They were Gods. Red-faced gentlemen of appetite and power: architects, scions, money movers, and engineers. Men who rent and reshaped the American landscape just before the turn of the 20th century. And feeding off their most idyllic vision was a startling new kind of killer.
Man, oh, man, do you have to admire Erik Larson. The celebrated journalist and author of 1999’s ”Isaac’s Storm” has a spooky eye for the small stories that hum and flicker underneath grand narratives, the unlikely intersections that so beautifully illuminate and amplify our understanding of history. In The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America — a true tale about the making of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the nation’s first serial killer/media celebrity — the author matches this uncommon talent with the kind of storytelling grace that should be the envy of all budding writers.
We begin in 1889 in the Windy City, a heaving mess of a burg that stinks of pig carcasses, human misery, and greed. Civic leaders — desperate to burnish their city’s image and show up snooty New York society — decide that their best course of action is to secure the right to host the next world’s fair. Larson follows two men connected to this quest, similar both in physical aspect and bottomless ambition: Daniel Hudson Burnham, gruff architect, lustful husband, cocreator of the elegant lines of New York City’s Flatiron Building and Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, and the bulldog chosen to bring the prized fair home to Chicago; and Henry H. Holmes, pharmacist, insurance cheat, torturer of small animals, and national nightmare by the time of his arrest and execution in 1896.
Though the two apparently never met, the story of their wildly different aspirations unfolds in parallel form. While Burnham fights draconian time constraints, Holmes is killing. Armed with gleaming surgical tools and serpentine charm, he seduces women, stripping them of their property and then of their skins — the latter in a sickening hotel-drugstore dungeon he designed specifically for the purpose. Burnham struggles with miserly budgets and almost ridiculous bad luck (tornadoes, rain, fires, electrocutions, biting cold), and Holmes piggybacks on his hard work, using the rising national fascination with the fair to lure prey, eventually marrying three times and killing all three wives.
In the end, of course, the fair proved to be a runaway success — and by the time it reached its conclusion, both men had built quite a resume. Burnham’s exposition turned out to be a thing of ethereal beauty — popularly dubbed the White City — that introduced a stunned American public to movies, zippers, dishwashers, and a bevy of other staples. Writes Larson: ”They sampled a new, oddly flavored gum called Juicy Fruit and caramel-coated popcorn called Cracker Jack. A new cereal, Shredded Wheat, seemed unlikely to succeed — ‘shredded doormat,’ some called it — but a new beer did well, winning the exposition’s top beer award. Forever afterward, its brewer called it Pabst Blue Ribbon.”
Holmes, meanwhile, did what he did best. Killing. Only after his capture, followed by a cross-country investigation that unearthed horror at virtually every turn, were the true secrets of his dark hotel finally revealed by police. ”The discoveries came quickly: a vat of acid with eight ribs and part of a skull settled at the bottom; mounds of quicklime; a large kiln; a dissection table stained with what seemed to be blood. They found surgical tools and charred high-heeled shoes. And more bones.”
No one knows exactly how many Holmes killed — he admitted to 27, the actual total may have been less — but popular lore has it that the would-be doctor not only destroyed almost 200 souls, but that he was, in fact, the devil himself.
Who can resist this kind of stuff? Especially with a swirl of spicy romantic figures — Buffalo Bill Cody, Thomas Edison, Theodore Dreiser, Helen Keller, Frank Lloyd Wright, Harry Houdini — thrown into the already tasty gumbo. Indeed, if Larson’s book is flawed, it’s only by the inevitable imbalance in the allure of the book’s two primary narratives. (Literature 101, subsection Evil: While attempting to hold reader attention, morbidity trumps construction committees every time.) In the soaring dreams of Daniel Burnham and the hellish ones of Henry Holmes, Larson has paired two unlikely stories that paint a dazzling picture of the Gilded Age and prefigure the American century to come. A time that would be freewheeling, wildly innovative, and staggering in its ambition and avarice. And, of course, bloody as hell.