Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City
by Erik Larson

Publisher's Blurb:
Erik Larson—author of #1 bestseller IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS—intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World's Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.

My Reaction:
I tend not to read much nonfiction (excluding the news, how-to books, and the like).  I'm afraid I view nonfiction with the suspicion that it will be boring-- or dense-- or depressing-- or possibly all three.  While I certainly didn't find (much) of this book to be an edge-of-my-seat page-turner, it has proven that nonfiction needn't be dull.

Now, at times, I did feel a bit bogged down in detail.  The detail was interesting-- but (on some topics, at least) there was so much of it!  ("Another tangent?")  Also, it sometimes felt as though the author was tantalizing his reader with the merest tidbits of the crime side of the book in between huge helpings of the tamer fair fare. (*pun-induced smirk*)  I realize that unless he meandered pointlessly, there was only so much of that story to tell, so he had to ration it-- (plus, he was trying to stick to a consistent timeline between the "progress" of the fair and the serial killer)-- but I will confess to an exasperated sigh or two.

Ultimately, though the book was entertaining-- and educational, too! (g)-- I was ready for it to be over, by the end.  I'll try to work a little non-fiction into my reading, but I don't expect it will ever take the place of fiction for me. 

Random Specifics (with SPOILERs):
-- "'The eyes are very big and wide open,' a physician named John L. Capen later observed.  'They are blue.  Great murderers, like great men in other walks of activity, have blue eyes.'"  Hah!  I wonder what color eyes Dr. Capen himself might have had...(Let me guess...)

--  With a name like "Herman Webster Mudgett", no wonder he preferred to go by an alias.  (I'm sorry, but "Mudgett"?  ...I have now incurred the wrath of Mudgetts everywhere.  Oh well.)

--  Rudyard Kipling on Chicago:  "Having seen it, I desire never to see it again.  It is inhabited by savages."

-- Tangent:  My hometown (or, well, the city nearest to the rural community where I grew up) in southernmost Alabama was founded in 1905 by the Southern Plantation Corporation of Chicago.

--  "Minneapolis was small, somnolent, and full of Swedish and Norwegian farmers as charming as cornstalks."  What?  Farmers can't be charming?  Clearly the author has never read the Little House books.

--  And then this:  "In Minneapolis there had been only silence and the inevitable clumsy petitions of potato-fingered men looking for someone, anyone, to share the agony of their days."  Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!  "Agony of their days"?  Good grief!  Getting a little overwrought there, aren't you, Larson?  And "potato-fingered"!  Poor Minnesotan farmers! 

--  "At first alienists described this condition as 'moral insanity' and those who exhibited the disorder as 'moral imbeciles.'  They later adopted the term 'psychopath,' used in the lay press as early as 1885 in William Stead's Pall Mall Gazette, which described it as a 'new malady' and stated, 'Beside his own person and his own interests, nothing is sacred to the psychopath.'"

-- Regarding the above:  I've heard/read some claims that serial killers are a relatively modern phenomenon, but... surely that can't be true.  I don't think human nature has changed-- and neither do I believe that it's anything new that some human beings lack a conscience (or somehow choose to ignore what little they have).  Possibly there could be fluctuations in their prevalence throughout history, but it seems more likely that they simply escaped notice or were not recorded.

--  "Why anyone would even want a soundproof vault was a question that apparently did not occur to him."  Yes, so many of Holmes' particular "activities" would (I hope) be nearly impossible, today.  ...At least, I think people would be more suspicious, these days... and certainly our law enforcement is better at keeping track of criminals and criminal behavior.  (Which is good... But at the same time, it's sad that such suspicion and efficiency is necessary...)

-- "Beyond the fairgrounds' new fence, turmoil and grief engulfed Chicago.  Union leaders threatened to organize unions worldwide to oppose the fair.  The Inland Architect, a prominent Chicago journal, reported: 'That un-American institution, the trades union, has developed its un-American principle of curtailing or abolishing the personal freedom of the individual in a new direction, that of seeking, as far as possible, to cripple the World's Fair.'"  Are we "supposed" to sympathize with the union leaders, here?  Because... while I don't want to see people working in unsafe conditions for unreasonably poor pay, I have to agree that unions often do "curtail or abolish the personal freedom of the individual"-- and their leaders can be just as corrupt and callous as the worst of the demonized Boss-Men.  But whatever.  Go on blindly worshiping the Union, guys...

--  "...Dr. Cigrand, the dentist, who saw so little joy from day to day as he reduced grown men of proven courage to tears."  Good grief...  Was dentistry really so much worse back then?

--  The side story of the failed attempt to pipe water from Waukesha into the fairgrounds?  Very interesting!  "Hygeia secured rights to lay its pipe from its springhouse in Waukesha through the village itself but failed to anticipate the intensity of the opposition from citizens who feared the pipeline would disfigure their landscape and drain their famous springs."  So Hygeia planned to send a special train with supplies to Waukesha and dig the pipeline at night, hoping to escape notice until it was too late for anyone to do anything about it.  Word got out, though, and as the train pulled into the station, "someone rang the village firebell, and soon a large force of men armed with clubs, pistols, and shotguns converged on the train.  Two fire engines arrived hissing steam, their crews ready to blast the pipelayers with water.  One village leader told McElroy that if he went ahead with his plan, he would not leave town alive.  Soon another thousand or so townspeople joined the small army at the station.  One group of men dragged a cannon from the town hall and trained it on Hygeia's bottling plant.  After a brief standoff, McElroy and the pipelayers went back to Chicago."  (In the end, they bought a spring in a town twelve miles away from Waukesha and piped water from that, instead.)

