Erik Larson, author of "The Devil in the White City," you write early in your book that this book is about the evanescence of life. What`s that mean?
Really, what I was struck by, as the book progressed, as my work on the book progressed, and really, when I finally read the finished manuscript -- what I was struck by is you have all these people working so hard on this vast project, the World`s Fair, and then suddenly, it`s over and completely forgotten. And they put their hearts and their souls into this thing, and then it disappears -- I mean, literally, from -- almost entirely from national memory.
And it just seemed so -- there`s a certain kind of sad aspect to that, I think, but also a very kind of -- kind of brave and bold, you know, humans going into the dark sort of thing. And that`s what I mean by the evanescence. They`re here for that brief time. Burnham -- the architect and his colleagues, you know, throw all their energy into building this World`s Fair. They choose that course. The killer chooses that course. And both just absolutely roil the waters for a brief period of time, and then it`s over.
Break down the title "The Devil in the White City." Who is the devil?
The devil was a serial killer named H.H. Holmes. That was the name he typically used. He was in Chicago in the late 1880s and `90s and actually used the World`s Fair of 1893 as a lure to bring victims to his World`s Fair Hotel, which was due west of the fairgrounds, a short trolley ride. He was as bad as bad gets.
"The Devil in the White City" -- the "White City" was the nickname for the World`s Fair of 1893, the World`s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. "White City" arose because the central array of buildings was this massive array of about half a dozen buildings all painted white, so stunning, in fact, that when people walked into the central basin of the fair, the area around the central basin, and saw these buildings, that they -- they -- there were persistent stories of people actually bursting into tears, just sort of -- they had never seen anything quite so beautiful. And the nickname very quickly arose, the White City. Now, the fair itself was much larger. There were about 200 other buildings, but that central array is why it was called the White City.
Where`d you get the idea for this book?
Oh, long story. I`ll give you -- well, I`ll give you the whole story. It actually started back in 1894, when I was a young man... Yes, it started back in 1994, when I read Caleb Carr`s "The Alienist," which is a terrific novel about a fictional serial killer in old New York. And the thing that I loved about that book was its evocation of that long past time. And you can just sink into that book. It was a marvelous thing.
I thought to myself -- I was in the search then for a book idea, and I thought, Well, wouldn`t it be interesting to try do a real historical murder, do a non-fiction book about a historical murder and try and evoke some of the same effects, some of the same sort of sense of the past? And so I actually just quite systematically began looking for a good murder to write about. You don`t get more systematic than looking at -- my first book from the library was the "Encyclopedia of Murder." And so seven letters in, I came to Holmes. They had him under Holmes.
And I have to say, I read about him. I was not terribly interested in him because he was so over-the-top bad, and I did not want to do a slasher book. I wanted to do something full of manners, something more Agatha Christie-ish. And so I continued looking for other things. I came across a murder in New York that had a connection to a giant hurricane in Texas in 1900. I got sidetracked and that became my previous book, "Isaac's Storm."
Came back to the world of writerly despair, where I was looking for my next idea, and remembered this idea of doing a non-fiction murder, remembered Holmes, still didn`t want to do something about Holmes but, you know, I had nothing else going on at that point. A lot of my ideas that I had started looking into had fallen by the wayside. And so I thought, OK, I`m going to look into the aspect of this Holmes thing that I hadn`t checked into before, which was the World`s Fair, started reading about the World`s Fair and fell in love. That`s what hooked me.
But I realized very, very early on, like, in the initial conception of this thing, like, that first week, after the fair kind of triggered my imagination -- I realized that I didn`t want to do, still, a book about Holmes alone, nor did I want to do a book about the fair alone. But what struck me instantly is the real story is the two stories together. I wouldn`t have wanted to do either alone. It`s just the two stories together, this almost miraculous, in a dark way, juxtaposition of this heroic act of civic good will, the World`s Fair and the effort to build it, the tremendous odds against effort to build it, and in the same place at the same time, this killer using this fair to do his equally outstanding work at killing. You know, it was just a marvelous juxtaposition, too perfect to ignore.
Has anybody said to you that they couldn`t wait to get through the chapters on the fair to get to the next chapter on the murders?
No. In fact, it`s interesting you ask it that way. What I have found is that people almost universally have entered the book thinking, Oh, I`m going read -- I`m going to like this mostly for the serial killer, but they come away liking the fair part much better. And there`s a very simple reason for that, I think, and it has to do with the technical aspects of narrative. And that is that the Burnham side of the story -- Daniel Burnham was the architect who built the fair, who led the effort to build the fair.
The Burnham side of the narrative is a classic narrative. It`s the kind of thing you might find in fiction, although, of course, it`s real, because here`s a guy who takes on this monumental effort against all odds. And truly, that was the case. I mean, when I started the book, I had no conception of the things, the bad things that would arise to try to stop this effort to build the fair. I mean, you know, the week the fair started, the nation entered one of its deepest, worst depressions ever, the panic of 1893. And everybody expected that that was going to destroy the fair because nobody could afford to come.
That was just one of an array of, you know, half a dozen really serious things that could have upset the whole thing. So it`s a classical narrative. You get into that story, you get into the fight against all odds to build this fair. And even though you know the fair occurred, you`re still, like, Wow, are they ever going to pull this off?
