Monday, November 22, 2010

The Devil in the White City

It was an exceedingly strange week to finally read a book that Eleanor had been urging me to since last spring, when she read The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, as part of her research for a history project on the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Subtitled "Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America," this history is so well written that it reads almost like a novel, due largely to Larson's liberal use of foreshadowing. All the descriptions of the activities of the murderer H.H. Holmes are so chilling in their detail that-- along with the descriptions I was reading of the activities of a murderer in our midst--the book gave me the shivers in a very big way.

The "white city" created for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair showed Americans what a city might be, and--according to Larson--may have even been an inspiration for Disney World and the land of Oz. The Ferris Wheel was invented for it. The electric incandescent light bulb was popularized at the fair. The Pledge of Allegiance, still recited almost daily in American schools, was written for its opening. If you go to Chicago, you can still see the fair's Palace of Fine Arts, which, "transformed into a permanent structure, now houses the Museum of Science and Industry."

I wish modern ferris wheels were still made like the first one, with "thirty-six cars, each about the size of a Pullman, each holding sixty people and equipped with its own lunch counter." The closest I could get would be the London Eye, but it doesn't have lunch counters!

Even the architectural details in this book are interesting, mostly because of all the context Larson provides. He takes readers from the erection of the first skyscrapers on the unstable soil of Chicago to the hurried construction of the world's fair buildings. He tells the stories of the architects themselves, complete with sub-plots like that the sister of the man who married the architect John Root was the poet Harriet Monroe, who Larson claims hid an unrequited love for her sister's husband all her life.

The activities of the serial murderer Holmes are interspersed throughout the descriptions of the other activities surrounding the world's fair, and they get increasingly spooky. Larson describes Holmes' "charm" and how easy it was for him to pay little attentions to a woman until she became "an acquisition to be warehoused until needed, like cocooned prey." Even at the end of the history, Larson is unable to give an accurate count of how many people Holmes murdered, explaining that the number is somewhere between 9 and 200.

When a "hotel" Holmes built--using so many contractors that no one but him had ever seen the complete building--was finally searched by the police, they found rooms both normal and airtight, a walk-in soundproof vault, and a basement complete with "a vat of acid with eight ribs and part of a skull settled at the bottom; mounds of quicklime; a large kiln; a dissection table stained with what seemed to be blood." Searching the building only because Holmes had been arrested for life insurance fraud, the police also found:
"Eighteen ribs from the torso of a child.
Several vertebrae.
A bone from a foot.
One shoulder blade.
One hip socket."

Holmes, at one point, buried two little girls three feet down in a dirt cellar, borrowing a shovel to do it and telling the shovel's owner that he was storing potatoes. One would think that it would be harder to hide bodies today, but one of the chilling details Larson traces is how many of Holmes' victims were originally small-town girls who became lost in the anonymity of the big city of Chicago.

The Chicago Times-Herald said, according to Larson, that Holmes was "a prodigy of wickedness, a human demon, a being so unthinkable that no novelist would dare to invent such a character." And yet, over and over, people are surprised to find that the man next door, where they let their children play, the man who worked for their lawn service--as Matthew Hoffman worked for the service we used last May--was all along a person who would plan to kidnap and kill his neighbors.

Thrills and chills, this book--kind of like going to a fair. I can hardly wait for my next trip to Chicago, now that I know more of its history.
(Update: Here's another recent review by someone who reads more nonfiction.)


FreshHell said...

I loved this book when I read it a few years ago.

Lass said...

Oh, I wish I'd known Eleanor was researching the fair - I worked at the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum) for several years and one of the major exhibits during my tenure there was on the fair. Very few artifacts remain - mostly souvenirs - but the exhibit designers were able to set it up as if you were walking through the grounds - they managed to give you a feel for the fair's size and scope. It was one of my favorite exhibits.

And like Claudia, I loved this book. If you're in the mood, Larson's "Isaac's Storm" (about the 1900 Galveston hurricane) is as meticulously researched and interesting a read.

Eva said...

I remember this one creeping me out so much I ended up not really *enjoying* the book; I could see it was well written, but I couldn't handle the switch between 'look at this neat stuff about the fair!' and 'let me tell you more about pure evil.' I react that way every time I try to read true crime, though; I couldn't stand In Cold Blood, which everyone else seems to love. I end up feeling complicit somehow, as if I'm being entertained by these people's deaths. Rationally, I know that it's not the case, and I read nonfiction about other really sad things (like Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell) without that icky feeling (although I do get sad of course) so I don't know why I freak out so much. It's frustrating, since I think I miss out on some great nonfiction writing.

