Remembering Chicago’s history of greatness
By Ray Hanania
Probably the greatest book ever written is a Chicago history by author Erik Larson called “The Devil in the White City.”
If you are among the few who have never read it, you are missing out.
The author intertwines two major stories that took place at the end of the 19th Century: the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus – something Native Americans would certainly and rightfully dispute; and, a serial killer who used the 1893 World Columbian Exposition as a backdrop for his murders.
At the time, Chicago was the nation’s slaughterhouse capitol. The stench of slaughtering hogs hung over the city garnished only by the black smoke from bituminous (soft) coal used to heat homes.
I’ve read the book, published in 2003, twice. This past week, I listened to the audio book, a phenomena quickly which replacing paper-page books. We used to browse bookstore shelves. Now we browse laptop computer screens.
“The Devil in the White City” tells two stories, the vision of architect Daniel Burnham, one of the great inspirations for the Exposition, and Herman Webster Mudgett, one of the world’s first shocking White serial killers.
From New Hampshire, Mudgett changed his name to Dr. H.H. Holmes and swindled a widow of her huge three-story building at 63rd and Wallace, not too far from the exposition location at Jackson Park. He murdered young women, many of whom he married who were attracted to Chicago by stories of the promise of women’s freedoms.
Holmes tortured and murdered as many as 200 women and children at “The Castle.” His accomplice, who he later murdered, too, cleaned the bones which were sold as medical skeletons to many of Chicago’s largest hospitals.
The Chicago Police received hundreds of letters from families asking about their lost daughters, but did nothing. Thinka bout that next time you are in a doctor’s office or hospital looking at a skeleton hanging from a stand. They never recovered any of them.
His killing spree overshadowed another crime, when a local attorney assassinated Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison Sr., claiming the mayor broke his promise to make him Corporation Counsel.
And, it overshadowed Burnham, who developed a phenomenal proposal that beat out New York, Washington D.C., and St. Louis to win the exposition. Burnham did far better than Aon’s short-sighted Patrick Ryan who led Chicago’s miserable and failed effort to win the 2016 Olympics.
The Burnham plan included the world’s largest Ferris wheel, that opened weeks late, but featured Pavilions representing 50 foreign countries and cultures. It also introduced Juicy Fruit Gum, Cracker Jacks, Aunt Jemima Syrup, Cream of Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, hamburgers and diet carbonated pop, which I am addicted to till this day.
Wild Bill Cody hosted a fair alongside the fair that had been rejected by the city planners. But Wild Bill’s show was bigger and better than even Burnham’s exposition.
Chicago has been left with the Museum of Science and Industry, one of the fair’s pavilions, and a legacy of murder and mayhem that continues in our neighborhoods.
Wouldn’t it be great if we countered the killings by planning a new exposition?
We’d great leaders, which we don’t have. The foul-mouthed Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who discriminates against Arabs, isn’t much of an inspiration. (He’d ban hootchie cootchie dancers). Our congressmen are wishy-washy, mealy mouthed do-nothings.
I know there is much to overcome, but it’s still worth considering.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall reporter. Email him at email@example.com.)