Book Club: The Devil in the White City

Last night was Book Club. We read and discussed The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. The setting for the book is Chicago in the late 19th c., just at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair.

1893fair-29courtIn terms of writing style, it is an interesting juxtaposition of two stories. The first story is the World’s Fair and all of the drama that went into Chicago’s bid for the Fair and the issues the architects and others faced in pulling it off. They had less than two years, I believe, to transform the city, and this was at a time when Chicago was widely known for its slaughterhouses and considered an inadequate venue (contrasted with New York) for something like this. That part of the book alone is fascinating. I was only vaguely familiar with that history, and it was interesting to see the relationships and dynamics that went into that story. Both civic and national pride figured into all of that, particularly as France had hosted the last Fair at which the Eiffel Tower had been introduced on the world’s stage. I added a picture on the right that captures some of what was accomplished in transforming the city of Chicago into the White City (including the use of electric street lights and the use of white stucco on many of the buildings–note the classical architecture). The theme was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. I was reminded of a philosophy of aesthetics course I took from Nicholas Wolterstorff back at Calvin College. We read and discussed city planning and the role of architecture in shaping a person’s experience of the environment/city. Probably what was most interesting to me about this section of the book were just the historical people in town (Mark Twain, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and Disney, just to name a few).

The other events had to do with Herman Webster Mudgett (best known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes)–the nation’s “first serial killer”–and his “Murder Castle,” the building to which he brought/lured his victims. The Murder Castle was elaborate and gruesome (as depicted in the image here), complete with a gas chamber, dissection table, and cremation oven.  murdercastle1, cred 3This story was handled well with few attempts to dramatize any further what was already quite remarkable. The details toward the end of the book were difficult for some of our discussion group. We discussed a Christian view of evil, whether evil is “out there” or within us, the lack of a moral “chip” (Steinbeck) in a sociopath, what it means to not have a moral conscience, as well as what it means to be involved/engaged as Christians. We also discussed whether architecture/buildings are neutral or if they can reflect evil.

Publisher’s Weekly offers the following synopsis:

Not long after Jack the Ripper haunted the ill-lit streets of 1888 London, H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett) dispatched somewhere between 27 and 200 people, mostly single young women, in the churning new metropolis of Chicago; many of the murders occurred during (and exploited) the city’s finest moment, the World’s Fair of 1893. Larson’s breathtaking new history is a novelistic yet wholly factual account of the fair and the mass murderer who lurked within it. Bestselling author Larson (Isaac’s Storm) strikes a fine balance between the planning and execution of the vast fair and Holmes’s relentless, ghastly activities. The passages about Holmes are compelling and aptly claustrophobic; readers will be glad for the frequent escapes to the relative sanity of Holmes’s co-star, architect and fair overseer Daniel Hudson Burnham, who managed the thousands of workers and engineers who pulled the sprawling fair together 0n an astonishingly tight two-year schedule. A natural charlatan, Holmes exploited the inability of authorities to coordinate, creating a small commercial empire entirely on unpaid debts and constructing a personal cadaver-disposal system. This is, in effect, the nonfiction Alienist, or a sort of companion, which might be called Homicide, to Emile Durkheim’s Suicide. However, rather than anomie, Larson is most interested in industriousness and the new opportunities for mayhem afforded by the advent of widespread public anonymity. This book is everything popular history should be, meticulously recreating a rich, pre-automobile America on the cusp of modernity, in which the sale of “articulated” corpses was a semi-respectable trade and serial killers could go well-nigh unnoticed.

What was most interesting to me, then, was the juxtaposition of human accomplishment at the World’s Fair with the moral depravity of Mudgett’s Murder Castle. I suppose the book could be have been further strengthened by more of a psychological autopsy of Mudgett; I think that could have been worthwhile. But overall it was a thought-provoking book. One of our discussants offered the opening reflection on the book, quoting Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That about sums it up.

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