White City, Black Heart

by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.

Like a standup comedian, a writer of literary nonfiction is only as good as his material. After writing Isaac's Storm, a critically acclaimed look at the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas, in 1900, Seattle author Erik Larson admits he was "desperate for an idea."

As he was casting about, he came across some history of the World's Fair of 1893, an unprecedented spectacle commemorating the discovery of America, undertaken by a great architect on behalf of a city on the rise. Interesting, to be sure, but not enough for the kind of follow-up to Isaac's Storm he was hoping for. Then he recalled a story he had come across during a previous hunt for material -- the little-known story of a serial killer in Chicago. It clicked. Yes, that murderer, H.H. Holmes, was engaged in the "manufacture of sorrow" just as that architect, Daniel Burnham, was building a city within a city -- the White City, as it came to be called. They never met, but the two men lived and worked only a few blocks from each other.

"It was too incredible to ignore," Larson says of the historical coincidence that provides the foundation for The Devil in the White City. Larson will read from his new book at Auntie's on Saturday afternoon.

Larson admits both stories have been told -- not particularly well, he adds -- but it's the juxtaposition of the two that gives this strange-but-true true story the kind of literary dimension he had been looking for. "What I think I bring to the party is putting the two stories together, which is how they need to be told," says Larson from a stop on his book tour in Denver. "That's what makes them unique."

"Unique" might be too tame a word to describe these tales, just as "fair" doesn't convey what Chicago's World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893 was really like.

Call it the Forrest Gump of fairs, as it influenced the trajectory of history in amazing and surprising ways. It was when alternating current was introduced and surpassed direct current as the electrical mode of choice. The Pledge of Allegiance was written to commemorate it. Columbus Day became a national holiday as a result of the fair, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in the New World. The illusion of moving pictures was introduced, as was the telephone. A variety of new commercial products were introduced, too, including Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jacks, Shredded Wheat and, believe it or not, the zipper. Visitors could take advantage of a new concept -- on-site childcare. And everyone delighted at the contraption designed to outdo the Eiffel Tower of the last World's Fair -- the Ferris Wheel.

The cast of characters who either worked on the fair or visited reads like a turn-of-the-century Who's Who. Famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted drew up the plans for the grounds. Buffalo Bill set up his show just outside the fair grounds, with Annie Oakley shooting the lights out. A young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright was fired from a firm working on the fair. Mark Twain, of all people, came to Chicago but never left his hotel room due to illness. Archduke Franz Ferdinand wandered the grounds -- incognito. Author Frank Baum took in the sights, perhaps gathering inspiration for his many Wizard of Oz books. Samuel Gompers helped negotiate better conditions for the thousands of workers who built the fair. Among those workers was a carpenter whose tales of the magical kingdom bursting out of the earth were said to captivate his son -- Walt Disney.

It's a dizzying journey through American history, and Larson's meticulous research has paid off in one of the most satisfying histories of the past few years. But if the drama of following Burnham as he beats the ticking clock to opening day isn't enough, the parallel story of Holmes makes this the kind of page-turner you'd expect from Thomas Harris. Hannibal Lecter's got nothing on H.H. Holmes.

As Larson describes the splendor of the White City -- so named because the buildings of the fair were painted white -- he calls the rest of Chicago the Black City. A social climber of a town, Chicago was having major growing pains by the 1890s. Garbage piled in the street, horses and dogs were left where they died and heavy rains sent slime plunging into Lake Michigan, often contaminating the drinking supply. Only a few years before the fair, 10 percent of the population died of cholera. Lower classes were exploited by masters of industry like George Pullman, builder of railcars and namesake of a certain Palouse college town.

But it was an exciting place, too, and at least it offered a chance at a better life. Burnham himself recoiled from the city, moving his own family to the suburbs, but the population was continually growing -- surpassing Philadelphia in 1890 as the nation's second largest city. Residents of rural counties and sleepy Midwestern towns, including for the first time single women, came in droves. The murder rate was high, and people often just went missing.

"It's as if the city grew so fast that it took everybody by surprise," says Larson.

It was seemingly tailor-made for a serial killer, and the bustle of the fair made such crimes even easier to get away with.

In 1888, the nation was transfixed by stories out of London about a new kind of murderer nicknamed Jack the Ripper. Larson believes that like everyone else, Holmes read the gory reports. In fact, he was probably already in the same business. While Jack the Ripper committed five murders, Holmes was ultimately found to have killed dozens -- and probably more. It's amazing that in a culture fascinated by serial killers, Holmes is still relatively unknown. Even in Chicago, Larson says most people hadn't heard of him.

But for sheer audacity and depth of premeditation, it's easy to place Holmes at the top of the list of the nation's most heinous monsters. He had a way with women reminiscent of the stories told about Ted Bundy, but in his time securing the trust of his victims was never a problem. While Bundy had removed the front seat from his VW Bug to better kidnap women, Holmes built an entire hotel just blocks from the fairgrounds that was outfitted with torture chambers and airproof rooms that he used to pump gas into to kill his victims.

"He is the prototype for the modern urban serial killer," says Larson.

Unbelievably, with Holmes owing just about the entire city money and a handful of girls he was planning to marry having disappeared, he was never caught until 1895, when a Philadelphia detective following up an insurance fraud charge uncovered the grisly truth.

Larson doesn't make much of his decision to juxtapose the stories, except in his Author's Note, when he writes "this book is about the evanescence of life and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow." Like most writers who have grappled with the minds of serial killers, he fails to answer why Holmes did what he did. It's no failure -- if it was easy to figure these people out, we might be able to stop them.

Over the phone, however, Larson elaborates: "Burnham represents the sense that it would be greatness and hope and a terrific world. Holmes reflects that whole element of society to become so clear in the 20th century -- the darkness. And they both embody the ability to do anything they wanted to."

The crazy, careening city -- and the world around it -- seemed to stop for a few months in 1893. People wept when they entered the stunningly serene Court of Honor. Couples courted along the world's first artificially lit promenades and under the protective eye of the fair's own police force. If Burnham could build this fair, anything seemed possible. But the darkness was never far -- only blocks away in the form of Holmes, months away in the form of a deep economic recession and years away in the form of a cycle of world wars we are still living in.

Without beating you over the head, Larson's book shows that Chicago in 1893 was truly all-American -- at once glorious and repulsive. As one writer of the time put it, "A gigantic peepshow of utter horror, but extraordinarily to the point."

In commenting on the Holmes case, the Chicago Times-Herald wrote that, "The story, too, tends to illustrate the end of the century."

The paper's editors were on the right track, says Larson, but slightly off.

"Really," he says, "it was the start of the 20th century."

Publication date: 03/13/03