"A reporter asked Major McClaughry whether the fair really would attract the criminal element. He paused a moment, then said, “I think it quite necessary that the authorities here should be prepared to meet and deal with the greatest congregation of criminals that ever yet met in the country” (122).
It’s virtually known that crime rates increase when large scale, worldly events takes place, but there are a lucky few that are known as not being troublesome. Woodstock is one that is well thought of when thinking of a sizable yet peaceful phenomenon, taking place as a three day music festival that had little to no crime recorded. Unlike White Lake, New York where Woodstock had taken place, Chicago, Illinois was known around the country for crime during the creation of the World Fair in 1893. In the book “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America,” written by Erik Larson, it not only explains the creation of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, but the effects of a serial killer on the legacy of this great American event.
Throughout the World’s Fair’s creation and actual event, there was constant worries of fatal accidents caused by work site hazards, collapsing architecture, and illness. Erik Larson states early on in his book, “In the first six months of 1892 the city experience nearly eight hundred violent deaths” (12). During the late 1800’s, murder was also commonplace. With the thousands of women coming for a new start in a big city, disappearances became a normalcy in life as a Chicagoan. Even with this as a well known fact, that didn’t slow down any motion to have Chicago be the place of the 1893 World’s Fair. Thousands of residents in the Windy City started advocating for Chicago to be the chosen place. Congress had other cities in mind, such as New York City, Washington D.C., or St. Louis, so the rivalry began to advance at quicker rates than the expansion of downtown Chicago during this time period (which was extensive due to the invention of foundations that led to larger skyscrapers being built on the difficult soil of Chicago hatefully known as “gumbo” ). After a close vote between New York City and Chicago, Chicago was chosen and celebration rang through the streets.
When reading about the other potential options for the fair, I was honestly shocked that Chicago was the one that won the Congressional vote. Washington D.C. was thought to be the one that was going to be picked. It is the center of our country politically, yet it wasn’t even in the final vote. New York City almost won, and was very close to being the final location, but still didn’t win even if it at the time was known as the cross points of the world. Larson talks about the negative connotation that the city had during the 19th century, “...Chicago was nothing more than a greedy, hog-slaughtering backwater” (13). Although it’s pointless to think about as it is all in the past and can’t be changed, but imagine if Chicago wasn’t chosen and they were humiliated after not winning the vote. Would the city still be known as one of the best cities in the country or would the exploding growth of the city after the 1890’s not have even happened? The World’s Fair effected the city immensely, so to picture the city without the honor is strange.
During this entire process of Chicago being picked to be the place of the World’s Fair, architecture was one of the most successful careers alongside construction within the city. Specifically the firm Root and Burnham boomed with business. John Wellborn Root and Daniel Hudson Burnham became the best architects in the city, and were honored as the firm that took on the massive job that prepared Chicago for the world’s people to come and see what the Windy City had to offer. After being selected, the two made a short list of other firms that would join in on this project to create the White City, the name fondly given to the area of the World’s Fair.
What was shocking to hear was that many firms were filled with disdain about the fair rather than excitement. Within Larson’s book, Root’s co-worker, Harriet Monroe, later remarked that, “He [Root] felt that this was the greatest opportunity ever offer to his profession in this country, and he could not make them appreciate it,” and even though the architects were coming to Chicago to talk about the planning of the fair, “but reluctantly; their hearts were not in it” (84). If I was ever given the opportunity to place a building of my creation at a fair where thousands will come and view in awe, I would be ecstatic.
Although it’s difficult to understand, I can see why many architects weren’t thrilled. There were many issue that had to be solved before construction could even begin on the White City. The first was the location; Jackson Park was the final choice, but it wasn’t anyone’s favorite. Larson describes the area after a visit with all the architects who had agreed to work on the project as, “...one square mile of desolation, mostly treeless...In the most exposed portions there was only sand tufted with marine and prairie grasses. Many of the oaks were dead.” (95). It doesn’t seem like a fantastic place that sparked much imagination by the architectural firms. This freezing winter day visit left a lot of the architects discouraged, but design and construction led on even with very few completely on board with the location. Not only was the area deserted, but weather played a major factor as Larson quotes Rudolf Ulrich, an architect’s landscape superintendent saying, “It was bad enough during the hot weather, when a south wind could blind the eyes of man and beast, but still worse during wet weather, the newly filled ground, which was till undrained becoming soaked with water” (132). It’s easy to see why there was a lot of trepidation when beginning the White City.
While all this prosper going on in the city at Jackson Park, Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as H. H. Holmes, came to the city to look for a job as a doctor. Larson goes into detail about his early life of being into the macabre killings of animals and witnessing the death of his close childhood friend, Tom (39). After living in New Hampshire from birth to late childhood, he visited Chicago often for business as a young adult and took to the city fondly. Once he moved to the city in 1886, he began his business entitled, “H. H. Holmes Pharmacy,” where he worked as a doctor (63).
During this first half of “The Devil in the White City,” there is little mention of Holmes as at the time of construction of the World’s Fair, he had only begun his career and hadn’t murdered anyone yet, although this doesn’t mean there aren’t tales of him acting oddly. Larson tells of the story once where Holmes asked a construction worker if he would murder his brother-in-law, H. H. Holmes says, “You see that man down there? Well, that’s my brother-in-law, and he has got no love for me, neither have I for him. Now, it would be the easiest matter for you to drop a stone on that fellow’s head while you’re at work and I’ll give you fifty dollars if you do” (68). Also, Holmes had installed a massive kiln that only afterward was perceived as odd by the furnace man. Larson documents that the man who installed the kiln said, “In fact, the general plan of the furnace was like that of a crematory for dead bodies, and with the provision already described there would be absolutely no odor from the furnace” (92). Of course, only after is a man as smooth and friendly as Holmes is deemed strange after he is convicted of murder, but that is often the case with serial killers.
Obstacles constantly struck Burnham and Roots’ plans after weather and unenthusiastic architects almost caused the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 to topple, but little stopped them from working to make the White City to be one of the most remarkable and astounding architectural feats in the world at the time. With all the effort every architect, construction worker, and city official put into this creation, it’s difficult to understand how H. H. Holmes legacy sometimes overshadows the World’s Fair. Although I haven’t gotten into the actual murders done by H. H. Holmes, it’s already easy to see how his life begins to upstage all the work put in by Burnham and Root. I look forward to continuing reading about the difficulties that had to be surpassed by the architects and if the disappearances of the murdered victims of H. H. Holmes affects the turn up for the World’s Fair.