Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Chicago Way

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson, Read by Scott Brick, Random House Audio, 2007

Spray paint. The Ferris Wheel. Belly dancing (including the famous “snake charmer” melody we’re all so familiar with). The eight hour workday. The electric chair. Edison wax cylinders. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibit, known commonly as the World’s Fair, introduced and innovated and changed the shape of America in ways we are barely aware of today.*

Shredded Wheat, Quaker Oats, Juicy Fruit Gum, Cracker Jack, Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, mass usage of alternating current, all of these made their debut, all of them still with us. Pabst won its Blue Ribbon here, forever after taking that as its name. Erik Larson’s fourth book is a fascinating account of the men who put together the Columbian Exhibit, as well as a much darker, sinister chronicle of a devil haunting its shadows. The Devil in the White City is undoubtedly one of the best descendants of the nonfiction novel launched by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Its account is so gripping, so well told, and so expertly paced that I had to keep reminding myself that it was in fact a true story.

The prose is gripping and immediate from the very first pages. Larson paints a lurid picture of Chicago filled with historical detail, even if he does favor the most gruesome accounts (such as streetcar accidents involving people retrieving severed heads, rather than mere crushings). At one point when he describes a killer hugging his daughter, she is described as being “entombed” in his arms, a rather melodramatic choice of terms. His picture of The Windy City, however, will sound remarkably familiar to anyone who’s read Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Larson’s book circles around Daniel H. Burnham, the celebrated Midwestern architect in charge of the Exhibition’s construction and design, and H.H. Holmes, a charismatic pharmacist, businessman, forger, defrauder, bigamist, torturer, and widely considered America’s first true serial killer. Against the backdrop of the World’s Fair, Holmes slaughtered an indeterminate number of people. He confessed to 27, nine were confirmed definitively, though police have theorized the number could be in the hundreds. The larger story, that of the Fair itself, is one too wracked by troubles, tragedy, and disaster.

The World’s Columbian Exposition, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in America, got its start after Paris held their World Fair, unveiling the Eiffel Tower to much amazement and acclaim. Why should we let France upstage us? was the question that swept the nation. Cities across America vied for to be the host, the final competition down to New York and Chicago. Public meetings, editorials, and political speeches were made by representatives of both cities touting their own strengths and the other’s weakness. It is said that Charles Dana of the New York Sun first gave Chicago the name “Windy City” for how boisterous the city’s backers were, how much wind they produced.

The Windy City winning it, the task of planning, building, and organizing the Fair fell to Daniel Burnham, designer of one of Ameica’s first skyscrapers, the Masonic Temple Building. An influential figure, Burnham was ultimately considered America’s best architect, twice serving as the president of the American Institute of Architects. But from the start, the project was beset by difficulties. Financial backers were leery, the site chosen was a swamp, there were some difficulties with the white facades that earned the site its nickname, and outside architects brought in scoffed at Burnham’s lack of a Harvard or Yale degree and regularly snubbed him. When the weather could make things difficult, it did so.

In the history of the Fair, things seemed to keep getting worse. Businesses failed left and right in America, the years being recessionary, as a general panic made runs on banks a regular thing. Whole industries collapsed. Early ticket sales were so low the backers threatened to take control of the Fair. A waterspout came across Lake Michigan during a tornado, tearing the hot air balloon ride to pieces, though it didn’t harm the Ferris Wheel. The day after that, a building caught on fire, a slow superheated plasma within the walls of the structure that created a trap for firefighters, killing twelve fireman and three workers. The next day after that, attendance exceeded 100,000, the second largest turnout up to that point.

From there it should have been smoother sailing, as the notoriety and the novelty kept sales relatively higher. However, two days before the end of the Fair, Chicago’s popular mayor Carter Harrison was assassinated at home by the delusional newspaper distributor Patrick Prendergast who believed that Harrison would appoint him to a comfy position in the government. The Fair cancelled the closing ceremonies in favor of a public memorial service.

Meanwhile, in the darker corners of Chicago, Holmes, having secured his position as a prominent pharmacist went into business as a real estate developer. With a complicated and dragged out scheme of hiring and firing construction workers (or letting them quit after he refused to pay them), Holmes constructed a three story hotel/apartment/commercial property covering one whole city block. The scheme he envisioned was that by keeping the workers new all the time, no one but he would ever understand the building’s makeup. The top floors of the building were a puzzle to anyone who ventured into them, a disquieting collection of windowless rooms, doors that lead to nowhere, disjointed hallway angles, and stairs that lead up to solid walls.

Leading from this third floor labyrinth were the usual means of egress, as well as a greased chute tucked away in a corner, down which Holmes could send bodies to the cellar. Below, Holmes would use his medical training to strip the bodies of flesh to sell to hospitals and medical schools as articulated skeletons. To prevent suspicion by how many bodies he turned up, Holmes also cremated a number of his victims in his two large furnaces. Prior to the murders, Holmes would often torture his victims in a soundproof chamber, sometimes asphyxiating them through built-in gas lines. Larson’s prose here, while tending, as I’ve said, toward the melodramatic nevertheless is chilling, his horror at Holmes obviously tempered by a marveling sick fascination.

On a lighter note, there are lovely little anecdotes, such as Burnham lunching with Teddy Roosevelt and for weeks afterward ejaculating “Bully!” Or Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show announcing Waifs’ Day offering free attendance to the show and all the candy the kids could eat — 15,000 showing up. Or how about Helen Keller meeting the inventor of the Braille typewriter and hugging him in her gratitude? Such set pieces amaze us with how much of the world’s famous names were all in one place at one time.

Perhaps one of my favorite related side notes to the story involves Burnham’s partner John Wellborn Root. He married Mary Louise Walker, a consumptive woman who died six weeks afterwards. Three years later, upon his marrying her bridesmaid, Dora Louise Monroe, her sister, Harriet Monroe, a very minor poet also in love with Root, decided never to marry. In her grief, she threw herself into poetry, most specifically into the founding of Poetry magazine, which launched the careers of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and John Ashberry among others.

A wealth of historical trivia and anecdotes, Larson’s book is also imminently fascinating, compelling, and readable. On every page there is a marvel, a curiosity, or a horror. The book moves along with such astonishing rapidity and efficiency it would easily bear repeated readings. The Devil in the White City ranks highly as both a historical portrait and nonfiction novel. Hopefully Larson will continue to bring such polish and entertainment to his future educational works.

Reader Scott Brick, who also turned up for Larson’s predecessor’s In Cold Blood, returns to the nonfiction novel with his usual just-the-facts-ma’am delivery. Its very dryness is its strength, his voice exuding an elevated authority.

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