Erik Larson has written The Naked Consumer, Lethal Passage, the bestselling Isaac’s Storm and now The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. His journalism has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Time, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s and other publications. Erik Larson lives in Seattle with his family that includes a number of other species. He is currently wandering the dark land of the pre-Next Idea.
The Devil in the White City is a deftly written book that commingles the story of Dr. H.H. Holmes, a serial murderer, and the advent, planning and execution of Chicago’s World Fair of 1893.
Robert Birnbaum: If you lived in New York City, would you have written this book?
Erik Larson: If I lived in New York City, would I have written this book? Yeah, yeah, I would.
RB: You make reference in the book to the feelings of inferiority that Chicagoans had—I am not aware of any books that have giving proper due to this significant event, the World’s Fair of 1893—perhaps besides the book you referenced…
EL: City of the Century
RB: My sense is that someone living in New York wouldn’t pay attention to something about Chicago’s history.
EL: (Laughs) Yeah, it might be. I actually don’t know how New York feels about Chicago these days. But I know in Chicago there still is this insecurity.
RB: The Second City Complex? Even though it is not the Second City anymore.
EL: Still the Second City Complex, yeah. But, I don’t think it would have any impact on me whatsoever. The way I came to it was story first. I didn’t even know about the Chicago element, chip on the shoulder, until I got into the research.
RB: How did you come to write this book?
EL: Here’s how. It really dates to 1994. That’s when I read The Alienist by Caleb Carr. What I loved about it was this evocation of old New York. And I thought at the time it would be interesting to try to do a non-fiction book about a historical murder and see if I could produce some of the same effects. I started reading about the history of murder and fairly early came across Dr. H.H. Holmes. I didn’t want to do a book about him because I didn’t want to do some lurid, slasher book. There is something about Holmes that at the time struck me as being like murder porn. I just didn’t want to do it. I wanted something that had character and charisma and so I continued looking for other murders that might be worthwhile. And along the way I started looking into a murder that had a connection to a hurricane and that’s what led me to my previous book which was Isaac’s Storm. Then I came back again to the idea of doing this non-fiction about a murder, about a real murder and remembered—after trying out a dozen other ideas, this guy Holmes. But what had particularly intrigued me in the interim was this connection to the World’s Fair. I didn’t know anything about it. I knew there had been a major World’s Fair in there somewhere. But I didn’t know the details. Then I started reading about that World’s Fair. And that’s when I got hooked and realized, “Wait a minute. Here was this monumental act of civic good will.” It really was. This massive act of civic good will and literally in the same place, at the same time, was the opposite, this dark, dark character. And that’s what lured me. This idea that the two things happening at once—dark and light, yin and yang, however you want to look at it. And, in fact, I would not have been interested in just doing a book about the Fair. Nor would I have been interested in doing a book just about Holmes. But together they made a sort of unity. That I found kind of magical.
RB: You wouldn’t have been interested in doing a book about the Fair despite its pivotal role in 20th Century America?
EL: That wasn’t the point. The point was to explore this time, to invite readers into a world of the past that they could just sink into the mystery and magic of the period. And the two stories were the way to do it. I never questioned that.
RB: It seems on the face of it, before I read the book, a contrivance, but I think that you delivered on the promise of weaving the two stories.
EL: Well, the thing is, and it has to do with the original conception. I never doubted that they went together. The question was ultimately doing the research and then seeing how they would fit together. Literally, the fates of both guys were linked by this event.
RB: Meaning Holmes and [architect] Daniel Burnham?
EL: Both men in a sense were characters—if you distilled the accomplishments, if you strip those away, both men really have a lot of the same characteristics. Both were very bright men and both embodied the attitude of being able to do anything, which is what characterized the Gilded Age. Both had blue eyes, so there was this sense that they were really opposite sides of the same coin—as trite as that sounds. But that’s really what the appeal was. It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which incidentally was a popular book in that era.
RB: You are exhibit a lot of integrity here. I think that it could have been possible to milk these stories for two separate books.
RB: You don’t think that they are both compelling stories apart?
EL: No. No, I don’t, actually.
RB: Well, that explains why you didn’t pursue them separately.
