The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
by Erik Larson
The Black City
How easy it was to disappear:
A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never even seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home. Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago's Hull House, wrote, "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." The women sought work as typewriters, stenographers, seamstresses, and weavers. The men who hired them were for the most part moral citizens intent on efficiency and profit. But not always. On March 30, 1890, an officer of the First National Bank placed a warning in the help-wanted section of the Chicago Tribune, to inform female stenographers of "our growing conviction that no thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenographer who is a blonde, is good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or will transmit her photograph. All such advertisements upon their face bear the marks of vulgarity, nor do we regard it safe for any lady to answer such unseemly utterances."
The women walked to work on streets that angled past bars, gambling houses, and bordellos. Vice thrived, with official indulgence. "The parlors and bedrooms in which honest folk lived were (as now) rather dull places," wrote Ben Hecht, late in his life, trying to explain this persistent trait of old Chicago. "It was pleasant, in a way, to know that outside their windows, the devil was still capering in a flare of brimstone." In an analogy that would prove all too apt, Max Weber likened the city to "a human being with his skin removed."
Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left the city did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the city's rail crossings. Their injuries were grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards. Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. Fires took a dozen lives a day. In describing the fire dead, the term the newspapers most liked to use was "roasted." There was diphtheria, typhus, cholera, influenza. And there was murder. In the time of the fair the rate at which men and women killed each other rose sharply throughout the nation but especially in Chicago, where police found themselves without the manpower or expertise to manage the volume. In the first six months of 1892 the city experienced nearly eight hundred homicides. Four a day. Most were prosaic, arising from robbery, argument, or sexual jealousy. Men shot women, women shot men, and children shot each other by accident. But all this could be understood. Nothing like the Whitechapel killings had occurred. Jack the Ripper's five-murder spree in 1888 had defied explanation and captivated readers throughout America, who believed such a thing could not happen in their own hometowns.
But things were changing. Everywhere one looked the boundary between the moral and the wicked seemed to be degrading. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued in favor of divorce. Clarence Darrow advocated free love. A young woman named Borden killed her parents.
And in Chicago a young handsome doctor stepped from a train, his surgical valise in hand. He entered a world of clamor, smoke, and steam, refulgent with the scents of murdered cattle and pigs. He found it to his liking.
The letters came later, from the Cigrands, Williamses, Smythes, and untold others, addressed to that strange gloomy castle at Sixty-third and Wallace, pleading for the whereabouts of daughters and daughters' children.
It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root.
This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history.
Cleveland, immense in black, paused a moment in sober examination of the crowd before him. Nearby stood a table draped in an American flag, on top of which lay a blue and red velvet pillow supporting a telegraph key made of gold.
Every bit of terrace, lawn, and railing in the Court of Honor was occupied, the men in black and gray, many of the women in gowns of extravagant huesviolet, scarlet, emeraldand wearing hats with ribbons, sprigs, and feathers. A tall man in a huge white hat and a white buckskin coat heavily trimmed in silver stood a full head above the men around him: Buffalo Bill. Women watched him. Sunlight fell between tufts of fast-shredding cloud and lit the white Panamas that flecked the audience. From the president' s vantage point the scene was festive and crisp, but at ground level there was water and mud and the mucid sucking that accompanied any shift in position. The only human form with dry feet was that of Daniel Chester French' s Statue of the RepublicBig Marywhich stood hidden under a silo of canvas.
Cleveland' s speech was the shortest of all. As he concluded, he moved to the flag-draped table. "As by a touch the machinery that gives light to this vast Exposition is set in motion," he said, "so at the same instant let our hopes and aspirations awaken forces which in all time to come shall influence the welfare, the dignity, and the freedom of mankind."
At precisely 12:08 he touched the gold key. A roar radiated outward as successive strata of the crowd learned that the key had been pressed. Workmen on rooftops immediately signaled to peers stationed throughout the park and to sailors aboard the warship Michigan anchored in the lake. The key closed an electric circuit that activated the Electro-Automatic Engine Stop and Starter attached to the giant three-thousand-horsepower Allis steam engine at the Machinery Building. The starter' s silver-plated gong rang, a sprocket turned, a valve opened, and the engine whooshed to life on exquisitely machined shafts and bearings. Immediately thirty other engines in the building began to thrum. At the fair' s waterworks three huge Worthington pumps began stretching their shafts and pistons, like praying mantises shaking off the cold. Millions of gallons of water began surging through the fair' s mains. Engines everywhere took steam until the ground trembled. An American flag the size of a mainsail unfurled from the tallest flagpole in the Court of Honor, and immediately two more like-sized flags tumbled from flanking poles, one representing Spain, the other Columbus. Water pressurized by the Worthington pumps exploded from the MacMonnies Fountain and soared a hundred feet into the sky, casting a sheet rainbow across the sun and driving visitors to raise their umbrellas against the spray. Banners and flags and gonfalons suddenly bellied from every cornice, a huge red banner unscrolled along the full length of the Machinery Building, and the canvas slipped from Big Mary' s gold-leaf shoulders. Sunlight clattering from her skin caused men and women to shield their eyes. Two hundred white doves leaped for the sky. The guns of the Michigan fired. Steam whistles shrieked. Spontaneously the throng began to sing "My Country ' Tis of Thee," which many thought of as the national anthem although no song had yet received that designation. As the crowd thundered, a man eased up beside a thin, pale woman with a bent neck. In the next instant Jane Addams realized her purse was gone.
The great fair had begun.
A Hotel for the Fair
The manager followed Holmes to his second-floor office and there in the pleasant cross breeze from the corner windows studied Holmes'
s drawings of his kiln. Holmes explained that he could not obtain "the necessary amount of heat." The manager asked to see the apparatus.
That wasn' t necessary, Holmes said. He did not wish to trouble the manager, only to seek his advice, for which he would pay an appropriate fee.
The furnace man insisted he could do nothing without actually examining the kiln.
Holmes smiled. Of course. If the manager did not mind spending the extra time, he would be glad to show it to him.
Holmes led his visitor down the stairs to the first floor and from there down another, darker flight to the basement.
They entered a large rectangular cavern that ran the entire length of the block, interrupted only by beams and posts. In the shadows stood vats and barrels and mounds of dark matter, possibly soil. A long narrow table with a steel top stood under a series of unlit lamps and two worn leather cases rested nearby. The cellar had the look of a mine, the smell of a surgeon' s suite.
The furnace man examined the kiln. He saw that it contained an inner chamber of firebrick constructed in a manner that kept flames from reaching the interior, and he noted the clever addition of two openings in the top of the inner box that would allow gases from the box to flow into the surrounding flames, where they would then be consumed. It was an interesting design and seemed likely to work, although he did observe to himself that the shape of the kiln seemed unsuited to the task of bending glass. The inner box was too small to admit the broad panes now appearing in storefronts throughout the city. Otherwise, he noticed nothing unusual and foresaw no difficulty in improving the kiln' s operation.
He returned with a work crew. The men installed a more powerful burner that, once ignited, heated the kiln to three thousand degrees Fahrenheit. Holmes seemed pleased.
Only later did the furnace man recognize that the kiln' s peculiar shape and extreme heat made it ideal for another, very different application. "In fact," he said, "the general plan of the furnace was not unlike that of a crematory for dead bodies, and with the provision already described there would be absolutely no odor from the furnace."
But again, that was later.
Excerpted from The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson Copyright© 2003 by Erik Larson. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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