Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Columbian Exposition tickets reflected American history
A review by Bruce McKinney
In 1893 Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition. To obtain the designation the windy city competed before a national board that considered the applications of four interested venues: Chicago, New York, St. Louis, and Washington. World's fairs had been more or less regular events since the Crystal Palace fair in London in 1851. Philadelphia hosted the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 and Paris the Exposition Universalle in 1889. The Columbian Exposition would honor the 400th anniversary of the landing of Columbus in the New World, highlight the host city and convey the headlong progress and gathering potential of the United States, just then emerging as the foremost world power of the twentieth century. At the same time Dr. Herman W. Mudgett was, like a mantis in a cocoon, stretching his legs in New England and preparing for a new life and identity in Chicago as Henry H. Holmes. In Chicago he would emerge, over a period of years as America's first psychopathic mass murder. His story and the story of the fair are told in alternating chapters.
It is now lost to most people that it was at the Chicago Exposition, at the beginning of the American century, where both the nation and world first peered into the dawning "American era" and saw the future. Many of the seven million visitors who visited during its six months run saw their first artificial lighting, what we know today as electric lights. Those who tasted Cracker Jacks and Shredded Wheat did so for the first time because these treats were introduced here. For many their first glimpse of the just invented Ferris Wheel was the strongest and most lasting impression. America was moving from its agricultural underpinnings toward the industrial power that would define it in the 20th century and the full sense of its burgeoning strength was on display.
That Henry Holmes, a psychopath, would occupy the same time and space was simply the random bad luck that anyone watching television news sees confirmed every few hours somewhere in America or overseas. Where there are people there is mischance and it is only ever a matter of time, never a matter of "if." This book reconstructs the circumstances and events of that mischance in Chicago precisely at the time the Columbian Exposition was being organized, built and run. That the fair somehow provoked Holmes' fantasies of death and sent him into a spasm of continuing murder seems certain although the book never touches on this. Like railroad rails, always together, but never touching, these two stories run side by side. What connections and conclusions may be drawn is left to the reader. In some sense this story telling approach, without conclusions, is the polar opposite of the afternoon television talk shows today that often start with conclusions and present facts and perspectives to lead the viewer to simply accept the host's view.
Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Columbian Exposition tickets are actively traded on eBay.
The Columbian Exposition represented the success of a city and a region but it was not easily accomplished. The author, Erik Larson, gives the primary credit to Daniel H. Burnham, a local architect, who forges an alliance of nationally renowned architects to design the important fair buildings and create what would become the "White City," a campus of buildings that shared common architectural elements and were all finished in a shade of white. The single color unified the architectural images and gave the fair its unofficial name: the White City. That the fair comes to life so vividly in the pages of "The Devil in the White City" is a testament to Mr. Larson's research and writing skills. But it is the intertwining of a murder's increasing obsession and the extraordinary steps he takes to create a mechanism of easy and relentless death that, when juxtoposed with the progress of the fair itself, project a sense of black and white piano keys separately conveying their parts and together creating music, a dirge interspersed with high notes.
For the non-fiction reader who likes plot and pace this is one of those unusual books where truth delivers more mystery than most fictional works usually do. This book is also an interesting point of departure for collectors to find relating material. Dr. Herman W. Mudgett [H. H. Holmes] comes up in three eBay searches today while H. H. Holmes is implicated in 40. The "World's Columbian Exposition" comes up 607 times on eBay. On ABE using Herman Mudgett in the keyword field finds 59 matches, 137 with H. H. Holmes in quotes, and 846 for World's Columbian Exposition in quotes. "World's Columbian Exposition" comes up almost as often on eBay as ABE probably because the type of fair material that continues to circulate is mostly ephemera. Much of it is tickets and brochures which seem to be plentiful and generally inexpensive and not so easily sold on ABE. A collection, of such material, in any event, is not going to be costly.
So how many people did he kill and what finally happened to Dr. Mudgett, aka H. H. Holmes? Holmes confessed to committing 27 murders. Mr. Larson confirms 9. Murder, always heinous, is sometimes random, often spur of the moment and committed only once. Holmes slowly, and with great premeditation, constructed a mechanism of death and then used it again and again to kill mainly women who sometimes loved but often at least cared about him. He built a death chamber to coincide with the opening of the fair and was discovered only by chance after it closed. To learn how the story turns out you'll need to read the book, which I recommend.
The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, was first published in 2003 and is available in hardcover and paperback on-line and in book stores around the world. In paperback it is an entertaining 396 page read.