Book review: The Devil in the White City

I believe I first learned about The Devil in the White City on a tour of Irvington. It was a fall night as a hundred or so of us trudged from site to site in Irvington, an eastern neighborhood of Indianapolis. The tour was a ghost tour special for the Halloween season. I learned much about historical tidbits of the area, including H.H. Holmes, the so-called devil in the book title.

One house we stopped outside of was presumably haunted. Current owners confirmed this. And by the way, the house was where H.H. Holmes killed a boy. Who? What? Holmes, a serial killer during the world’s fair in Chicago in 1893, passed through Irvington, albeit it temporarily.

With that information, I thought that I needed to read this book about Holmes and Chicago. Years later I finally have.

As I read it, I had to remind myself that it was non-fiction. The book reads like a novel. Two threads and main characters run through the book. Holmes and his murder spree. Burnham, the Chicago architect in charge of making the world’s fair a reality, and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Sporadically as I was reading, I remembered that Holmes existed. He was real. His deeds happened. And then I’d need to put down the book. But in between those times of realization, the “novel” was easy to consume.

Larson weaves fascinating descriptions about the inner lives of people. Their hopes, dreams, and fears come alive. These people seem real and relatable.

The history of how the fair came to be, details about society and life of the times, the labor struggles, and economic woes of the times are also engrossing. I thought of the world’s fair in Chicago as just magically coming into being. But this book depicts its real struggle and how close it came to not happening. Again and again.

Chicago being picked to host the world’s fair reminded me of sites selected for modern-day Olympics. Everyone wants the honor but then the reality hits. Much money and energy is poured into the endeavor. The city boasts some honor for hosting the event, but then the costs turn out to be so high. And everything built for the event is left to rot after the crowds disperse.

The world’s fair in 1893 was no different. On the surface, the fair was a smashing success. A beautiful temporary site rose from the barrenness that was a city park in Chicago. Word spread about the White City and visitors were enthralled with its beauty.

What would happen when the fair ended six months later? There was no talk of repurposing buildings or the site. The structures were left to rot. Or more accurately to become a shanty town for the hordes of homeless and unemployed during the economic downturn that the fair straddled and deepened. When the fair closed, thousands more were spit out to join the ranks of the unemployed in an economically depressed country. They inhabited the abandoned White City.

Until fire destroyed much of the structures on the site.

It was a sad ending to a beautiful, inspiring event. Chicago was galvanized. It proved to others that it was cultured enough, educated enough to host a world’s fair that would not only make Chicago proud, but the rest of the country.

Nothing really remains of the fair today. One of the buildings was made into a more permanent structure—which houses the Field Museum today. The landscaped grounds designed by the famous Olmstead still sport the wooded island and lagoon. But the fair is all but gone.

Sadly, I did not realize the location of the fair, the historical significance of the location of the Field Museum, or the grounds having been designed by Olmsted—despite having visited the museum several times in my life. Though to be fair, based on the description of Olmsted in The Devil in the White City, I suspect that the landscape in the park no longer conforms to any of Olmsted’s designs and would have him spinning in his grave.

Larson names drops quite a bit in The Devil in the White City. The world’s fair attracted and influenced lots of people. Olmsted was just one among many. (Olmsted designed Central Park, along with dozens and dozens of other well-known places.) Frank Lloyd Wright appears in these pages as a former colleague of another exposition architect, Louis Sullivan, possibly drawing his prairie style inspiration from the Japanese buildings on the Wooded Island. Walt Disney’s father appears—the White City may have influenced his own designs. Eugene Debs pops up as the organizer behind late 1800s train strikes. Baum visited the fair and went on to write about the magical land of Oz. Buffalo Bill headed the wild west show next to the fair. The Ferris’s wheel made its debut at the fair. And on and on.

Larson does an excellent job weaving all of these histories together, giving us glimpses in some cases and more in-depth looks in others into people and events. The White City almost seems impossible to have been. The killings by Holmes seem impossible to have been. Yet both took place. The book shows the heights of joy and the depths of tragedy—from all of the killings, the abandonment and destruction of the fair site, and the pain suffered by both anonymous and named people. Life is transitory. This book drives home that point.