Just to clarify, I don't think people who read true crime are voyeurs or anything, that's just my own weird personal reaction. :)

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Part of my dissertation (the chapter I'm currently revising actually) deals with the fair. And I've spent a lot of time in the archives at the Chicago History Museum. If there's anything I can do to help Eleanor out, let me know. I really enjoyed that book too. I know the landscape intimately and parts of it touch on my diss research. In any case, if you all have never been to the Chicago History Museum, you should make a point of it next time you're in the area. It's long been one of my favorites in the city, second only to the art institute and the World's Fair exhibit is a lot of fun.

Avid Reader said...

I thought this one was fascinating. It was such a strange combination of creation (the world fair) and destruction (muderer). It shows man at his best and worst, which makes for an interesting read.

Amanda said...

I couldn't really get into this one but I think that's more a problem with me and nonfiction than anything else. I've thought about trying to listen to it instead.

Nymeth said...

This has been on my nonfiction wishlist for ages! It sounds like something I'd gobble up.

kittiesx3 said...

That does sound like it would be a very interesting book to read. And yes, I wondered about the lawn guy in your town--evil lives everywhere, I guess.

PAJ said...

I've read this one and Isaac's Storm (mentioned by Lass) and thought both were compelling stories. (That said, I tire of Larson's writing style rather quickly. It's the written equivalent of a movie filmed with a hand-held camera.)
Here's a plug for Chicago. It's a wonderful, beautiful, friendly city with great architecture, history, traditions, and food, and it has the best theater culture in this country.

Jenny said...

I don't like true crime stories, but this one is set far enough back in the past, with enough Chicago-World-Fair window dressing, that I think I will enjoy it when I (eventually) get around to reading it. I hear nice things about Larson's writing.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I agree with basically everything you said. I thought foreshadowing was overused, to the point that it distracted me, but I was really absorbed by the story. I thought the contrast between the Fair and the murders was interesting - sort of the opposite ends of what human ingenuity can accomplish.

Jodie said...

Oh my God! What a disturbing thing to find out, I had not heard about that case.

This book sounds like a barrel of historical delights that I'd have to hide under some other very heavy book at night. Ooo the ferris wheel was invented, argh a hotel of death! Yet strangely that idea for a hotel no one had ever seen all of would make a great premise for a novel - what a shame it couldn't be confined to fiction.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, I haven't met anyone who didn't like it at least a little, which is why I finally read a nonfiction book!

Lass, her research was last spring. I asked her if she wanted to go to the Chicago History Museum when we go to the city this winter, and she said yes, definitely!

Eva, I don't read this kind of thing very often for much the same reasons you describe. I'd started it when the local news broke, though, and being immersed in that kind of horror already made reading the book less horrible in terms of feeling like a voyeur. I was already that, just from living here.

Harriet, ok, we're definitely going. The modern art museum, which wasn't all open last time we were there, is our other definite destination in the city.

Avid Reader, yes, it definitely shows the best and worst of humankind.

Amanda, I don't know if I'd like it as an audiobook because of all the foreshadowing and the gory detail--but you and I react very differently to books sometimes!

Nymeth, it was a pretty fast read, and I read it even faster than usual once I got about halfway through, because I wanted it to be over.

Elizabeth, it's still creeping me out that I was taking walks by myself in parks where it turns out that guy was sitting around in trees watching people.

PAJ, we're definitely going to the theater on our trip to Chicago. We're seeing Wicked (for the second time, aren't we indulgent) and White Christmas, partly because it has my father's most-frequently-sung song in it--"Blue Skies."

Jenny, I might read another by Larson someday, and that's saying something because I rarely read anything that requires too much effort.

Kim, yes, you describe the big picture better--it is a book about ingenuity. Your review is a good companion piece to mine! I don't disagree about the foreshadowing, but was less distracted by it.

Jodie, the case made the national news, but I guess triple murder and a kidnapping isn't big enough news anymore to go international. And yeah, what a shame it isn't fiction.

Memory said...

I read--and loved--this late last year. The Ferris Wheel really surprised me; I thought they'd originally been composed of small, two- or three-person carriages, and things like the London Eye were a recent innovation.

Jeanne said...

Memory--yes, exactly--what I liked about the book was the way Larson highlights how audacious some of these ideas were--the first ferris wheel was no small undertaking!