RogerBW's Blog

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson 20 November 2017

2003 non-fiction; the story of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, and of Herman Mudgett or H. H. Holmes, America's first serial killer.

It's an odd juxtaposition, but one can see why Larson did it: much of the necessary background information is common to both stories. Larson's style is presented as mostly recounting of facts ("Anything between quotation marks comes from a letter, memoir, or other written document"), with some fabulation and occasional editorialisations ("Eventually, much would be made of the fact that Holmes had erected his building during the same period in which Jack the Ripper, thousands of miles away, began his killings."); telling only the story of the Fair – while it has its share of bad behaviour – might have seemed quite dry, and telling only the story of H. H. Holmes might have come over as ghoulish (like much true crime), compared with this hybrid approach. On the other hand, the two stories meet only barely and occasionally (Holmes was not in the public eye until well after the Fair had ended, so he had no influence on it), and perhaps separating them might have provided better focus on each.

The focus of the Fair strand is Daniel Burnham, the self-taught architect who was Director of Works. This is unabashed hero-worship: pretty much whenever a conflict arises, Burnham is shown as clearly in the right. Holmes's career strand is the other, and it's mostly a matter of fraud and bigamy; he seems to have killed largely when he got bored with his various wives and mistresses and the children who came along with them, though clearly he enjoyed the process as well.

One does gain a recurrent impression of a more innocent age:

On March 30, 1890, an officer of the First National Bank placed a warning in the help-wanted section of the Chicago Tribune, to inform female stenographers of "our growing conviction that no thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenographer who is a blonde, is good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or will transmit her photograph. All such advertisements upon their face bear the marks of vulgarity, nor do we regard it safe for any lady to answer such unseemly utterances."

and the point to my mind is that someone felt the need to publish that, that it was believed (correctly or otherwise) that there were people naïve enough to benefit from such advice.

Which in turn makes Holmes's career of murder seem more plausible, because nobody expected anything to be amiss:

"The day after Miss Cigrand disappeared, or the day we last saw her, the door of Holmes' office was kept locked and nobody went into it except Holmes and Patrick Quinlan," Mrs. Lawrence said. "About 7 o'clock in the evening Holmes came out of his office and asked two men who were living in the building if they would not help him carry a trunk downstairs." The trunk was new and large, about four feet long. Its contents clearly were heavy and made the big trunk difficult to manage. Holmes repeatedly cautioned his helpers to be careful with it. An express wagon arrived and took it away.

and rather later

For one thing, he had arrived with little furniture—a mattress, an old bed, and an unusually large trunk. One afternoon the tenant came to Ryves's house to borrow a shovel, explaining that he wanted to dig a hole in the cellar for the storage of potatoes. He returned the shovel the next morning and the following day removed the trunk from the house. Ryves never saw him again .

The innocence is less obvious in the Fair strand, but this sort of world-view that is always surprised by bad behaviour and doesn't prepare for it certainly seems to be at the core of many of the things that went wrong. (Of course, this is also an age before the sanity-blasting events of the twentieth century: the human psyche had not yet been stretched to accommodate massed slaughter in the trenches, poison gas, the Holocaust, firestorms, nuclear weapons…)

The Fair strand is written to keep things surprising: if you don't know what engineering marvel was eventually constructed to surpass the Eiffel Tower, Larson will keep it a secret as long as possible, deliberately not giving the name of the inventor until the last moment because it would let the cat out of the bag. There's clearly a lot of cultural cringe here, both international as America set out to have a fair to surpass the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, and domestic as Chicago tried to get away from its image as a slaughterhouse town and compete culturally with the east coast; and many things tried for the first time on a large scale at the Fair became standards later, not least alternating current and the Pledge of Allegiance.

The book is packed with snippets of fact, some of which have little to do with anything:

He stepped from the train into the heart of Englewood and took a moment to survey his surroundings. He stood at the intersection of Sixty-third and Wallace. A telegraph pole at the corner held Fire Alarm Box No. 2475. In the distance rose the frames of several three-story homes under construction. He heard the concussion of hammers. Newly planted trees stood in soldierly ranks, but in the heat and haze they looked like desert troops gone too long without water. The air was still, moist, and suffused with the burned-licorice scent of freshly rolled macadam. On the corner stood a shop with a sign identifying it as E. S. Holton Drugs.

Only the last of those items is of the slightest importance. If one's in the mood for a leisurely ramble through comprehensive research, no problem; but pacing does sometimes suffer, and while there's plenty of good stuff here the book could have done with a tighter edit.

In the name of consistency Larson has too often made things up out of whole cloth: "It seems likely that Holmes would have brought Minnie and Nannie [to see the stockyards]", "I propose one likely possibility", "that Minnie planned to take her sister on such a tour is likely but not certain" (all taken from the endnotes), but all these accounts are written with the same certainty and in the same voice as the descriptions of attested facts.

Well, Larson is a journalist, not an historian, though perhaps he'd like to be the latter. The book makes me want to set a game around the World's Fair… but it would need a solid plot of its own, not just to be historical sight-seeing.

Overall, though, definitely enjoyable in spits of its faults. Recommended by Clare Chippindale.

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