The book starts with Burnham on a trans-Atlantic voyage long after the fair and ends with the knowledge that a colleague from the fair died with the sinking of the Titanic. In between are tales and descriptions that have stuck with me. Larson has taken the real and weaved it into a story that almost seems to be a fabrication rather than a recounting of actual events. The beauty of the White City was too fleeting. As was Larson’s recollection of its existence.

Play review: Victorian Villains

October would not be complete without a play by Candlelight Theatre at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site.

Candlelight Theatre performed another James Trofatter production, Victorian Villains. The premise was similar, though the content completely different, to last year.

The audience members were potential trainees at a school. Our guide, a descendant of Dr. Watson, guided us through the school where we met various villains to learn their tactics and hear advice. (Planning is key! Don’t get greedy.)

In this production, we were led through different rooms of the house, sometimes standing as the villains talked, other times sitting. The rooms we entered were the typical ones (parlor, library, dining room, sitting room, Harrison’s bedroom, ballroom) plus another one (the bedroom that contains the photo of Old Whiskers).

The audience I was with for the most part seemed new to Candlelight Theatre and the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. But they seemed to thoroughly enjoy it and get into interactions with the actors.

The villains that we met were many and varied. Two were women from Indiana: Nancy Clem and Belle Gunness. Nancy Clem was a woman in 19th century Indianapolis charged with murder and prosecuted by Benjamin Harrison. (Candlelight Theatre has done and is scheduled to do again a play devoted to Nancy Clem.)

Others were villains throughout the US and the UK. Some I knew: H.H. Holmes, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Lizzie Andrew Borden, Jack the Ripper, and Hannibal Lecter. Holmes is perhaps the least well-known in the list. He is famous for murders during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. I was first introduced to him on an Irvington ghost tour due to the murders he committed in that Indiana town.)

Some were new to me: the Bloody Benders, Mary Ann Cotton, William Palmer, Amelia Elizabeth Dyer, William Burke, Dr. Robert Knox, Sweeney Todd, and Mrs. Lovett. Those from the British Isles were overrepresented among serial killers in the play.

The Bloody Benders ran a general store and way station for travelers in Kansas, killing dozens of travelers that stopped.

Mary Ann Cotton, a serial killer in the UK, poisoned several husbands and then a stepson with arsenic. William Palmer was an English doctor who poisoned family members and associates with strychnine, and then collected on insurance policies.

Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was another British serial killer, who engaged in baby farming (taking in unwanted infants for money)…and up to 400 deaths of babies in her care.

William Burke (along with a William Hare) committed 16 murders to supply Dr. Robert Knox with corpses for his anatomy lectures in Edinburgh. (Apparently grave robbing or corpse resurrection wasn’t sufficient.)

Sweeney Todd was a barber in London who dispatched his customers/victims via a trapdoor, and then Mrs. Lovett used their bodies in her famously delicious meat pies.

Many of the actors were old hands and were a delight to see in action again: Heather Wing (Dr. Watson), Ken Eder (H.H. Holmes), Donna Wing (Nancy Clem), and Dennis Jones (William Palmer). Alas, James Trofatter was absent from his own play.

Victorian Villains was a well-done production and an enjoyable way to celebrate Halloween. And as advertised, the school taught lessons to its trainees.

Lessons learned: Stay away from people who seem to be a black hole for missing people. Be careful if anyone takes out an insurance policy on you, or learns that you have money. Always sit with your back against a wall and never on top of a trap door. (You never know when someone will try to bash in your skull with a hammer from behind a curtain.) And watch out for poison.

Haan Mansion Museum of Indiana Art

I was flabbergasted as I entered the museum.

I was there for a special tour. Two other people were there ahead of me. But due to a snafu with the credit card paying system, they left in search of cash to pay the entrance fee. This gave me a much welcome chance to wander among the art in the house.

