The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America….Erik Larson

The Ferris Wheel, invented just for the 1893 World's Fair

February 24, 1893: The city of Chicago, IL surprisingly wins the ballot to host the 1893 World’s Fair over New York and Washington. The best and brightest of America’s architects descend on the town to plan the most awe inspiring spectacle the country, and the world, have ever seen, with the clock ticking until Opening Day. The pressure is on to outdo the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, which introduced the amazing Eiffel Tower, and to put Chicago on the map as an up-and-coming Midwestern city. Meanwhile, a blue eyed, charming physician arrives in town with a keen interest in the young ladies who will flock unaccompanied to the fair from their boring hometowns, eager for new experiences. And a downtrodden newspaperman will delusionally envision for himself  the favor of Chicago’s mayor and a better life.

All of these stories are masterfully woven together in Erik Larson’s amazing tale, The Devil in the White City. This is the story of Daniel Burnham, visionary architect and mastermind of the Fair, who brought together some of the most famous architects of the day to build what would come to be called the White City, so named because all of the buildings were painted white (spray paint was invented at the fair just for this purpose!). Utilizing neoclassical design, these men raised one of the most awe-inspiring settings for the fair anyone could ever imagine, all in a two year time frame. They would battle time, the elements, financial panics, and each other during the building of the fair, but would somehow manage to create something unforgettable.

HH Holmes, serial killer at the Chicago World's Fair

It is also the story of HH Holmes, America’s first serial killer, who used the lure of the fair and the big city to his advantage. Women would leave their homes to come to the city for a new start, a job, or for excitement. They were taken in by the suave, good-looking Holmes, who wooed them with flattery, gifts and from what it sounds like, groping, only to end up luring them to their deaths. He built a hotel specifically designed to get these women under his roof, where he could suffocate them in sealed rooms, burn their bodies in a specially made kiln in the basement, or sell their skeletons to medical schools (who were so desperate at the time for bodies that they would raid graveyards). When finally convicted it was known that he killed 9 people for certain, although others have estimated the number could have been around 200.

And finally, it is the story of Patrick Prendergast, an Irish immigrant who for some reason felt that if he worked hard to help re-elect Chicago’s four-term mayor, Carter Harrison, that Harrison would promote him to Corporation Counsel, even though the two had never met. Prendergast’s “work” usually involved writing delusional and scary postcards to city officials. When Carter gets re-elected and no promotion is forthcoming, Prendergast doesn’t take rejection well, and instead takes matters into his own hands.

It was fascinating to read about the Fair. Thanks to this fair, we were first introduced to Cracker Jacks, zippers, the Ferris Wheel, the hamburger, dishwashers, Hershey chocolate and Pabst Blue Ribbon (okay, maybe we could have skipped the PBR!). The concept of the midway was also introduced, although the Midway at the World’s Fair definitely differs from our modern midways. The midway was then conceived as a way for fair guests to be exposed to people from different cultures, and along the midway people could see belly dancers, camels, Eskimos, an ostrich farm, and Amazonians. The fair was also lit by electric lights on every building, making it a spectacle for night as well as the daytime. People could not even bring their own cameras without paying a fee!

I liked this book just as much as Thunderstruck, maybe a bit more. The Holmes story was so deliciously creepy I could not read it at night, and like I did in Thunderstruck when I jumped over chapters about Marconi to read about Crippen, I found myself sometimes jumping ahead a bit to read about Holmes. Not that the Fair parts of the book weren’t entertaining. It was fascinating to see how such a huge event got put together in such a short time, back before telephones, the Internet or computer drafting. The Holmes sections of the story definitely had more momentum for me.

I hope you’ll check this one out. Creepy yet immensely satisfying. 2nd book for the NonFiction NonMemoir reading challenge!

Grade: A

Titanic’s Last Secrets: The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler….Brad Matsen

Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler

I remember all too well the night I pulled an all-nighter reading Walter Lord’s classic A Night to Remember, a chilling, moment-by-moment description of the doomed voyage and sinking of the RMS Titanic in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. This was way before Leonardo was ‘king of the world’, and was actually before Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor in 1985 (I’m dating myself here). I didn’t mean to pull an all-nighter; I just could not stop reading. I was horrified and yet fascinated by the story, my heart pounding as the inevitable tragedy unfolded and so many lost their lives in the freezing waters, and angered by the stupidity and greed of the designers who did not put enough lifeboats on board for everyone to escape, feeling there was no need for safety measures on an ‘unsinkable’ ship.