It`s kind of like the allure of a book about the Titanic because you know it`s going to sink, and yet there`s always that little question mark as you`re reading through, Oh, is it really going to sink? You know? I don`t know why that is. It`s a marvelous thing, I think, about readers, that they have this element of hope that, you know, even against all odds, still persist through a book. And that`s what sort of helps us -- helps us drive a narrative. But that is what I found.
But speaking of the Titanic, it plays a role in your book.
It plays a role in my book, yes.
Very interesting. Well, at the risk of giving away something that maybe I -- well, I`ll give it away. But interestingly, after the fair, Daniel Hudson Burnham was going to sail to Europe for a vacation, essentially. He was going to sail on a ship called the Olympic, which is the Titanic`s twin sister, really. At the same time as he was sailing for Europe, his closest friend at the fair was leaving Europe on the Titanic.
Greg Millet. And as -- he was leaving Europe as Daniel Burnham was sailing across the sea on his own ship, his own opulent, the Olympic, which really was...
This would have been -- oh, gosh, I`m...
Yes. The year...
But it was quite a bit after the fair.
Much after the fair.
1893, the fair.
1893 is the fair. This is easily -- well, what is it, 15 years -- well...
Fourteen years, yes.
That right? No...
And -- well, whatever it is... (LAUGHTER)
And whatever year the Titanic sank, it sank. We know that.
It`s 19 years. (CROSSTALK)
I know. I know. It`s really hard being 49. (LAUGHTER)
But what was really kind of uncanny about the whole thing was that Daniel Burnham was sailing toward Europe. His best friend from the fair is coming back from Europe. And for some unaccountable reason -- in his diary -- Burnham talks about this in his diary -- he felt he wanted to send a note to his friend in the middle of the ocean -- you know, using a wireless. This was a big thing in those days because wireless was still a fairly new concept, and it was just this marvel to be able to communicate between two ships in the middle of the ocean, something that prior to, you know, say, 1905, was impossible.
So here they are. He gets this impulse to do it. And it`s not just something he makes up after the fact because his diary is done as he`s traveling. So we see it in his diary before all this stuff happens. We see him sending this note. We see him hearing from the steward that he was unable to send the note, which is ominous in itself. And it turns out that just as he was sending the note, the Titanic was obviously having its encounter with an iceberg. And this best, last friend of the fair was one of the dead. It was just a very strange moment.
It`s 29 years? We`ll get it right. (LAUGHTER)
Whatever it was!
In the beginning of your book, you have two quotes. The first one is, "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir a man`s blood," Daniel Burnham, director of works, World`s Columbian Exposition, 1893. "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir a man`s blood." Why that quote?
Why did I use it?
I think that sums up -- there are two quotes in front of the book, and I think they both, first of all, encapsulate something fundamental about the two men. They capture the juxtaposition that I think makes the book work, the fact that on the one hand, you have this guy who was devoted to creating -- he`s devoted, actually, to civic good will, to the idea of civic honor. And you have this other guy who was devoted to murder, who was born to kill. So that quote, "Make no little plans," I just think absolutely sums up what Burnham tried to do and how he thought.
And the second quote we were just showing the audience is, "I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing," Dr. H.H. Holmes, confession, 1896.
Who did he confess to?
Well, that was one of many confessions to the police. And actually, that confession was a public confession made through the "Philadelphia Inquirer" -- paid for -- even back then, paid for by "The Philadelphia Inquirer" -- well, "The Philadelphia Inquirer" was just trying to make a stir and grab audience because, at the time, this was the single biggest story in America. It`s hard to believe because most people know nothing about this killer. But they paid for this particular confession, and it was a long, long confession. I think it was something like 27 pages. It took up, I don`t know, three or four full newspaper pages in "The Philadelphia Inquirer."
But unfortunately, like so many of his confessions -- and he had probably half a dozen confessions -- as revelations came out, he changed his story. And he would always seed his confessions with fact but also with a liberal amount of fiction. The funny thing is, this was really his last major confession. And in it, he claimed to have killed 27 people. Unfortunately, some of those he claimed to have killed were still alive and came forward. Many of those he claimed to have killed were, in fact, dead and were, in fact -- the police did suspect ultimately that he had done that.
It is also assumed, by the way, that he killed many more than 27. My guess is probably several dozen over the course of his life. The "New York World," in all its exuberance, estimated 200 alone during the fair, but I don`t buy that at all. It just gives you a sense, though, of what people thought about this guy and how, after the fair, when he was captured, the suspicions of what he had done, how they just became -- just dominated the American imagination.
The jacket says that you`re married to a doctor and live in Seattle and have three daughters?
Where did it all start for you?
Where did what all start?
My life! That`s a long story, too. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, like half of the world, I think. And...
That would have been 1954, in January.
Where did you go to school?
To college, I went to University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, studied...
And studied Russian history, Russian culture. Loved it. Loved it. And then was actually going to stay in -- try to get a job in publishing, which I did, as a sort of gofer, with the intent to kind of stay in the vicinity of writing and meanwhile write on the side -- you know, that kind of thing. And then made the mistake of seeing "All the President`s Men," and thought to myself, I got to do that. I got to go down -- I`m going to bring down a presidency, you know? So...
How old would you have been in, what...
That would have been...
In `76 or `77?
That would have been `77, I think, depending -- whatever the application process would have been because I was in the class of -- it would have been `76 because I was in the class of `77-`78, the one that got out in `78. So -- yes, it would have been late `76. But -- I think that date`s correct.
