"In Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century amid the smoke of industry and the clatter of trains there lived two men, both handsome, both blue-eyed, and both unusually adept at their chosen skills."
So begins The Devil in the White City. And there ends all similarity between those two men.
Daniel Burnham, architect of some of America's most famous structures—the Flatiron Building in New York City and Union Station in Washington D.C., to name two—would, as director of works for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, organize a six-month fair on the shore of Lake Michigan that attracted 27.5 million visitors during one of the worst depressions in American history. Among the many novelties introduced to American culture at the fair were Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat, belly dancing, spray paint, alternating current, the Pledge of Allegiance, and a wondrous giant wheel that against all odds managed to "out-Eiffel Eiffel."
The fairgrounds, designed by Burnham and a team of architects and engineers that included Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, and Louis Sullivan, employed as many as twenty thousand workers at once. "A single exhibit hall," Larson notes, "had enough interior volume to have housed the U.S. Capitol, the Great Pyramid, Winchester Cathedral, Madison Square Garden, and St. Paul's Cathedral, all at the same time." The fair alone consumed three times as much electricity as the city of Chicago.
Dr. H. H. Holmes, born Herman Webster Mudgett, a physician and hotelier, was meanwhile living and working in Englewood, only a short "L" ride from the fairgrounds at Jackson Park. Although no one would know it until long after Burnham's fair closed its gates, during the great event Holmes was nearby developing his enterprise as America's first urban serial killer.
"You've got to respect a book that makes you keep flipping to the back cover, double-checking that it is nonfiction," Adrienne Miller admitted in Esquire. "[T]he heart of the story is so good, you find yourself asking how you could not know this already."
Dave: There are two distinct story lines running through The Devil in the White City. How did you decide to present them together?
Erik Larson: It dates back to 1994, even before Isaac's Storm. I had read The Alienist by Caleb Carr, which is a story about a fictional serial killer, but what I loved about that book was its evocation of old New York. At the time, I was looking for a book idea. I'd finished Lethal Passage, and I thought to myself, Wouldn't it be interesting to do a nonfiction book about a historical murder?
I started doing some research, and I came across the serial killer in this book, Dr. H. H. Holmes. I immediately dismissed him because he was so over-the-top bad, so luridly outrageous. I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to do a slasher book. It crossed the line into murder-porn. So I kept looking, and I became interested in a different murder that actually had a hurricane connection, where I of course got distracted by the hurricane and wrote Isaac's Storm.
I was once again looking for a book idea, and I remembered Holmes, but I specifically remembered that there was this World's Fair thing in the background. I thought, I'll read about the fair. I had nothing better to do. I'd dismissed about a dozen ideas and I was getting sort of antsy. I started reading, and that's where I got hooked. I was enthralled by the things that I found. On almost every page of this book that I read I would stop and think, This happened? This happened? This happened?
I felt very strongly that I didn't want to do a monograph-like history book on the World's Fair of 1893, but the thing that was most striking about the preliminary research was here was this guy, this serial killer, one of the darkest characters of American history, operating literally in the same place and the same time as this marvelous fair built by Daniel Burnham. The juxtaposition was just too compelling. That's what drew me to the book. To me there was never any question that that was the story.
Dave: The story of the fair is so full of detail. I was reading the book while traveling in California, and once or twice a day I would update my companions about the latest developments: what Holmes was up to and the accumulating details from the fair.
It must have been a massive challenge to organize so much information. A lot of the most interesting details aren't exactly central to the story.
Larson: It was in fact a huge event, and mine is not the definitive look at the fair. I left out significant portions of the things that happened. I don't get at all into the Board of Lady Managers controversy, which consumed a good deal of press ink at the time; I don't get into any of the congresses —the Congress of Religion, of History, of Politics, and so forth— because essentially they were conventions within the fair where people read papers to crowds, and they were excruciatingly boring.
One of the things I've always loved is collecting telling little details. If there's anything I bring to the party in this book and in Isaac's Storm, I think I have a good eye for details. If they titillate me, if they excite me, then I know that readers are going to enjoy them. To me, the two strong narratives, Holmes and Burnham, were vehicles for throwing in those great little stories. That was the delight of the research and the writing—things like the fact that Cracker Jack was introduced at the fair. These are things that stick in the narrative.
The trick is determining when you have enough stuck in and when you have too much. That's where I have to rely on my readers, my friends who are writers that I trust, and my editor, who is one of the great all-time editors?
Dave: Who is that?
