Reread in Progress: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America - Erik Larson

The last time I read this book I sped through chunks of it to find out what happened next. Here's a quote that is an example of why (bolded bits mine, for oooooo, the foreshadowing):


p 39: "Ultimately the setbacks proved to be minor ones for Burnham and Root. Far worse was to occur, and soon, but as of February 14, 1890, the day of the great fair vote, the partners seemed destined for a lifetime of success."


Another example: page 18 - a long paragraph or two about a man pasting the results of the vote for which city would get the world's fair. The results are shared with the reader....on page 31.


These are the early moments that had me flipping ahead for an answer - or just turning to wikipedia. That way I could continue to enjoy the pace of the book and not always be annoyed because I had to wait an unknown amount of time for answers. Especially for something like whether Chicago gets the fair, because that's a given. (Still, I felt the need to check.)


It was the parts about H. H. Holmes that really made me read this book out of order. I'd never heard of this particular murderer before this book, and I wanted more information immediately. Afterwards I read a somewhat - well, typical true-crime book on Holmes in hopes of more detail. Which I received - but then you never do really get an answer for the why's of this sort of thing.


Anyway, in this reread I now know what happens and have all the background. So I'm going to take time to actually enjoy the fun details that Larson has dug up. Like this excellent bit on Chicago's Whitechapel Club. Am quoting a long bit of it, because the weirdness is so worth it.



p 31-32

One telegraph boy made his way through the dark to an unlit alley that smelled of rotted fruit and was silent save for the receding hiss of gaslights on the street he had left behind. He found a door, knocked, and entered a room full of men, some young, some old, all seeming to speak at once, a few quite drunk. A coffin at the center of the room served as a bar. The light was dim and came from gas jets hidden behind skulls mounted on the walls. Other skulls lay scattered about the room. A hangman's noose dangled from the wall, as did assorted weapons and a blanket caked with blood.


These artifacts marked the room as the headquarters of the Whitechapel Club, named for the London slum in which two years earlier Jack the Ripper had done his killing. The club's president held the official title of the Ripper; its members were mainly journalists, who brought to the club's meetings stories of murder harvested from the city's streets. The weapons on the wall had been used in actual homicides and were provided by Chicago policemen; the skulls by an alienist at a nearby lunatic asylum; the blanket by a member who had acquired it while covering a battle between the army and the Sioux.


Upon learning that Chicago had  won the fair, the men of the Whitechapel Club composed a telegram to Chauncey Depew, who more than any other man symbolized New York and its campaign to win the fair. Previously Depew had promised the members of the Whitechapel Club that if Chicago prevailed he would present himself at the club's next meeting, to be hacked apart by the Ripper himself - metaphorically, he presumed, although at the Whitechapel Club could one ever be certain? The club's coffin, for example, had once been used to transport the body of a member who had committed suicide. After claiming his body, the club had hauled it to the Indiana Dunes on Lake Michigan, where members erected an immense pyre. They placed the body on top, then set it alight. Carrying torches and wearing black hooded robes, they circled the fire singing hymns to the dead between sips of whiskey. The club also had a custom of sending robed members to kidnap visiting celebrities and steal them away in a black coach with covered windows, all without saying a word.


The club's telegram reached Depew in Washington twenty minutes after the final ballot... The telegram asked, "When may we see you at our dissecting table?"


Depew sent an immediate response: "I am at your service when ordered and quite ready after today's events to contribute my body to Chicago science."


Was that a richly detailed quote or what?! (I just wish it was as richly footnoted, sigh.) I find it amazing that no one's used this in a film yet - but if so, then the wikipedia page hasn't noted it yet. (It's rare when wikipedia doesn't log pop cultural references, but it happens.)


Sadly, that's the last of the Whitechapel Club's mentions in the book. There were loads of press clubs in various cities at the time, and memoirs from the members are always fun to read. Not that those are always easy to find.



Randomly, this reread has made me really aware of how spoiled I am by my ereader. I usually keep my ebook font at 12pt, and this paper book is printed in 10pt font. Happily there's spacing between the lines, but ugh, I miss the ability to resize text. (Bats actually see better than I do -  it's one of the reasons why the nickname sticks. I was the little kid in second grade with thick bifocals, so not a new thing.)


Also I have Degrees of Affection to thank for suggesting this read - I'd not have picked this up again otherwise, mostly because of other books piled up and pestering me. I'll probably be a somewhat pokey reading in making my way through the book - this time. But it's definitely worth it for the fun details.