As I was getting ready for my Chicago sojourn, Jan, the literary one in our family, told me I really would enjoy reading The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, as most of it takes place in what is now called Hyde Park, the neighborhood where Meadville Lombard stands. I said, okay. But actually I didn’t bother to bring the book with me. Then a few days ago I stumbled upon a copy at the local branch of Powell’s Books. Ten bucks for a hardcover copy. Too good a deal to pass on, I thought…
My goodness, what a wonderful book!
And how strange to be walking around the very neighborhood that is the focus of this study. The book turns, as the subtitle reads on “murder, magic and madness at the fair that changed America.” While I was occasionally annoyed at a nonfiction book that could tell the reader what people were thinking and feeling moments before they died, the scope and depth of this book more than makes up for such small lapses. And so beautifully written…
In addition to the principal characters, Daniel Burnham, the architect who conceived of and drove the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and H. H. Holmes a serial murderer who committed many of his crimes scant blocks from the fair, a host of important figures in our national psyche walk on stage for a line or two or a page or two.
For instance Larson tells of an encounter between a clergyman who supported the policy of shutting the fair on Sundays and Susan B. Anthony who thought it unnecessary, and in fact limited the possibility of attendance for those who only had Sunday’s off from work. The parson challenged her asking would she “prefer having a son of hers attend Buffalo Bill’s show on Sunday (which stood next to the fair but was not a part of it, and therefore was open on Sundays) instead of church?
“‘Yes, she replied, ‘he would learn far more…’
“To the pious this exchange confirmed the fundamental wickedness of Anthony’s suffragist movement. When Cody learned of it, he was tickled so much that he immediately sent Anthony a thank-you note and invited her to attend his show. He offered her a box at any performance she chose.
“At the start of the performance Cody entered the ring on horseback, his long gray hair streaming from under his white hat, the silver trim of his white jacket glinting in the sun. He kicked his horse into a gallop and raced toward Anthony’s box. The audience went quiet.
“He halted his horse in a burst of dirt and dust, removed his hat, and with a great sweeping gesture bowed until his head nearly touched the horn of his saddle.
“Anthony stoodand returned the bow and — ‘as enthusiastic as a girl,’ a friend said — waved her handkerchief at Cody.
“The signficance of the moment escaped no one. Here was one of the greatest heroes of America’s past saluting one of the foremost heroes of its future. The encounter brought the audience to its feet in a thunder of applause and cheers.”
A great read…