A Tale of Magnificence & Depravity Well Told

When I was on my “Irma Vacation” a couple of weeks ago, I stopped by a Barnes and Noble to browse the history books. Often, when I’m in a bookstore, I feel a little rushed. This time, with nothing but time on my hands, I did some genuine browsing.

I came across Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. I had been tempted to buy it before; after all, it is advertised as a #1 National Bestseller and was a finalist for the National Book Award when it appeared in 2003. But I always had too much else I needed to read.

This time I took the plunge, knowing that I would have ample time to read over the next few days. It was a plunge well worth taking.

The White City in the title refers to the Columbian Exposition of 1893, when Chicago dazzled the world with a fair that was unequaled, even by the previous fair in Paris.

It was Chicago’s chance to prove to the nation that it was more than a backwater city known primarily for slaughtering animals. The goal was to show off its sophistication and energy in a positive light.

The book is a dual biography. Daniel Burnham was the architect charged with the responsibility for making this fair a reality in the short span of two years. The difficulties he faced and the tragedies he overcame along the way tell a tale of persistence and faith in a dream of excellence.

The Exposition was a marvel to behold at the time. People cashed in their life savings to be there. They were inspired by the magnificence of the buildings and the grounds, the latter the brainchild of Frederick Law Olmsted, who had also created New York City’s Central Park.

One can understand the awe that overcame the fair-goers at a time when architectural magnificence such as this was in its infancy in America.

The most popular structure of all was a brand new architectural marvel called the Ferris Wheel. This first one had cages that could hold crowds of people all at once. No one had ever seen anything like this before.

So why the title of this book? Why is the word “devil” so prominent?

While all this magnificence was taking place, right next to this Exposition, a man was silently murdering women and no one even noticed it was happening.

His name—well, actually the pseudonym he used—was H. H. Holmes, a clever deceiver who slyly constructed a building where he could carry out his depravity, complete with a soundproof room into which deadly gas could be released (shades of Hitler?) and his own furnace in the basement where bodies could be quietly disposed of.

He was America’s first serial killer.

This part of the tale is chilling, of course, and was one reason why I had always been reluctant to buy the book. I wondered if the author was just being a sensationalist, perhaps glorifying this man’s evil.

But that’s not the case.

Larson doesn’t glorify Holmes; neither does he go into gory details. What he does do is show how magnificence and depravity can exist side by side and how we can sometimes be completely unaware of what’s happening.

Holmes got his due. He was executed for his crimes, and Larson clearly shows the heroic nature of the detective, Frank Geyer, who relentlessly pursued the evidence that would convict Holmes.

The book is one of those page-turners: elegantly written, meticulously researched, and truly deserving of the accolades it has received. It’s what history writing ought to be—solidly fact-based, engaging, and respectful of Biblical morality and the consequences of sin.

You might want to get a copy for yourself.

Education & the Corruption of Principles

Chicago public school teachers are out on strike. They’ve been treated so unfairly there was just no other option. After all, in a city where the median income is $47,000 per year, they make only $76,000. Sure, they get all their benefits on top of that, but since they are the most important people in the city, they deserve more. So you can understand why when they were offered a measly 16% raise, they hit the roof. How insulting. Wouldn’t you be insulted if you were given only a 16% raise? Surely you can feel their pain.

The other indignity they’ve been forced to suffer is the threat to evaluate whether they are doing their jobs well. I mean, what other profession has to worry about that? They are being singled out, and they know why. Reports are that 79% of eighth-graders are are not proficient in reading and 80% are not proficient in math. But is that their fault? Absolutely not. It’s an unreasonable expectation to demand results to match one’s salary. No wonder they have decided to strike. Life is the pits for Chicago teachers.

They know the solution to the problem:

And they certainly deserve to live a more luxurious life; they’ve had to scrape by much too long:

I’m sorry. I can’t go on. I’m just so frustrated by the poor treatment these teachers are receiving. My empathy for them is boundless. I’m going to continue to teach at the college level where we make sure our students are well-rounded individuals who are fully aware of their heritage:

Yes, I’m being sarcastic, but only mildly, in as good a humor as I can generate. We are in a mess educationally. There are many particulars we can examine to determine why that is, but I believe Noah Webster, back in 1837, clearly described the root of the problems we face—an insight that applies universally, whether the year is 1837 or 2012. He stated to a correspondent,

Principles, Sir, are becoming corrupt, deeply corrupt; & unless the progress of corruption, and perversion of truth can be arrested, neither liberty nor property will long be secure in this country. And a great evil is, that men of the first distinction seem, to a great extent, to be ignorant of the real, original causes of our public distresses.

Wisdom from our Christian heritage. If only our politicians, teachers, and students could be well-schooled in it.