Saturday, April 3, 2010

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Devil in the White City
by Erik Larson

About fifteen years ago, I went through a phase when I immersed myself in true crime and serial killer books. My favorite was The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule where she recounted the many nights she sat with the notorious Ted Bundy working a suicide hotline in Seattle. I read as much Joseph Wambaugh as I could find as well as more obscure authors who wrote about more obscure crimes.

This book would rank third on my list of true crime novels just below the aforementioned Rule book and Vincent Bugliosi's riveting account of the Tate-LaBianca murders and the prosecution of Charles Manson in Helter Skelter.

The book recounts the carnage unleashed by America's first documented serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes of Chicago. Dr. Holmes killed dozens of young women, a couple of men, and at least three children during his rampage that seemingly started with commencement of the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago.

The book tells two parallel stories. The first is about the trials and tribulations of the architect responsible for constructing the Worlds Fair grounds in Jackson Park on the shores of Lake Michigan. The other story is about the evolution of Dr. Holmes from a pathological defrauder of insurance companies into a full-fledged serial killer. Also thrown in for fun is the delusional thoughts and falsified grandeur of the young man who would go on to assassinate the mayor of Chicago because he had not received a patronage job he felt he deserved. This story line, sprinkled in every so often through the pages of this story reminds one very much of the deranged Charles Giteau who would slay President Garfield.

Holmes constructed a hotel at Wallace and 63rd streets near the site of the soon to be opened Worlds Fair to serve tourists. In that hotel, he constructed a chamber of horrors so efficient that it would be admirable in its design if its intent were not so ghastly. After Holmes' deeds were revealed, it was dubbed, "The Murder Castle." Holmes constructed a gas chamber (gassing his victims in a sealed vault was Holmes favorite method of execution) in his office. From his office, he would send the corpses of his victims careening down a methodically devised shoot to the basement where he would skin and disembowel the corpses. Sometimes he took the time to completely clean his victims’ skeleton and sell the them to medical schools. Sometimes he sold the cadavers to the same customers. Often, he cremated his victims in a specially designed oven in the basement.

He was able to create this Murder Castle by employing independent contractors to install separate portions of his murder/corpse disposal system. None of the contractors were aware of the other facilities that Holmes had installed. Had anyone taken the time to examine Holmes macabre architecture, his hobby would have been easily revealed.

Holmes' evil deeds went undetected in 19th century Chicago. He killed with impunity young women he employed in his drug store and hotel. Most of the women were from small Illinois and Wisconsin towns who answered advertisements Holmes placed in local newspapers. When worried family members would come looking for their lost daughters, Holmes, who was incredibly charming and disarming always had a ready story to explain their absence. The Chicago police remained unaware of Holmes deeds. Most families with lost loved ones employed private investigators who did not communicate with each other. No one realized the prolific nature of the monster within their midst.

Holmes killed at least three wives and collected on their life insurance. This was a favorite scam of Holmes to enrich himself. He and his business partner would steal fresh corpses from cemeteries and burn beyond recognition, then cash in on a life insurance policy of a person who never existed.

Like most serial killers, Holmes was not caught through his evil deeds. Remember that Ted Bundy was captured because he was a lousy driver. Charles Manson was originally arrested for vandalizing state-owned excavation equipment. Holmes was arrested more than two years after he left Chicago in Philadelphia for insurance fraud. A curious Philadelphia detective began looking into the death of Holmes’ business partner who was insured for $10,000. Through his investigation, he found that Holmes had murdered three of his partner's children while traveling through the Midwest and was in the late stages of plotting the murder of his partner's wife and her two remaining children.

Holmes eventually confessed to and was found guilty of 27 murders. Some investigators and historians have placed the death toll at more than 200 although most historians seem to doubt that Holmes was quite that prolific. When police searched his hotel, they found the remains of several victims in the crematorium as well as buried in the basement. Holmes claimed that murder came as naturally to him as poetry did to poets. He proclaimed himself the devil incarnate and as such, murder was his natural disposition.

Interestingly, many of the people associated with Holmes' arrest, incarceration, conviction, and eventual execution by hanging would fall victim to mishap, illness, or suicide. It would seem that Holmes did indeed command the powers of Hell. He asked that his body be interred in concrete so his corpse would not be stolen and defiled as he had defiled so many corpses as well as ambient beings.

This book is slow to get going. I was ready to put down this book after the first 100 pages. Much of the text in the early chapters recounts the bureaucratic trials and tribulations of attracting, designing, and constructing the 1893 Worlds Fair. Bureaucratic obstacles encountered by architects and lawyers make for dull reading. After Holmes constructs his chamber of horrors and gets into full swing, the book takes off and the last 100 pages make for intense reading.

Larson’s writing is fast paced and compelling once the reader moves beyond the first 100 pages. An author writing a non-fictional account of a bygone era must dedicate more words to developing the setting that serves as the backdrop than authors recounting contemporary events. However, 100 pages of backdrop is overkill. However, Larson’s disturbing tale of Gilded Age mass murder reminded me of why I once loved the true crime genre.

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