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A Hotel for the Fair

The manager followed Holmes to his second-floor office and there in the pleasant cross breeze from the corner windows studied Holmes’s drawings of his kiln. Holmes explained that he could not obtain “the necessary amount of heat.” The manager asked to see the apparatus.

That wasn’t necessary, Holmes said. He did not wish to trouble the manager, only to seek his advice, for which he would pay an appropriate fee.

The furnace man insisted he could do nothing without actually examining the kiln.

Holmes smiled. Of course. If the manager did not mind spending the extra time, he would be glad to show it to him.

Holmes led his visitor down the stairs to the first floor and from there down another, darker flight to the basement.

They entered a large rectangular cavern that ran the entire length of the block, interrupted only by beams and posts. In the shadows stood vats and barrels and mounds of dark matter, possibly soil. A long narrow table with a steel top stood under a series of unlit lamps and two worn leather cases rested nearby. The cellar had the look of a mine, the smell of a surgeon’s suite.

The furnace man examined the kiln. He saw that it contained an inner chamber of firebrick constructed in a manner that kept flames from reaching the interior, and he noted the clever addition of two openings in the top of the inner box that would allow gases from the box to flow into the surrounding flames, where they would then be consumed. It was an interesting design and seemed likely to work, although he did observe to himself that the shape of the kiln seemed unsuited to the task of bending glass. The inner box was too small to admit the broad panes now appearing in storefronts throughout the city. Otherwise, he noticed nothing unusual and foresaw no difficulty in improving the kiln’s operation.

He returned with a work crew. The men installed a more powerful burner that, once ignited, heated the kiln to three thousand degrees Fahrenheit. Holmes seemed pleased.

Only later did the furnace man recognize that the kiln’s peculiar shape and extreme heat made it ideal for another, very different application. “In fact,” he said, “the general plan of the furnace was not unlike that of a crematory for dead bodies, and with the provision already described there would be absolutely no odor from the furnace.”

But again, that was later.

 

Excerpted from The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson Copyright© 2003 by Erik Larson. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

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