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In Print: evil in the shadow of progress

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Seattle-based author Erik Larson was trolling for material a few years ago when he remembered something he'd come across while researching his 2000 best-seller, Isaac's Storm. Or rather, someone: Englewood-based serial killer H.H. Holmes. He started to read more about Holmes, a New Hampshire-born ladies' man whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett. Before and during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Holmes lured his victims--mostly young women--to his three-story "horror castle" at 63rd and Wallace, a hotel for fairgoers that he'd equipped with gas chambers, trapdoors, secret passages, and a basement crematory. Prior to his execution in 1896, he confessed to the murders of 27 people, but some estimates place the number as high as 200. When police inspectors searched his abandoned Chicago home, they found piles of bones and charred human remains.

"Everything I read about him always had a glancing reference to the World's Fair of 1893, and that's what I found so interesting," says Larson. "It seemed like the writers were missing the point by just concentrating on Holmes and the killings. The point is that he was doing it at the same time there was this heroic effort to build the fair, and that he used the fair to satisfy his own needs."

Larson used such juxtapositions in Isaac's Storm, about the 1900 hurricane that killed tens of thousands in Galveston, Texas, and does it again in The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. The book flips back and forth between Holmes's murders and the efforts of Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted to bring the expo to Chicago, hire the country's best architects to design its massive neoclassical buildings, and overcome strikes, storms, political infighting, fires, health problems, bank failures, and personal losses (Burnham's partner, John Root, died during the planning stages) to get it open on time. Larson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who'd only briefly visited Chicago on assignments and book tours, made six trips here to visit historical sites and conduct research, but the most challenging subject was Holmes. To piece together his story Larson relied on transcripts from his 1895 trial, Philadelphia detective Frank Geyer's 1896 book The Holmes-Pitezel Case, Holmes's memoir (which Larson located at the Library of Congress and says was "an awful experience" to read), and the Chicago Tribune, whose exhaustive coverage was, he says, "surprisingly accurate."

"I certainly have never been as repulsed by a subject in my work as I was by Holmes," Larson says. "As bright and heroic a quest as the fair was, Holmes was as dark and evil as he could be. The juxtaposition of the two seemed to embody all the forces of things that would happen in the 20th century. Burnham embodied this 1890s sense that one could do or achieve anything and succeed. Then there was Holmes with the same attitude. His brand of evil knew no bounds. What he was doing was absolutely unprecedented."

Larson will discuss his book Tuesday, February 18, at 7 at the University of Chicago's Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th (773-752-4381). On Thursday, February 20, he'll appear at 4 at Centuries & Sleuths, 7419 W. Madison in Forest Park (708-771-7243), and at 7 at Anderson's Bookshop, 123 W. Jefferson in Naperville (630-355-2665). All events are free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roseanne Olson.

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