I first came across the killer Dr. H. H. Holmes during the early phase of my search for Isaac's Storm. I found his story immediately compelling, but only when I began reading about the glories of the World's Columbian Exposition did the story take on the larger resonance that I look for in a book. Taken together, the stories of how Daniel Burnham built the fair and how Dr. Holmes used it for murder formed an entirety that was far greater than the story of either man alone would have been. I found it extraordinary that during this period of nearly miraculous creativity there should also exist a serial killer of such appetite and industry. The juxtaposition of the architect and the murderer seemed to open a window on the forces shaping the American soul at the dawn of the 20th century. The fair drew so many of history’s brightest lights, from Buffalo Bill to Susan B. Anthony, that doing my research was like crashing a very classy Gilded Age party.
The Devil in the White City is rich with
detail. How did you do your research?
First I should say that I always work alone. No researchers, no assistants. I need first-hand contact with my sourcesfor example, I found it infinitely valuable to be able to touch the original postcards on which Patrick Prendergast revealed his insane delusion, one that would bring the fair to such a tragic end. The obvious pressure he placed on his pencil as he wrote brought his part of the story vividly to life. I love a good archive. Call me boring, but to me every book is a detective story, every archive a misty alley full of intrigue and desire. Tracking Daniel Burnham was relatively straightforward, as Chicago has several marvelous archives full of fair material; tracking Holmes proved far more difficult. I pieced his story together from bits of evidence in far-flung places, much as a prosecuting attorney forges an iron-clad case out of bits of forensic evidence. One high point was coming across the actual death decree for Holmes in the files of the Pennsylvania Historical Society, complete with its ribbon and gold seal. Another occurred when I paid a visit to Holy Cross Cemetery outside Philadelphia and saw the original entry for Holmes's plot in the cemetery's death registry. As I stepped onto the grass in the vicinity of his unmarked grave, under dark clouds, a thunder-clap boomed through the sky. It was a little too spooky, actually, given the Holmes curse. I left soon afterward.
Why was the Columbian Exposition (the Chicago World's Fair of 1893) so important to our country at the time?
In the Gilded Age, America was a prideful place, aware of its growing strength as a world power. The fair became an expression of that pride, and a vehicle for redressing the nation's earlier humiliation at the hands of the French at the Exposition Universel of 1889, which gave Paris the Eiffel Tower and showed off France's self-proclaimed superiority in art, manufacturing, science, and engineering. The creators of the Chicago fair resolved from the start that no matter what the cost, they would build a fair bigger and more glamorous than the Paris exposition. That they succeeded, against amazing odds, is one of American history's great forgotten miracles. But the fair also was Chicago's redemption. The city had long felt itself to be lacking the refinement of New Yorka condition New York flogged at every opportunity. Part of what drove Daniel Burnham to build so grand a fair was his own, and Chicago's, yearning to show the world that the city could do much more than butcher cattle and hogs.
What lasting impact did this fair have on Chicago and on America?
In the hands of Daniel Burnham, the fair became a dream city, so lovely it was immediately nicknamed the White City. It showed how beautiful and safe and clean a city could be, and in so doing caused millions of Americans to reevaluate the aesthetics of their own local worlds. Suddenly every municipality wanted a building that evoked the miracle of the White Citymuch to the dismay of architect Louis Sullivan, who believed the fair had killed an emerging, uniquely American brand of architecture. That the fair did cause a shift back to classical styles is beyond argument, but in the end this shift opened the national psyche to the power of architecture and in so doing may well have paved the way for the work of the greatest 20th century architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Because of Burnham's success in building the White City, many cities, including Cleveland, Washington, Manila, San Francisco, and Chicago, asked him to create citywide plans. One result is Chicago’s open, appealing lakefront and its glorious "Miracle Mile." It was Burnham, by the way, who persuaded a railroad tycoon to remove his tracks and depot from the heart of what is now the lovely unobstructed expanse of grass and reflecting pools that stretches from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. His fame gave him important later commissions, such as the Flatiron Building in New York and Washington's Union Station.
Why do you find Daniel Burnham and Dr. H. H. Holmes so fascinating?
I find each compelling in his own right, but especially compelling when taken together as cultural antipodes that each embodied some element of the forces then propelling America toward the 20th century. Burnham designed buildings that previously had never been attemptedwith his partner John Root, his firm built the first structure ever to be called a skyscraper, despite soil conditions that should have made the task impossible. I find it nothing short of miraculous that he was able to lead the fair to completion in so short a time, against obstacles that would have stymied a lesser man. Meanwhile, here was Holmes, himself something of an architect, building a hotel that was a parody of everything architects held dearyet that in its own way was equally, if darkly, miraculous: a building designed for murder. I found it so marvelously strange that both these men should be operating at the same time in history, within blocks of each other, both creating powerful legacies, one of brilliance and energy, the other of sorrow and darkness. What better metaphor for the forces that would shape the 20th century into a time of monumental technical achievement and unfathomable evil?