crap i have read recently #19

murder castleLions and tigers and SPOILERS, oh my!

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The Devil in the White City:  Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (Larson, 2003): This book came to me by accident.  A few people at my job have set up sort of an informal lending library and they occasionally set out books for trading on the tables in the staff break room.   Usually they are cheesy genre fiction: chain detective novels with punny titles, chaste romances (judging by the covers), and old Tom Clancey knockoff spy thrillers.  Then this book showed up and I dimly recalled reading good things about it back when it was new.  So I snagged it and it proved both moderately entertaining and informative, without being either pedantic or sensational.   Although it occasionally reads like a fictionalized historical account the author assures us in the forward that everything in quotation marks is actually a documented utterance (or written comment) by the person making it  and that the events and time frame are as described in the book.  In other words, this is history presented as a novel and it works, mostly.  The book primarily concerns itself with the alternating stories of two very different men: Daniel Burnham, the architect of the White City; and Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, considered to be one of the first modern serial killers documented in America.

In 1889 Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle, a six-month long extravaganza that covered nearly a square kilometer, hosted over 32 million visitors, and introduced the world to Gustave Eiffel and his eponymous tower.  In the early 1890’s Chicago beat out St. Louis, Washington, DC, and New York City and won the concession to hold a massive World’s Fair commemorating the 400th year of Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World.  It was crucial that this event 1) show the world that Chicago had recovered from the 1871 fire; 2) fix the public’s perception of Chicago as a major American city; and 3) make Paris’ fair look trivial.  That the World’s Columbian Exposition succeeded to some degree in all three of these areas was due primarily to the efforts of a small group of men headed by architect Daniel Burnham who shepherded it through the labyrinth of politics and money.  By the end of its six month run from May to October in 1893 the fair saw 26 million visitors pass through its gates and those visitors saw many amazing things.  The fair buildings followed neoclassical design and were clad in white stucco (hence the name White City) and arranged around a massive central pool.   Extensive use of electric lighting was used so that the fair could stay open late into the night. Frederick Law Olmstead designed the grounds as a showplace for his naturalistic style of landscape design.  The fair covered more than twice the area of the Paris exposition and included national pavilions from 46 different countries and a “Midway Plaisance” where amusements and other things not related to the exhibitions were displayed; one of these was the original Ferris wheel, designed to be Chicago’s answer to the Eiffel Tower.  The world was introduced to many things it loves today, including Cream of Wheat, PBR, and Quaker Oats.  Plates for printing in Braille were unveiled there, those smashed pennies you can still buy at tourist attractions were first coined (I am so funny!) at the fair, and spray painting was invented in order to speed up the construction process.  Innovations in city planning, sanitation, street lighting, and nighttime sporting events are attributed to the fair and several up-and-coming artists displayed or performed there, including Scott Joplin, Eadweard Muybridge, and Louis Tiffany.  The fair showcased several African American artists and convened the first international religious conference that included representatives of western and eastern religions.  There was a Viking ship from Norway, a giant gun from Germany, and belly dancers from Morocco.  By all accounts the fair was awesome and wondrous and a good time was had by all.

There was, however, a dark side to the White City.  By most accounts, unless you were very rich and very white Chicago in 1893 was pretty much a hellhole.  The city was dominated by the massive stockyards, the smell of which permeated the entire city and was almost universally commented upon by first-time visitors.  Coal fired factories and hearths alike and the city was constantly draped in a miasma of acrid smoke.  Much of the population lived in rancid slums and the lack of modern sanitation was everywhere evident.   The world-wide panic of 1890, triggered by bank failures in London, had afflicted the United States with recession and unemployment.  The subsequent bank failures in the U.S. in 1893, right before the fair opened, caused massive economic disruption and unemployment rates as high as 43% in some places.  Chicago was a city full of immigrants and blacks come up from the south, most of whom worked in deplorable conditions for next to no pay.  They lived jammed into tenements and were primarily the fodder of the city’s sweatshops, stockyards, and meat packing plants.  Their lives were so distant from that of Daniel Burnham (who lived in Evanston) that they might as well have been on Mars.  There were so many of them and they were so interchangeable, so expendable, that a man like Dr. H.H. Holmes could have no trouble indulging himself in an unusual past time.  After all, people came to the city every day and just disappeared and mostly no one ever came looking for them.

Holmes was born as the decidedly unalliterative Herman Webster Mudgett.  He attended medical school in Michigan, where he apparently mutilated bodies stolen from the medical laboratories and then collected on insurance policies taken out on them.  After graduation he moved to Chicago, adopted a new name, and began engaging in all sorts of criminal activity, usually involving shady loans and swindling.  Eventually he managed to con an elderly woman out of her pharmacy business and a short time later she “went to California” and was never heard from again.  Apparently he was a charmer and had quite a way with the ladies. Prior to med school he married and had a son but things went south with his wife when he started to creep  her out and she did not accompany him to Chicago.  In Chicago, Holmes married again (without the formality of divorcing his first wife) and had another child; he lived with them in a suburb of Chicago while continuing his businesses and extramarital affairs in the city.  Less than a year before his arrest Holmes married a third time while still married to his previous wives.  Holmes  liked blondes and hired several of them to work in his pharmacy.  He had affairs with most of them and if they had money he could swindle out of them so much the better.  Due to a lucky accident Holmes’ pharmacy was just up the street from the site that was chosen for the World Columbian Exposition.  Both his swindling and his pharmacy were profitable and he purchased a block-long lot across the street, ostensibly to build a hotel there to capitalize on the fair.  Although he did build a hotel it eventually became famous as something rather different.  The press styled it the “Murder Castle“.

