Serial Killers and Architects: The Devil in the White City

I have an urge to go on a psychopathic murderer reading binge.  I often find myself reading books of the same ilk in succession; some of these themes have included the Holocaust, African American nonfiction, and Joyce Carol Oates’ books.  Now, after reading Erik Larson’s nonfiction book The Devil in the White City (2002), I want to know more about serial killer Herman W. Mudgett, better known by his alias H. H. Holmes, and other sociopaths.

Mugshot of Herman W. Mudgett, a.k.a. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes

Mugshot of Herman W. Mudgett, a.k.a. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes

Larson’s treatment of H. H. Holmes is partly to blame for this.  He writes Holmes in such a vivid and intriguing way that I finished the book wishing there were more.  There is more.  Many others have written about Chicago’s serial killer of the 1890s, and I am tempted to check out every book from the library I can find about him.

But the book isn’t solely about Holmes and his murderous tendencies.  Holmes’s story and the intrigue surrounding the women who went missing are interspersed with information about Chicago’s Exposition, the World’s Fair of 1893.  We learn about its planning and construction, mostly through the experiences of the architects, people like Daniel Burnham, the fair’s chief architect, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the fair’s landscape architect and designer of New York City’s Central Park. The Chicago fair came to be known as the white city because all of the buildings were white in European classical styles of architecture.  After the fair, many blamed Burnham for setting the United States back in architecture and showcasing old styles instead of developing a new American style.  From this fallout emerged Frank Lloyd Wright.

thedevilinthewhitecity cover

I also learned that the first Ferris wheel was created for the fair by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. The planners originally wanted to ask Gustave Eiffel to build another Eiffel tower in Chicago, but many were dismayed by this idea and wanted U. S. engineers and thinkers to be represented. Ferris created his famous wheel, which debuted in Chicago in 1893. It took almost an hour for it to go completely around, and many became engaged and married on it.  Interestingly, this idea for the wheel was quickly exported.  When I visited Vienna, we saw an old Ferris wheel from 1897 in Prater Park.  I stayed safely on the ground while my dad rode it.  I do not like Ferris wheels; they give me panic attacks, but I enjoy learning about their genesis.

Larson’s book ends with a wrapping up what happened to all of the historical figures in the book.  We learn that they didn’t always find success and eventually died, some in disgrace or penniless; new figures emerged to place their names on the landscape of American history.  Of Holmes, we learn that he finally got caught.  He disappeared with three young children after killing their father, making it look like an accident.  He was arrested, the children were found dead, and proof of the Father’s murder was found.  Police suspected he was responsible for the disappearance of many women during the fair.  Hundreds of them went missing during that time.  But as they began to gather evidence at his mansion, in the walls and in secret chambers (yes, so chilling), the house was set on fire and evidence was destroyed.  Larson pieced together the stories of the missing women and Holmes’s involvement with them from newspaper articles, historical texts, and court transcripts.  However, Holmes was only tried for the murder of the father.  He was found guilty and hanged.

But in a strange twist, he protected his body.  Holmes had a lawyer ensure that he was buried without a marker in a hard-to-find location and in cement.  Larson found his grave, which has been undisturbed these hundred or so years.  Holmes often gave the bodies of his victims to universities for science and dissection; I assume he feared that his own body would be used in such a way, as some institutions had expressed interest in his brain.

I loved this book because of its chilling detail and gripping story, but also for the historical information,  it is nonfiction at its best.  I read it because my friend Amanda, while we had lunch at school together, told me about her project for our feminist research methods class.  She was examining a coin from the Chicago fair, and I expressed to her my interesting in the fair because of how often it tended to come up in my own historical research.  In my research on the female inventor of the dishwasher, I learned that Josephine Garis Cochran was the only woman to demonstrate her machine at the 1983 fair.  Amanda, a graduate student in history, told me about this book and suggested reading it to learn more about the fair and to be entertained. It did both.

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