The Killer, the Architect, and the Assassin

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2003): If this non-fiction book were fiction, it would seem ridiculously over-determined. As historical fact, it’s ridiculously creepy and weird.

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, dubbed the 1893 Columbian Exposition in honour of the 400th anniversary of Columbus arriving in the Americas, was also a hunting ground for one of history’s most prolific serial killers AND a mentally disturbed would-be assassin with a fixation on Chicago’s popular mayor. The fair itself was the greatest spectacle of modern history up to that point. Envisioned as a showcase for modern industry, architecture, and good old Chicago pluck by chief architect Daniel Burnham, the fair delivered against all odds.

“H.H. Holmes” is the Devil of the title. That’s his preferred assumed name, not his birth name. He was a charismatic conman, pharmacist, businessman, doctor, and land speculator who came to Chicago in the late 1880’s and discovered that he liked it there. The rapidly growing metropolis offered fertile ground for Holmes’s endless grifting. It also offered a steady supply of anonymous young women who’d come to the big city to get jobs and found themselves the prey of this horribly prolific serial killer.

Holmes killed about 50 men, women, and children over a 5-year-period before getting tracked down and arrested by the freelance detectives of the Pinkerton Agency for insurance fraud in Philadelphia and subsequently revealed as a mass murderer. An awful lot of conclusions arise from his career. For one, policing was extremely crude in late 19th-century Chicago. Trained police detectives were few and far between not just in Chicago, but in America. And while several people suspected Holmes of being a serial murderer for years, they did nothing, in part because no one really believed the police were capable of catching anything other than a bribe. The relative anonymity created by an America in which transportation had outstripped communication also helped Holmes. So, too, did his charisma. Many of these women walked into the lion’s den, leaving their husbands behind in a couple of cases, taking their own children to their attendant dooms.

And Holmes is more a premonition of Adolf Hitler than an echo of Jack the Ripper. He has henchmen, though none were ever brought to trial for the murders. He’s eerily charismatic. He’s committed to his version of an ideology, his grifting and speculation ultimately being Capitalism in its purest form. I’m surprised Ayn Rand didn’t idolize him. He’s the serial killer of the American Dream.

He’s also immensely cowardly. He tends to kill with either gas or chloroform. And then he would make money from the bodies of the dead, selling four bodies he had reduced to skeletons to medical practitioners. Waste not, want not. Once captured, he spun out a series of partial truths, with the lies and facts changing each time. Thus, no final determination can ever exist of his murder total.

Meanwhile, the World’s Fair came together to showcase Chicago to America and the world as a first-class city (this was, of course, New York’s put-upon Second City). Daniel Burnham orchestrated the Fair, the White City of the title. The buildings were massive and imposing and painted white. The construction schedule was breakneck. The number of employees needed to make Opening Day a reality was enormous, and enormously beneficial during a period of world economic recession.

The politicking and negotiating and organizing that made the World’s Fair a reality are a marvel themselves. Massive buildings went up in the time it now seems to take to fill a pothole. Things burned down or blew down or fell down and were rebuilt. Arguments over architectural style were had, most of them won by Burnham with his pseudo-classical, monumental perferences. People were stunned simply by the massive presence of the Fair. America’s finest architects and engineers pitched in, including the legendary, crotchety landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park. The Fair became a monument to progress and to Chicago’s emergence as a worthy civic rival to New York.

And the White City brought a flood of visitors who needed a hotel. And H.H. Holmes ran a hotel in a building he had designed with the aim of making murder easy and fun. For him, anyway.

Above it all rose the world’s first Ferris Wheel, created by an engineer named Ferris (natch) and almost cyclopean in its scale: 270 feet high, with 36 giant cars capable of carrying several dozen people apiece. It was as if the first tall building had been the Empire State Building. And Burnham also had a hand in one of New York’s most famous early skyscrapers, the distinctively nicknamed Flatiron Building.

Erik Larson — who also wrote the excellent Isaac’s Storm, about the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas in 1900 — does a fine job here of marshalling and orchestrating facts in an entertaining fashion. He makes a number of interesting connections and suppositions. And he makes engineering, planning, and architecture fascinating subjects while also situating the narrative in its historical context of the rise of unions, suffragettes, and an increasingly integrated global economy.

Larson does go somewhat over-the-top in a couple of sections in which he tries to imagine things for which there were no historical records. This tends to lead him to speculate on unknowables such as ‘What was this person thinking?’ It’s a hallmark of the history written for popular consumption. Given the horror of what we know of Holmes’ actions, these attempts to depict crimes which we don’t know the details of seem like overkill. Nonetheless, despite those reservations, this is a splendidly readable history. Highly recommended.

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