Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

So I’ve been reading a book about a deranged serial killer who had a hotel constructed to his own design, and being a twisted individual arranged it so that some of the rooms were soundproofed and airtight with externally-operable gas jets feeding in.  Some of the rooms were asbestos-lined for easy corpse incineration and he also had a system of chutes to the basement, which contained a kiln - again, of his own design, which did double duty as a crematorium.  He also did a brisk trade in selling articulated skeletons to the local medical school, and even though he was a physician he bought so much chloroform that his suppliers threatened to cut him off unless he explained what he wanted it for.

Oh, did I mention that this is nonfiction?  That’s all a real thing that actually happened.

The saga of the infamous killer Herman Mudgett a.k.a. Dr. H.H. Holmes a.k.a. a whole bunch of other things is really only half the story, as the chapters alternate between him and architect Daniel Burnham.  The book is ostensibly about the giant World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893.  From the moment of its announcement in 1890 the city was in a frantic state to get everything prepared and show that the US, and Chicago in particular, had arrived.  Also they invented the Ferris wheel.  And the mayor got shot.  There was quite a bit going on.

Both of these stories are quite interesting, but although they are contemporaneous there really isn’t much else linking them.  Holmes didn’t really have anything to do with the fair besides the fact that all the chaos surrounding the event made it somewhat easier for him to avoid detection for his over the top crimes.  He didn’t have any particular influence with the city or anything.  In that respect this book reminded me of “Newton and the Counterfeiter” by Thomas Levenson – although in that case Newton did actually have the titular counterfeiter hanged.  However, Newton didn’t really consider that a big part of his life (I suppose that the counterfeiter considered his encounter with Newton somewhat more important).  In that respect this is essentially two books in one, either of which would have made a nice story on its own.

Holmes was a slick ladies’ man and was able to capitalize on the fact that many young women were transients in Chicago.  He was also able to leverage the poor communication of the era and the fact that people were just more likely to drop dead.  One of his victims’ parents accepted his story that their daughter had gotten married and gone on a honeymoon to Europe, and after not hearing back from her for a long time they assumed that she must have died on her trip.  It would be easy to think that these people were pretty dumb to believe that, but we’ve got a family story about one of my great-great grandfathers who went to California to look for work and was never heard from again.  Maybe he died, maybe not, the point is that it was easier to disappear back then and I guess folks just had a slightly different perspective on it.  I’d like to think that Holmes would be caught much quicker today but even for the era his offenses were so brazen that he must have been an incredibly persuasive guy.  It’s pretty amazing to read about him but it’s also gut-wrenching in its way; after all this is the 1890s, so although Holmes’s bio looks just like every other psychopath’s you’ve ever heard of none of these poor young women have even considered such a thing, and neither have the cops.  No one manages to put two and two together and follow up the fact that the last known address of a lot of missing people is this screwy hotel with a lot of custom fixtures.  He’s a fully fledged modern serial killer and neither the victims or law enforcement is prepared to deal with something like that.  It’s like the Aztecs seeing metal weapons and horses for the first time; so it’s fitting that he was eventually busted for insurance fraud, a thoroughly modern concept.  Holmes may well have killed over 200 people or as few as seven; he confessed to killing 27 at one point but when on the gallows changed his story to two, and those only by accident.  But of course he was a gifted liar as well so there is no way to tell now.

The chapters on the World’s Fair are also interesting but not in as visceral of a way, although the death toll of the construction was probably greater than anything Holmes was responsible for.  They had different ideas about workplace safety back then too.  However, I’d have happily read the book if it had just been about the fair.  I couldn’t do justice to all the skullduggery and politicking that went on in trying to assemble a major international event in a growing, somewhat corrupt boom town, so I’ll just say it’s substantial.

One of my annoyances about the book is the tendency for the author to tell you what the various people involved are thinking and feeling at various times.  While I’m pretty sure that he’s at least broadly correct, this is sort of off-putting for me.  I mean, it’s probably true that Homes got sexual excitement out of killing people and that Burnham was irritated when one of his telegrams didn’t get sent on time but I don’t really like to blur that line between non-fiction and historical fiction.  Nonetheless, I’ll probably look into some of the sources on this book, and may check out some of Larson’s other work too.

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