Friday, July 30, 2021

"The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson--Nonfiction Review

Time for something light and fun, like the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, oh and murder—mustn’t forget the murder. Okay, so maybe not so, light and fun, but Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City” is still a good read.

Erik Larson

What I love about this book:

So this book was recommended to me by way of; it’s about an early American serial killer who built his own “Murder Castle” while the Chicago World Fair was happening. The biography Larson writes up about H. H. Holmes is chilling. Certainly, the man was the kind of sociopath with absolutely no scruples, and on top of being a murderer, he was also a petty thief and fraudster.

What took me by surprise is that a considerable amount of this book is wholly devoted to just describing the Chicago World’s Fair’s history. Larson tells you about the fair’s organizers, the architects, setting up the fair, running the fair—and far more. He even sketches out the lives of many people directly involved with the fair with a historian’s attention to detail.

I found the bits of this book about the Ferris Wheel, which made its debut as an attraction at the World Fair of 1893, riveting. I’m generally not one to even think about Ferris Wheels in the first place—to me, they’ve always just been a vertical carousel—a somewhat amusing but ultimately bland ride. I did not realize that the original Ferris Wheel was nothing like your local small-town fair Ferris Wheel. It was 264 feet tall and had a capacity of over two thousand riders—simultaneously! This was built and operated in the 19th century, maybe near the end of but firmly still in the era of “hope this steam boiler we barely understand doesn’t explode and kill us all.”

What I don’t love about this book:

While I may like both parts of this book, it feels a whole lot like two books fused together. On one side, we’re learning about the murderous H. H. Holmes, and that’s fascinating. On the other, we’re learning about the Chicago World Fair of 1893, which I didn’t even know I wanted—but I never found myself loving the ping-ponging back and forth between the two. Holmes used the World Fair as cover for his murderous activities—to be sure—but it isn’t like he wasn’t a murderer before and after the fair.

Related to the issue of bouncing back and forth between these two topics—there didn’t feel like there was a logical flow. The reason why Larson would be talking about certain events in the murder side of the book alongside whatever interesting bit of history he would next tell you about regarding the fair never clicked for me. The only impression I got was maybe he was following a loose chronological association between events.

After the World Fair portion of this book, and we return to the premise that brought me to this book in the first place, I found myself missing the fair. Because we’re really just into the depressing details about the end of Holmes’s murder spree, which I was now no longer in the mood for because I personally was in a much lighter mindset. That’s in a nutshell why I think this should have been two books, tell the story of Holmes, sure talk about the World Fair going on around that time, but I felt it should have focused mainly on him. Certainly, there’s a contrasting element between the two sides of this book, playing off the title, but the why of it—other than for its own sake—eluded me.

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Parting thoughts:

There is a prevailing thought that the world was somehow safer in the past, more wholesome—especially in the United States in my experience. People just didn’t do that sort of thing back then, no sir. It’s usually followed up by a statement of “we never even locked our doors in our neighborhood and nobody worried about their kids playing outside.”

I am here to tell you that the nostalgia-drenched, sanitized view of the past is bullshit. The world is and always has been a dangerous place. Prior generations may have been less cautious than we are today, but not because the world was a safer, more loving place, crack open a history book—or hell, use this book as an example. Serial killers, rapists, genocidal maniacs—oh my—have always been with us, making prey out of the unwary when least expected.

It isn’t unusual for me to go on about how astounding our technological improvements have been over the last century on this blog—but you want to know what hasn’t changed nearly as much over the previous one hundred years? People—and to steal a Scrubs reference—they were bastard coated bastards with bastard filling back then, and they are bastard coated bastards with bastard filling today.

Sure, that’s a bit cynical, but here is my argument, people—just like any other life form on this planet change slowly over generations, which isn’t so with technology. I’m old enough to remember when the “internet” was a thing that came in over a physical phone line, and to connect to it, you first had to sit there and let it scream at you for a couple minutes. That statement has no meaning to people born not generations later than me but just a decade or so younger than me.

So why is the past perceived to be so much safer than today? Because we were just less aware of the dangers around us. Think about it—it was a world with no social media, no networked databases, far less social mobility, telecommunications, or surveillance. People got their news nearly exclusively from the radio, the newspaper, a guy on tv, and neighbors. This was all compounded by the fact that people back then were far less likely to talk about icky subjects like, say—cousin Tom was accused of trafficking sex slaves. Tom could just move to the other side of the Rocky Mountains and start calling himself Jerry, and that was a viable option for disappearing. You didn’t even have to pretend to learn Spanish and fuck off to Mexico if you don’t make the national news—just cut your hair differently, go work at some gas station in Oregon for a while, and get that trafficking ring back in business.

Sorry, Tom(s). I’m just using your name as an example here. I’m sure you’re lovely people and hardly own any sex slaves… I mean, don’t own any sex slaves. Stop owning people, Tom(s). You have a real problem!

To bring this back to a more positive note—if anything—if crime statistics are believed, we’re actually safer today than ever before precisely because we’re so aware of the potential dangers out there. There are far fewer predators per capita because it’s so much more likely we’re going to catch the Tom(s) of the world. It might not seem like it, but I do believe people, despite being prickly at times, self-centered, and selfish—are for the most part good, at about 95 percent. But let me remind you that a beverage that’s 5 percent arsenic will probably kill you. So—caution is vital in life.

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