I quickly realized that I was in for a special treat. The space has a different feel than an art museum. It is a house filled with art—American furniture, Hoosier paintings, and Hoosier ceramics. Everywhere I turned was art. The intimacy of the experience reminded me of theatre that I see at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site—where the audience sits inches from the actors and is sometimes included in the play.

The house itself is a kind of art. It was originally built as the State of Connecticut building for the 1904 World’s Fair. After the fair, it was dissembled and moved, eventually (not sure when) ending up in Lafayette, IN. The Haans bought it in 1984 and called it home for 31 years. They moved out in 2015 to dedicate it as an art museum to exhibit the Indiana art that they had been collecting since 1995.

The Haans focus on three areas: American furniture, Hoosier (oil) paintings, and Hoosier ceramics. Their collections are amazing. Jaw-dropping amazing. Apparently a curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art visited and exclaimed that the Haans have a better collection of Hoosier artists than the IMA (!). The IMA and the Indiana State Museum have both borrowed art from the Haan Mansion Museum of Indiana Art for their shows. The Haan Mansion Museum of Indiana Art has the best Indiana art and ceramics, best regionalism, and best women artist collections. And it sounds like their collecting is not slowing down.

Bob Haan led the tour of us three visitors on the day I went. He clearly loves to talk about the collections and led us through the house, pointing out items and relating stories about the pieces for over an hour and a half. There is way too much art in the house for him to go piece by piece. Instead, we went room by room. He pointed out certain items and fielded any questions we had about anything. It was a wonderfully informative tour and astonishing to see such an incredible collection of Hoosier art.

The American furniture in the house comes from auctions, mostly sight unseen and restored by Mr. Haan. In contrast, the Haans rely on dealers for the oil paintings that they purchase. And the ceramics…the Haans purchase these directly from the artists, often invited into homes to pick the items that they want.

The walls and the rooms are filled with art and furniture—every nook and cranny bursting—too much to recount, but here are a few highlights to whet your appetite.

The Haans snagged an 1875 Wooten desk. I first saw this unusual desk in Richmond at the Wayne County Historical Museum. These desks, I learned, came in different grades. Superior grade—the grade in the Haan Mansion Museum of Indiana Art—seems to be rare. (The Smithsonian has three but none are superior grade.)

An unusual item caught my eye in the foyer: an orchestral regina. Basically, an orchestral regina is a large upright music box that consists of a 27″ metal disk with holes punch into the metal. The holes are punched in such a pattern to play a particular song. This circa 1900 orchestral regina still works and we were treated to a song. Mr. Haan opened the regina, fished out a coin from the innards of the device, and added a metal disk.

An 1872 Chickering piano, an early competitor to the famous Steinway pianos, graces one of the rooms. Mr. Haan restored the exterior, but the innards are in desperate need of attention. A fundraising campaign is ongoing.

Two clocks caught my eye: a grandfather clock and a hanging wall clock. The Herschedes grandfather clock is from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, where it won the grand prize. The Tiffany hanging wall clock is from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.

In one nook is a historic US representative desk, desk #83 which was used by Thaddeus Stevens from 1857-1873. (Tommy Lee Jones played the staunch abolitionist Stevens in the movie Lincoln.) In another nearby nook are stone sculptures by modern-day Hoosier artistic Peter Rujuwa. (Other sculptures of his appear in the sculpture garden behind the house.)

Hundreds of pieces of ceramics by modern Hoosier artists occupy tables, cabinets, walls, and mantles throughout the house. These works of art include those by Laura Ann Fry, the Overbeck Sisters, Richard Peeler, Karl Martz, Julia Livingstone, and numerous other artists. Mr. Haan pointed out the tell-tale signs of shell shapes in wood-fired pottery. One wall of the butler’s pantry is covered with teapots from approximately 40 different artists.

