Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Devil in the White City

This book was suggested to me by fellow worker Susan Rozich Brinkmann.  Again, there are more good books (but also a lot not so good) than you have time to read so it is wise to listen to suggestions.

The story is told in two parallel narratives.  One part revolves around the background and efforts to present a World's Fair to help promote the city of Chicago.  The other part tells about a con man and serial killer operating in the same city. at the same time.  There is a relationship between the two stories, but they could have been fascinating as two separate tales.  Erik Larson, the author blends the two together to tell a compelling story hard to put down.

In 1890 the U.S. Congress decided there should be a major exhibition to commemorate the 400th year of Columbus discovering America.  New York would have been a favorite, but other cities campaigned.  Chicago wanting to prove themselves were able to manoeuvre through the politics and were awarded the Columbia Exposition and had now to put everything together or look incompetent.

The narrative around the fair was told mostly from the perspective of architects.  Architecture was labeled "frozen music" by Schelling and Goethe.  Chicago was an upstart city in many ways.  At a central location they developed a reputation for slaughterhouses (but also for grain commodities) and many were anxious to upgrade their perception.  Chicago became first in skyscrapers with the building of the Montauk Block.  In spite of the soil that sank easily.  John Root had developed a way called "grilling" that allowed buildings to be taller despite soft dirt.

As the second biggest city in America Chicago felt a rivalry with New York.   Paris had held a previous international exposition with the stunning Eiffel Tower still remembered.   Architects were key.   Daniel Burnham had partnered with John Root and had been asked to head up the construction effort.  Burnham, sensitive to outside criticism offered the prime architect projects to  5 easterners with $10,000 plus artistic freedom, but diplomatically added some Chicago area architects as consultants.  He decided because he was supervising the architecture he would not take on any project for himself.  Before the fair opened his partner John Root died unexpectedly putting a greater burden on Burnham.

Frederick Olmstead, who had had worked on New York's Central Park was brought in for landscape architecture.  There were some landscape architect students on my floor at university so I had an inkling it was more serious than planting a few bushes and flowers.  Although the process didn't work out to his standards due to weather, budget and other commitments his work did impact the impression created for the fair.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West show wanted to be part of the Fair, but were rebuffed.  Instead they set up adjacent to the Fair and drew a big crowd on their own.  Towards the end some of their efforts were integrated with the fair.  Undoubtedly they helped draw more people to Chicago.

The author to build suspense had a strategy of giving hints, but avoids mentioning the name of the engineer who came up with the most memorable event at the Fair.  It was rejected at least three times in which the reasons were discussed but the inventor's name was suppressed.  I had my suspicions and at one point looked for the likely name of the inventor and sure enough did find it in the index.  I noticed the page reference was to some I had already read.  It was a big deal and comparable to the Eiffel Tower so I will allow the author to have his little fun, but tell you the inventor's name is mentioned just before half way through the book.

When the fair opened many of the buildings and exhibits were not ready.  Many people it turned out were waiting not only for more parts to be completed, but to avoid the hot humid Chicago summer.

At one point the fair's attendance was below the necessary profitable numbers.  The organizers tried to speed up the many unfinished aspects.  Promotional events were increased.  One obstacle was a the Salbatarian movement that forced the fair to close on Sundays, the one day available for labourers.  There was also concern about rail fares and a lot of negotiation were made to get them alleviated.  The fair offered a lot of enticements.  The architecture was spectacular.  It demonstrated the first zipper, Cracker Jacks, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, new forms of electrical lighting.   I am leaving out a new ride that became very popular up to modern times as well as other innovative rides.  Towards the end the fair did attract the needed crowds.

H. H. Holmes, originally Herman Webster Mudgett was a smooth talking man who made others feel comfortable and trusting.  In reality he was a con man.  He was also a serial killer.  His connection to the fair was basically that he thought it would attract tourists.  He took people there to impress them.  His nefarious activities were not uncovered until after the fair was over.  It was realized he married or pretended to marry a number of women and killed them.  Not merely kill them and others, but sometimes go through a procedure, called articulation to render them as skeletons and sell them to medical practitioners.  He managed to avoid paying many bills by falsifying his name, but mostly he was such a good talker that he could gain sympathy from those he had conned.  Another one of his tactics was to buy insurance for buildings or other people and either burn or kill to make a claim.  Insurance investigators were the first to start uncovering his foul deeds.

As many clever killers like to do, after he was caught he bragged.  He claimed to have killed 27 people, although it turns out not all of them were actually killed.  On the other hand many credit him with many more murders.

The fair did leave a legacy.  Aside from the many new products and concepts introduced a few people were inspired by the efforts.  Frank Lloyd Wright started his career in Chicago and went on to become one of the most famous architects in American history.  L. Frank Bauman took some of his inspiration for The Wizard of Oz from the amazing fair.  Walt Disney's father, Elias helped build the White City and likely encouraged his son to want to build his own exhibition.

The task given to Burnham might be compared to organizing the Olympics.  No one person can handle all the details, but one person must take responsibility to make sure the details are taken care of.  This is a good read and will help one to understand the complexities required to make a successful event.

No comments:

Post a Comment