31 January 2013

Erik Larson's Devil in the White City

My blog is almost a two-for-one discount.

I'm thinking about about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair through two books.... Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, as well as my adventure rescuing Shepp's World's Fair Photographed.

Devil in the White City itself is "two-for-one;" it's about how the Fair was imagined, constructed, enjoyed, and destroyed.... AND about the psychopathic serial killer Henry Holmes.

Things that had their "firsts" at the World's Fair:
  • Kellogg's Shredded Wheat
  • Aunt Jemima pancake mix
  • Cracker Jack
  • Juicy Fruit gum
  • Pabst Blue Ribbon
  • the zipper
  • Extensive electric lighting (200,000 bulbs, illuminated by alternating current, instead of direct current)
  • Belly dancing in America
(By the way... that "snake charmer" song?
NOT an Arab/Persian song at all..... it was thought up on the spot by Sol Bloom, Director of the Fair Midway)

and ... 
  • the Ferris Wheel
The White City was enormously difficult to build.  It involved the greatest architects of late-19th century America.  One of the buildings, if it were still standing, would be the 3rd largest building in the world.... even today.  The World's Fair was otherworldly for visitors.  It was a triumph for Chicago, trying to prove that they were more than America's Slaughterhouse.  It buoyed the spirit of a nation on the verge of an economic depression (1894) and the massive strikes by newly-organized labor.

And then there was America's first serial killer.

In the madness of the booming city, sometimes people simply vanished without a trace, walking away from whatever life they wished to leave behind. So Chicago of 1893, filled with hundreds of thousands of visitors and temporary workers, was a perfect place to ensnare and kill - especially naive young women new to the life of the metropolis.  Herman Webster Mudgett (who used MANY aliases, but was best known as Henry Holmes) was handsome, charismatic, and entranced everyone he met .  He could convince workers not to be paid, creditors not to collect.  He married again and again, and his wives "disappeared."

He bought a lot close to Jackson Park and built his "castle" - part retail space, part apartment space, part office space, part hotel, and part death machine.  He designed every feature - bizarre hallways, gloomy rooms.... and soundproof iron vaults, windowless airtight chambers (piped with hidden gas jets), a dissecting lab, and a crematory kiln. Holmes purported to be a doctor and pharmacist, so residents and guests never questioned the pervasive smells of chloroform and acid.  At the time, cadavers for academic use were hard to come by, so his pals helped him dispose of bodies, for profit - four of which became articulated skeletons at Cook County Hospital Medical School.  Erik Larson's depiction of him is so frightening - Holmes began to plan their deaths... to happen months later.... the same day he met them.

Julia Conner and her daughter Pearl, Benjamin Pietzel and three of his children, Emeline Cigrand, Minnie Williams and her sister Anna.  And on and on. It took years and dozens of disappearances, for their families to begin to admit the unthinkable.  An unstoppable detective, Frank Geyer, searched dozens of cities, followed thousands of leads, and built the case against Holmes. 

Some estimates put the number of Holmes victims at as many as 200.  Chilling, indeed.

Erik Larson has a new book out; I'm very eager to read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin.  Yikes.

Now 120 years in the past, the Chicago World's Fair really did leave its mark on America in small and large ways.

Elias Disney was one of thousands of workers who built the White City.  Although it burned to the ground in 1894, Elias told his little son Walt marvelous stories about it - how happy it made the people who visited.  Disney theme parks and The White City have a LOT in common in terms of architectural and landscape design, exhibits, and the goal of being "The Happiest Place on Earth."  Because for a brief shining moment, the White City WAS The Magic Kingdom.

Note: only a handful of the marvelous buildings of the Exposition still exist.  One particularly grand one is now the Museum of Science and Industry on the banks of Lake Michigan in Chicago.  And another is the "Maine State Building," which you can see today in Poland Springs!

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