Devil in the White City

We seek what is significant. We dig for it in the products our clients wish us to sell for them, but we also sift through the flotsam and jetsam of the passing culture in the hopes of separating what will endure from what will be passed over without a second thought once this brief moment is gone.

Daniel Burnham sought it when he took the reins of the Columbian Exposition in 1890, seeking to display what was important about Chicago, America, the planet, to the masses he and the city fathers hoped to attract. And Erik Larson seeks it as he tries to unpack what Burnham orchestrated, in this award-winning account of that exposition, that city, that time.

By any measure, what Burnham attempted was massive. No less than the elevation of Chicago in the eyes of the world. To show that the fire that had burned more than three square miles, killing hundreds and leaving a hundred thousand homeless – a disaster that would have ended other cities – was little more than a vague memory. To show that the city Sandburg would call “the hog butcher to the world” in the coming decades was more than a series of stockyards and slaughterhouses. That it was a metropolis equal to New York and Boston and Philadelphia – indeed, that it looked beyond the east coast enclaves that had long rebuffed it, to Europe to challenge Paris, London and even Rome.

So Burnham went big, as big as the ask, as big as the brief, building structures and pavilions so large, so massive, so overwhelming that humans disappear into a sort of unbelievable insignificance. You see the pictures and you marvel at the neo-classical style, the blinding whiteness of the structures – and then your jaw drops when you realize that those little specks that look like ancient dust on the lens of bygone cameras are, in fact, human beings.

And this was exactly the point.

To bring the masses in and show them a world – the farmer from Iowa, the schoolteacher from Missouri, the factory worker from Chicago  – show them a future that is so much better, so much cleaner, so much more efficient, so much happier, than the one they will trudge back to when they walk back out of those gates. A future that seems almost unbelievable but will be brought to them by the very people who made this magnificent fair itself. And it can all be theirs as long as they just, you know, stay in their places, keep their mouths shut and toe the line.

And if that was all that Larson showed us in this excellent book, we probably would not be discussing it here (well, we might; we have a soft spot in our hearts for anything to do with Chicago).

But there was another story during that great Columbian Exposition. A story of depravity, of horror, of murder and evil. For at the same time that Burnham was showing the world every great thing humans could achieve, H.H. Holmes was enacting everything they abhorred. Quite literally as Burnham was constructing his vision of a glorious future, Holmes was constructing a building in which he would carry out the murders of dozens of people – it might be hundreds, the exact number has never been known – mostly women, mostly single, mostly from out of town who had come to Chicago to seek their fortunes, to see the fair, to escape small town life. Women whose disappearance would never be noticed, whose murders would never be mourned.

Larson alternates chapters of Holmes’ story with chapters of Burnham’s, creating a powerful double-tension as one lives through the challenges, disappointments, and successes of the creation of the Exposition – from the death of Burnham’s business partner, to the massive cost overruns, to the triumph and the accolades – while at the same time detailing every element of Holmes’ horrible plans. Plans made all the more appalling when the ease with which he’ll get away with them is made increasingly apparent.

And while the device creates an admirable literary effect, what’s more important is the insight this juxtaposition delivers. For the other side of that coin of implied insignificance is the promise of anonymous atrocity. If you tell people they are nothing, some will acquiesce like sheep, yes, of course. But some will see that you’ve taken your eye off the ball, that you are as distracted by your splendor as you hoped they would be, and that you have no idea what is really happening amongst the majority of the people you think you’re talking to. That you are oblivious to the poverty that has some living like animals and others like slaves. To the mortal threats they face from family and coworkers let alone from strangers and criminals. To the simple crushing hopelessness of their daily existences.

This tension between aspiration and reality, of course, has always been with us. What’s different here, and what Larson illuminates in both the form and content, is that it was accelerating in the 1890s, in the world, in America and specifically in Chicago. That at this time and in this place technology was creating a world that was increasingly out of touch with the reality of the humans who were using it. Creating almost two worlds, one of splendour and one of pain, one of the haves and of the have-nevers, one of assailants and one of victims. A world that would lead to some of the most remarkable achievements of the coming century, but also some of its most horrific holocausts.

And understanding that, understanding that that is what was at play on the banks of Lake Michigan – amidst the introduction of the Ferris Wheel and Shredded Wheat and the incandescent bulb, amidst the belly dancers and the 27 million visitors across nearly 700 acres, and alongside Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, is what we need to remember.

Because that is what is significant.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson was published by Vintage on 02/10/2004 – order it from Amazon here or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here). 

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