Larson: Betty Prashker. She has great instincts. But my wife is my first line; she's my secret weapon. She's probably the finest natural editor I've ever encountered. She goes through manuscripts, and we have little codes for what needs to stay, what needs to go, and what's boring. That really helps. When she starts snoozing I know that it's got to go.
But it was a huge amount of stuff and I didn't even come close to capturing everything at the fair. In fact, I'm learning now about things I wish I'd known. I got a call the other day from a friend of mine. She said, "I was sitting down at breakfast this morning with my Quaker Oats, and I was reading the container, and there's a reference to the World's Fair!" That kind of thing.
Dave: So how do you organize all that material?
Larson: The thing I always tell my writing students—I'm not a full-time instructor, by any means, but periodically I've taught writing students —what I always tell them is that the most important thing in narrative nonfiction is that you not only have to have all the research; you have to have about 100% more than you need. That's sort of my rule of thumb: If you have twice as much stuff, you can feel comfortable that in the end you will have enough.
And you not only have to have it; you have to know where it is. That's the tricky part. I do many arcane things to help me remember. For example, as I'm doing the initial research and I read something that makes me laugh or makes me feel some emotion, or I just think, I didn't know that happened, I note in the margin that I had that reaction. Because two or three years down the line you forget, and sometimes you just need to remind yourself, Yes, once upon a time, this was very funny. Now it's second nature to me, but once it was very funny. It's sort of like what you hear about pilots: when they're flying through weather, they have to trust their instruments. You can't see the horizon and so forth. It's the same thing. I no longer feel it's funny, but I know it was funny once, and that's very important to keep track of.
Dave: It seemed to me that you drew out Frederick Olmsted, through his ideas, theories, and plans, more than most of the other characters. In terms of balance, there's a surprising amount in the book from his point of view. Did you find more in his letters or in public records, or did you simply feel that he helped draw out the story more than the other engineers?
Larson: I came to like Olmsted a lot. I fell in love with his character. Actually, in the early drafts of the book there was a lot more Olmsted than there is now. He wrote a lot—reports, letters to his sons and partners —and he was very expressive. The richness of detail?that's of course very valuable, but I just loved the sense of Olmsted at this point in his career: what was going on with him, how he felt about things. He took on the fair late in his life as a way to elevate landscape architecture. Then, when he is ailing, he has to go through this whole torment; he has his own personal loss, Codman's death.... I just found him to be a very humane character, with a lot of traction, if you know what I mean.
I could have kept on writing about him for a long time. In fact, I had considered making him the main character for a while. After I'd initially thought about the fair and the killer, the question became: How do I tell about the fair? Because I didn't want it to be a static background. I didn't want it to be "everything you always wanted to know about the 1893 World's Fair" with no story, which is a very easy trap to fall into. I needed a character to tell the fair story through, and I'd considered Olmsted might be that person. It would be Olmsted and the serial killer.
Initially, in fact, it was Olmsted, the serial killer, and Burnham— a tripartite narrative. But as I went along I quickly realized that the Olmsted story was not going to work for a variety of reasons, and I really felt that the Burnham story was the key, the story of leading this effort and overcoming all these obstacles. Although Burnham did prove to be something of a sphinx. Significant blocks of his letters are missing, and big chunks of his diary. The gentleman who appointed himself the caretaker of Burnham's diaries had taken the liberty of destroying portions of them, I guess to protect Burnham's reputation. What was he saying in those diaries? He was a little harder to pierce. Nonetheless, the events he dealt with were very compelling.
But that may explain why you feel that balance. Olmsted is a very important character. There's more about him than you might expect in a dual narrative.
Dave: Another major figure, one who's not as thoroughly present in the narrative, is George Ferris. We don't learn much about him, but what drew me to him was not only the hubris of this task that he had set for himself, but the idea that he'd construct and deploy his wheel virtually without testing.
Larson: That's the compelling thing about the Gilded Age, that sense of unbounded creative energy without the buffering forces that would exist today. That's what really struck me about the Ferris Wheel also: that they just went ahead and built this thing, and on such gigantic scale. And it worked. It was a marvel of engineering, and it even survived the great storm that hit the fairgrounds. I just love that. And I love the fact that Ferris had done it responding to a challenge by Burnham.
I knew I had to have that in there—and that's where the balance becomes very tricky. I knew I had to have Olmsted in there; I knew I had to have Ferris in there. How do you get them in there as well as the two central narratives? How also do you fit Prendergast and what ultimately happens with him?
It all happened.
In fiction you probably couldn't include all those additional characters. You'd have to have them more finely woven into the two primary narratives. But real life is real life.
