Books by Larson, Erik

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. ISBN 0-375-72560-1.
It's conventional wisdom in the publishing business that you never want a book to “fall into the crack” between two categories: booksellers won't know where to shelve it, promotional campaigns have to convey a complicated mixed message, and you run the risk of irritating readers who bought it solely for one of the two topics. Here we have a book which evokes the best and the worst of the Gilded Age of the 1890s in Chicago by interleaving the contemporary stories of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and the depraved series of murders committed just a few miles from the fairgrounds by the archetypal American psychopathic serial killer, the chillingly diabolical Dr. H. H. Holmes (the principal alias among many used by a man whose given name was Herman Webster Mudgett; his doctorate was a legitimate medical degree from the University of Michigan). Architectural and industrial history and true crime are two genres you might think wouldn't mix, but in the hands of the author they result in a compelling narrative which I found as difficult to put down as any book I have read in the last several years. For once, this is not just my eccentric opinion; at this writing the book has been on The New York Times Best-Seller list for more than two consecutive years and won the Edgar award for best fact crime in 2004. As I rarely frequent best-seller lists, it went right under my radar. Special thanks to the visitor to this page who recommended I read it!

Boosters saw the Columbian Exposition not so much as a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the New World but as a brash announcement of the arrival of the United States on the world stage as a major industrial, commercial, financial, and military power. They viewed the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris (for which the Eiffel Tower was built) as a throwing down of the gauntlet by the Old World, and vowed to assert the preeminence of the New by topping the French and “out-Eiffeling Eiffel”. Once decided on by Congress, the site of the exposition became a bitterly contested struggle between partisans of New York, Washington, and Chicago, with the latter seeing its victory as marking its own arrival as a peer of the Eastern cities who looked with disdain at what Chicagoans considered the most dynamic city in the nation.

Charged with building the Exposition, a city in itself, from scratch on barren, wind-swept, marshy land was architect Daniel H. Burnham, he who said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.” He made no little plans. The exposition was to have more than 200 buildings in a consistent neo-classical style, all in white, including the largest enclosed space ever constructed. While the electric light was still a novelty, the fair was to be illuminated by the the first large-scale application of alternating current. Edison's kinetoscope amazed visitors with moving pictures, and a theatre presented live music played by an orchestra in New York and sent over telephone wires to Chicago. Nikola Tesla amazed fairgoers with huge bolts of electrical fire, and a giant wheel built by a man named George Washington Gale Ferris lifted more than two thousand people at once into the sky to look down upon the fair like gods. One of the army of workers who built the fair was a carpenter named Elias Disney, who later regaled his sons Roy and Walt with tales of the magic city; they must have listened attentively.

The construction of the fair in such a short time seemed miraculous to onlookers (and even more so to those accustomed to how long it takes to get anything built a century later), but the list of disasters, obstacles, obstructions, and outright sabotage which Burnham and his team had to overcome was so monumental you'd have almost thought I was involved in the project! (Although if you've ever set up a trade show booth in Chicago, you've probably gotten a taste of it.) A total of 27.5 million people visited the fair between May and October of 1893, and this in a country whose total population (1890 census) was just 62.6 million. Perhaps even more astonishing to those acquainted with comparable present-day undertakings, the exposition was profitable and retired all of its bank debt.

While the enchanted fair was rising on the shore of Lake Michigan and enthralling visitors from around the world, in a gloomy city block size building not far away, Dr. H. H. Holmes was using his almost preternatural powers to charm the young, attractive, and unattached women who flocked to Chicago from the countryside in search of careers and excitement. He offered them the former in various capacities in the businesses, some legitimate and other bogus, in his “castle”, and the latter in his own person, until he killed them, disposed of their bodies, and in some cases sold their skeletons to medical schools. Were the entire macabre history of Holmes not thoroughly documented in court proceedings, investigators' reports, and reputable contemporary news items, he might seem to be a character from an over-the-top Gothic novel, like Jack the Ripper. But wait—Jack the Ripper was real too. However, Jack the Ripper is only believed to have killed five women; Holmes is known for certain to have killed nine men, women, and children. He confessed to killing 27 in all, but this was the third of three mutually inconsistent confessions all at variance with documented facts (some of those he named in the third confession turned up alive). Estimates ran as high as two hundred, but that seems implausible. In any case, he was a monster the likes of which no American imagined inhabited their cities until his crimes were uncovered. Remarkably, and of interest to libertarians who advocate the replacement of state power by insurance-like private mechanisms, Holmes never even came under suspicion by any government law enforcement agency during the entire time he committed his murder spree, nor did any of his other scams (running out on debts, forging promissory notes, selling bogus remedies) attract the attention of the law. His undoing was when he attempted insurance fraud (one of his favourite activities) and ended up with Nemesis-like private detective Frank Geyer on his trail. Geyer, through tireless tracking and the expenditure of large quantities of shoe leather, got the goods on Holmes, who met his end on the gallows in May of 1896. His jailers considered him charming.

