffalo Bill, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand and George Westinghouse.
"One guy built this marvelous fair," Larson quips. "The other guy built this twisted hotel. They were both architects in a way." Taken together, the two stories allow Larson to paint a colorful and resonant portrait of the Gilded Age. "The thing I find so compelling in that period is that what defines it is sheer attitude. There was this overwhelming sense of unlimited possibility," he says.
Larson fleshes out his portrait of the age with lively stories about the competition between Westinghouse and Edison for dominance in the electricity market, the construction of the world's first skyscrapers, the practice of grave robbing among medical students. He describes the chilling effect of chloroform. He discovers that Chicago was called "The Windy City," not because of the fierce winds coming off Lake Michigan but because of the loud boasts issuing from local business leaders.
"I do all my own research," Larson says. "If I bring anything to the party, it's a knack for finding the telling details. What I love is the stuff that never makes it into professional history, because it belongs in the footnotes, because it's not appropriate. That's the stuff I live for."
And indeed, of its numerous pleasures, the greatest pleasure of The Devil and the White City is in its details.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California. Copyright 2003 BookPage Reviews
BookPage Reviews 2004 February
The Devil in the White City
Providing a peek into the mind of a certified psycho, Larson's chilling bestseller is a work of true-crime reportage that's destined to become a nonfiction classic. In this Gilded Age period piece, Larson expertly reconstructs the stranger-than-fiction events surrounding the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, recounting the complex logistics of its construction and focusing on the bigwigs involved, including eminent architect Daniel Burnham and crotchety genius Frederick Law Olmsted. But the real star here is Dr. H.H. Holmes, a handsome, seductive serial killer who posed as a physician, built the labyrinthine World's Fair Hotel, equipped it with a gas chamber and crematorium, and lured tourists to their deaths. Larson captures perfectly the psyche of his villain—the practiced charm, the deviousness, the unnerving ease with which he snuffed out life. The most remarkable thing about this hard-to-believe tale, though, is that every bit of it is true. A reading group guide is available online at www.vintagebooks.com/read.
Copyright 2004 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2002 November #2
A vivid account of the tragedies and triumphs of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the concurrent depravities of America's first serial killer.In roughly alternating chapters, former Wall Street Journal reporter Larson (Isaac's Storm, 1999, etc.) tells the stories of Daniel H. Burnham, chief planner and architect of exposition, and Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, whose rambling World's Fair Hotel, just a short streetcar ride away, housed windowless rooms, a gas chamber, secret chutes, and a basement crematory. The contrast in these accomplishments of determined human endeavor could not be more stark--or chilling. Burnham assembled what a contemporary called "the greatest meeting of artists since the 15th century" to turn the wasteland of Chicago's swampy Jackson Park into the ephemeral White City, which enthralled nearly 28 million visitors in a single summer. Overcoming gargantuan obstacles--politically entangled delays, labor unrest, an economic panic, and a fierce Chicago winter--to say nothing of the architectural challenges, Burnham and his colleagues, including Frederick Law Olmsted, produced their marvel in just over two years. The fair was a city unto itself, the first to make wide-scale use of alternating current to illuminate its 200,000 incandescent bulbs. Spectacular engineering feats included Ferris's gigantic wheel, intended to "out-Eiffel Eiffel," and, ominously, the latest example of Krupp's artillery, "breathing of blood and carnage." Dr. Holmes, a frequent visitor to the fair, was a consummate swindler and lady-killer who secured his victims' trust through "courteous, audacious rascality." Most were comely young women, and estimates of their total ranged from the nine whose bodies (or parts thereof) were recovered to nearly 200. Larson does a superb job outlining this "ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black."Gripping drama, captured with a reporter's nose for a good story and a novelist's flair for telling it. (6 b&w photos, 1 map, not seen)Author tour Copyright Kirkus 2002 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved
Library Journal Reviews 2003 January #1
Before the turn of the 20th century, a city emerged seemingly out of the ash of then dangerous Chicago, a dirty, grimy, teeming place ravaged by urban problems. Daniel Burnham, the main innovator of the White City of the 1892 World's Fair, made certain that it became the antithesis of its parent city, born to glow and gleam with all that the new century would soon offer. While the great city of the future was hastily being planned and built, the specially equipped apartment building of one Herman Webster Mudgett was also being constructed. Living in a nearby suburb and walking among the hundreds of thousands of visitors who would eventually attend the fair, Mudgett, a doctor by profession more commonly known as H.H. Holmes, was really an early serial killer who preyed on the young female fair goers pouring into Chicago. Using the fair as a means of attracting guests to a sparsely furnished "castle" where they ultimately met their end, Holmes committed murder, fraud, and numerous other crimes seemingly without detection until his arrest in 1894. Both intimate and engrossing, Larson's (Isaac's Storm) elegant historical account unfolds with the painstaking calm of a Holmes murder. Although both subjects have been treated before, paralleling them here is unique. Highly recommended.-Rachel Collins, "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2002 December #3
Not long after Jack the Ripper haunted the ill-lit streets of 1888 London, H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett) dispatched somewhere between 27 and 200 people, mostly single young women, in the churning new metropolis of Chicago; many of the murders occurred during (and exploited) the city's finest moment, the World's Fair of 1893. Larson's breathtaking new history is a novelistic yet wholly factual account of the fair and the mass murderer who lurked within it. Bestselling author Larson (Isaac's Storm) strikes a fine balance between the planning and execution of the vast fair and Holmes's relentless, ghastly activities. The passages about Holmes are compelling and aptly claustrophobic; readers will be glad for the frequent escapes to the relative sanity of Holmes's co-star, architect and fair overseer Daniel Hudson Burnham, who managed the thousands of workers and engineers who pulled the sprawling fair together 0n an astonishingly tight two-year schedule. A natural charlatan, Holmes exploited the inability of authorities to coordinate, creating a small commercial empire entirely on unpaid debts and constructing a personal cadaver-disposal system. This is, in effect, the nonfiction Alienist, or a sort of companion, which might be called Homicide, to Emile Durkheim's Suicide. However, rather than anomie, Larson is most interested in industriousness and the new opportunities for mayhem afforded by the advent of widespread public anonymity. This book is everything popular history should be, meticulously recreating a rich, pre-automobile America on the cusp of modernity, in which the sale of "articulated" corpses was a semi-respectable trade and serial killers could go well-nigh unnoticed. 6 b&w photos, 1 map. (Feb.) Forecast: With this book, Larson builds on the success of Isaac's Storm. Anyone with an interest in American history-in particular fans of Stephen Ambrose and David McCullough-should find much to engross them here. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.