But so I went to Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I figured I was going to apply to one journalism school and let fate take a hand. And if I got into that school -- and I was going to apply only to the best schools. If I got in, then the fates were saying I should be a journalist. Otherwise, I was going to go to Europe and bum for six months.
And so I got in and began my journalism career. I got my first job, came back to the Philadelphia area because I loved Philadelphia. I was in Bucks County at the "Bucks County Currier Times," which is a great place to start for any reporter who wants to start out. And you know, as one thing led to another -- I had a -- sort of an unfortunate encounter at the paper and got passed over for a promotion, which totally annoyed me. So as is often the case, you know, when bad things happen, good things happen next. I just said, All right, forget it. I`m done. I`m going to send my resume to all my friends at other publications. And sheer luck struck, and I got a job in Philadelphia with "The Wall Street Journal," which then had a bureau in town. And that sort of set me off on another course and...
How long were you with "The Journal"?
In two installments, I would say a total of seven years, seven to eight years.
When did you move to Seattle?
Six years ago. Six years ago.
And when did you write your first book, and what was it?
First published book or first book?
Yes, first published book.
First book was in the early `90s, and that was a book called "The Naked Consumer." And that was a book about how companies spy on ordinary Americans and the various techniques that these -- it was supposed to be kind of a funny-spooky book, although, frankly, given the things that the companies can do today and with e-mail and the Internet, I mean, this -- my book is nothing compared to what I could have written today. It was a wonderful book, I thought, and I thought it was going to be the next, you know, Vance Packard sort of thing, but it turned out to be critically ignored. And the public ignored it, as well.
What about "Lethal Passage?"
"Lethal Passage" was -- I loved that book because it had a huge impact in the way police departments thought about how to go after gun criminals. I still to this day hear about -- hear from police departments, saying, you know, We love this book. It`s helped us think about how to go after such-and-such a gun dealer, and so forth.
That was a book about one model of handgun -- not one specific gun but one model of handgun, tracing its evolution, how it arose from being a weapon designed specifically to be used by anti-Castro guerrillas for urban warfare in a place like Havana, and how it evolved into essentially a mass-market consumer product that became the weapon of choice for gun gangs -- for drug gangs, and so forth, in Baltimore and other cities.
I had been living in Baltimore at the time. One stop along the way. I had been living in Baltimore at the time, and the thing I was struck by, reading about -- this was in the `80s, late `80s, reading about all of these drive-by shootings, was, Wait a minute. Where does a 13-year-old kid get a weapon? Where`s he get a weapon like this? So I essentially traced kind of -- what I like to refer to as the forces, the cultural and institutional forces that conspire to put one example of this gun into the hands of a kid in Virginia Beach, Virginia, who used it to kill a teacher, and trace all the forces that contributed to that -- the gun culture, gun laws, the NRA, and so forth. It was very good, I think.
And "Isaac Storm" came out what year?
That would have been `98, something like that.
Did it sell?
It sold great, yes. "Isaac Storm" is probably going to put my kids through college. Yes, it was...
Several hundred thousand?
I think so. I think so.
And this book, as we sit here, I know we`re -- you`ve been on the road, and this has been out for a while. What was the first day this book came out?
The first day would have been February 11, yes. And this was very -- this did better than "Isaac Storm" and -- I`m very pleased to say.
You have any numbers of...
I don`t have hard numbers. And actually, I don`t even think the publishing industry has hard numbers, but...
Is it going to be 200,000, 300,000 400,000, that big?
I think so. Yes. I mean, the first -- you know, I`m so vague on this stuff. I try to stay out of the business of publishing and just concentrate on what I do best. But the initial publication -- publishing run was quite large, to begin with, so...
Best-seller list for how many weeks?
Best-seller list for -- I think it was a total of 12. And I like to think it would have been longer if the war hadn`t started. I mean, the book got to No. 1 on "The New York Times" best-seller list, and then the war started. And then began falling precipitously as war-related books came out. So on the one hand, I feel very lucky to have gotten out before that debacle -- well, that`s my own opinion. But on the other hand, you know, it could have been much longer. Who knows? But I love the book, though. And that`s what counts.
In 1893, what did they call the World`s Fair?
The official name was the World`s Columbian Exposition.
Why that name?
And that name derives from the fact that the original conception of the fair was to have something to honor or commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus`s discovery of America. Now, you say to yourself, Wait a minute. It`s 1893, but this is 1492 that we`re talking what happened. Well, by the time Congress got around to finally deciding which city was going to have this fair, it was too late to really -- everybody acknowledged it was simply too late, at that point, to have the fair completed by October, `92, which is when everybody sort of felt would be the official 400th anniversary.
So they decided, OK, we will dedicate the fair in October of 1892, but the fair itself would not open until May 1, 1893. But in there -- it was very interesting because the dedication had to be in October, that`s what put a lot of pressure on Daniel Burnham because the largest building at the fair, this Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building, an immense building, hard even to describe to anybody who hasn`t -- doesn`t have something to compare it to -- that building had to be largely done by the time of the dedication because it had been decided early on that that was where the dedication was going to take place. And that building suffered all manner of disasters along the way, I mean, just a real trial for all the people who were trying to put this fair together.
On the inside, right inside the book, you can see this huge map that you`ve got of the fair itself. And which one of the buildings are you talking about? Is it...
That would be...
Can you see it there?
... right there. Right there. A very large, large building. Gone now, of course, as are most of the buildings, all but one building from the fair.
