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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

my reads: ‘The Devil in the White City’ by Erik Larson

Have you ever heard of H.H. Holmes? He’s basically America’s Jack the Ripper, a psychopath who preyed on and brutally murdered numerous vulnerable women in Chicago in the 1890s. He should be, theoretically, at least as prominent in the pop culture mindset as Jack the Ripper is — he was even a newspaper sensation at the time; he was in the cultural mindset even then. But I — even as someone who is fascinated by criminal psychology and once seriously considered a career as an FBI criminal profiler — had never heard of him until I read The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s fascinating nonfiction book about the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

Maybe Jack the Ripper has lingered because his identity remains unknown, as Holmes’ has not. Holmes was so “successful,” in fact, as a murderer, that had he not been caught, it’s likely that no one would have known a serial killer was at work… which is clearly not the case with Jack the Ripper. Holmes didn’t leave the sensationally mutilated bodies of prostitutes for all the world to find on the streets of a major city, as the Ripper did: Holmes disappeared his victims entirely. And how Holmes was able to find his victims is as significant a factor in how the world was changing the 1890s as was the many reasons for the brilliance of Chicago’s “Columbian Exposition,” meant to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing in the New World as much as it was meant to repudiate Paris’s 1889 World’s Fair.
Larson interweaves the story of the World’s Fair with Holmes’s horrific doings in such a way that it replicates the most gripping of fictions, and also highlights one of my favorite notions (and Dirk Gently’s, too): the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. The Chicago World’s Fair was amazing, sure, because it introduced America and the world to the wonders of electricity as a practical, functional thing that went beyond laboratory parlor tricks to become a force that could light up our cities and fundamentally alter how we live in the world. And because it’s where the Ferris wheel debuted, though some considered it a horror that would be a deathtrap to those who rode it. (That first Ferris wheel was more like the London Eye, with its enormous capsules that can accommodate a small cocktail party, than the smaller fairgrounds version with tiny cars that hold two or three people we’re all more familiar with: each of the cars on the original Ferris wheel could carry 60 people!)

Holmes lived in a Chicago that drew young women from all over the surrounding states who were looking to be independent — in Chicago they could find work as typewriters and clerks and shop assistants — but who also became anonymous the moment they stepped off a train in the Windy City. The same advancing technology that quickly brought events from Europe, like the triumph of France’s World’s Fair, to the ears of ordinary folk in Chicago also created an environment that would have felt strange and scary to 1890’s Americans but that we recognize from our perch in the future as the advent of the information age: Words and ideas were starting to overtake action and making things as a force to be reckoned with. Larson doesn’t explictly state this, but his gripping narrative of how the Chicago World’s Fair came to be in the same place as the first prolific American serial killer is a tale of the beginning of the shift in America from an industrial society to an information and service society.

Larson’s detailing of the work — not the physical labor, but the intellectual labor — that went into forcing the World’s Fair into existence is as exhilirating as his narrative of Holmes’s “work” (which was, however horrific, also intellectual, in its own terrible way). Architects and politicians and artisans and entertainers all work, as Larson sees it, vividly, in the same way: to give birth to ideas. (The “subplot” about Buffalo Bill, denied a place in the Fair and so left to create his own entertainment venue, is so magnificent an example of American ingenuity in the face of bureaucratic bullshit that you want to cheer.) And Larson’s description of the fruition of their work to bring the Fair to life is so magnificent that I can’t believe I missed it by being born too late.

This is how amazing Larson makes the Chicago World’s Fair sound: I knew almost nothing about it before I read this book, and now… When the Doctor comes for me in the TARDIS, I am going to insist that this be one of the first stops we make.

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  • Parrish

    For about three years in Chicago, you could be guaranteed to see someone reading a copy every time you got on a bus or train.

  • Fabulous book, I highly recommend it!

  • JoshDM

    Had to do a search to make sure this wasn’t Savage Dragon’s Erik Larsen.

  • Jan Willem

    Book comes highly recommended from me, too! Fascinating stuff. The weirdly convoluted house that H.H. Holmes built serves as a brilliant counterpoint to the elegant Ferris wheel.

  • Erik

    My favorite book of the last ten years. Beyond the two main stories, so many wonderful details peppered throughout, like the Buffalo Bill story, to the debate & creation of the fair’s centerpiece (to compete with Eiffel’s Tower). It’s just so rich and each chapter leaves you hungry for more. God, I love this book.

  • Alice

    Terrific, scary book. Still can’t decide if the Chicago World’s Fair was brilliant or folly.

  • bronxbee

    Still can’t decide if the Chicago World’s Fair was brilliant or folly.

    like most endeavors of that kind, it was both, i think. i know the 1964 World’s Fair in new york was certainly both.

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