Sunday, January 2, 2011
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
"I was born with the devil in me," he wrote. "I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing."
This book considers, as Larson tells it, two key attributes of the human condition, pride and lust for power, through the stories of Chicago's World Columbian Exposition (the world's fair) of 1893 and of H.H. Holmes, one of the most prolific and downright creepy serial killers in America's history. Though the two stories are only related by time and place, Devil in the White City is still an interesting book and Larson weaves the stories together nicely.
Holmes's story is certainly the more lurid of the two. In the few years before and after the fair, he may have murdered somewhere between 20 and 100 people. He confessed to 27, but that number was clearly a lie (some of those people were still alive) and he was only convicted of murdering one, but the investigator who finally pinned it on him also dug up enough evidence to probably convict him of three others. In addition, investigators found bones from an unidentified number of people in the hotel he constructed only a few blocks from the fair, which doubled as his house of torture. His preferred method of murder was locking his victims, usually young women, in airtight chambers and either leaving them their to asphyxiate or pumping poisonous gas into the chambers. What made him really creepy was his ability to charm the pants off of just about anyone he chose. He convinced four women to marry him (he never divorced any of them, either, and only killed a couple or three of them) and frequently talked his creditors into suspending or forgetting his debts. Now I'm going to have to make a list of my friends and decide which one is a secret serial killer, because Holmes proved it really can be anyone...
Despite how gory and titillating the true accounts of Holmes's activities are, Larson's story of the Fair is more dramatic. In the last decade of the 1800s Chicago was suffering from a serious inferiority complex with respect to New York, so it nearly bit off more than it could chew by bidding on and winning the right to host a big ass world's fair to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival on the continent. Paris had held a world's fair a few years before (at which it unveiled the Eiffel Tower, an architectural marvel for the era) and Chicago had to step up and surpass it or humiliate itself and the country. The story of how the Fair came together was pretty interesting, especially considering how much of a marvel many of its aspects were at the time and the fact that it was the largest peaceful gathering in the history of the world to that point.
Overall an interesting tale and definitely worth a read.