EL: One thing that came up after I’d really gotten into the book, when I was thinking about how actually to put the pieces of the story together. One of the things that struck me is—that from a strategic standpoint—my goal is to be read and to transport people back to this time. I don’t consider myself a historian. I am not locked in by any need to do a deconstructionist/feminist look at the World’s Fair. Nor do I feel required to do the definitive book on the Fair. Which I would not have wanted to do because there were a lot of boring things at the Fair. But one of the along the lines of trying to make this a book that would appeal to the maximum number of readers was that there was a strategic benefit to having this serial killer in the book that I hadn’t appreciated before. That is, many people declare, “I don’t read non-fiction.” And many people say, “I don’t read fiction.” What I wanted to do was to get that crossover audience, to get people to break out of their molds. Get the people who only read fiction to read some non-fiction for once. And one portal for that was the idea of this serial killer. A serial killer now being a standard vehicle for many mystery stories. And it became my thinking that with a serial killer at the Fair I would be drawing readers who would be lured in by that. But it was my hope that once being lured in, they would be further and more powerfully seduced by the, technically speaking, more classical narrative of Daniel Hudson Burnham and his struggle to build the Fair. And I am finding that is the case. People are telling me that.
RB: That’s a little dangerous, trying to anticipate what readers are going to be interested in?
EL: Yeah, but that’s the art of writing. It’s not so much trying to anticipate what people are going to be interested in. In the end, I wrote this in the way I did because I liked it. I wrote this because this is what I really liked. But, any kind of good writing requires a certain amount of strategic thought about what the impact is going to be on readers.
RB: I suppose somebody else could have made a mess of this weaving the two narratives. You wrote it well.
EL: But also, one has to think strategically about how to put these things together—how from a technical standpoint to manage the cutaways, the transitions. And that boiled down, is anticipating how the audience will react to the material. For example, when you end something with a cliff hanger, you are deliberately anticipating that readers will read that and say, “Ah, something is going to happen.” But then you cut next to the Holmes section. They go through that, but they are still thinking that something is going to happen in the Fair section. Then they go back—it’s all the technical tricks of fiction applied to the real life stories of Burnham and Holmes.
RB: I was glad you added some color detail like the menus of important meals and the list of medical treatments at the Fair—including one case of extreme flatulence. You got me hooked immediately when you stated that a thousand trains a day passed through Chicago at the time.
EL: (laughs) That was one of the discoveries I made that really fascinated me—mean discovery for myself—was the nature of Chicago in that period. I realized I had known nothing about Chicago in the 1890’s. And it was this huge bustling, powerful, dangerous urban space. And that was a real magical thing to me and one thing I also wanted to convey.
RB: I had never seen it referred to as the ‘Black City.’
EL: In newspaper articles there were periodic references to the ‘Black City’, the ‘Gray City’ and that applies to the broader Chicago. And the White City was, of course, the Fair.
RB: That was period of time when Chicago was arbitrarily annexing areas simply to become a more populous city?
EL: The Fair came after that period. They were still debating what to do and then came the annexation. And that was aimed at building Chicago up through admittedly artificial means to become the second most populous city in the country.
RB: Which was previously Philadelphia. I want to get back to your notion that Holmes and Burnham were two sides of the same coin. Holmes seems to be the first major example of psychopathy.
EL: He’s not the first major example because obviously psychopaths existed all along, but he was clearly an example of a full-blown psychopath at a time when people didn’t really understand what that was.
RB: Was that the time when that word ‘psychopath’, entered the mainstream discourse?
EL: At that time…the term at that time that was commonly being used was—and again people didn’t really understand people like this—to encounter Holmes was not say, “Wow, this guy’s insane.” You couldn’t. People lacked actually the vocabulary for describing somebody like Holmes. But there were people who had been identified by the medical community as lacking some moral core, these people were referred to as ‘moral imbeciles.’ Then it became ‘psychopath,’ then ‘sociopath’, and today the more sanitized term is people suffering from ‘anti social personality disorder.’
RB: Tell me again why you think Burnham and Holmes are alike.
EL: The main thing is that they embodied this sense of being able to do anything they chose. And being able to function at a miraculous level. Beyond what one might have assigned was possible. That’s one thing that characterized the Gilded Age—the sense that there were no limits. Holmes with murder, Burnham with trying to build this Fair in record time. That’s the primary area of similarity. But in other ways as well. They were both creatures of the time when the city was on the rise. Urbanization was really beginning to take force. Burnham being a prime mover of it and Holmes used it to his advantage—the fact that people disappeared all the time in Chicago. The fast growth of the city allowed him to operate without discovery until after the Fair. He used technology and trains. Burnham used trains and so forth and the telegraph, in a fluid way that would surprise us today, if we went back in that era, how fluid it was. And strictly on a physical level. I love that blue eye parallel. There is a quote in the book that one person wrote about the parallels between blue eyes and murderers. They were in their own ways architects Burnham in a professional and grand scale…
RB: Holmes was a bad architect.
EL: Yeah but for a concept that was darkly brilliant.
RB: You suggest Holmes’ limitless abilities at the same time you doubt the higher number offered about how many homicides he committed.