How many buildings did they build for this fair?
The central array was about seven buildings, and those were the primary responsibility of Burnham & Company. But the fair itself had another 200 buildings that they were all involved in, in terms of design, approving designs, grading. Olmsted, Frederick Law Olmsted was the landscape architect for the fair. He had the charge of the landscape throughout the place, which itself was one of the most onerous burdens that anyone at the fair bore because he couldn`t really get to his work until all the other things were done, and they were running late also. Tremendous achievement, actually, that fair, just a tremendous, tremendous event. Magical, actually.
How many people went to it?
Well, at the end of the fair, tallies were made. And it turned out that in the six months of the fair, it recorded 28.5 million visits. And you have to put that in context, 28.5 million visits. Today that might not seem that much, given the size of the population. I mean, what`s the size of America now, 300 million or so, 300-million-plus? In this period, the nation`s population was 65 million, so you`re recording 28.5 million visits. Now, that`s not visitors. There are a lot of duplicate visits. But nonetheless, it gives you a sense of the critical mass of people who came to this fair.
And that`s one of the things that made it so -- at the time, so culturally powerful, when you think about all these people being in one place at one time and then going back, filtering back to their communities. The changes in America that we even see today were very powerful. In fact, one could argue that -- you know, here in Washington, that Union Station is one indirect offspring of the fair because the fair made Daniel Burnham this tremendously influential architect. Again, though, you know, that -- the sense of his power has receded from the national memory. I mean, we all remember McKim, Charles McKim. We don`t remember Daniel Burnham as much. But you know, he wouldn`t have gotten that deal, he wouldn`t have had that power to make -- to do Union Station if not for the fair.
Same holds, actually, for the Lincoln Memorial. Daniel Burnham was instrumental in working out who would do the design and also what the design would be. And that wouldn`t have happened also if he had not become such a powerful architect after the fair.
Who was McKim, by the way?
Charles McKim was an architect in New York, a very famous architect, who was recruited by Burnham to do a number of buildings at the World`s Fair in Chicago. McKim was a little reluctant at first, as were many, because, you know, there was this whole thing about Chicago being this hog-slaughtering backwater. And a lot of these great, famous architects were a little uneasy about the idea of doing a project in that hog-slaughtering backwater. You know, they wanted to do, you know, great things that would last forever, but the idea of doing a fair in Chicago -- oh, I don`t know. It was Burnham`s sheer power of persuasion, I think, that brought everybody around.
And there`s only one building left?
There`s only one building left. And in fact, that takes a certain amount of qualification because it is now the Museum of Science and Industry, which is a superb museum, by the way, and a gorgeous building sitting there in Jackson Park, which was the site of the fair. But the Museum of Science and Industry at the time of the fair was the Palace of Fine Arts. The Palace of Fine Arts, however, was a temporary building, as were all the buildings for the fair. The decision was made early on that because there was too little time to build them out of stone, and so forth, lasting materials, that they would essentially have steel frames, wood-cladding sides that would be covered with a material called staff, a kind of an exterior plaster that could be modeled to resemble stone, and modeled very well to resemble stone.
So the Palace of Fine Arts was built of that material, which did not last. A decision was made several decades after the fair, Let`s save the structure and rebuild it in permanent form. And that is now the Museum of Fine Arts -- I mean, the Museum of Science and Industry. And that`s really it. There are little bits and pieces, though, like, a friend of mine went house-shopping in Oak Park and looked at a house that Frank Lloyd Wright had designed. And in the back yard is a ticket booth from the fair, a little outbuilding for this house.
All right, jumping from the World`s Fair to chloroform, the kiln and the vault.
Right. Yes. Holmes, the serial killer, when he learned -- he had come to Chicago a few years before the -- probably about six years before the fair.
Let me ask you how old he was before you go ahead. That`s not his real name, either.
Well, his name was Mudgett. Mudgett was his real name.
Yes, Mudgett. Yes. And his -- but everybody knows him as Dr. H.H. Holmes.
Herman Webster Mudgett.
Herman Webster Mudgett.
He was originally from Gilmanton, New Hampshire, and went to medical school at the University of Michigan, which perhaps is something that they`d rather most alumni not know. I don`t know. But he went to medical school there, various journeys around the country, eventually wound up in Chicago.
So there`s no fair?
No fair then, no. He has come to Chicago, thinking, apparently that -- I mean, nobody really knows exactly what drove him to Chicago. But it`s clear that -- it`s clear, in retrospect, that, given his personality, his psychopathology, that he fed off the very forces that were making the cities the most powerful things of that era, that were driving the growth of Chicago to become this mercantile and industrial powerhouse, and all these forces associated with it -- the anonymity, the fact that women were traveling alone for the first time in American history because they were coming into the cities and having jobs as stenographers and typewriters, and so forth.
So he was drawn to Chicago for these various reasons. I like to think he was drawn also because of the sort of visceral element of Chicago, the blood of the stockyards, the whole thing. This just had to have appealed to a psychopath like him.
And what year -- how old would he have been, again, when he first came to town?
He would have been in his -- boy. He would have been in his 20s, late 20s, at the time.
And already a medical doctor.
Already a medical doctor and already a murderer.
Has he been married yet?