I picked this book up expecting an historical recounting of a rather distant and obscure era. Was I ever wrong—I finished the whole thing in two and half days; the story is that fascinating and the writing that good. More than 25 pages of source citations and bibliography are included, but this is not a dry work of history; it reads like a novel. In places, the author has invented descriptions of events for which no eyewitness account exists; he says that in doing this, his goal is to create a plausible narrative as a prosecutor does at a trial. Most such passages are identified in the end notes and justifications given for the inferences made therein. The descriptions of the Exposition cry out for many more illustrations than are included: there isn't even a picture of the Ferris wheel! If you read this book, you'll probably want to order the Dover Photographic Record of the Fair—I did.

March 2006 Permalink

Larson, Erik. In the Garden of Beasts. New York: Crown Publishers, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-40884-6.
Ambassadors to high-profile postings are usually chosen from political patrons and contributors to the president who appoints them, depending upon career Foreign Service officers to provide the in-country expertise needed to carry out their mandate. Newly-elected Franklin Roosevelt intended to follow this tradition in choosing his ambassador to Germany, where Hitler had just taken power, but discovered that none of the candidates he approached were interested in being sent to represent the U.S. in Nazi Germany. William E. Dodd, a professor of history and chairman of the department of history at the University of Chicago, growing increasingly frustrated with his administrative duties preventing him from completing his life's work: a comprehensive history of the ante-bellum American South, mentioned to a friend in Roosevelt's inner circle that he'd be interested in an appointment as ambassador to a country like Belgium or the Netherlands, where he thought his ceremonial obligations would be sufficiently undemanding that he could concentrate on his scholarly work.

Dodd was astonished when Roosevelt contacted him directly and offered him the ambassadorship to Germany. Roosevelt appealed to Dodd's fervent New Deal sympathies, and argued that in such a position he could be an exemplar of American liberal values in a regime hostile to them. Dodd realised from the outset that a mission to Berlin would doom his history project, but accepted because he agreed with Roosevelt's goal and also because FDR was a very persuasive person. His nomination was sent to the Senate and confirmed the very same day.

Dodd brought his whole family along on the adventure: wife Mattie and adult son and daughter Bill and Martha. Dodd arrived in Berlin with an open mind toward the recently-installed Nazi regime. He was inclined to dismiss the dark view of the career embassy staff and instead adopt what might be called today “smart diplomacy”, deceiving himself into believing that by setting an example and scolding the Nazi slavers he could shame them into civilised behaviour. He immediately found himself at odds not only with the Nazis but also his own embassy staff: he railed against the excesses of diplomatic expense, personally edited the verbose dispatches composed by his staff to save telegraph charges, and drove his own aged Chevrolet, shipped from the U.S., to diplomatic functions where all of the other ambassadors arrived in stately black limousines.

Meanwhile, daughter Martha embarked upon her own version of Girl Gone Wild—Third Reich Edition. Initially exhilarated by the New Germany and swept into its social whirl, before long she was carrying on simultaneous affairs with the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet NKVD agent operating under diplomatic cover in Berlin, among others. Those others included Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, who tried to set her up with Hitler (nothing came of it; they met at lunch and that was it). Martha's trajectory through life was extraordinary. After affairs with the head of the Gestapo and one of Hitler's inner circle, she was recruited by the NKVD and spied on behalf of the Soviet Union in Berlin and after her return to the U.S. It is not clear that she provided anything of value to the Soviets, as she had no access to state secrets during this period. With investigations of her Soviet affiliations intensifying in the early 1950s, in 1956 she fled with her American husband and son to Prague, Czechoslovakia where they lived until her death in 1990 (they may have spent some time in Cuba, and apparently applied for Soviet citizenship and were denied it).

Dodd père was much quicker to figure out the true nature of the Nazi regime. Following Roosevelt's charge to represent American values, he spoke out against the ever-increasing Nazi domination of every aspect of German society, and found himself at odds with the patrician “Pretty Good Club” at the State Department who wished to avoid making waves, regardless of how malevolent and brutal the adversary might be. Today, we'd call them the “reset button crowd”. Even Dodd found the daily influence of immersion in gleichschaltung difficult to resist. On several occasions he complained of the influence of Jewish members of his staff and the difficulties they posed in dealing with the Nazi regime.

This book focuses upon the first two years of Dodd's tenure as ambassador in Berlin, as that was the time in which the true nature of the regime became apparent to him and he decided upon his policy of distancing himself from it: for example, refusing to attend any Nazi party-related events such as the Nuremberg rallies. It provides an insightful view of how seductive a totalitarian regime can be to outsiders who see only its bright-eyed marching supporters, while ignoring the violence which sustains it, and how utterly futile “constructive engagement” is with barbarians that share no common values with civilisation.

Thanks to James Lileks for suggesting this book.

December 2011 Permalink