The kitchen itself is unique. Mr. Haan made the cabinets, a dark wood, imitating styles used in American furniture throughout the house. As we admired the cabinetwork, he asked us standing near a cabinet to open both sides of the cabinet. One side housed a fridge, the other side a pantry. Wait a minute, I exclaimed. The pantry seems much shallower than the fridge. And then he pointed to the top of the wall. He had built the cabinets around a chimney for a fireplace on the second floor.

Large oil paintings of western art lined the walls going up the stairs to the second floor. The part of the second floor that overlooks the main foyer is filled with a special 100-cup exhibit by Julia Livingstone. Each of these ceramic cups is unique and reflects moments in Julia’s life. Bob pointed on the special styles in the cups that she made when she was diagnosed with cancer and then finished treatment. The cups are so numerous that they spill over into some of the bedrooms.

I rounded out the tour with a self-guided visit to the sculpture garden in back. A path winds through several sculptures, including two by Peter Rujuwa. I enjoyed his Birds, made of serpentine stone from his home country. I was also struck by the  metal sculptures of Greg Mendez, especially Effortlessly Buoyant. The most striking sculpture is the one that greets you at entrance to the garden: Venus Rising by Tuck Langland. The sculpture reminded me both of Shiva dancing the creation of the world into being and a sculpture of the Buddha in the Japanese gardens in Golden Gate Park.

If you enjoy art, especially Hoosier oil paintings and ceramics, you must make a trip to the Haan Mansion Museum of Indiana Art. Its collection is truly stellar. I also highly recommend attending one of the special guided tours. (It’s unclear how long they will continue them.) I will definitely be going back to the museum in the future to wonder through the artwork in the rooms and discover jewels that I missed on my first visit.

Before Detroit was the Motor City

At one time hundreds of companies in Indiana built cars or car parts. Elwood Haynes built his first car in 1894, a couple of years before Henry Ford built his. Car companies sprang up everywhere—Stutz, Duesenberg, Auburn—but few survived the Great Depression. One that did was Studebaker in South Bend.

The Studebaker Museum in South Bend houses an extensive collection of Studebaker wagons, carriages, electric cars, and gas-powered cars from the mid 1800s to the mid 1960s. The Studebakers were originally blacksmiths from Scotland who became wagon and carriage makers and eventually began building cars in 1902—first electric, then gas.

The original collection of 8 items was given to the museum after Studebaker ceased to exist in 1966. This collection includes carriages of famous people that the company collected as well as Studebaker vehicles.

  • Barouche carriage, Marquis de Lafayette used during his 1824 tour of the US
  • Barouche carriage, Abraham Lincoln road to Ford’s Theatre on that ill-fated night
  • Landau carriage, Ulysses S. Grant used during his Presidency
  • Brougham carriage, Benjamin Harrison used during his Presidency
  • Phaeton carriage, William McKinley used during his Presidency
  • Studebaker Centennial Wagon, won the Highest Award of Merit at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876
  • 1909 Studebaker Backwards-Forwards Car (“Peg”), an electric vehicle used to ferry Congressman from the Senate to the Capitol
  • Studebaker Columbian Exposition Wagon, created for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago

The museum contains numerous cars throughout the building’s three stories (including two vertical rows of cars in the basement that are rotated out to replace others on the first and second floors). A few stood out to me.

  • 1904 Studebaker Model C, the oldest surviving gas-powered Studebaker
  • 1924 Light Six, with custom coach work done by a Shanghai (China) company
  • 1951 Commander, one of two used in The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • 1963 Avanti, debuted at the 1962 Indianapolis 500
  • 1963 Avanti #9, clocked 176.81mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats
  • 1965 Avanti, used in 1993 to break 200mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats

The museum, in collaboration with two other car museums in Indiana, is hosting a special exhibit on Indiana cars until October 3, 2016. As part of Hoosier Made: World Driven, the Studebaker Museum is showing Indiana cars made from 1900-1915. (The Kokomo Automotive Heritage Museum is showing cars from late teens to early 1920s and the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum cars from the 1930s.)

For the exhibit, the museum is naturally heavy on early Studebakers but does include other early cars. Curiously, in all of these other cars, the driver is on the right side of the cab, not the left.