He`s been married, yes, married once, left that wife. Actually even had a child, but left them behind in New Hampshire. He has come to Chicago to live. And one element of his character is that he is the consummate con man -- absolutely no moral core, which let him do anything he wanted to do. I mean, the way you and I would, you know, in any sort of business deal would like to -- I like to think we would think about the ethical consequences and, you know, Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Nothing like that ever entered this man`s brain. He just reacted to situations. And if it took murder to do this, fine. It`s like getting into a cab, you know?
So right away he set about conning the owner of a pharmacy out of her pharmacy. And it`s almost beyond doubt that he killed her. Because she simply disappeared. He said she went to California to live.
What was her name?
Oh, you`re taxing my memory of the book again.
It doesn't matter, you'll think of it later.
Yeah. There were so many names.
She went to California?
She went to California.
But well, she didn`t go to California. I mean, she went to California with the capital "C", I mean, it`s very clear that she was killed because she simply disappeared from the scene, and given Holmes` later behavior, and how he sort of dodged the question where she went, it`s quite certain that she was killed by him.
How did he do it?
Nobody knows how he did that one. Nobody knows for sure. But it`s -- you know, he was a psychopath. And as that such, he was sort of a cowardly killer. He was not the kind of person who would go up behind somebody and slit their throats or something like that. His preferred weapon was chloroform in a rag, an overdose of chloroform, gas injected into a room, that kind of thing. So it`s clear that he would have done that kind of thing. He would not have done the Jack the Ripper thing.
Let me stop you there and ask you about -- you read "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote how many times before you wrote your book?
Well, in terms of the whole scope of reading "In Cold Blood," maybe I`m a dark character, but I`ve read it about six times, but before this book about three -- two or three times just before this book.
Well, you know, one of the problems with a historical murder and, actually with any murder is that, you know, typically there is no witness there to show what happens when someone is -- you know, when the killer is doing his thing. And, you know, what the police have to do is kind of piece it together from bits and pieces of evidence and come up with a theory about exactly how this happened, sort of a narrative about how the killing occurred.
And, you know, this is something that a writer has to wrestle with. You`re trying to write, especially nonfiction. You have these murders, you realize at some point that people -- that you have a responsibility to your readers to show them what happened. They can`t just all be off-camera.
And so, what happened? How do you think this happened? How did this murder come to past? And I didn`t know how to do that. And I felt it was very necessary to have some scene -- some way of bringing us into a couple of the murders later in the book. It gets a little wearing to have people just sort of disappearing off-camera, you know. It`s like your old Super 8 videos by family shot, you know -- people would waltz across, then they are gone forever, you know.
And so I read "In Cold Blood," because I feel that Truman Capote did such a powerful job of capturing those killings. And I wanted to see -- try yet again to figure out how he did it. Unfortunately every time I read the book I think to myself, why could he not please have left us some footnotes? That would have been just such a wonderful thing. You don`t know with Truman Capote what`s real and what`s not. He claimed later that everything was real except I think the last chapter, which was a little odd because the last chapter is probably the most artificial of all the chapters and the most dead and seems the most real, you know. So, it`s hard to say what`s....
So what`s your claim when it comes to your book?
Well, here is what I took from that was that there is, you know, the sheer power in the way he manipulated scenes, you know, the sheer -- the technical aspects of narrative, you know. That`s about all I can get from Truman Capote in that book, because you just don`t know anything. You don`t know what he used and what he had access to.
So what I came around to finally was -- OK, I`ve got a lot of material about what happens before these killings, what happens afterwards, theories about what happens during the killings. It occurred to me that, you know, if you were to watch a trial on Court TV, let`s say -- obviously the trial begins on one day and ends on another. Let`s say you tune into the middle of this trial as evidence was being presented.
Without coaching, you would probably have no idea what that trial is about. Because evidence just doesn`t fit into neat containers the way, you know, writers of legal thrillers would like them to seem. There are bits and pieces of things, the spared pieces that have to be drawn together by this narrative, this prosecutors` narrative or defended by the defense attorney`s narrative.
And so really what matters in a trial is the opening -- the opening theory, the opening narrative of how this killing happened, what the prosecutor tells the jury to begin with. That`s what puts everything into a framework. So my feeling was, OK, I`m going to take what I know and build that prosecutor`s theory. And then in the back of the book, I have copious footnotes. I will detail any kind of intuitive leap that I make, show what information I use, where you can find that information. And then you know, you as the reader, if you don`t buy my approach to that murder, to that scene, then, you know, you`re free to read through the sources. You`re free to read my description of how I came to certain conclusions and decide for yourself.
And I do that in two places, for two particular killings, because I don`t want to really reveal because -- I mean -- this reads like a suspense novel. I don`t want to give too much away about killings and what happens, but -- that was my approach. And I`m quite comfortable with that.
How much can you tell us without giving away about the use of the vault?
I can tell you about the vault, yeah, because I don`t think that`s necessarily the most -- there`s a lot of other material in the book that I think is more toward the end is more compelling.
I got to admit to you that when I read this book, I said, I`ve got a problem here. He isn`t going to talk about this. And rarely the books that we have here are those kinds of situations, because -- and I wanted to ask you as long as you are right there, what have you decided to do over these months when people ask you about the book? How far do you go?
You see, I have to be frank. I have a real difficulty talking about certain elements of the book. Whenever I do public talks, I talk mostly about the fair. Because -- see, my -- I mean, my goal in doing a book like this is to create something that I would love and I think readers love also, and that`s the feedback I`m getting. And that is to create this moment where you begin the book -- you begin reading the book.
