Thursday, April 23, 2015

History with a Little Bit of Murder

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte's column in the April 23, 2015 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Many readers, including librarians, have guilty pleasures. For more than one of the Norwood librarians, it’s cozy mysteries, specifically those about knitting or cats. Others are addicted to romances or chick-lit. Still others succumb to self-help books, including those written by what other librarians might call “self-promoting quacks.” For a few of us, true crime is the genre that always catches our fancy.

Librarians, of course, are like kids in a candy store – we have every imaginable title at our fingertips and well within our reach. Most of us rotate our guilty pleasures, those books that raise a few eyebrows of our colleagues, with other titles that are much more redeemable.

I treat my guilty reading pleasures much like I do weekends away in luxurious bed and breakfasts and expensive concerts and shows. Rare treats once a season and sometimes only once a year. I savor and devour quickly, sometimes with hardly anyone ever noticing.

Years ago I read true crime like Ann Rule’s “The Stranger Beside Me” about serial murderer Ted Bundy, Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” or Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter.” These days I’m often drawn to historical non-fiction crime.

When “The Wilderness of Ruin” by Roseanne Montillo was published last month, I immediately picked it up because it is about historical Boston at the time of the Great Fire of 1872. It is also a simultaneous story of the hunt for the youngest serial killer in America, 14-year old Jesse Pomeroy. After his conviction, Pomeroy spent most of his life in Charleston State Prison.

My guilty reading pleasure, then, explains, why I never fail to recommend one of my favorite books, “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson. It spent many months on the New York Times bestseller list, and it is being discovered by new readers all the time. Many of us are waiting for the movie; Leonardi DiCaprio bought the film rights five years ago and is still being developed.

One of fascinating features of true crime is often the research behind the story. Larson weaves the stories of the fantastic achievement of the Columbian Exposition – or the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair - with the creation of serial killer H. H. Holmes’ killing castle. The reader is filled with suspense. Will the fair ever open? Will H. H. Holmes’ horrible deeds ever be discovered?

Building the exposition began in swamplands of Jackson Park along Lake Michigan – one square mile of lawns, parks, canals, reflecting pools, and an “alabaster city” of gleaming white. Created to commemorate the 1492 voyage of Columbus, the fair didn’t open to the public until May 1893.

Throughout the spring, builders rushed, and inventors scrambled. Whole gardens were created within a matter of weeks. George Washington Ferris’ Wheel did not arrive in crates until March, and it did not take its first passenger until June. This stressful, spellbinding, thrilling account is detailed in Larson’s book.

Paris held its World’s Fair in 1889 and America was not to be outdone. We claimed, in fact, that we were going to “Out-Eiffel” the Eiffel Tower. The Ferris Wheel held thirty-six passenger cars each holding sixty riders and stood 264 feet tall. There were more than 200 buildings on the fair’s grounds, and these included one for every state and territory in the United States and many from different countries. Other successes were the exhibit halls, some large enough to house city blocks within them.

Juicy Fruit Gum, Hershey Chocolate, Cracker Jacks and other wonders were first tasted at the World’s Fair. The first dishwasher was exhibited in the Electricity building. It’s no wonder that 26 million people from all over the world visited the fair from May through October 1893. One of the largest crowds ever to have assembled in the United States by 1893 was the one at the fairgrounds on opening day.

Woven into Larson’s story is the tale of serial murderer and doctor, Herman Mudgett, or H. H. Holmes. It is a mesmerizing and fascinating story, and several television crime series have focused on Holmes, his castle in Chicago, his practice, and his victims. Our library has the DVD, “H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer” and several others accounts can be found on You Tube.

For those of you wishing to read more, the graphic novel, “The Beast of Chicago” by Rick Geary accounts more of the life of Holmes. “George Ferris, What a Wheel!” by Barbara Lowell and “Mr. Ferris and His Wheel” by Kathryn Gibbs Davis are two children’s books on the popular ride. enthralling story of Chicago World’s Fair, 1893 can be witnessed in a two-hour documentary DVD, “Expo: Magic in the White City.”

Or, you can check out several books available in Minuteman libraries including: The National Museum of American Art’s photographic journey, “Revisiting the White City,” Stanley Appelbaum’s “Spectacle in the White City,” and Norman Bolotin’s “The World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893.”