Monday, October 31, 2005

The Devil in the White City

Having been inspired by Sufjan Stevens to "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!", I have been digging (sporadically) into the historical backdrop of the album. Of particular interest is "The World's Columbian Exposition," the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and conveniently, I found on my very bookshelf a copy of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. (Thanks for the loaner, Jen. I only wish I had been aware of the loan earlier!) The book is a popular history of this fascinating segment of America's past. Larson does a fine job of giving an accessible and engaging chronicle of the Fair, with great attention to painting a detailed picture of American society at the end of the 19th century. Larson's narrative juxtaposes two very different men, both vitally connected to the fair.

Architect Daniel Burnham was the director of Works for the Fair and was ultimately responsible for its construction. In the latter half of the 19th century, Chicagoans became increasingly desperate to establish their home as a great American city, and the Fair provided the opportunity to do just that. But even moreso, the ante had already been raised by the spectacular 1889 Paris Fair, most famous for the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower. Burnham faced enormous pressure to deliver something the world had never before seen for the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the Americas, and many (especially in New York, which had lobbied to be the venue of the fair) predicted a colossal failure. Although Burnham's vision of the fair was lofty and majestic, the shortened timetable appear insufficient to turn his dream into a vast array of impressive structures and lush landscaping that would capture the hearts and minds of the world.

Although much of the work was completed by Opening Day in 1893, there was still a good deal left to complete, including George Ferris' giant wheel, an imposing structure intended to "out-Eiffel the Eiffel Tower." The lingering public perception that the fair was largely unfinished, combined with economic troubles across the nation, threatened to make the fair the ruinous disaster predicted by detractors. However, the ethereal allure of "the White City," the nickname for the impressive and classically-architectured buildings surrounding the fair's Court of Honor, combined with a blitz of savvy advertising, ultimately succeeded in bringing visitors to Chicago in record numbers. As Larson notes, the White City was characterized by clean and orderly streets, lit by abundant alternating-current lamps and surrounded by pleasant parks and gardens. Combined with the magnificent buildings, the showcases of new inventions and the entertainment opportunities from around the world, the White City offered a stark contrast to the grime, odor, danger and despair characteristic of American urban areas like "the Black City" of Chicago. The Chicago Fair would leave an impression on city planning in America for years to come.

The book's other focus is on Dr. H. H. Holmes, a sociopath and serial killer who used the Fair as a steady source of victims. Although Larson avoids the grisliest of details, Holmes' story is nonetheless chilling. Handsome and possessing preternatural powers of charm, Holmes began his criminal escapades with forgeries and fraud; however, his interest in faking deaths as part of life insurance swindles quickly turned his energies towards far darker pursuits. Holmes moved to Chicago and acquired a pharmacy, where his charms made him quite successful, particularly with the steady stream of young female customers. Acquiring more property, Holmes set out to build "The Castle," an entire city block's worth of rental spaces, shops and dwellings. Due to the proximity to the upcoming Columbian Exposition, Holmes opened "The World's Fair Hotel." Over the course of three years, Holmes would prey on an unknown number of victims, disposing of them in the soundproof vaults he had secretly constructed below the building. The exact number is unknown, although most estimates place it at a minimum of fifty. (Holmes' own confessions list twenty-seven, although as many as two hundred disappearances were traced in some degree to Holmes and "The Castle.") Ironically, Holmes' penchant for fraud (and "Holmes" was not even his given name) ultimately led to his capture, as investigations by angry creditors began to reveal something much more sinister.

I was struck by many of the similarities between Burnham and Holmes. Both were driven by relentless ambition, albeit to vastly different ends. But even more profound is how both exemplified "the Gilded Age" in which they lived. Holmes, of course, projected a charming persona -- kind, genial and caring. History, of course, would reveal that the doctor's warm facade masked cold, unparalleled cruelty bent on controlling, torturing and killing. Burnham's story also has a twist, although not so much with the architect as with his creation. The White City itself was not meant to be permanent and most of the buildings were little more than "decorated sheds" (to quote detractors) with a plaster/hemp facade instead of actual stone. Many leading designers of the day believed that the classical architecture of the fair severely stunted the growth of American development of the field. Moreover, the sheer splendor of the White City was a marked contrast to the grime, sickness and poverty that visitors to the Fair briefly left at home. This would be especially apparent when the scores of workers drawn to the temporary employment boom caused by the Fair soon found themselves jobless and forced to return to the despair of "the Black City." The Fair itself ended on a somber note, when the epic closing ceremonies were cancelled in favor of funeral proceedings for Chicago's mayor, assassinated three days prior to the closing. Prophetically, many of the Fair's creators and attendees opined that they could not bear the thought of such a magnificent spectacle falling into disuse and ruin after the fair, and Burnham even remarked that seeing it disappear in a blaze of glory would be preferable. In spring of 1894, at which time many of the abandoned Exposition structures were being used for shelter by unemployed workers, many buildings of the Court of Honor were destroyed by fires set during the Pullman Strike. The bright promise of the White City ultimately crumbled into rubble.

All in all, The Devil in the White City is a fascinating book. Although Larson has packed it with detail (and he includes a great number of anecdotes of the Fair experiences of noted Americans, including Buffalo Bill Cody, Jane Addams, and a young Walt Disney, just to name a few), his narrative is captivating and easy-to-read. Recommended reading for anyone interested -- even moderately -- in American history.

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