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"The Devil in the White City" By Erik Larson

Out of the expo loop Author fails to connect the dots between 1893 Chicago fair and murder

Sunday, February 23, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

Well south of Chicago's Loop and its cultural treasures is the handsome Museum of Science and Industry.

Located on the edge of the neighborhood Saul Bellow called the most dangerous place in America, the museum seems oddly removed from the rest of the city's major attractions.

 
 

"The Devil in the White City"

By Erik Larson

Crown ($25.95)

   
 

Nearby, a wide shallow patch of grass divides the campus of the University of Chicago.

Called the Midway Plaisance, that patch and the museum are about all that remain from one of the most remarkable and influential events in American social history: the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

Chicago's development would gradually turn north to Michigan Avenue, leaving the South Side to decline from its glory days as the site of the exposition celebrating the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World.

From its size to its popularity -- the fair drew nearly 7 million visitors in its six-month run -- the expo was the ultimate expression of American commercialism and culture at the end of the 19th century.

Along Lake Michigan, the nation's top designers, led by Frederick Law Olmstead, created a magical "White City" of gardens and gleaming Beaux Arts structures, one of which was the largest building in America.

At the Midway, dominated by George Ferris' slowly turning wheel of iron carrying 2,000 riders above the fair, Little Egypt undulated and Buffalo Bill galloped.

The music was provided by Anton Dvorak and Scott Joplin, fairgoers were wondering if they should memorize something called "The Pledge of Allegiance" and Henry Adams mulled openly on the meaning of it all.

Since Adams, the fair has been studied from most every angle, many of which can be found on Internet Web sites today.

Now Erik Larson, whose account of the 1900 Galveston, Texas, hurricane, "Isaac's Storm," vividly re-created that disaster, tries a new approach to the expo, but he winds up in a blind alley.

It seems that a serial killer calling himself H.H. Holmes (real name, Herman Mudgett) was afoot in Chicago around the the time of the fair. Subtitling his book, "Murder, Magic and Madness at The Fair That Changed America," Larson mixes two stories that simply aren't related.

The result is a synthetic blend that doesn't do justice to either.

Holmes was executed in 1896 in Pennsylvania for killing one of his henchmen who worked with him in Chicago. He confessed to 27 slayings, writes Larson, but can be connected to only nine.

Holmes arrived in Chicago at least five years before the city won the rights to hold the exposition, meaning the fair played no part in his arrival. He appeared to earn his living as a real estate developer and druggist through fraud and a convenient murder or two.

He eventually built an odd structure he renamed the World's Fair Hotel a dozen blocks from the fair site. According to Larson, the place was outfitted with a crematorium and secret gas lines.

In Larson's scheme of irony, Holmes' alter ego was Daniel Burnham, chief architect of the fair, a hard-working visionary whose talents overcame mighty obstacles to create a great triumph.

A partner in the Burham and Root architectural firm, he gathered the team of expo planners, including Olmstead and Louis Sullivan, from eastern and Chicago firms, then oversaw the frantic construction pace.

Alternating chapters of Burnham's accomplishments with Holmes' depravity, Larson drives his book to what should be the intersection of his characters' lives, but the stories are as far apart as the Museum of Science and Industry and the Loop.

Adding to the artificial nature of the book are Larson's rambles of conjecture and his irritating use of what literary stylists call "foreshadowing."

Here, Larson restages a meeting of architects in Burnham's office:

"The light in the room was sallow, the sun already well into its descent. Wind thumped the windows. In the hearth at the north wall a large fire cracked and lisped, flushing the room with a dry sirocco that caused frozen skin to tingle."

(My dictionary calls a sirocco a "humid" wind. Here, Larson has two winds blowing, one outside, one inside, the latter one coming from a fire with a speech impediment.)

The foreshadowing business is even more irritating. He opens with Burnham sailing to Europe -- "The date was April 14, 1912, a sinister day in maritime history, but of course the man ... did not know it yet." You, dear readers, do know, don't you?

The sinking of the Titanic, however, had little to do with events in 1893 Chicago.

Later, Larson teases by withholding the name of the inventor of the Ferris Wheel -- might it be George Ferris? -- for several chapters.

This "stay tuned till later" technique is unnecessary if the storytelling hangs together. It seems Larson didn't trust his idea enough to write it without tricks.

Finally, the book lacks clear illustrations and maps. The inside covers show the expo's layout but hardly any of the buildings are labeled, including the Palace of Fine Arts that became the science museum. There is no map of the Midway and no clear guide to key locations, including Holmes' hotel.

If Larson's book has lasting value, it's as the impetus to read more about the exposition, an event far more interesting than the author makes it out to be.


Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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