And if I`ve done my job right, you sink into that book and you`re not going to emerge from that book until you`re done. Hopefully, you know, early in the morning the next day. You know, you`ve read straight through, which a lot of people apparently have done, or at least you finished it fairly quickly, you know, and that you just sort of felt yourself lost in this past world and that you emerge from this past world feeling different, maybe even feeling a certain longing for the past, which I`ve heard a lot from people, which I really love. I had one woman at a talk in Chicago stand up nearly in tears telling me how much she loved the book and how she didn`t want it to end.
That`s the sort of feeling I wanted to kind of conjure in this thing. I don`t want it to be traditional, you know, dry nonfiction, where, you know, you just sort of force yourself to read it because it`s interesting, but there`s no story there.
So it`s a real problem, then, to talk about things that are coming in the book, that I`ve spent a lot of effort trying to reveal them in an artful way without violating the tenets of what`s fact, reveal them in an artful way, and then -- and somehow cope when people say, well, so tell us about the serial killer. What happened at this point? What happened at this point?
I was doing a radio interview on NPR with Scott Simon, who`s one of my favorite all-time interviewers. And he said at one point -- he said, now could I ask you to read this passage? And I said, no. I mean, I didn`t want to read the passage that he wanted, because it was too important to one element of the book. So, and I am -- I have to look out for readers, above all. And I just hate to give stuff away. But having said that, I can talk a little about the vault.
Where was the vault?
The vault was in Holmes` hotel, and it was...
Not his hotel room, but his hotel he owned.
Yes. Let`s stress that -- I was getting to the story there actually before, let`s finish that up first, that he came to Chicago, managed through various machinations to acquire some land, built a three-story structure. When he learned that the fair was going to be located amazingly very near him, in Jackson Park, due east of his hotel, just a short trolley ride, a matter of blocks, he began converting his building into this hotel, into a hotel with guest rooms and so forth, but it also had certain other features. It had a crematorium. It had a dissection table, lime kilns, acid bags. It also had this vault.
And what this was, was a very carefully constructed room, essentially the size of a walk-in bank vault, air tight, with the addition of a gas jet that would allow him to admit gas, you know, conventional, natural gas, into the room and suffocate anybody who was in there. Or if he wanted to, you know, prolong the murder of somebody in that vault, he could just simply shut the door and, you know, listen in the next room, which is his office, as that person succumbed to lack of oxygen and panic and so forth. So that`s essentially what the vault was.
You have a footnote, for instance, under acquiring many, "I base my conclusions about Holmes` motivations on studies of psychopaths conducted throughout the 20th century. Holmes` behavior, his swindles, his multiple marriages, his extraordinary charm, his lack of regard for the differences between right and wrong and his almost eerie ability to detect weakness and vulnerability in others fits with uncanny precision descriptions of the most extreme sorts of psychopaths." And you go into some great detail there. Did you talk with any psychologists or psychiatrists who understand the behavior?
Yes. Well, I`ll tell you one of the things that when I finished the first draft of the book, I didn`t love it. I mean, I thought parts of it were very good; especially the fair part, but there was still something about the killing part that eluded me.
When did you finish that first draft?
Oh, man! The memory questions. Let`s see. Probably nine months before the book came out, so...
The book comes out in February.
So nine months certainly.
And while I`m on it, drop back. How long did it take you to physically write the book?
About a year and a half, a year and a half.
And you had all your research done and you`re into the writing part.
Most research done. I`d say seven-eighths of the research done. And then the writing took about a year and a half.
How many days a week?
Oh, when I`m writing, when I`m actually into the project, it`s every day.
How many words a day?
I don`t go by words. Here`s how I operate. When I`m writing, I get up at about 4:00. And that`s my favorite writing time. And I write until about 7:00, 7:30, depending on what day it is. If it`s a weekend day, I may go on straight through until 9:00, because the kids are sleeping in and my wife is not going to work and all that stuff. During the weekdays, you know, it`s 4:00 to 7:00, 4:00 to 6:30.
And I try to write a couple of pages. I`m not firm. I don`t have a specific goal. But the one thing I always adhere to is that I stop while I`m ahead. If I`m going to take that break for breakfast, I may stop in the middle of the sentence or the middle of the paragraph. Something I know how to finish. Because as any writer knows, that`s what kills you is when you just don`t know what to do when you come back. And all the demons accumulate. And then you go out for a cappuccino, that kind of thing.
But then after breakfast I come back to work, you know, I`ll try to do a couple of pages more. Again, being sure to stop in the middle of the paragraph, in the middle of a sentence. Something I know with absolute certainty has an easy finish the next morning.
Early on with any book that I`ve written, I find that it`s an agonizingly slow -- at first phase, I may get a page done, maybe even just a couple of paragraphs, and on the second part of the morning, maybe finish up one page. It may go like that for a month. And then suddenly you`re doing two pages a day. And then at the end of the project I find sometimes I`m working from 4:00 until 6:00 and I may do 10 pages a day, because you get this acceleration effect.
This psychiatrist -- when did you finally get that...
Yes. Yes. So I had finished the manuscript and I just was not happy with the whole motivation thing. We know Holmes did these things. And the problem, again, with historical stuff is you don`t have the FBI`s behavioral section doing reams of material on what drove this guy.