EL: I do doubt the two hundred number. I don’t see a discrepancy there. The New York World estimated at one time that as many as two hundred people, typically young woman disappeared during the fair because of Holmes. Based on my research, I think that’s too extraordinary.
RB: Somebody would have noticed.
EL: I don’t know that. But the New York World is just too extreme and was at that time. I feel probably several dozen is not a bad number for his lifetime. The thing is, nobody can say for sure, but it could be two hundred. I am just saying I doubt it.
RB: He didn’t limit himself to just women. He killed young children.
EL: He was a full-service psychopath. He did not limit himself. My take on it is that his preference was for young attractive women, but he was not averse to killing men when he saw some other potential gain, typically financial. This guy was—calling him a thoroughly bad man doesn’t even do it justice. This was a guy who had no moral core.
EL: That is the best description.
RB: Why doesn’t he have the same reputation as other …
EL: As Jack the Ripper? I don’t know. In some ways [Holmes] was even creepier. Skeletons and gas chambers and so forth. I think what it comes down to is that Jack the Ripper, when he did his killings, those were never solved. Patricia Cornwall not withstanding [a reference to Ms. Cornwall’s reported expenditure of five million dollars to solve the Jack the Ripper case]. They were never solved.
EL: There was always a hint of the Royal family being involved in some way. Plus you had London fog and all that stuff. It was the perfect combination of things to lodge this guy as the symbol of evil forever. [In] Holmes, ultimately the case was resolved. He was discovered and brought to justice and executed. So there was an ending. There was not that lingering question.
RB: Well, he was brought to justice for one murder.
EL: Yeah, but suffice it to say he paid the ultimate price. He was executed and whether he was executed for the right murders, he obviously did those final murders. But it’s like today with the snipers in Virginia. They’ll be tried first on the FBI employee slaying. We knew they did the others. But it is one of the mysteries of history. Just like with Isaac’s Storm. How come people didn’t know of that hurricane? It was massive news at the time it struck and it was forgotten outside Texas. Same thing with Holmes. The coverage of this case once the revelations began to come to light was unbelievable. This was national news, all over the country. And in foreign countries as well.
RB: What does it say about our sense of our own history?
EL: I’m not going to knock us today for not remembering a serial killer.
RB: Among other things.
EL: Among other things, yeah. But I am a little surprised that the World’s Fair of 1893 has fallen so into obscurity. That also has to do with a lot of how we as a culture have taught history. Which I think needs a lot of work. One reason not a whole lot of time has been spent on the World’s Fair of 1893, I suspect is because it doesn’t fit a grand theme.
RB: A gateway event to the 20th Century?
EL: Well, yes, but…
RB: Crackerjacks, zippers…22,000-pound cheeses…
EL: Well, I agree. Obviously, I wrote this book to talk about all these great things. To me the two narratives are vehicles for talking about those cool stories. And the real trick was as deftly as I could, pare out the stories that slowed or confused the narrative—but keep those rich stories in there. People don’t teach the rich stories in high school and even in college. I can just about guarantee that if somebody were to teach a course on the on World’s Fair of 1893 today in a college, what they would emphasize would be the Congresses of Religion, of Women, of Politics and so forth—I found them boring. Essentially, they were paper after paper delivered by people. Some college course would probably focus on that because that’s where the weight is. To me the best things are the stories. Where historians go wrong, the professional, academic historians is that they leave the best stories literally in the footnotes. As if they are too frivolous to tell in the actual body of a text.
RB: Recently Nicholas Lehmann mentioned, in a piece in the New Yorker on FCC Commissioner Bill Powell, a conversation he had with his high school aged son about history. He came away with the observation that the trouble with studying American History is that here is too much of it. Meaning that too much emphasis was placed on minutiae. And that the juicy stories were left out.
EL: I agree with that. A history teacher could take my book and use that as a text for a full semester course on the Gilded Age. And as a gateway to the 20th Century. Because of all the forces that came to play in the World’s Fair that I talk about in the book including the rise of Labor. Labor in particular is taught in an excruciatingly boring way. Yet it’s a very powerful story in American history. Full of violence and blood and manipulation.
RB: Especially in Chicago.
EL: Especially in Chicago, the Haymarket Riot and so forth. But to teach it in the context of the Fair. You can’t isolate forces in history, forces work together, they coalesce to create things like the Fair. If you were to simply study the rise of labor in a vacuum you would miss all these other things. That’s one of the fascinating things that people miss—people who wrote about the Fair wrote about Holmes in passing. People who have written about the Holmes have written about the Fair in passing. It’s like no one stepped out and said wait a minute, “The magic is that these two things happened at the same time.” What forces, what caused that to happen? Which is what I bring to the party. It’s these little stories that make history come alive.