Ask anyone nine years old or older why the Titanic sank, and most everyone’s quickie answer would be “an iceberg”. Thanks to research, deep sea submersibles, and good old science, we’re finding out now that the iceberg was only part of the reason Titanic met its demise. In 1991, research divers Richie Kohler and John Chatterton made history when they discovered the wreck of a German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. After a friend reported some interesting and unfamiliar debris surrounding the wreck of Titanic on the ocean floor, Kohler and Chatterton teamed up again to visit the site of the sinking in the famed Russian Mir submersibles. What they found there during three dives in the Mir crafts wasn’t the “Heart of the Ocean”, but pieces of the hull and keel of the ship, never before seen or photographed. Warping and damage visualized along these keel and hull pieces were the first crucial pieces of evidence for a new (and even more horrifying) hypothesis for the ship’s sinking. Further research on land with Harland and Wolff’s (the shipyards that built Titanic and her sister ships, Olympic and Britannic) archives, as well as a visit to the wreck of Britannic, supported even more strongly the idea that not only was Titanic not “unsinkable” after all, but may in fact have been doomed from the start, with her construction flaws well-known to H&W’s builders and executives before she sailed.

Underwater picture of damage to Titanic's hull. The Chatterton/Richie expedition discovered two very large pieces of the doomed ship's hull.

Like anyone, I love a good conspiracy theory. I began this book with a pretty closed mind, thinking there was nothing new that could be gleaned from the wreck, since so many people (including even director James Cameron) have been down there in the deep sea subs taking a look at things. I was pleasantly surprised by all the new findings, and it really turned what I thought I knew about the Titanic on end. Along with Chatterton and Richie, many engineers, scientists, and historians were involved in the data analysis, and the scenario that best fit their findings were in good agreement with many of the eyewitness accounts given by survivors and crew at the Senate hearings following the disaster. Although slightly skeptical that a cover-up of that magnitude could ever have been successful, I’m not surprised by much anymore in the internet age. The book provides great photos of the people involved and of both wrecks.

We’ll never know what really took place on that awful April night, but this book gave me hope that scientists are inching ever closer to finding the real truth about one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. This book just goes to show that you can never close the book on a case like this, because as science and technology advance, more and more of the secrets of Titanic’s fatal night will be revealed. I can’t wait to see what we’ll discover in the next few years.

Grade: A-

The Great Bridge…David McCullough

August 1, 2007. Four days after my wedding. I was happily soaking nose-deep in a bubble bath upstairs when my husband burst into the bathroom, babbling incohrently about bridges and explosions and rush hour and I-35W. I looked at him, uncomprehendingly, until he handed me a towel and told me to come downstairs and see what was going on.

It was hard to taken in what the television showed us. Big concrete sections of roadway folded up like cardboard. Metal girders twisted like ribbons. Cars clinging to the torn-up sections of road like Matchbox cars. And a big gap in the road where a bridge used to be, during rush hour, of all times.

There was literally nothing else on the news here for about a month. Suddenly everyone was an expert on bridge construction and knew just where the blame should be placed for the failure. Gusset plates and stress cracks were more popular conversation topics than who would be running for president. It changed how all of us here in Minnesota, and I’m sure how people all over the United States, felt about bridge safety and construction forever. For those of you living under a rock, I present the video of the collapse here for you.

Until I read David McCullough’s inspiring and sweeping 1972 epic, The Great Bridge, I had absolutely zero knowledge of the engineering and science that go into building a bridge, and I closed the book last night with great respect for anyone who has ever designed a bridge or helped build one. To me, bridges were just one of those things that built themselves, like skyscrapers and airplanes. Someone has to design the bridge to be strong to hold everything that will cross it, tough to withstand all of the elements like wind and weather that will act on it, and beautiful to look at. That’s an amazingly tall order.

Washington Roebling

In 1869, that someone was John A Roebling, a German immigrant who began to build beautiful suspension bridges where others before him had failed mightily.Only two of those bridges stand today: the John A Roebling Suspension Bridge in Covington, Kentucky, and the iconic Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. His design for a bridge extending across the East River from the island of Manhattan to Brooklyn was approved in 1869, and ground was broken for the bridge in 1870. Unfortunately, Roebling crushed his toes during the surveying for the bridge, which went untreated and led to tetanus and his untimely death. His son Washington, edcuated in America at the Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, took over the project as Chief Engineer after his death until the completion of the bridge in 1883.

