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The Devil in the White City

I recently got around to reading reading Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City. The book tells the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and I think it’s a remarkably neat sociological story. The very idea of the fair itself, the massive construction effort, the giant migration of people to the six-month event, and the grisly killings committed just blocks away are products of 19th century revolution and, in some ways, forebears of the 20th century. It’s absolutely fascinating to read the book and see dozens of now larger-than-life politicians, writers, reformers, explorers, magnates and architects and engineers come in and out of the fair’s orbit. As fun as it is to see so many prominent individuals on the scene, the broader world that the fair marked is even more interesting: The labor movement is an almost-constant background to the project of building the fair, which took place at a time when issues of class and urban inequality were growing increasingly salient—embodied particularly by a city so rife with patronage and pollution that, as Larsen notes, “Max Weber likened the city to `a human being with his skin removed.’”

Everywhere there is an undercurrent of the heavy task of trying essentially to build the future. Ownership of that future became a gripping necessity, first for the fair’s designers and builders, and later for the whole nation. After being humiliated at the prior World’s Fair, in Paris, the United States badly needed a winner. (I suppose that from a present-day perspective there’s something tasty, somewhere, in the fact that the Pledge of Allegiance was originally written for schoolchildren to recite on the occasion of the Chicago Fair’s dedication. A hundred and some years later we’re still trying to figure out how to one-up the French.)

The same thousand trains a day that allowed so much steel and so many people to make their way to Chicago also enable, in part, the murders that make for the “Devil” part of the book’s title. Webster Mudgett/H. H. Holmes is such a chilling figure, so methodical in the planning and carrying out of his crimes, that it’s hard to think of him as a product of the in-transit nation around him. The turn of the century world didn’t necessarily make Holmes a killer, but it did contribute to the conditions that made it so apparently easy for him to find his victims and hide his crimes. It was a world so entirely unprepared for what he did that the disappearances themselves attracted no attention until Holmes was pinched for insurance fraud—something more conventional and understandable. Larsen writes a really interesting passage describing how Holmes slowly becomes a suspect in the disappearance of three children, sparking national horror at the prospect that he might have killed them. That kind of action, writes Larsen, was unimaginable; we didn’t have a vocabulary for it, much less for the full extent of his crimes.

The world’s fair and the truly psychopathic make for a freaky juxtaposition. I think it would be reading too much into the story to suggest that Holmes somehow is emblematic of the downside of modernity (or likewise, that the architects of the fair were its standard-bearers). But taken as a whole, it’s certainly an interesting and compelling story, one that sets up an interesting context with which to think about the massive social upheaval—at the macro and micro levels—that followed the decade of the fair.