-- While looking up the Waukesha incident online just now, I found this story from 2010.  Apparently, Waukesha's been having water problems of their own, in recent years. There is radium in the well water on which they depend (or depended-- no idea if the issue's been resolved in the past few years...).  Building a treatment plant would be very expensive, so one of the most promising options seemed to be... to pipe in water from Lake Michigan. 

--  The Pledge of Allegiance was composed in honor of the dedication of the fair.

--  The first Ferris wheel debuted at the fair.  It was designed in response to a plea for some American engineering marvel that could top France's Eiffel Tower. 

--  That little tune that everyone associates with belly-dancers and snake-charmers-- and that schoolchildren use when singing, "There's a place in France..."-- was composed on the spur of the moment to accompany a belly-dance demonstration/preview of the type of entertainment the fair had to offer.

--  "McCallister in a column in the New York World advised 'it is not quantity but quality that the society people here want.  Hospitality which includes the whole human race is not desirable.'"  Sounds like such a delightful person.

--  "Hull House had become a bastion of progressive thought inhabited by strong-willed young women, 'interspersed,' as one visitor put it, 'with earnest-faced, self-subordinating and mild-mannered men who slide from room to room unapologetically."

--  "They saw the first moving pictures on Edison's Kinestoscope, and they watched, stunned, as lightning chattered from Nikola Tesla's body.  They saw even more ungodly things-- the first zipper; the first-ever all-electric kitchen, which included an automatic dishwasher; and a box purporting to contain everything a cook would need to make pancakes, under the brand name Aunt Jemima's.  They sampled a new, oddly flavored gum called Juicy Fruit, and caramel-coated popcorn called Cracker Jack.  A new cereal, Shredded Wheat, seemed unlikely to succeed-- 'shredded doormat,' some called it-- but a new beer did well, winning the exposition's top beer award.  Forever afterward, its brewer called it Pabst Blue Ribbon.  Visitors also encountered the latest and arguably most important organizational invention of the century, the vertical file, created by Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System."

-- "Prune makers sent along a full-scale knight on horseback sculpted out of prunes."  Ah, to have been alive then and there to see it!  A full-scale knight-- on horseback!-- sculpted out of prunes!  How glorious it must have been!  (Why a knight?  Not sure what the subject matter should have been, though, so maybe a better question is-- why not?!)

--  "Buffalo Bill promptly declared Waif's Day at the Wild West and offered any kid in Chicago a free train ticket, free admission to the show, and free access to the whole Wild West encampment, plus all the candy and ice cream the children could eat.  Fifteen thousand showed up."

--  "...the earliest visitors to Jackson Park saw immediately that the fair's greatest power lay in the strange gravity of the buildings themselves.  ...  Some visitors found themselves so moved by the Court of Honor that immediately upon entering they began to weep."  It's difficult to imagine...  What would it take to move a modern person to tears, with architecture alone?

--  "Leaves hung in the stillness like hands of the newly dead."  Um, what?  Setting a mood, I guess, but it seemed to come out of nowhere.

--  (Warning:  This section is gruesome...)  The authorities had people identify the remains of loved ones by teeth alone, in some cases.  Of course I've heard of bodies being identified by dental records-- and people being asked to look at the face of a corpse to confirm an identity--  but this is the first time I've come across the expectation that a person would remember someone else's teeth well enough to give a positive ID.  I honestly don't know if I'd be able to recognize even my closest family by their teeth alone-- but maybe it's easier than I think, because Mrs. Pitezel "recognized Alice's teeth immediately".  (Maybe teeth were more easily recognizable in the past, before modern dentistry and orthodontics...)

--  "'We do know that Holmes advertised his "hotel" as a suitable lodging for visitors to the world's fair; that no fewer than fifty persons, reported to the police as missing, were traced to the Castle; and that there their trail ended.'"

--  "Early in the twentieth century the fair became a source of heated debate among architects.  Critics claimed the fair extinguished the Chicago School of architecture, an indigenous vernacular, and replaced it with a renewed devotion to obsolete classical styles."  Oh, boo hoo.  (Yeah, not the biggest fan of "modern" architecture, in general.  I think a lot of it's UGLY.  Frank Lloyd Wright?  Overrated.)

--  Burnham's obsession with not being "accepted" at Yale and Harvard leaves me completely unmoved.  "His past failure to gain admission to both universities-- the denial of his 'right beginning'-- had haunted him throughout his life.  Even years after receiving the awards, as he lobbied Harvard to grant provisional admission to his son Daniel, whose own performance on the entry exams was far from stellar, Burnham wrote, 'He needs to know that he is a winner, and, as soon as he does, he will show his real quality, as I have been able to do.  It is the keenest regret of my life that someone did not follow me up at Cambridge... and let the authorities know what I could do.'"  Oh, barf.  (Sorry, but... yuck.)  Burnham, your son needed to know within himself that he was "a winner".  (Though the term triggers a gag reflex for me... There are better ways of phrasing it.)  No acceptance from any school-- however self-important-- is going to make up for that lack. 

-- "The execution intensified Darrow's already deep hatred of the death penalty. 'I am sorry for all fathers and all mothers,' he said, years later, during his defense of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, accused of killing a Chicago boy for the thrill of it. 'The mother who looks into the blue eyes of her little babe cannot help musing over the end of the child, whether it will be crowned with the greatest promises which her mind can image or whether he may meet death upon the scaffold.'"   Hm.  And what about the mother who learns that her child has met his end tragically and prematurely-- needlessly-- at the hands of a pitiless murderer?  Go ahead and sniffle over a convicted murderer's "death upon the scaffold".  My tears are reserved for their victims. 

...and on that dark note... I'm off to decide what to read next.