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.

Ever-Diminishing Journalistic Integrity

The national attention had barely been drawn to Aurora, yet for one newsman—a term used loosely in his case—the speculation abounded. Brian Ross of ABC had done “research;” he had found a James Holmes in Aurora who was a member of the Tea Party. Keep in mind that the story was only a few hours old at most, and he was attempting to draw a connection. Of course he was wildly wrong: the James Holmes of the Tea Party was over fifty, not in his twenties. ABC had to write an official apology for this erroneous reporting. What led Ross to do such a thing? Might I speculate as well? Could it be that he has an agenda? That he desires to link the Tea Party to violence? An identical scenario played out in the Tucson shooting back in January 2011. Conservatives, Tea Partiers, and in that case Sarah Palin personally, were accused of fostering a climate that led to tragedy.

Yet there has never been any evidence of Tea Party violence. No one can legitimately say the same thing about the Occupy Movement, yet that phenomenon goes largely unreported. Ross has outed himself as a biased journalist. If ABC had any integrity, he would be gone.

This incident, though, is only the latest in an unremitting string of biased reporting. Andrea Mitchell of NBC recently outdid Ross, yet she’s still a “respected” reporter. She, or her team for which she is responsible, selectively edited a statement from Mitt Romney. In an apparent attempt to make Romney sound out of touch with the world at large, she showed a video of Romney being amazed by how you could order a sandwich on a touchscreen at a Wawa store. The only problem is that wasn’t what earned Romney’s amazement. The full video revealed that he was commenting on how private sector initiative could create such innovations.

In a later report, under pressure from those who clearly knew this was a hit job, Mitchell ran more of the video showing the entire context, yet there was no apology on air. It was presented simply as a response to a request from Republicans to show more of the video. No mea culpa because, in Mitchell’s mind, there was nothing wrong with what she had done.

I’ve used the Mallard Fillmore comic strip many times to illustrate the dishonesty of the media. The strip picked up on this distortion rather handily. Here is a four-comic sequence about it that I think hits home:

Journalistic integrity has never existed to the extent that people in the profession believe it has, but it is suffering now more than ever.

Shining in the Midst of Evil

What can I say about the awful tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, that hasn’t already been said over the last three days? Some have used it as a political football to call for more gun control, ignoring the fact that Aurora already had strict gun control laws. Others have pointed out that if private citizens had the right to carry guns, someone in that theater would have stopped the carnage before it got out of hand. Both presidential campaigns did the right thing by cutting back on overt campaigning while people deal with the situation.

Then there has been the old, tired debate over “why” anyone would do such a thing. The answer to the “why” is as old as humanity itself. Why did Adam and Eve disobey God? Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did the world become such a toxic place that God destroyed it all except for one family and started again? Why did the people emerge from the Flood and try to establish themselves as equals to God? Why have the nations raged against each other for centuries? Why do individuals carry out abominable acts against others? The answer to the “why” is simply another three-letter word: “sin.”

I define sin as I believe the Bible does: rebellion against the righteous commandments of a loving and forgiving God, who also must engage in judgment in order to remain loving and true to righteousness. Sin is man’s way of putting himself first, placing his own desires above that of God’s. Sin manifests itself in grievous acts such as the one in Aurora, but also in petty jealousies and basic self-centeredness. James Holmes’s self-centeredness led to a vicious action that took the lives of many. My self-centeredness, and yours, may not result in a killing spree, but any disregard for righteousness is from the same source.

Yes, there are varied paths people take to get to the point where they do something such as Holmes did, and we can analyze what there was in his childhood, his relationships, his life disappointments, or whatever, that led to his actions. But when all the analysis is complete, we cannot lose sight of the underlying truth that each person is responsible for his/her actions and the heart attitude that birthed those actions. Even when we call someone mentally ill, we must do so in the context of recognizing that each person is a free moral agent made in the image of God who will be held accountable one day by the God who made him. That basic truth is rapidly losing ground in our age of blame-shifting and excuse-making.

Evil is real. It must be acknowledged as real and dealt with accordingly. Righteousness is real. It needs to be held up for all to see. Christians are supposed to be God’s representatives who show the way to that righteousness. In the midst of evil, we need to shine brightly for the world to see. May we accept the challenge and point others to the only Truth, the only Way, the only Life.