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Sunday, July 29, 2007

TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION--THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY

When a non-fiction book read as fiction and the result is startling and almost difficult to believe, I know I've found an intriguing book companion. Erik Larson’s #1 National best seller The Devil in the White City--great title--is a highly researched account of both the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition AND a diabolical mass murderer who used the special aura of the fair to commit his heinous crimes. It is also a riveting look at power: its definition and its irresistible allure for those who use it for both good and evil.

Coming shortly after the France’s Exposition Universelle in which Alexandre Eiffel unveiled his tower and amazed the entire world, the Chicago Fair sought to out-Eiffel Eiffel and prove to the world--and to the eastern cities of the U.S.--that Chicago, despite its well-deserved reputation as the nation's slaughterhouse (and all the filth and odors that accompany that reputation) was a place of refinement and beauty. Its architects could design a fair that would never be forgotten.

The task of designing the fair and bringing it to life was snagged by Daniel H. Burnham and his partner John Root. Burnham, years before, had been rebuffed by both Harvard and Yale after doing poorly on admissions tests. He had his own ax to grind. He wanted to prove both schools made a mistake in not recognizing his potential. He sought glory to vindicate himself and to bring the riches and prestige he desired. How he does this and how he enlists the genius of such men as Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park and North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate is only part of the story. Burnham was not the only man anxious for power, and the various struggles among geniuses seeking to secure their places in history is astounding and incredible, once again proving that truth is stranger than fiction!

Meanwhile, in the shadows of monumental development and artistic genius, another man slinks along bent on satisfying his own lust for power. For him it is power over women. Chicago in the 1890s lured a new type of woman, one anxious to be her own person, willing to work for her independence and desperate to leave the monotonous routines of hometown life far behind. Exactly the women H. H. Holmes sought. He, too, was a genius—but an evil one.

As I followed the Fair's development, I also followed Holmes' ability to create his own amazing fantasy world into which his victims, drawn by his looks and charm, entered only to disappear into his underworld.

The intertwining of these stories and of the men who made history during these years of development creates an exciting rush. The history of the fair and the crimes comes alive, and so do the times. It is possible to envision in one's imagination how Chicago must have been in the 1890s before sanitation was adequate and before housing was adequate. It was a time when dead horses littered the streets, the smells from the slaughterhouse offal permeated the air, and the drinking water ran rancid and dangerous. It was a time when tooth problems might be insurmountable; a cold might end in death, and diseases like typhoid and cholera were common and rampant.

Nevertheless, miracles happen. The Fair out-Eiffeled Eiffel through a fluke and one engineer’s persistence. Burnham once said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” The fair even left its mark on our own times. Walt Disney's father, for instance, worked on the fair, and his elder son Roy's name would have been Columbus had Mrs. Disney not been insistent that it be Roy. Surely young Roy and Walt heard tales of this Fantasyland. Things we eat and use today were first introduced at the Fair, and it is an amazing read to learn about them. I also read other famous names, some who contributed and some whose genius went unrecognized at the time. Even H. H. Holmes' story has twists and turns I did not expect. What happens to him and the way he handles it is a story in itself. How’s this for an intriguing quotation: “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing.”

The Devil in the White City is a wonderful book. Don't miss it. BTW, each fall the Town of Warwick does a program called One Town One Book. Each of the villages participates in presenting a program over the course of several weeks. This year The Devil in the White City is the book. I'll be the presenter in the Village of Florida on Oct. 24th. I'm really looking forward to it!

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