Holmes had the large and ugly hotel constructed by a variety of contractors so that no one really had a good idea of what the building was actually for.   It did contain some commercial space on the ground floor  as well as Holmes’ office, but the upper two floors of the building were a strange and creepy maze of rooms with no windows, dead end hallways, and doors that could only be opened from the outside.  There was a kiln in the basement, a medical suite that included a stretching rack, and lime pits.  Shafts from the upper floors allowed him to easily move bodies to the basement.  Holmes selected mostly young women as his victims; many of them worked in his shop before disappearing.  He killed them with chloroform or with gas delivered by jets in their rooms.  Some he suffocated.  Some of his victims were children.  He surgically dismembered some of them and later sold their skeletons to local medical schools.  He burned their remains and their effects in the kiln, buried any remaining evidence in the lime pits and acid vats, and started his search for the next victim.  He occasionally communicated with concerned family members and even sometimes offered to help search for the missing women.  When the hotel was searched after his arrest in 1895 the remains of numerous people were found but they were so badly destroyed that it was not possible to know how many there were.  The more or less official death toll is 27 but he claimed to have murdered 30 and estimates based on the discovered remains and missing person reports range as high as 200.  At least 50 people were traced to the hotel and no further.  In the end, following the dedicated efforts of a Philadelphia detective named Frank Geyer, Holmes was convicted of the murder of a former partner in crime and hanged.  He was, at his request, encased in concrete and buried in an unmarked grave.

The book suffers from a few relatively minor things.  The opening scenes of the book concerning the fair are a bit slow and it takes some time before the drama surrounding building the most amazing thing the world had ever seen in just a few short months heats up.  There is an unnecessary and distracting story about a disturbed and deluded young man who eventually assassinates the mayor of Chicago.  Larson is diligent about not making assumptions about persons and events (and scrupulously notes when he does) but this means that many of the protagonists never leave the page as more than dusty historical figures.  And there are rather a lot of historical figures, occasionally too many to keep straight.  In some cases the adherence to documented quotations means that conversation sounds stilted and unreal.  There is very little in the book that breathes life into Holmes’ victims and it’s unfortunate that they tend to blend together.  Although Larson attempts to bring some depth to Holmes (tales of being bullied as a child and the like) he is hampered by the shortage of information regarding the crimes that didn’t come from Holmes himself and Holmes was a practiced liar.  It is, I suppose, very modern to want to know WHY somebody does these terrible things, and frustrating to find that the answer is apparently “just because”.    There is a noticeable lack of information from people close to Holmes.   All three of his wives and both of his known children survived him but if there were any interviews of them in the source documents, I missed it.  This is, of course, not Larson’s fault; apparently back in the day the press respected people and didn’t aggressively interview them after a tragedy. It’s quite possible that Holmes’ wives and children considered themselves lucky to have survived and the press left them alone to forget him in peace.

In the whole, though, these are minor quibbles.  I’m not sure I’d ever heard of the Chicago fair before this and I know I’d never heard of H.H. Holmes.  Now I know about the amazing fair and the effect it had on present day culture.  Carnival midways and Ferris wheels.  Oz.  The Lincoln Memorial.  Disneyland.   I’ve probably learned more than I wanted to know about Chicago architects and Frederick Law Olmstead’s health issues and despair over cretins who didn’t understand his vision.  And  I’m intrigued about Holmes to the extent that I’d like to read more about him.  It’s bizarre to me that I’ve never heard of him, that he’s not usually presented in the pantheon of American super villains (honestly?  that death hotel of his?  seriously weird.)   Leonardo DiCaprio bought the film rights to the book so Burnham, Olmstead, Geyer, Holmes, et al. might eventually become more famous.

I will note that one thing struck me forcefully.  I was left with a sense of profound…is irony the term I want here?  The more I read about Holmes, about the young women he slaughtered, the children he buried, his insouciant attitude about murder, the less kindly I regarded Burnham, Olmstead, and the other drivers behind the fair.  The comfortable lives of these privileged men, in their city offices high above the choking coal fog and their comfortable houses in suburban enclaves, are inexorably contrasted with the plight of the poor and invisible in the city beneath their feet.   If they didn’t create the environment in which a serial killer could operate they certainly did nothing to improve it.  Holmes moved to Chicago in 1884 and didn’t leave it until creditors ran him out in 1893.  In that time as many as 200 people may have died at his hands.   And pretty much no one noticed because the victims were unimportant people in the middle of a city willing to do anything to prove its importance.  It rapidly seemed unconscionable to me that these men and their city built a 15 million dollar dream on the shores of Lake Michigan while a heartless sociopath was killing young women with impunity right down the street from it.  They could have done so much with that money to make better lives for people and instead they built something designed to seem fantastic and otherworldly, to serve as entertainment and promotion, and deliberately made to be temporary.  Holmes’ castle burned down in 1895.   The White City itself had gone up in flames in 1894.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on October 17, 2013.

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