Monday, December 6, 2010

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson


Rating: 3 & ½ Stars

  HOG Butcher for the World,
     Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
     Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
     Stormy, husky, brawling,
     City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them…

“Chicago” by Carl Sandburg

Those who have ever wondered how Chicago acquired that particular sobriquet – Hog Butcher – have the answer etched into their memory in Erik Larson’s highly engaging history of Chicago’s Gilded Age.

As the Nineteenth Century drew to a close, America planned to commemorate the 400th. Anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America with the ‘World’s Columbian Exposition’ that was to be held during the summer of 1893. At least in part, the motivation was to outdo France’s 1889’s ‘Exposition Universelle’ where Gustave Eiffel had unveiled his Eiffel Tower, and where the United States had embarrassed itself with a particularly poor showing.

But that humiliating memory was to be erased, and many U.S. cities were vying for the honor to host the event. New York, even then the cosmopolitan and artistic capital of America was thought to be the front-runner. But Chicago was a fierce competitor, and to the surprise of many, won the rights to stage the Columbian Exposition.

Erik Larson includes minute details about the mind-boggling logistics that went into the planning and construction of the fair, where Americans were wonder-struck and entertained by such new fangled inventions as electric boats, Instant Pancake Mix, ‘Juicy Fruit’ gum, zippers, America’s first large-scale experiment with night-time illumination, and, George Washington Gale Ferris’s triumph of engineering – the Ferris Wheel.

Many men lent their creative genius and energy to make the Exposition’s success a reality. It could accurately be described as a harnessing of opposing egos, and conflicting artistic visions. The man put in charge of this daunting project was Daniel Hudson Burnham. The Fair came at a fascinating point in Chicago’s history, not long after the Great Fire, but before the infamy earned by Al Capone, who did his share to sear Chicago into our collective conscious. The Columbian Fair, nicknamed “The White City” encapsulated the city Chicago yearned to become – clean, dazzling, every bit the equal of it’s snooty Eastern neighbor, New York.

That Chicago had its ugly side is personified by the presence of H.H. Holmes whose presence pervades the book, and whose crimes shocked a city that was hardened even then. Holmes was America’s first celebrity serial killer, who exerted a vampire-like allure to his victims, who are still unnumbered. The fair brought other tragedies in its wake – many accidental deaths, a deadly fire, and a political murder. At its heart, the book is a story about the contrasting forces that propel some to build and create, and others to ruin and destroy.

The book is rich in detail and anecdotes. Larson recreates Chicago in our imagination as a gas-light illumined city fighting its smog, poverty, and vice; striving to become the White City of its dreams.

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