RB: Was Pendergast, who assassinated Harrison, the mayor of Chicago, was he a bit player except for his killing? Did anyone know anything about him until he shot Mayor Harrison?
EL: No. Once he was a known person the newspapers went back to his teachers and so forth. People who knew him knew he was nuts. But he had no significant role at all. He was just a crazed immigrant newspaper vendor who bought his appearance on the world stage with a gun. That’s what it was. He faded completely from view.
RB: No memorial to him?
EL: No memorial.
RB: Speaking of memorials, where in Chicago is the cemetery, Graceland?
EL: It’s way up North. I blundered my way up there with a map. Graceland was one of the real treats, one of the discoveries of my research journey. I went out there on one of those rare days (I was told), in Chicago, in August where it was brilliant but still cool and dry. What a beautiful place. So well kept. I had done most of my research by then. To see all those people in the same place. It was very powerful. It was as if they were all still alive and still at some exotic club just standing around have drinks and smoking cigars.
RB: And the Palmer gravesite is the most impressive?
EL: Definitely, the most prominent. It’s also on the only hill, in the cemetery. There are these two marble sarcophagi overlooking everything.
RB: It’s a minor story in the book. But I thought one of the most heartfelt and engrossing ones was about the poor woman architect who was hounded by Mrs. Palmer. The poor girl who had the distinction of being the only woman architect is hectored by this know nothing society dame. And she finally has a break down.
EL: She finally has a breakdown. I loved that story. The thing I could really empathize with, through the century, was when she did this design and then Mrs. Palmer opens the decoration to whatever the women provide. Can’t you just see that? It’s like…
RB: It’s crazy.
EL: It would make anybody crazy. And there was this quiet—here was that poor architect dealing with that with Mrs. Palmer. But there was also Olmstead and he was dealing with that too. And he was fed up. He was fed up with people dicking around with his stuff. And just those very human moments are what appealed to me.
RB: What became of her. Did she just fade out?
EL: She just faded from history. I don’t think she did anymore architecture. She literally—boom—an empty space. But that was her moment.
RB: The other kind of side bar stories, Walt Disney’s father worked at the fair.
EL: It’s so tantalizing when you think of it. And actually he was very changed by the Fair, in terms of his financial circumstances. It was very good to him. Which is why he was going to name Roy, Columbus.
RB: Columbus Disney.
EL: That’s just too perfect, right?
RB: And Frank Baum [author of The Wizard of Oz] was influenced by the Fair.
EL: I have no doubt. There was an essay by John Updike about Baum and Updike makes a connection with the White City. In fact, Baum and his artist wrote one of the Wizard of Oz books from an office in the Palace of Fine Arts. So there was always that connection. I’m speculating in this, agreeing with Updike, that this had an effect on his view of Oz.
RB: Is the Museum of Science and Industry the one remaining building from the Fair?
EL: Here’s the story. The Palace of Fine Arts was like other structures, a temporary structure, meant to last for the six months of the Fair and then to be broken down as salvage. The people loved the memory of the Fair so much there was a drive to turn the Palace of Fine Arts into a permanent building. Which meant rebuilding it in place with permanent materials. That is now the Museum of Science and Industry.
RB: And that was money from Julius Rosenwald of Sears.
EL: A lot of Sears Roebuck money which accounted for the bulk of the restoration. It’s a fantastic museum.
RB: Has there been any commemorative celebration of the Fair in Chicago?
EL: In 1993 there was a half-hearted, not a big deal, homage paid. But it wasn’t on any tremendous scale, It’s another thing I find striking about some of these great lost events. That not only are they lost, but nobody tries to reincarnate them at the major anniversaries. The way they did with certain other things. The way they did with Pearl Harbor. The hurricane in Galveston was largely—there was no significant monument to the dead of that hurricane until the year 2000. Finally, there was a big celebration. The same with the World’s Fair in Chicago. People are familiar with the idea that there was this thing but nobody really knows what it was.
RB: You want to take a stab at why people become regionally or locally chauvinistic? Is it just some version of tribalism?
EL: I know it is not as powerful a force as it once was. Today we are almost play acting with out attention to sports teams and so forth. It’s really a corporate affinity than a regional affinity. It’s funny. I gave this manuscript in its first draft to a number of people. An architect in Chicago, a forensic psychiatrist in Seattle, and a number of writer friends who I trust as readers. Two of them, younger, asked the same question, “Why did Chicago want the Fair?” They loved the book. But they weren’t clear on why Chicago wanted the Fair. Which I found striking because having done the research there was no question. Of course, Chicago wanted the Fair. It was a question of civic honor. I realized, when I heard these questions, that is what’s missing today. We don’t have that sense of civic honor. You don’t have that sense of chauvinism to the degree that we care about something just because we care. If anything, what this book is a celebration of that long dead sense of community.
