Wednesday, April 02, 2003
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Devil On The Midway

I've known Chicago has a strange and fascinating history, but Erik Larson's new book, "Devil in The White City" sheds light on a little known feature of the 1893 Columbian Exposition (which happened a little over a century ago outside my office window, at the midway where the University of Chicago now stands) - it was home base for one H.H. Holmes (real name Herman Webster Mudgett), a physician who historians say was America's first urban serial killer. Holmes allegedly used the fair to lure unsuspecting victims to his nearby "killing house," complete with gas chamber, acid bath, and industrial oven for disposing of what some sources claim were dozens of victims.

What I find really interesting is that the Columbian Exposition basically hailed the advent of modern American technology and convenience - and oddly enough, along with it came the phenomenon of the 20th Century Monster - the serial killer.
"The fair was the first mass demonstration of electrical lighting and alternating current," Larson says. "Kodak photography first became popular there, so did motion pictures, cold breakfast cereals, pancake mix, zippers ... the list goes on and on."

In its bid for the fair, Chicago had to beat out strong competition from Philadelphia, St. Louis and particularly New York City. Once that uphill fight was won, the organizers had to battle time and nature to build their White City on the swampy shore of Lake Michigan.
How did Holmes get away with it? You have to remember it was much easier to "disappear" in those days when telephone communication wasn't common at all, travel took weeks or months, and nobody had ATM or ID cards or Social Security numbers to track them as they moved about the country. Holmes was apparently never prosecuted for his Chicago killings, but was captured, tried and hanged for a Philadelphia murder in 1896.
an excerpt from the book:

"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...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." --- Erik Larson
By the way, www.crimelibrary.com has as a good feature on the heinous Dr. Holmes. Oooh. I should make this my next "subway book." Then again, we've got things like meteorites falling through suburban Chicago roofs, like last Sunday.