Thursday, November 29, 2012

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Another worthy read by Larson.  The Devil in the White City is about building the Chicago World's fair exposition in the late 1880's, the architects and engineers who dreamed and brought their designs to reality to amaze the attendees.  Along with the history there is a sinister mystery happening, murders unnoticed, missing women whose families did not search for them, all victims of a psychopath, a Jekyll and Hyde type personality.  Published in 2003 it is making a resurgence featured at Barnes and Noble and with readers who appreciate a touch of mystery and fright along with history.  I enjoyed reading the acknowledgements and the citations with the research  notes as well as the 396 pages of the  book. (See "In the Garden of Beasts" this blog, June, 2012)

 Daniel Hudson Burnham was the architect with the dream, the driving force to bring a world's fair to Chicago looked down upon by the urban elite of the East coast who considered it a town of butchers and hogs attributable to the stock yards.  Burnham  vowed to outdo the Paris Exposition.  He had to first convince the board to choose Chicago, not an easy task bidding against New York City, which was seen as far superior in culture and achievement  in  the US.  The book is the story of his trials, challenges, attention to detail and of others the likes of John Olmstead the country's preeminent  landscape architect who'd designed New York's  Central Park and the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, those visionaries who engaged with Burnham once Chicago was chosen. I tried to anticipate how Burnham would harness and entice the best of the American achievers to top the Paris feat as I recalled some details about the Paris exposition from reading McCullough's "The Greater Journey" (See review on my other blog in December 2011   http://patonlinenewtime.blogspot.com/2011/12/last-books-of-2011-continued-from.html )   The obstacles he overcomes from man and nature are a testament to holding onto the vision and persevering in spite and in the face of tragedies.

Pg.4-5  "Its official name was the World's Columbian Exposition, its official purpose to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America, but under Burnham, its chief builder, it had become something enchanting, known throughout the world as the White City.....It had lasted just six months, yet during that time its gatekeepers recorded 27.5 million visits, when the country's total population was 65 million...On its best day the fair drew more than 700,000 visitors......"

When he solicits proposals for a structure that will overshadow the grand Eiffel tower in Paris, Eiffel himself  responds.  But the selection goes to  a young engineer from Pittsburgh, PA  who proposes to erect a vertical revolving wheel, 250 feet in diameter, yes, it is the world's first ferris wheel,  brainchild of  George Washington Gale Ferris. It would hold 36 specially built Pullman rail cars to transport people  264 feet into the air.  That is just one of the famous accomplishments.  Others more earthly  would be introduction of Cracker Jack snacks, Juicy fruit gum,  Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Nabisco shredded wheat, something few imagined  would be enjoyed let alone survive as a cereal today.  Elias Disney, Walt's father  was a carpenter and furniture maker among the  4,000 workers employed to build the  fair; the stories  he would tell later on about the construction of this magical realm beside the lake would inspire Walt in designing Disneyland.  Francis J Bellamy composed   The Pledge of Allegiance for the dedication.  The Bureau of Education mailed it to every school in the country to be recited by schoolchildren nationwide on the day of the dedication. The term "snapshots" was derived when Kodak introduced the folding version of its model No 4 box camera for the fair.  Anyone who wanted to bring his own Kodak to take photos had to buy a permit for two dollars and inside the fair there were additional one dollar fees for taking photos.  Today with out digital cameras and smart phones, I find this an amazing reflection however in 1893, few people could afford their own cameras; professional photographers who  brought  tripods, etc. were  charged an additional $10 which was what many out of town visitors paid for the full day at the fair including lodging, meals and admission.  These are just tidbits of the history divulged throughout the book.  Paraphrasing a comment on the back cover, how couldn't I have already know so much of this?  But I did not so I learned a lot in this reading.
Back  cover of the book

The psychopathic murders and  mysterious disappearances of many young women that coincide with the process of the  fair are told parallel; introducing H H Holmes at the start of the fair, Larson easily weaves that tale through to the end of the book to the disastrous resolution.  Because it is a mystery I do not want to spoil the tale for other readers by revealing much here.  But even with this, Larson gives us history of how the term psychopath evolved in 1885 in the Pall Mall Gazette which described it as a new malady stemming from what had previously been described as "moral insanity"  done by "moral imbeciles."

The author writes in his introduction to his Notes and Sources, "The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city's willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the world's fair in the first place.  The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions.  The more I read about the fair, the more entranced I became.  That George Ferris would attempt to build something so big and novel--and that he would succeed on his first try--seems, in this day of liability lawsuits, almost beyond comprehension."

This book is a 5 *****; history and mystery conveyed in  wonderfully chosen vocabulary, words to dwell with.  I absolutely enjoyed it.   I would be an outstanding movie, but likely loose much in the showing.  There is nothing like a well written book to inform and tell a story and Erik Larson does so superbly.