Friday, June 26, 2009
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Sorry this is going to be a long one, but I love amusement parks!
I love their smell, all warm caramel corn and hot sticky tarmac. I love the butterflies and excitement in my stomach, super full of candy apples and cotton candy, as my hands clench the bar across my waist and my dangling feet feel twice their size and somehow heavier when I’m suddenly flung into the air, so quickly at first that at the climax of the ride I almost experience a moment of zero gravity, a moment of suspended animation, like slow motion. For a brief second time stops and I’m thrust back into my seat only to begin again on my way back to the top.
You probably wouldn’t even notice me with my hands up in the air, squealing with the zeal of a twelve-year-old, because I’d be one of thousands that frequent these kinds of parks everyday. With me the funny thing is: normally I’m mortified of heights. With one exception, for some reason my mind gives me a free pass when I want to go on a roller coaster or the Octopus of Terror.
What’s the one exception? The Ferris Wheel. That ride has always terrified me. Could it move any slower? And the way down makes me feel like I’ve been tossed off a 4 story building. But the tiny, itty-bitty Ferris Wheels of today are nothing compared to the monolith that was built by G.W.G. Ferris for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The first of its kind and built to rival the Eiffel Tower at the 1889 Paris Exposition, you can see from the following picture it was meant to be the focal point of that great fair, America's first amusement park.
At 26 stories high, and with 70 tons of steel, this marvel of engineering at the time had 36 cars and could hold up to 2160 persons, 60 to a car. It took 20 minutes to make two revolutions. The cost of what for me would’ve been unadulterated terror was 50 cents a ride. People had never seen anything like it before.
According to Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, this was the fair that changed America. Thought up and designed by that great architect, Daniel Burnham, and with a team of thousands, it took less than two years to finish. Miles in size and built along the cusp of what was then the second largest city in the country, battling bad weather, disease, death and fire, after reading this book I’m inclined to agree with him. This team of architect wizards were some of the first to think up using hundreds of electric lights at night (hence the name, the white city), a decent water purification system, beautiful landscaping, Cracker Jack popcorn, Juicy Fruit gum and hamburgers, just to name a few.
This fair was a slice of Americana at the time, an engineering wonder. People came from across the country to see it, even during an economic crisis. Some traveled with their families; some alone and looking for a new start. Hundreds of people unloaded from the trains in Chicago never to be heard from again. Easy prey, for a determined predator - Herman Mudget, aka Dr. H.H. Holmes. The devil.
A small part of this book is about him, one of our nation’s first documented serial killers and one of the reasons we now have the term psychopath. He preyed on helpless, obviously insecure women and children. Yes, children. He killed them too. The man was the hidden monster under the bed, the one parents always deny exist; the World’s Fair his playground. Reading about him was dark and chilling, his behavior almost so preposterous, his victims so naive, that I thought I was reading fiction.
For the most part, I liked this book. It was interesting, and included a lot of detail about the building of the fair. It started out tedious but got better as it forged on. The stories of what went into building the fair, Dr. Holmes descent into Hell, and the murder of Chicago Mayor Harrison, interconnect effortlessly throughout the book. Early American history at its finest. 3.5 stars