Dave: One figure sitting outside all this—literally, he's operating just outside the fairgrounds—is Buffalo Bill, whose story is amazing. Critics and readers talk about the architectural and engineering advances described in the book, but the scale of promotional invention going on at the fair was astounding. Buffalo Bill and Sol Bloom, in particular, are pretty much inventing new forms of marketing.
I love the story about how the fair decided it couldn't afford to have a special free day for the city's poor children, so Buffalo Bill lets kids into his Wild West Show for free and even feeds them ice cream. In the process, he attracts 17,000 people.
Larson: There, too: that's the beauty of real life. As I did the research, I didn't know anything about Sol Bloom. Suddenly he crops up in the research process and I'm sidetracked; I'm instantly enthralled by this guy. What a wildman, and a young guy, too.
And Buffalo Bill is one of my long-time favorite characters. Ever since I wrote Lethal Passage I've been interested in Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show. Now here he is, dismissed as an incongruity, so he sets up camp outside and just about upstages the fair. He was such a flamboyant character.
But you're right: It really was the dawn of effective promotion. Both those guys were pivotal.
Dave: Holmes visits the fair a couple times, but his story intersects the one you're telling about Burnham most forcefully toward the end of the book when Detective Geyer finds a victim with a trinket from the fair. That detail brings the two storylines into one messy but congruent whole.
Larson: It's great that you mention that because for me that was probably the single most telling two-line sentence in the book. That is where the two narratives at last touch. Although, believe me, I did look to see if Burnham ever encountered Holmes or if Holmes ever encountered Burnham. You can bet that if anybody ever buys this for the movies Holmes is going to be stalking Burnham and Burnham is going to save the day on the Ferris Wheel, a la The Third Man.
That line to me was the pivotal line in the book. Writing is a very tactile, physical process for me. When I'm arranging a book, it's in pieces on the floor, and I'm literally moving things around. No matter how hard you try, you cannot do it on a computer alone. You have to have the broad sweep on your floor or on a table or something. Everything has a physical shape. And what I began to see in my mind was something like two comets approaching, coming so close, just having this delicate connection and nothing further—which you can get by with in literature. You can't get by with that in the movies.
It seemed to be the moment when the two stories touched, and when I came across that detail in the research, I knew it. This is it. This is where the stories touch.
Dave: This book and Isaac's Storm describe events only seven years apart. At the center of each book is a city trying to prove itself: Chicago in one and Galveston in the other. Galveston is competing with Houston to become the dominant Gulf port of Texas?
Larson: Yes, very much so.
Dave: While Chicago is competing with New York, and other maybe less tangible issues of civic pride.
Chicago really did seem to pull it off, though. Galveston got stomped.
Larson: Galveston got absolutely stomped, yes.
And Chicago did pull it off, although interestingly, Chicago never fully pulled it off. Within Chicago there is still this feeling, not justified at all, that they are second to New York. You do an interview in New York, and no one ever asks afterwards, "What do you think about New York?" Never. But in Chicago, I get that question all the time. "So what'd you think about Chicago?" It's very endearing. But the fair definitely did raise Chicago's profile.
Dave: Isaac's Storm describes a series of failures that result in tragedy. Cuban forecasters were saying that a hurricane was headed for Texas; meanwhile, not only was the U.S. Weather Bureau dismissing those warnings, it was actually suppressing them, hiding them from the public. Consequently, businessmen are going out to lunch in the middle of the most destructive storm of all time.
Larson: Those guys going to lunch didn't know the storm was coming. They didn't really understand. There were storm warnings, and there was odd weather, and once they were in the restaurant clearly they realized that something was up because they were making jokes with each other about how bad things were outside. But nothing like that was going to stop a 1900 businessman in Galveston, Texas. No mere storm was going to keep you from going to lunch downtown.
I think that's one of the traits of the Gilded Age. Nineteen hundred was the late, late Gilded Age, the end of the whole Victorian, late Gilded Age thing, but that was the attitude. It's like the real world didn't apply.
So much of what Isaac's Storm was about—and so much of what Devil in the White City is about—is attitude. The attitude that colored these eras is reflected in little things like going to lunch during a storm, and it's reflected in big things like Ferris building his wheel without thinking about the fact that it could kill two thousand people if it fell over.
Dave: In a writing class I once took, the professor suggested that any story could become more complicated, or at least the characters would become more complicated, if someone were to lie. She was talking about fiction, of course.
Isaac's version of what he did when the storm hit is very much in question. And I can't get over the fact that in Holmes's confession he claimed to kill people that were still alive. As if he hadn't killed enough. These people are tremendously complicated.