So here he`s doing all these things. He`s clearly a sinister character. But what is it that`s driving him? So I gave the manuscript to a forensic psychiatrist in Seattle to read. He read it very quickly. We had a very interesting lunch, breakfast two days after that, in which he essentially diagnosed this character. And from his telling, from what I presented in the book, it was clear to him that the guy was a so-called full-blown psychopath.
Now, officially, psychiatrists don`t use the term psychopath anymore. They use the term antisocial personality disorder. However, you get a psychiatrist alone and he says psycho. Psychopath. I mean, that`s what it was.
But psychopath, people -- people really -- I think there`s a widespread misunderstanding of what a psychopath is, based on things like Hitchcock`s movie "Psycho" and about, you know, slasher movies and so forth.
A true psychopath of this character is a guy who simply has no moral core. I mean, to impute certain kinds of evil designs and so forth, it`s kind of beyond the actual disorder. It`s more like he does this almost mechanistically. This is sort of who he is. He doesn`t have to think about being evil. He does not have to contrive to being evil. It`s just what he does. And when you`re like that, it`s a very powerful position to be in, because you can do anything. And that`s why he got away with it. You can convince anyone of anything, because you don`t have that sort of moral break that allows people to detect deception.
Do you know what I mean? You`re just -- you are just openly bad. And you can make -- in that context you can just -- you can seem like anything. You can seem like the most charming man in the world, which he did.
And one of the things that you find -- the psychiatrist steered me to a lot of very interesting literature about psychopaths, and these were characters, by the way, who were not well understood, not at all understood in the 19th century, and arguably very poorly understood in the first few decades of the 20th. This is -- understanding a psychopath was a fairly new, you know, in terms of the long sweep of history, it was a fairly new sort of thing.
But the literature that this guy steered me to was fascinating, because there were passages that could have described Holmes perfectly, including references continual, repeated references to this uncanny ability to seduce women. Go figure. Who understands this stuff, but that came up repeatedly in the literature, this almost supernatural ability to seduce women. I kind of wish I had it, you know. I hope that I did when I was single.
I want to come back to that, but -- just like you do in the book, every other chapter basically deals with the two different stories. The known things that happened around the world`s fair like the George Ferris wheel...
... the Ferris wheel crackerjack.
Walt Disney`s father.
I mean, it just goes on -- Samuel Gompers, the union organizer. How much other things came out of this fair?
Well, this was the magic of the fair and what really ultimately persuaded me to do the book was that you had all this -- it really was as if some -- I hate to keep resorting to the term supernatural, but it was almost as if there was some extra real force that brought everything together at this time. I mean, this was just such an amazing affair.
You mentioned just a few of the things that rose from it. You know, even, for example, "The Wizard of Oz." The Emerald City is thought to have actually quite direct roots in the White City of the fair, because L. Frank Baum and his artists were -- had gone to the fair, and admired the fair. And in fact, there is even -- there`s even some theory that -- you know, in the book apparently the Emerald City is actually what you see once you put on your green glasses. It`s not green to begin with. It`s a white city. And you put on your glasses and it becomes green. And that`s kind of fascinating to think about, because here`s the White City on the lake. There was that, there was ...
Shredded wheat. Aunt Jamima`s pancakes is another thing, which is a shocking product because, you know, a whole meal in a box.
Marshall Field, Clarence Darrow, George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, Henry Adams, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the Eiffel Tower.
And I mentioned George Ferris, the Ferris wheel. What was the contest?
OK. And this is something that I actually protected for a long time -- going back to my feelings about narrative and so forth. I actually fought tooth and nail with the marketing department at Crown not to say anything about the Ferris wheel, because of the way I presented it as a sort of a secret thing that came out of the fair, but that`s been so widely blown anyway that I don`t care. I can talk about it.
What happened was -- and part of actually the reason the world`s fair of 1893 even came to be was because prior to that in Paris, there had been the great Paris Universal Exposition -- tremendous, tremendous thing, the most amazing thing anybody had seen prior to the 1893 fair -- in Paris, of course.
And one of the amazing things there was the Eiffel Tower, this 1,000-foot structure done by Eiffel. And, you know, it`s hard to imagine today what 1,000-foot structure would have seemed like at that time, but it was monumental. You get that sense when you see photographs of the Eiffel Tower. Even to this day it rises above everything.
But this was a tremendous thing. At the Paris fair also, the French really pulled out all the stops to humiliate everybody else who was exhibiting there. And we from the United States kind of did our own share -- had our own part in that, because we just presented this absolutely lackluster, lame thing. And so what resulted was this kind of feeling like we got to get back at the French. You see, this French-American thing has been with us a long time. And that was one of the motivating factors that made people say, yes, let`s do this fair to commemorate Columbus` discovery of America, and we`ll use this to stick it to the French.
Well, one of the things that Burnham, as the head of the effort to do the world`s fair in Chicago really felt necessary was that the Chicago fair would need some kind of engineering monument to supersede Eiffel`s Tower. And he felt pretty clearly that it should not just be another tower. In fact, Eiffel himself sent a proposal to build the tower for the Chicago fair. And it was after some consideration rejected.
It was going to be bigger, wasn`t it?
It was going to be bigger, yes. Presumably it was going to be bigger. But it was -- the concept was rejected. And so the search then went on for something else, and in fact at one point Burnham directly challenged a group of engineers at an engineering club that met in Chicago on a weekend afternoon to -- he challenged them. He said, you know, the architects of America have come through flying colors for this fair. The engineers have not, you know. Seems to be saying, hey, what`s wrong with you, guys? And one of the people in the audience that day was George Washington Gale Ferris, who was, of course the man who created the Ferris wheel.
Now, the thing, he had had this idea -- Ferris had had this idea in his mind for a while, this idea of a revolving -- essentially a revolving - a giant revolving wheel that people could actually ride in. And it was just bumping around his head. He was a steel inspection engineer from Pittsburgh who had the steel inspection contract before the world`s fair.
And suddenly Burnham`s challenge kind of galvanized -- he said, well, OK, how about this? They brought it to Burnham, and Burnham at first rejected it because it looked too deadly. I mean, this very elegant design, but it didn`t look like it could withstand Chicago winds, anything. But after a point and after doing some scrupulously precise drawings, have hiring an engineer to do them, Ferris won the concession from the world`s fair. And ultimately created this gigantic Ferris wheel. And it`s very hard to conceive today how big this thing was. It had 36 cars. Each car carried 60 people -- six-oh. Think about that, 60 people per car on this Ferris wheel. It was massive.
Anything has been built like that since?
Well, there is a Ferris wheel in Vienna that is about three-quarters the size. But it`s said to be a replica of the Ferris wheel. And then there is -- what is it called? The one in London, the London Eye Ferris Wheel, which is -- it`s not as large even as the one at the fair.
Now, I`ve got to ask you a parochial question about my hometown.
Because I`m reading along, and all of a sudden one of the women...
...that Dr. Holmes -- you know, I don't know how to put this -- gets his hands on is...
Figuratively and literally.
...is from my hometown of Lafayette, Indiana.
Oh, truly, truly?
I just said never heard the name before, I didn`t know how to pronounce it. Is it Emily to start with?
And the last name - it is Cigrane?
You know, I would say Cigrane.
C, I, G, R, A, N, E.
But there are questions, by the way, about a lot of the pronunciations, because nobody knows anymore, you know. Nobody...
Well, I`ve never seen the name, you know, and it`s a fairly small town.
And her father was a doctor, I believe.
How did she get inside his little web?
Oh, Emily Cigrane. Yes. Well, she had gone to work at this famous alcohol rehab place that was in Dwight.
Dwight, you know. Illinois.
Yeah. And it was a very famous place, actually, at that time. That`s another one of the sort of funny things about doing a nonfiction book is that you come across all of these bizarre things that a novelist could never make up. I mean, here`s this Dwight Institute, which was absolutely bizarre. I mean, they would inject you numerous times a day with this sort of bizarre combination of multi -- luridly-colored chemicals and so forth, and, you know, over time supposedly this dried you out. And I think gold was one key element of the thing, the gold care.
Anyway, she had been working there. And apparently, an assistant of Holmes, who was kind of -- Pitezel -- had gone to -- Holmes had sent him to Dwight to dry out, just sort of a remarkable act of generosity by Holmes, but...
The guy who was working for him.
Yeah, but as readers will find, he doesn`t do anything just for the sake of goodness. He has got a reason. Anyway, Pitezel meets Emily Cigrane there at the Dwight Institute. Emily Cigrane, by all accounts, was stunning. Quite young, very beautiful. And Pitezel brings back a story about this nearly angelic woman at Dwight. And then Holmes, who never wants to miss an opportunity, writes to her and says, look, why don`t you come work for me. You know, I`ve heard about you from Pitezel and I`ll pay you this terrific salary. Come on. So she comes out and works for him, and certain bad things happen.
And if I remember, the doctor, her father, comes to visit...
Checks out Dr. Holmes.
Yes, checks out Dr. Holmes. And in many ways -- and again here, I come back to not wanting to give too much away, but in many ways the story of Emily Cigrane is one of the eeriest, given the ultimate -- certain ultimate -- yeah.
We`re running out of time. And we haven`t given anything away. You know, you`ve done a good job of not...
I hate to, you know.
But Dr. Holmes did write a memoir, you say.
Holmes wrote a memoir, fascinating memoir, which is actually in the rare book section here at the Library of Congress. And what`s very interesting about that memoir is that it has a lot of good biographical detail; it seems to check out based on what other, you know, reporters back in the era, when this was being heavily covered, were digging up about him. He`s got a lot of good biographic material, got a lot of good detail that checks out, but also has this underlying stain of absolute bare-faced deception. So it`s fascinating -- fascinating to read.
And you say you did not use a researcher.
I don`t use researchers.
You did it all yourself?
I did it all myself. And the reason, why should I give a researcher all the fun? I mean, to me the fun is -- this is going to sound -- I`m sure people out there are cringing, saying, oh, my God, this guy likes libraries, and I do. I mean, to me every day in a great archive or library is like a small detective story. And I just love getting my hands on -- literally, getting my hands on bits and pieces of the past.
Well, I`m currently thrashing around, looking for the next thing, and I have an idea that I think is going to go, but I would be a fool to even mention it.
Not even come close?
Not even come close. Except to say that it will be a historical narrative. It will be -- not to be excessively coy, either it will be within 10 to 15 years of the turn of the 19th into the 20th century.
By the way, what is this on the cover right here?
That is the administration building in the White City at the World`s Fair. And the tall buildings spread out from there.
OK, by the way, 1893. How long did it last?
Six months. May 1 until the end of October.
And we`re out of time. Erik Larson has been our guest, and that book is called "The Devil in the White City: The Chicago`s World`s Fair 1893 and the Story of Dr. Holmes." Thank you very much.