The book is the latest from Erik Larson, a gifted historical storyteller and author of best-sellers like “Isaacs Storm,“ the title says it all, and the story is absolutely riveting, especially since its true. Think of it as the non-fiction brother of “The Alchemist“ by Caleb Carr, and youre in the ballpark. Like Carr, Larsen takes real events and relates them in a dramatic and spellbinding way, only this is not a novel. Juicy, lurid, endlessly fascinating, and skillfully executed, the history here leaps off the pages and makes for a remarkable overall effort.
Larson weaves together the tale of two men against the backdrop of the 1893 Chicago World‘s Fair. They couldnt have been more alike and more dissimilar as they went about their respective missions, which were closely linked to what was about to be the Windy Citys finest moment.
The first, and far more noble of the two is Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fairs brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the countrys most important and influential structures at the time, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. Burnham had his work cut out for him in transforming Chicagos swampy Jackson Park into the ambitiously modern “White City,“as he was charged with delivering the sprawling project on an extremely tight two-year schedule while coping with a long list of major obstacles.
The other subject of the tale is the reincarnation of the devil himself. H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett), a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor who was responsible for the horrifying and grisly murders of somewhere between 27 and 200 people, mostly young women. Jack the Ripper might have caught the attention of the world just a few years earlier, but he had nothing on Holmes. In a simultaneous and perverse twist on what Burnham was doing, Holmes built his own “Worlds Fair Hotel“ just west of the fairgrounds - a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium where most of his victims met their fate.
Larson establishes the mood of the day and the gritty feel of a place where such an unthinkable thing could occur. In “The Black City“ chapter in the books early pages, he hooks the reader in, and defies them to slide away from him by its end:
“How easy it was to disappear:
A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never even seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home. Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago‘s Hull House, wrote, “Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs.“ The women sought work as typewriters, stenographers, seamstresses, and weavers. The men who hired them were for the most part moral citizens intent on efficiency and profit. But not always...
Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left the city did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the city‘s rail crossings. Their injuries were grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards. Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. Fires took a dozen lives a day. In describing the fire dead, the term the newspapers most liked to use was “roasted.“ There was diphtheria, typhus, cholera, influenza. And there was murder. In the time of the fair the rate at which men and women killed each other rose sharply throughout the nation but especially in Chicago, where police found themselves without the manpower or expertise to manage the volume. In the first six months of 1892 the city experienced nearly eight hundred homicides. Four a day. Most were prosaic, arising from robbery, argument, or sexual jealousy. Men shot women, women shot men, and children shot each other by accident. But all this could be understood. Nothing like the Whitechapel killings had occurred. Jack the Ripper‘s five-murder spree in 1888 had defied explanation and captivated readers throughout America, who believed such a thing could not happen in their own hometowns.
But things were changing. Everywhere one looked the boundary between the moral and the wicked seemed to be degrading. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued in favor of divorce. Clarence Darrow advocated free love. A young woman named Borden killed her parents.
And in Chicago a young handsome doctor stepped from a train, his surgical valise in hand. He entered a world of clamor, smoke, and steam, refulgent with the scents of murdered cattle and pigs. He found it to his liking.
The letters came later, from the Cigrands, Williamses, Smythes, and untold others, addressed to that strange gloomy castle at Sixty-third and Wallace, pleading for the whereabouts of daughters and daughters‘ children.
It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root.
This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history.“
As Larson examines Burnhams painstaking efforts to build a worlds fair and Holmes pain-inflicting efforts to lure scores of young women to death, mostly in alternating chapters, he reveals a pentimento of wonder and evil, and majesty and mayhem, punctuated by the appearances of legendary figures of the time, such as Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Theodore Dreiser, and Buffalo Bill Cody. “The Devil in the White City“ is an amazing piece of historical writing as well as a fascinating psychological profile of two men who each left a profound impact on a city, an era, and, finally, the world. Dont miss this one.