The Devil In The White City: Murder, Magic, And Madness At The Fair That Changed America
Published in 2003, The Devil in the White City gives a thoroughly researched, factual account of both Dr. H. H. Holmes, the Devil of the title, and the World?s Columbian Exposition, the White City that stood by Lake Michigan in 1893 on the south side of smoke-blackened Chicago. The Prologue, set on board the ocean liner Olympic on the night of April 14, 1912, presents one of the main characters, the architect Daniel Burnham, who tries in vain to send a wireless greeting to his friend Francis Millet, then traveling across the Atlantic in the opposite direction, toward New York, on the Titanic. The last chapter returns the reader to Burnham on the Olympic and to Millet, who had painted the White City and who died when the Titanic sank. In between, Erik Larson interweaves the stories of Holmes, whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, and Burnham, who, more than anyone else, triumphed over a severe shortage of time, the Panic of 1893, political squabbling, wind, fire, and other counterforces and made Chicago?s effort at holding a world?s fair a success?a marvel not only for the city but for the country and the planet.On February 24, 1890, when Chicago learned that it had won the vote in Congress to uphold American honor and try to top the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, with its tower designed by Gustave Eiffel, Burnham and his partner, John Root, became the leading architects for the project. Root, however, who had invented a method for keeping heavy buildings from sinking in Chicago?s soil, died on January 15, 1891. Burnham carried on, trying to work with other prominent American architects, eastern and western, including Louis Sullivan of Chicago and the landscapist Frederick Law Olmsted of Massachusetts, most famous for New York?s Central Park. To Sullivan?s displeasure, the fair?s buildings were generally to have a classical theme; to Olmsted?s displeasure, the erection of the numerous buildings and the disarray that went with it delayed his artistic work. Yet, despite setbacks, including the accidental deaths of many construction workers, and despite the immense work that remained unfinished by the dedication on October 21, 1892, the fair was mostly ready as planned when President Grover Cleveland formally opened it on May 1, 1893. Nevertheless, with Buffalo Bill Cody?s popular Wild West show banned from the fair and located instead beside it, it was not until June 21 when what became the most popular attraction of the fair itself was finished, tested, and opened to the public: this enormous ride, designed by the engineer George Ferris, was the first Ferris wheel. The World?s Columbian Exposition gleamed with the promise of a bright future, one with alternating electric current, motion pictures, zippers, automatic dishwashers, and Shredded Wheat. The display of an artillery piece that could fire a shell weighing a ton disturbed some visitors as an omen of horror, but nearby, at the World?s Fair Hotel, in secret, Holmes was producing a horror show for his own pleasure. Young, handsome, and charming, he had a knack for talking men out of money and talking Young women eventually out of their lives. A married man, actually a bigamist, he had cleverly had a bizarre building constructed at the corner of Sixty-third Street and Wallace Avenue, ostensibly to house visitors to the great fair but actually to use for killing his victims. Gas jets could provide for asphyxiation as well as lighting; soundproofing could lessen the chance of detection; medical training had made Holmes adept with surgical tools that could remove skin and muscles; and, instead of being used in glass-making, a brick-lined oven in the basement could be more easily used for disposing of human bodies?that is, when Holmes did not pay one of his assistants to remove the flesh from them and then bleach and articulate the bones to sell for medical study.In a time of societal change, when many young women left their parents?homes to live and work in big American cities and when, especially, many single women went to Chicago for the fair, it was inevitable that some would never be heard from again. Although Holmes may have killed only nine persons altogether, including three girls, a boy, and a man, most likely he killed far more than a total of nine, and far more than four women. His power unto death over young women seems to have given him a special thrill. Late in 1894, over a year after the fair had ended not with the immense celebration planned for October 30, 1893, but with mourning for Chicago?s assassinated mayor, the law finally caught up with Holmes. He was arrested in Boston for insurance fraud and tried and convicted the next year in Philadelphia of the more serious crime of murdering one of his assistants, Benjamin Pitezel, for the money promised by a policy on Pitezel?s life. On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged in the Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia. The next day, in accord with instructions he had given his lawyers, he was buried in a fortified, unmarked grave. His career as a serial killer was over, as was The Fair That Changed America.