The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City is about two men connected to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago: Daniel Burnham, the influential architect who planned the fair, and H.H. Holmes, the infamous serial killer who preyed on its visitors.

Burnham’s story is interesting, but necessarily less dramatic than that of a serial killer, and it suffers a bit in comparison — especially as Holmes was engaged in some amateur architecture himself. The chapters alternate between Burnham and Holmes, and every time I reached the end of a Holmes chapter I’d sigh and put the book down, knowing that I was in for another 25 pages of this:

Now Burnham faced the prospect of having to go alone to meet these legendary architects — one of them, Hunt, a man also of legendary irascibility. Why were they so unenthusiastic? How would they react to his attempts at persuasion? And if they declined and word of their refusal became public, what then?

Burnham’s rush to organize the massive exposition was impressive — and as you can see, Larson is working overtime to dramatize it — but after you read about Holmes’s secret construction of a giant “murder castle” with a maze-like interior of blind hallways, windowless cells and jury-rigged gas chambers… well, a meeting with cranky architects just doesn’t sound like such a big deal.

But the larger problem is that Holmes himself doesn’t come across as a realistic character. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Larson’s research — or just the surviving evidence — is missing some key element of the story. He’s constantly telling us how brilliant, conniving and charismatic Holmes was, but given the actual events as he recounts them, the main factor in his success is that he was surrounded by staggering idiots who could shrug off even the most glaring red flags:

[Holmes’s] drugstore ran smoothly and profitably, although one woman in the neighborhood observed that he seemed to have difficulty retaining the young and typically attractive women he often hired as clerks. These clerks, as far as she could tell, had an unfortunate habit of departing without warning, sometimes even leaving their personal belongings in their rooms on the second floor. She saw such behavior as a troubling sign of the rising shiftlessness of the age.

And a bit later…

Holmes asked Ned a favor. He led him to the big vault and stepped inside, then told Ned to close the door and listen for the sound of his shouting. “I shut the door and put my ear to the crack,” Ned recalled, “but could hear only a faint sound.” Ned opened the door, and Holmes stepped out. Now Holmes asked Ned if he would go inside and try shouting, so that Holmes could hear for himself how little sound escaped. Ned did so but got back out the instant Holmes reopened the door. “I didn’t like that kind of business,” he said. Why anyone would even want a soundproof vault was a question that apparently did not occur to him.

It goes on and on like this:

The furnace man examined the kiln. It was an interesting design and seemed likely to work, although he did observe to himself that the shape seemed unsuited to the task of bending glass. Otherwise, he noticed nothing unusual… Only later did [he] recognize that the kiln’s peculiar shape and extreme heat made it ideal for another, very different application. “In fact,” he said, “the general plan of the furnace was not unlike that of a crematory for dead bodies, and with the provision already described there would be absolutely no odor from the furnace.” But again, that was later.

This one made me laugh out loud:

A druggist named Erickson recalled how Holmes used to come into his store to buy chloroform. “I sometimes sold him the drug nine or ten times a week and each time it was in large quantities. I asked him what he used it for on several occasions, but he gave me very unsatisfactory answers. At last I refused to let him have any more unless he told me, as I pretended that I was afraid that he was not using it for any proper purpose.” Holmes told Erickson he was using the chloroform for scientific experiments. Later, when Holmes returned for more chloroform, Erickson asked him how his experiments were coming. Holmes gave him a blank look and said he was not conducting any experiments. “I could never make him out,” Erickson said.

Holmes is doing everything but committing his murders in public, and no one notices. And all the passages above are from before the Fair itself. Since he seems to have claimed most of his victims during the Fair, any of the above people who reported him would have been saving dozens of lives.

Of course, I’m not sure what exactly could be missing. Holmes was a real person, after all, and Larson’s notes make it clear that he’s done his research carefully. But maybe Holmes’s two main conspirators were a lot more active than Larson makes them out to be, or maybe he had help from elsewhere. In particular, there’s this intriguing throwaway line from the end of the book:

One of the most surprising and perhaps dismaying revelations was that Chicago’s chief of police, in his prior legal career, had represented Holmes in a dozen routine commercial lawsuits.

Now, I’m not saying that Holmes’s murders were abetted by some evil Masonic conspiracy in the police force, but it’s not out of the question that he was paying off some element of the police to look the other way, right? They needn’t have known they were ignoring murder to just not investigate his smaller infractions like ripping off the workers who built his “hotel.” Or maybe there’s something more in the fact that he was supplying his cadavers for medical research? How could more people in this channel not have known what was going on? Were some of them helping to keep it quiet too?

Anyway, I guess we’ll never know the full story. I do find it hard to believe that Holmes got away with everything by just flashing his blue eyes at everyone who asked questions, which is how Larson makes it sound. But part of the cognitive disconnect must come from the fact that life was just a lot cheaper back then. Not just the lives of a serial killer’s victims, but also the lives of the workers who built the exposition. Given the multiple fatal construction accidents that Larson recounts, it sounds like Burnham, in a sense, racked up just as much of a body count as Holmes.

In the notes to the book, Larson writes:

The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city’s willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the world’s fair in the first place.

The other side of that collective spirit is that individuals mattered a lot less than they do in the “modern psyche.” Even the prominent men who planned the exposition start to seem interchangeable by the end of the book, with several of them taking ill or dropping dead and being replaced without much consequence. That’s the sense in which this book really succeeds: it vividly portrays a 19th Century metropolis as a swirling maelstrom in which anyone was expendable and no one would be remembered for long. Which is both a sad and liberating image, depending on how you look at it.