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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Chicago, White City and the Psychopath

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading this book I said to my daughter, a history major, "Why do some authors have such a wonderful way of presenting history and others are soooo boring!". She laughed and said " some history teachers are that way, too. Some are so stimulating and others just put you to sleep!" Well, Erik Larson is definitely one of the former in both cases.

In trying to determine what makes his work so readable and interesting I came to the conclusion that he fleshes out the sources he uses. Rather than just describing the White City, a magnificent assemblage of white painted buildings designed by the top American architects of 1890's US on the shores of Lake Michigan outside Chicago, by quoting the various contemporary visitors' guides, he takes us through its planning and building step by step. The architects are physically described and their personalities brought to life in such a way that you feel as though you are one more of their company. The vivid description of 1890's Chicago and its competition with the East Coast cities, particularly New York, to prove itself more than a Midwest backwater primarily known for its slaughterhouses and manufacture of pig bristle brushes is vibrantly described.

Intertwined with the comparison of the real Chicago with its labor problems, filth and stench and the magnificent make believe heavenly streets, lagoons and elegant huge buildings is the story of the charming, handsome predator living just a stone's throw down the street from Fantasy Land. A man who built his own Castle or House of Horrors. The " doctor" who charmed young women, married a few and murdered and disposed of them all. His story is told in a very matter of fact way. It is horrible but not nightmare inducing. He was calm, gentle, seemingly caring and the tone lulls you into the same place his victims probably reached. A place of trust and involvement until the final moments of that relationship fade away into a gassed or choloroformed haze. After that the final desecration of the bodies seems horrifying. Until then I'd not given a very real thought about the source of the articulated human skeleton, the real one in my early years of teaching, that hung on a hook in the back of the room.

At the end, all is gone--the beautiful White City, but for one building which is now a museum amidst the lagoons and the architects and workmen and engineers. Thank goodness for that--the buildings were not left to fall down and the area to sit forlorn and deserted, like the sight of the Montreal Age of Man metal dome. The strange man who assassinated the mayor, Buffalo Bill who was not allowed to take part in the White City so bought land adjacent to it and thrived, and the sort of doctor who took the lives of countless women seeking to be free in a large city of excitement--all, too, are gone The story of their existence lives on, however, in echos of replication, in the buildings of other cities designed by these men and in the mind of anyone who reads this book.

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