Devil in the White City

Eric Larson

When you read Eric Larson, you read history (a.k.a. “narrative history” or “historical novels”), cloaked in the spell biding intrigue of real human lives, fleshed with dialogue that actually occurred (which was extracted from court transcripts, memoires, newspaper quotations, Scotland Yard depositions, etc., of the speakers or those listening to them); Larson thus makes history live and breathe with a pulse that often spellbinds and hypnotizes the reader, as might fiction, further corroborating the hackneyed axiom, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” He did this brilliantly in Isaac’s Storm (about the most damaging hurricane in U.S. history) and in his 2007 Thunderstruck (about Marconi’s invention of the wireless), and again in Devil in the City. Whoever enjoys historically documented murder mysteries written like fiction will love this book.

In Devil in the White City (“DWC”), 2003, Larson reveals possibly the most renowned World’s Fair to date, the Chicago Fair of 1893, which was visited by 28 million at a time when the entire U.S. population was 65 million. (Imagine a Fair today visited by 150 Americans.) It covered one square mile and contained over 200 buildings; entire cities (from Egypt, Algiers, et al) were imported and entirely re-created in painstaking detail; some exhibit halls were so enormous that they could simultaneously house the U.S. Capitol, the Great Pyramid, Winchester Cathedral, Madison Square Garden and St. Paul’s Cathedral, all under one roof). When fully lit at night, it consumed three times as much electricity as did the entire City of Chicago. Larson calls the Fair Grounds “the White City” and Chicago (which he defines as a vast wasteland of filth and putrid air) as “the Black City”. DWC gives us more than a microscopic view of this World’s Fair.

His gruesome descriptions of Chicago rival those of Burnett in his classic, Asphalt Jungle or Dreiser in Sister Carrie. Larson unveils a city that lives under the ashen cloud of offal and rotting remains of the nation’s largest animal butchery, the Union Yards, “whose fetid odors wafted to the most fashionable localities in the City” and “cinder-smoke drifted like soiled gauze and enveloped its inhabitants…the overwhelming stink of the United Stock Yards, a Chinook of putrification and incinerated hair…an elemental odor, which Upton Sinclair dubbed ‘raw and crude, rancid, sensual and strong, repulsive…a river of death’…” Rudyard Kipling observed,

“Having seen it, I wish to never see it again; it is inhabited by savages.”

Larson makes us also feel the crushing scars of 19th Century life in general: “Their pasts were full of wrecked rail cars, fevers, endless excruciating tooth aches, debilitating gout, rampant cholera, enigmatic illnesses that precipitated premature deaths of loved ones…the hiss of gas lamps, the weary tick of clocks…” Destitution, privation, and disease were the order of the day.

In Thunderstruck, Larso intertwined an intriguing murder, which crossed paths with Marconi. In Isaac’s Storm he laid bare the U.S.’s most catastrophic hurricane and its “murder” of 8,000 inhabitants of Galveston, Texas. In DWC, he injects the prolific and grizzly murders of young women by a serial killer (who confessed to 29 murders and as many as 200 total are attributed to him by some) – one “H. H. Holmes”, the primary alias used by Herman Webster Mudgett (born in 1860 and hung in 1896), His photographs prove that, during his macabre spree, he was in his early 30’s and Matinee-Idol-handsome, a doctor of medicine, who aptly referred to himself as the “Devil”, hence the book’s title. This serial killer of mind-numbing proportions was a polygamist who either discarded or eliminated wives willy nilly. Larson describes Holmes as 26, 5’8”, dark hair and the obsidian-lapis azure eyes of a Mesmerist, a moustache, exceedingly well mannered and enormously appealing to young women, “whose glances fell like petals around him as he passed their way”; he stood too close to them, engaged their eyes probingly and inadvertently caressed them. From a family of passionate Methodists who devoted Christmas Day to prayer, he consumed Jules Verne and Poe as a child and enjoyed disabling and dissecting animals while they were still alive, a trait since shown to be prevalent among serial killers, whose “pale blue eyes conveyed an emptiness that no camera could record…and an astigmatic soul”. This Gay Nineties Monster killed, because he it was as “necessary” for him as it was “for a poet to sing”, and it made him feel that he possessed “the power of God”. This “Devil” was, no doubt, inspired by the wave of five unsolved but gruesome murders of young women in London by the infamous “Jack the Ripper”, which occurred in 1988, only a handful of years prior, but whose murders would pale along side of Holmes-Mudgett’s, both in quantity and cruelty.

Larson’s plots are fascinating and all the more so, because they are historical accounts, which are painstakingly detailed in 50 pages of notes, citations and a bibliography at the book’s end. He supports his facts with abundant research. His characters are made more real by the fact that their dialogue is comprised entirely of actual quotations of their words. Larson adds to this some reasonable suppositions about these characters and their thought processes to present a compelling picture. On balance, when you read Larson, you feel as though you are an eye witness to historical events. While his prose falls short of a Dickens, Dreiser, Poe, O’Henry, Mitchell, Pasternak, or St. Exupery, they are lucid and fast moving, crafted in fluid and compelling journalistic style. He is a consummate master at converging history and magnetic fiction.

So, is DWC “a great book”? Compared to literature that I classify as “great”, it lacks the sublime, lyrical prose, the profundity of incisive character-analysis and the life-lessons, broad history, or a lasting theme/moral, to enhance my personal growth or enrich my heart, but, as pure entertainment, it is “great”, great for those who wish to espy 1890’s Chicago close enough to count its grisly heart beats, and to experiene perhaps the most spectacular World’s Fair ever, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, up close, and to chill to the concurrent, interwoven macabre serial murders; in these regards, it is superb.