A Fair of the Heart

Author chronicles joy and death in 1800s Chicago

Late on a February morning from Seattle, Erik Larson is discussing death over breakfast. Washington State might be home to the infamous Green River Killer, but Larson isn't an assassin plotting his next move. He's an acclaimed author who last year wrote of a murderer and an architect; his number-one best seller, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, has just come out in paperback. It tells the story of the eighteen-month building of the awe-inspiring Chicago World's Fair of 1893, led by architect Daniel Burnham, and the gruesome events that surrounded the joyous moment. Meant to pay tribute to the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage, bolster the reputation of Chicago as a sophisticated metropolis, and show up the French (their 1889 version of the fair presented the world with the dazzling Eiffel Tower), the fair had one little publicity problem: the nearby World's Fair Hotel. The macabre hostelry was run by Dr. H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who capitalized on the anonymity of the big city and the luster of the monumental affair to lure his victims. Oh, did we mention Larson's book is nonfiction?

Ten years ago, after being captivated by Caleb Carr's novel The Alienist, concerning a serial killer in turn-of-the-century Manhattan, Larson decided to write his own tale. "The first book I got from the library was The Encyclopedia of Murder," notes Larson, adding that when he first came upon the Holmes crimes, he thought them too grisly. What drew him in? The World's Fair. "It's the juxtaposition of the two things that makes this interesting," he says.

And what a fair it was. In addition to Burnham and partner John Root, Central Park mastermind Frederick Law Olmsted and Beaux Arts-style giants Charles McKim and Richard Morris Hunt were among those who collaborated to create the six-month-long spectacular that introduced innovations such as Juicy Fruit gum, air conditioning, and the Ferris Wheel. Almost half of the U.S.'s 65 million citizens (27.5 million) -- including Harry Houdini, Helen Keller, and Buffalo Bill Cody -- attended the event.

Murder pays off for Erik Larson
roseanne olson
Murder pays off for Erik Larson

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As somber as numerous innocent people losing their lives to a maniac may be (Holmes claimed he killed 27; some believe it was 200), other melancholy undercurrents run through the book. Never again will we see a World's Fair. "In that era, one of the things that really defines the time is a powerful sense of community," says Larson. "Today ... there is no sense of community. There is no sense that if there is an event like this you must go." The fair's vast pavilions, which appeared majestic but were not truly built to last, also reflected the ambition and fragility associated with an inconspicuous urban existence.

In the end stately buildings, an astonishing extravaganza, even human life proved transitory. If the author could be transported to another time, where would he like to go? "Late nineteenth-century New York!" Larson says without hesitation. Not Chicago in 1893? No way. He's already been there one too many times.

 
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