Friday, May 18, 2012
The Gilded Age
I recently read The Devil In The White City which takes place in Chicago before the turn of the century. It's the story of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the psychopathic serial killer who operated undetected outside the gates. Larson expertly intertwines the true tale of two men: Daniel Barnham, the brilliant architect behind the legendary fair, and H.H .Holmes, the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death in his World's Fair Hotel he designed for murder.
It begins with the story of how Chicago beat out New York to build the World's Fair on the shores of Lake Michigan. It was a fair of invention which brought us numerous "firsts". George W. Ferris invented the wheel specifically for the fair as an answer to France's Eiffel Tower. But his was unlike any you see today. Each of his cars held 60 passengers! Can you imagine the genius of constructing such a structure on time with less than a year to do it and then operating it safely? Dozens of other now famous American staples on a smaller scale were also introduced: Cracker Jacks, Juicy Fruit, and Shredded Wheat, just to name a few. The first skyscaper was built after the invention of what made that possible: the elevator. Chicago was experiencing explosive growth and as land values rose, the sky beckoned.
I found this to be an amazing story that reads like a novel. It was amazing to me how the rise of labor unions and a 40-hr work week coincided with the pressure to complete these immense buildings and elaborate exhibits on a tight timetable. And all the while, underneath the glitter and excitment and invention, the chilling activites of H.H. Holmes ran unabated like the River Styx through the underworld.
No one is alive today who knew anyone with first hand knowledge of the fair. It's through the meticulous research of books such as this that the amazement lives on and credit is given to those who got us to where we are today.