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WRITTEN BY MARY ANN GWINN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
Dreamers, Fantastic and Diabolic
A world's fair brings together two men who believed they could do anything
The Seattle writer's new book, "The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America" (Crown, $25.95), takes readers to the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, a long-forgotten event that created a "Brigadoon-like" world of splendor on the shores of Chicago's Lake Michigan.
The exhibition's spell drew in a cast of characters who would burn deep into America's consciousness: Frederick Law Olmsted, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow and Thomas Edison. It also spawned a darker American phenomenon, the serial killer. The chilling core of "The Devil in the White City" is a man of almost incomprehensible evil named H.H. Holmes. Holmes didn't just murder people (mostly young women and children) at random; he planned their dispatch by building an entire hotel equipped for execution, stripped his victim's bones and sold the skeletons to Chicago's medical schools.
This melding of dark and light into a highly readable popular history has earned Larson mostly critical praise. Janet Maslin of The New York Times: "Mr. Larson has written a dynamic, enveloping book filled with haunting, closely annotated information. And it doesn't hurt that this truth really is stranger than fiction."
Holmes' and Burnham's stories converge to make "Devil in the White City" a beguiling, unsettling read. "What defines both men," says Larson, "is the belief that they can do anything."
Larson is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal; his wife, Christine Gleason, is chief of the neonatology division at the University of Washington Medical Center. They share their Montlake home with three children and a golden retriever named Molly. A rangy, conversational, intellectually restless man, he has a journalistic penchant for wanting to examine the minutiae of every topic.
"My approach is to copy everything," he says. Besides many hours spent in the UW's Suzzallo library, Larson took six trips to Chicago to rifle the files of the Historical Society and the Art Institute, and walked the grounds of the settings in the book, including Jackson Park, where the long-vanished buildings of the fair stood.
In the 1890s, Chicago was a gritty, blood-soaked place trying to recover from labor riots and the devastating fire of 1871. A thousand trains a day entered or left the city, spilling na‘ve young women seeking work as typists, stenographers, seamstresses and weavers. Men scrambled through the mud, the soot and the sewage. One author called it "a gigantic peepshow of utter horror, but extraordinarily to the point."
Holmes arrived there in 1886. He purchased a pharmacy (the former owner, a widow, disappeared), and set about building a hotel in the Englewood neighborhood: "Events and people captured his attention the way moving objects caught the notice of an amphibian: first a machine-like registration of proximity, next a calculation of worth, last a decision to act or remain motionless," Larson writes. Holmes' known crimes were limited to swindling and insurance fraud. But in Chicago, his aim was to construct a killing chamber. Gas jets were piped into remote rooms; storage chambers were hidden. A human being-sized kiln was set up in the basement. To avoid questions during construction, Holmes would keep bricklayers and carpenters employed for only a few weeks, fire them and start with a new, unsuspecting set of workers.
Holmes' premeditation was mind-boggling: "What he craved was possession and the power it gave him, what he adored was anticipation the slow acquisition of love, then life, and finally the secrets within."
Larson said he faced a difficult task in trying to reconstruct the murders. He read Truman Capote's crime classic "In Cold Blood" twice for guidance. Holmes, who is variously estimated to have killed from 9 to 200 people, was ultimately brought to ground, tried and executed, thanks to the work of Frank Geyer, a private detective hired to investigate Holmes' business fraud. Holmes confessed several times, once describing his own physical transformation into the devil.
Larson's tale is what the author calls his "theory" of the case, reconstructed from numerous sources. One passage describes a tour of the fair Holmes takes with two intended victims. Letters confirm they visited the fair, but Larson notes that his reconstruction of their visit represents "one likely path, based on guide books from the era, maps of the fairgrounds, and reports that described the features of the exhibition visitors found most attractive."
It's not textbook history. Some readers might find themselves asking how much of what they're reading really happened. But it's also Larson's strength as a writer. By enlivening the story of Holmes' victims, he makes their deaths more meaningful.
The horror of Holmes' story does not overtake Larson's re-creation of the spell of amazement and delight the fair cast over its visitors: "Each building was huge to begin with, but the impression of mass was amplified by the fact that all the buildings were neoclassical in design, all had cornices set at the same height, all had been painted the same soft white, and all were so shockingly, beautifully unlike anything the majority of visitors had ever seen in their dusty hometowns. . . Edgar Lee Masters, Chicago attorney and emerging poet, called the Court 'an inexhaustible dream of beauty.' "
Burnham and Holmes never met. "The two narratives don't really intersect," says Larson, noting that the complex construction may keep an otherwise cinematic tale from being made into a movie. And the marrying of the stories has prompted some criticism: The Washington Post said the story of the fair has plenty of intrinsic drama "and scarcely needs tarting up with a lurid sideshow."
But the story of Holmes was just too compelling. As Larson grappled with Holmes' ghost, it cast a long shadow over him. A curse was said to descend on those involved in the killer's capture. Geyer became seriously ill, the warden of the prison committed suicide, the jury foreman was electrocuted in a freak accident, the priest who delivered Holmes last rites was found dead of mysterious causes, and a fire destroyed the office of the district attorney who prosecuted him, leaving only a photograph of Holmes unscathed.
One of Larson's last trips was to Holmes' grave in Pennsylvania on a quiet summer day. As he stood deep in the cemetery, a gigantic thunderclap came out of nowhere.
"How strange would that be . . . to be struck dead by lightning at Holmes' grave," Larson says. "One is tempted to see a larger hand at work, but you have to be careful about that when talking about Holmes."
Mary Ann Gwinn is The Seattle Times' book editor. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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