  • 1908 Auburn Model H
  • 1909 Sperling Model K
  • 1912 Haynes Model 20
  • 1912 Apperson Jack Rabbit 4-55
  • 1921 Pratt-Elkhard Model F
  • 1921 Lohr Six

Studebaker attained peak profits in 1949 and hit peak production the following year. In 1954, Studebaker merged with Packard. By the early 1960s, Studebaker debuted the sporty Hawk (with the same transmission as the 1961 Chevrolet Corvette) and Avanti, but the downward spiral couldn’t be stopped. The museum houses the last Studebaker built in South Bend (1964 Daytona) and the last one built in Canada (1966 Cruiser) before the Studebaker company ceased to exist in 1966.

The Studebaker Museum is an outstanding museum of Studebaker family, company, and car history. It’s definitely well worth a stop for car or Indiana history enthusiasts.

Irvington ghost tour

I—along with about 100 other people—spent a recent Saturday night on a ghost tour.

This was the annual Irvington ghost tour, led by Allan Hunter, a self-proclaimed ghost hunter. He regaled us with ghost stories about different buildings in the neighborhood while leading us around the neighborhood after dark, drawing us into the history of Irvington, Indiana, and Chicago. Unsurprisingly, Hunter is a retired history teacher—and a fabulous spinner of tales.

Given the incredibly large number of people on the walking tour, I was tempted to walk away. How would we be able to hear the guide?

I am glad I didn’t walk away. I learned a fabulous amount and now am apt to return to Irvington in the daylight to wander the streets, enjoy the architecture, and recall the stories.

The Masonic Lodge in Irvington, which contains heavy wooden doors that swing open and shut of their own accord, just happens to be lodge number 666.

Diagonally across the street was the site of a robbery by John Dillinger. The building is now haunted by a friendly spirit—probably not Dillinger’s ghost—that routinely warns the current owners of impending mishaps (fires, robberies, etc.).

Around the neighborhood we tromped, stopping in a grassy area by a low brick wall—the site of evil ground where the ashes of a nearby murder victim were buried. Across the street was the site of the house where the serial killer of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, H.H. Holmes, lived briefly and committed another murder—the murder that resulted in the buried ashes in the evil ground.

(Holmes’ Chicago murders are chronicled in The Devil in the White City, which is slated to be a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Until recently, Holmes’ Irvington chapter was unknown to the author.)

The house was razed to the ground and another house built on top of the cellar. Allan waxed on about Holmes’ exploits and the modern-day hauntings in the house.

There were plenty of other grisly (and not so grisly) stories about places in Irvington. In one of the neighborhoods that we traipsed through, a house with white pillars—something that would have looked in place on the set of Gone with the Wind—stood out. This turned out to be the house of D.C. Stephenson, the Grand Wizard of the KKK who basically ran Indiana during the 1920s.

A few blocks away stood the house of the woman he kidnapped, raped, and brutally attacked so severely that she later died of her wounds. Fortunately, before dying, she dictated a deathbed disposition to a lawyer, a disposition that led to the arrest and conviction of Stephenson and ultimately to the downfall of the Klan in Indiana. (A silent but HUGE thank you to Madge Oberholtzer.) A white woman is now seen in her bedroom window during times of heat lightning.

Like the ghost in the same building that Dillinger robbed, not all spirits inhabiting Irvington are to be avoided. The spirit, supposedly of Bona Thompson, imparts a serene calmness and comfort to all who enter the Bona Thompson Memorial. Built by her parents after her untimely death from typhoid fever, the building is the sole remnant of the original Butler campus in Irvington.

Our last stop was where the train carrying Lincoln’s body to Springfield passed through Indianapolis. Over the years, various people have witnessed the Lincoln ghost train. The train briefly appears, draped in black crepe with soldiers guarding the body of Lincoln.

Whether these stories about the hauntings are true or not, the Irvington Ghost Tour was an evening of fascinating tales woven with history. Hunter is a master speaker. Hearing him speak is reason enough to attend.