Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2005 Issue

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Wcee12

Columbian Exposition tickets reflected American history


A review by Bruce McKinney

In 1893 Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition. To obtain the designation the windy city competed before a national board that considered the applications of four interested venues: Chicago, New York, St. Louis, and Washington. World's fairs had been more or less regular events since the Crystal Palace fair in London in 1851. Philadelphia hosted the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 and Paris the Exposition Universalle in 1889. The Columbian Exposition would honor the 400th anniversary of the landing of Columbus in the New World, highlight the host city and convey the headlong progress and gathering potential of the United States, just then emerging as the foremost world power of the twentieth century. At the same time Dr. Herman W. Mudgett was, like a mantis in a cocoon, stretching his legs in New England and preparing for a new life and identity in Chicago as Henry H. Holmes. In Chicago he would emerge, over a period of years as America's first psychopathic mass murder. His story and the story of the fair are told in alternating chapters.

It is now lost to most people that it was at the Chicago Exposition, at the beginning of the American century, where both the nation and world first peered into the dawning "American era" and saw the future. Many of the seven million visitors who visited during its six months run saw their first artificial lighting, what we know today as electric lights. Those who tasted Cracker Jacks and Shredded Wheat did so for the first time because these treats were introduced here. For many their first glimpse of the just invented Ferris Wheel was the strongest and most lasting impression. America was moving from its agricultural underpinnings toward the industrial power that would define it in the 20th century and the full sense of its burgeoning strength was on display.

That Henry Holmes, a psychopath, would occupy the same time and space was simply the random bad luck that anyone watching television news sees confirmed every few hours somewhere in America or overseas. Where there are people there is mischance and it is only ever a matter of time, never a matter of "if." This book reconstructs the circumstances and events of that mischance in Chicago precisely at the time the Columbian Exposition was being organized, built and run. That the fair somehow provoked Holmes' fantasies of death and sent him into a spasm of continuing murder seems certain although the book never touches on this. Like railroad rails, always together, but never touching, these two stories run side by side. What connections and conclusions may be drawn is left to the reader. In some sense this story telling approach, without conclusions, is the polar opposite of the afternoon television talk shows today that often start with conclusions and present facts and perspectives to lead the viewer to simply accept the host's view.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Frances Palmer, <i>Battle of Buena Vista,</i> chromolithograph, New York, 1847. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, the earliest publication concerned solely with chocolate, first edition, Madrid, 1631. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Romans Bernard, <i>An Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown, June 17th, 1775,</i> engraving, 1776. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> <i>A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston,</i> English edition, London, 1770. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> William Soule, <i>Lodge of the Plains Indians,</i> albumen print, 1872. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Manuscript document to enforce New York’s “Agreement of Non-Importation” during the heyday of the Sons of Liberty, New York, 1769. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Clarence Mackenzie, <i>Drummer Boy of the 13th Regiment of Brooklyn,</i> salt print with applied color, 1861. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Moses Lopez, <i>A Lunar Calendar,</i> first Jewish calendar published in America, Newport, RI, 1806. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b><br>The Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <center><b>Gonnelli Auction House<br>Books and Graphics<br>19th, 20th and 21st April 2021</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 19-21<br>Books from XVI to XX Century</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 20<br>Atlases and Maps</b
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br> Veneto and Venice, a Selection of Books from the XVI to XX century</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 20<br></b>Rossini Gioachino, Baguette de chef d'orchestre appartenuta a Gioachino Rossini, dono del Comune di Passy. 1500 €
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br></b>Manetti Saverio, Storia naturale degli uccelli trattata con metodo. Cinque volumi. 1767. 18.000 €
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br></b>Poe Edgar Allan, Double assassinat dans la rue morgue. Illustrations de Cura. 1946.
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 19-21<br>Books from XVI to XX Century</b>
  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Ronald Reagan. Series of 37 letters to Senator George Murphy, and related material, 1968-90. £50,000 to £70,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Chaim Weizmann. Autograph letter signed, to General Sir Gilbert Clayton, 6 September 1918. £20,000 to £30,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Sir Winston Churchill. Autograph letter signed, to Pamela, Lady Lytton, 1942. £20,000 to $30,000.
    <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Oscar Wilde. Five autograph letters signed, to Alsager Vian, 1887. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Napoleon I. Letter signed to Admiral Ganteaume, ordering the invasion of England, 22 August 1805. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Horatio, Viscount Nelson, and Emma Hamilton. Two autograph letter signed, to Catherine and George Matcham, 1805. £6,000 to £8,000.

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