Sunday, April 15, 2007

Devil in the White City

A friend of mine recently read "Devil in the White City". She had been reading it for what seemed like a year. She did not enjoy the book. Too historical, factual for her tastes. Seemed like the perfect book for me. As I was wandering around the Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago, I saw the book and decided to read it.

I've been to Chicago several times. I went to college near there. At one point, I thought I would move there, not New York. The book is interesting because it conveys the "little kid" syndrome Chicago has relative to New York. I remember when I was dating this guy from Chicago a few years ago, his parents made some remarks about Chicago being just as great as New York. I wonder if this sentiment that was felt so strongly 100+ years ago is still alive today?

Regardless, the book was quite good. It tells the story of the Chicago World Fair (which was the impetus for the Columbus Day holiday), and a psychopath serial killer who was in his prime during the same time period. Both stories by themselves were worth reading.

This was a great time in American history. We were moving out of "3rd world" status through westward expansion, industry and the great inventions from men like Edison. We were the land of opportunity and immigrants were sailing over in the hundreds of thousands. Yet, despite all of the economic and social change that was happening, the US was still not considered to be a country on par with England or France. As a matter of fact, feeling very much like the under dog, there was great apprehension of not meeting the standards set by the Paris World Fair a few years earlier.

And so what do we do? We ask the city of Chicago, the city known for its meatpacking industry, to pull of the impossible. But she does it, despite many of the obstacles we recognize today: politics, multitude of committees and vested interests, too little money and time. Yet the driving force had a vision and collected some of the great architects and designers of his day to create a vision of what city life could be. It was a direct contrast from the realities of Chicago - the "dark city". It was heaven on earth. And inspired cities to adopt urban planning. It inspired future architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. It was also a place of invention - the Ferris Wheel, Wheaties Cereal, Columbus Day - these all came out of the fair.

The sad side of the story is about a man named Holmes (his most common alias). He was a classic serial killer, although at that time, the idea of a serial killer was inconceivable. He prayed up young women, who represented the first generation of women who lived and worked on their own. This was pre-suffrage. They were young, they had big dreams, but were vulnerable. His method of killing was cruel, although I can't imaging how much worse he would have been if he had our modern video technology. He used the fair as a lure. The exact number of people killed is uncertain - nine for certain (including 4 children), but probably much more.

The stories are written in parallel. They are different, but I can't say I liked one more than the other. I hope someone in Hollywood takes up this story. I'm sure my friend won't see it, but I would.