RB: I agree. I think we saw a faux rendering after the September 2001 bombings. New Yorkers were expending much energy extolling the virtues of New York and why it warranted their love blah, blah, blah.
EL: Maybe it takes a shockingly tragic event like that to make people wake up to the fact that they, “Yeah, there is something special about this territory.” I don’t know. The whole nation woke up to a sense of who we are.
RB: It seemed like a lot New York-centric case of special pleading.
EL: There are pockets of—not civic good will, I think that’s gone now, but there are pockets of this lingering regional chauvinism. And New York has always been one of those pockets.
RB: You live in Seattle. How do people view Seattle? Great coffee?
EL: Seattle does not have the same sense of chauvinism that San Francisco has. San Francisco—I lived there a couple of times and it’s always had this feeling of, “We’ve got it all. Nobody comes close to us in cool and weather and scenery.” Seattle has never had that chest thumping, “Hey we’re Seattle and we’re proud of it.”
RB: Is there a lively literary scene? What is distinctive about Seattle?
EL: I wouldn’t say it was a lively literary community but there are a lot of writers there. It’s diffuse. People spend their lives in private. The overriding thing I sense in Seattle, a deep satisfaction with the elements. The weather, it’s a great place to be especially in the summer time.
RB: What’s next for you?
EL: I don’t know. I’m in that dark country looking for the next idea.
RB: How do you that?
EL: That’s a good question. I always…
EL: I have certain things that I do to make me feel as if I am getting out of that dark country and one of these is that I deliberately read widely and promiscuously, to the point where…
RB: I may try that myself, promiscuous reading…
EL: Yeah. And I mean it actually. Like I will go in to the University of Washington’s Suslow Library, which is a fantastic library—one of the best I have ever worked in. And fortunately it’s open stack and so there is what I refer to as the serendipity effect. Which is only found in libraries, not on the Net. You go to a location in the library and you have this diaspora of vaguely related books. I will go into the stack and go to an area and randomly pick out books or walk up and down the stacks and pick out a book and see what it’s about and maybe start reading it, maybe not. Just to get my mind thinking about stuff. Then also it comes down to maybe there is something in a book you read. I had never read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. So I read that as part of the idea search. There are a half a dozen books based on things that I saw in that book that had been under done and were never done and would probably make great books. But they are not my books. So there are ideas I try and on cast aside. I’m just in that process now of trying on a million ideas and I have one or two that would be fine books. The only question is that the thing I need to do next.
RB: Are you committed to do only doing non-fiction?
EL: Yeah. Previously, when I was a mainstream journalist I always wanted to do a novel. To do something creative that was just me. But what I found with Isaac’s Storm, initially and with this book also, is that for now at least, maybe I don’t have a novelist’s sensibility, but what I do have is a terrific ear and eye for the little stories that bring an era alive. The best way to convey those stories is in the world of non-fiction. Often the best stories of the past are so bizarre that they wouldn’t work as fiction. That paradox. You couldn’t tell the story of Holmes as fiction or the Fair as fiction because it’s too over the top. Nobody would believe it.
RB: I have read a number of novels by young writers that are set in historical settings and depend on factual history: Daniel Mason‘s The Piano Tuner, David Liss‘ The Coffee Trader and Darin Strauss‘ The Real McCoy…
EL: These are novels set in powerful historical contexts. I have a theory about that. I think we as a culture, in terms of literary achievement, went through a period where it was the interior story that everybody wanted to do. It was the University of Iowa school of fiction that I found incredibly tedious, I have to say. We are sitting in a New York apartment and the story never leaves it and never leaves the masturbatory contemplation of the heroine or hero. What writer felt and readers felt that they wanted more of the great stories. The big stories, which is what fiction was all about a hundred years ago. And going back into history and writing novels based in a strong powerful historical context is a way of getting at those stories again.
RB: Not only has fiction dug into history but fictional techniques seem to be employed regularly by non-fiction writers…
EL: Right. But I would argue that is not a new thing. When you go back a hundred years and you read the non-fiction of a hundred years ago it’s stories. Look at Shackleton’s own best seller, after his journey. Which was also forgotten and brought back to life just in the last five years. In a way, it’s a pendulum that is just swinging back.
RB: Well, thank you.
EL: Thank you. This was fun.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing