A remarkable work, juxtaposing the extraordinary confluence of efforts of Chicago's business community and leading architects, particularly Daniel Burnham, to build and carry off the 1893 Columbia Exposition, with the macabre concurrent activities of one of its residents, serial killer H.H. Holmes.
Daniel Burnham (celebrated architect of such well-known buildings as the Flatiron Building in New York City, the Union Stations in Washington DC, Pittsburgh, and Columbus, and Chicago's own Rookery) was centrally involved with the Exposition's conceptualization and design and served as its Director of Works, overseeing construction of the multi-million-dollar project that Chicagoans saw as a chance to demonstrate their city's ability to match or exceed anything the more cosmopolitan cities of the East Coast could offer their visitors. Simultaneously, Holmes was luring often unsophisticated young women to his hotel near the exposition grounds, usually charming them out of their valuables (and sometimes their clothes) and then gassing or suffocating them in an airtight vault he had had specially constructed for the purpose. With the help of several accomplices (who themselves were not immune to his murderous plans), Holmes further profited from their deaths by selling their articulated skeletons to medical schools, which did not scruple to inquire about the source of these teaching tools in short supply. It was only when he attempted to collect on a life insurance policy covering one of those former accomplices that his crimes came to light - including the murders of that man and three of his children.
As is often the case when reading such material, I was reminded repeatedly just how woefully inadequate my education has been with regard to US history, especially this post-Civil War period, when the Industrial Age completely transformed the American landscape, both physical and cultural. Although presenting only a snapshot in time of one particular place, Larson effectively contrasts the excesses of Gilded Age high society with the lives of its impoverished urban workers, and peppers his narrative with revealing glimpses of the movers and shakers of the day: attorney Clarence Darrow, labor organizers Eugene V. Debs and Samuel Gompers, industrialist George Pullman, hotelier Potter Palmer, and Burnham's fellow architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. His descriptions of the initial vision for the Exposition, and then the near-constant, demoralizing challenges for its creators in making that vision a reality were surprisingly suspenseful, considering that the fair's ultimate success is well-documented: could they complete construction in time? Would the interference of the exposition board, offended society matrons, and opportunistic politicians bring about the fair's ruin? And what on earth is the mysterious "machine" proposed by the unnamed Pittsburgh steel engineer - and why doesn't Larson want to give his name?
Larson's reconstruction of Holmes' monstrous acts is skillfully done, stitching together details gleaned from the few reliable sources that document the investigation and trial, contemporary news accounts, and even Holmes' autobiography (which he hastily wrote after his arrest and self-published in a further attempt to conceal his crimes), although Larson is careful to rely only on those parts that are supported by other sources. The closing section of the book (following what I found to be a rather disappointingly brief summary of Holmes' trial and execution) consists of approximately 40 pages of citations - although there were a few moments throughout the book when I wondered where Larson had found the information he used, or how he tied together some of the threads, I'm not obsessive enough to refer back to the (un-footnoted) text for his sources.