It was amazing to read about bridge construction back before CAD-CAM technology, OSHA regulations, and even before the electric light bulb. The digging of the bridge’s foundations underwater was fascinating to me. The foundations of the bridge rested on a pressurized chamber, where men would go down and literally dig the foundation of the bridge deeper into the ground. Little was known back then about the effects of high pressure on the body, so many men, including Washington Roebling, contracted ‘caisson disease’, which is better known today as ‘the bends’, a horribly crippling and painful disorder caused by coming out of compression too quickly. Gas bubbles would build up in the bloodstream at the joints when men would come up out of the air lock too quickly, and these bubbles could cause paralysis and/or death. Many things were tried to limit the severity of the disease, such as shortening work hours as the caisson traveled deeper into the ground, turning away unhealthy applicants, or refusing to allow workers who had the disease to return to work. As it was, Roebling would struggle with the effects of the disease for the rest of his life. Unable to physically work on the bridge or be there in person, he would direct its building through highly detailed letters to his subordinates. Many politicians and citizens would question Roebling’s fitness to continue as Chief Engineer over the years, but his staff and those who knew him would defend him to the last, allowing him to remain as Chief until the bridge opened.

In addition to these letters, Roebling relied heavily on his devoted wife, Emily, who amazingly for the time period was well-versed in mathematics and engineering. She was the face of the Chief Engineer when Roebling could not go out, and she visited the bridge many times during its construction. Many of the engineers who worked with her solicited her opinions and trusted her judgment. Her contribution to the building of the bridge is memorialized by a plaque on the bridge near the one that hails her husband and father-in-law.

Emily Warren Roebling

Besides the actual construction of the bridge, McCullough reveals the politicking and sometimes backdoor dealing that went on to get the bridge plan approved. The infamous Tweed Ring was poised to make millions on the bridge construction by giving all of the construction contracts to its own members and then charging taxpayers exorbitant costs for materials and labor, pocketing the profit for themselves. Luckily the Tweed Ring was taken down early in the bridge’s history, but to this day, many of the famous names associated with the building of the bridge, such as Henry Murphy and William Kingsley, have still not been totally cleared of suspicions of money laundering and embezzlement. It was also discovered during construction that the company chosen to provide the steel for the bridge’s great cables was charging prices for good quality steel rope but were actually providing poorer quality rope, which unfortunately was not discovered .until the steel was already part of the bridge’s cables. Thanks to Roebling, whose own family company made the same product,he was able to compensate for the sub-par steel because he had already designed the bridge to have a higher margin of safety than it would ever need. When the bridge opened in 1883, it was strong enough to hold two lanes of horse and/or buggy traffic, two railroad lines for commuters across the bridge, and a promenade for pedestrians.

Even to this day, excepting the removal of the streetcar tracks and a bridge widening to six vehicle lanes completed in 1950, and recent construction to the bridge approaches, very little renovation has been made to a bridge that is already over 100 years old. Most notably the bridge was recently used by New Yorkers fleeing the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse on September 11, 2001.

This was a fabulous book, well written and engaging. I was never overwhelmed by the engineering; in fact, that was one of the interesting parts of the book for me. Google became my best friend as I eagerly searched for videos and graphics explaining cable spinning, caisson digging, and anchorage systems. I wanted to know what was going on! The family story of the Roeblings and how Washington fought against his disabling condition and weakening popular support to maintain his position as Chief Engineer, and how Emily rose above the traditional role of women to become an active, respected part of the bridge building was inspiring. In the end, the fact that a bridge of this size and stamina was able to be built back before today’s technology, and is still standing and in use today, is a testament to American ingenuity. 

According to Wikipedia, the collapse of the 35W bridge prompted a re-evaluation of the Brooklyn Bridge’s stamina in 2007. It was discovered that the approaches to the bridge had become weakened on both sides, and construction was begun in 2009 to replace the approaches.

This book is the 2nd book for the Birth Year Reading Challenge (right under the wire, I know!). It was a fantastic read and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Grade: A