Larson: Maybe someday I'll do a novel, but right now, I so much enjoy narrative nonfiction. The research appeals to me—I love looking for pieces of things in far-flung archives—but the beauty is that the complexity of the characters is there. You don't have to make it up.
The difference between a terrific novelist and one who's not so terrific is that sense of nuance, the thing that makes one character more believable than the next. In a nonfiction book, the nuance is there. It's just a matter of paying attention to it when you come to it, and not trying to gloss it over. The result is that you have complex, detailed characters without even necessarily thinking about it. They just appear.
Like Olmsted. How complex a character is that? Haunted by disease, haunted by bureaucracy. And that very touching period toward the end of his narrative, where he's concerned that Burnham is losing faith, that Burnham is relying on his chief superintendent. What a modern situation this man was facing! It's sort of like The Quiet American. He feels his underling is usurping his own role because Burnham is paying more attention to the underling. It's very touching, especially for a genius like Olmsted to have to deal with. And that's the kind of nuance that, if I were writing a novel, I'm not sure I could have come up with. Or at least made it believable. But real life is wonderful.
Dave: What fiction does that for you? Who are the authors that manage to create that degree of nuance?
Larson: The book that comes to mind is Mickelsson's Ghosts by John Gardner, which remains in my perception the richest, most detailed, most nuanced portrait of a man that I have ever read. That is, in my view, one of the most brilliant books I've ever read.
Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs.
Again and again, the narrative comes back to this idea of the anonymity that Chicago provides, both as an opportunity for people to make fresh starts and also for someone like Holmes to prey upon them. It's been ten years since you wrote The Naked Consumer, but it seems that you couldn't have a more stark contrast between the anonymity Chicago offered in 1893 and the rigorously recorded life —by the government and by large corporations—of an American today.
Larson: On one level you can feel that's the case—that the anonymity is gone—but I think to some extent that's almost an illusion. Maybe it's what we want to believe. If you choose to, you can be even more anonymous in today's culture. Even though in 1893 cities were growing and the potential for anonymity was increasing, the fact is that there were still patterns of social behavior that prevailed. The sense of community, everyone going out to the dance hall together, everybody going to hear speeches, everybody going to the fair....Today, you have the opportunity to completely shrink from society and still function. As we know from the elderly on their own in a big city, they're virtually invisible, sadly.
What was significant at the time of the fair was that the anonymity of an urban existence was new. The rise of an urban, industrialized city was a new phenomenon. There were more opportunities for anonymity if you chose them or if they happened to fall upon you. But I'm not sure it's that different today. It just may seem to be if you feel like the credit bureaus are checking up on you and so forth.
Dave: When people ask me about Devil in the White City, inevitably I end up talking about how strange it is to read about the work of architects, engineers, and businessmen alongside the story of a psychopathic serial killer. But that's part of the appeal.
Larson: I had a sense from the start that if I did a book about the World's Fair alone, I'd get some readers who were really into fairs, but not that big a readership. And if I did the Holmes thing, I might get some people who read about serial killers, but authors have written about Holmes before. There's a book called Depraved by an author named Harold Schechter that took a look just at Holmes.
I write to be read. I'm quite direct about that. I'm not writing to thrill colleagues or to impress the professors at the University of Iowa; that's not my goal. I sort of have the Steinbeck approach to writing: I want to be accessible and I want to convey something —in this case, a powerful sense of this past time when community was breaking down. But it was community that really powered the fair and drew all these people together at one place in one time. While that sense of community was breaking down, the potential for a serial killer was developing. These forces were warring at the end of the nineteenth century.
What I hoped was that the serial killer story would lure fiction readers to the book. I might actually get people who say, "I only read fiction," to come over to nonfiction and then become seduced by the Burnham narrative—and find it perhaps even more compelling. I'm delighted to say that I'm finding that's the case. People initially interested in the serial killer are finding the Burnham story more complex. Indeed, from a technical standpoint, it's the more classical narrative. A guy starts out with one set of assumptions. The first thing that happens, you know, his partner dies, so he's spinning off in another direction and almost abandons the whole project. He comes back to it, has even less time than when he started, and all these new obstacles begin to appear. I mean, there had been foreshadowings of financial distress, but one of the greatest depressions in America literally began the week that the fair opened. How amazing! A novelist probably couldn't get away with that, but in real life?
I've been delighted to find that people are finding themselves entranced by the fair narrative. Though they still like the Holmes thing, as I do, too. But that helps explain why even mystery bookstores now are having me in to sign books. I consider that a major coup for nonfiction.
Erik Larson visited Powell's City of Books on March 13, 2003.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State