Monday, July 24, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
Batavia's Graveyard, by Mike Dash

Every once in a while, you stumble across a piece of history that makes you wonder why people bother writing fiction. The two books I'm reviewing here tell true stories, but they are stories both grotesquely improbable and artistically satisfying, as life so rarely is.

Devil in the White City is really two stories, intertwined but apparently unconnected. The White City was the fairground built in Chicago for the World's Fair of 1893. The Devil was a man then going by the name of H. H. Holmes, who is considered the first known serial killer in American history.

By today's standards, the undertaking that led to the opening of the Chicago World's Fair would simply be impossible. You will be shocked by the description of the first Ferris wheel-- a gargantuan contraption unlike anything that had ever existed, in fact bigger than anything that had ever existed. The axle was, at the time, the single largest steel casting in the world. Once cast, it had to be hoisted to half the height of the wheel, or some 130-plus feet above the ground. How were they going to hoist it up there? They didn't know; they assumed they'd figure it out when the time came. And they did. In our litigious age, my first thought was: "You sent PEOPLE up in that thing?" (In fact, Mrs. Ferris went up on the test ride although her husband had begged her not to.)

The Ferris wheel serves to illustrate the spirit of the whole World's Fair, which was the spirit of 1890's Chicago: If we can dream it, we can build it. H. H. Holmes exemplified that spirit equally well, but while the men who built the White City dreamed of making their city great-- working-class Chicago had put her reputation on the line against the civilized cities of the East-- Holmes' dreams were evil.

From 1886 through late 1893, Holmes owned and operated several businesses in the Chicago area-- the most notorious of which was the hotel he built to accommodate visitors to the World's Fair. Investigators would eventually find the remains of several of Holmes' victims in the hotel, along with torture chambers, a gas chamber, and a room that could be filled with acid.

So the first connection that appears between the White City and the Devil is this: Both are stories about the power of technology to realize dreams, good or bad. The other connection is the background against which both are set: the teeming, brawling, thriving, stifling, slaughterhouse-perfumed, lakeshore city of Chicago. Holmes met, seduced, sometimes married, and made away with several young women during (and before) his time in Chicago, as well as others whom he murdered as part of the life-insurance scams that supplied significant parts of his income-- it seems he killed for fun and profit. None of them were missed. Holmes' appalling story was finally unravelled by a Philadelphia detective, after Holmes had left Chicago and been arrested for... insurance fraud.

But people were vanishing constantly in Chicago, and never more so than during the Fair. The city was swamped by the influx, first of workers on the fairgrounds, then of visitors to the fair-- this, on top of the mass movement towards cities that was going on all over the Western world as industrialization picked up steam. There were huge numbers of unexplained disappearances, some victims of crime, some tired of their lives and wanting a fresh start. In the chaos of Fair-crazed Chicago, it was easy to lose an old identity and create a new one. For the most part, the police didn't bother to investigate; especially during the duration of the Fair, they had their hands full keeping order on the streets. Against this background, it seems less surprising that Holmes went undetected for so long.

Devil in the White City is a stunning and profoundly disturbing book. The White City was an astonishing achievement, a triumph of perseverance and ingenuity; truly, the best that Chicago and America had to offer, in its day. But the lights of the White City cast the shadows in which monsters like Holmes could hide; poverty, ignorance and isolation were the keynotes of greater Chicago, the Black City at the White City's gates.

The action in Batavia's Graveyard also centers around a mysterious figure, a murderer and probable clinical psychopath. The Batavia was a ship of the Dutch East India Trading Company; on her maiden voyage to Java, she was wrecked on an atoll somewhere off the west coast of Australia. At the time of the shipwreck, the better part of the Batavia's crew was involved in an active conspiracy to mutiny, flee the authority of the Company, and turn pirate-- a conspiracy led by the assistant supercargo, one Jeronimus Cornelisz, and the captain, Ariaen Jacobsz.

After the wreck, the captain and most of the senior ship's officers took the ship's longboat and went in search of water and help. The nearest land proved to be the west coast of Australia, which is desert and lined with miles of unbroken cliff. Unable to land, the longboat eventually sailed all the way to Java, an astonishing piece of navigation and a hellish feat of endurance. But the story told in Batavia's Graveyard is the story of what happened to those left behind; on a sandy atoll with little water and less food, the passengers of the Batavia endured weeks of terror under the reign of Jeronimus Cornelisz and his mutinous shipmates. Cornelisz and his gang of mutineers murdered several of the Batavia's passengers and enslaved the rest. Some fifty people were killed over a two-month period.

Cornelisz, it develops, was on the run from the law when he joined the Company and sailed with the Batavia. At home in the Netherlands, he was in danger of being prosecuted for heresy, and was also broke and without prospects. Jan Company wasn't choosy, though; it was difficult to get men who were willing to go overseas for years at a time, suffer a drastically reduced life expectancy, and all for not a whole lot of pay, even for officers such as Cornelisz.

Conditions aboard Company ships and on Company territories in the Spice Islands were worse than medieval. In stark contrast, the Company magnates who owned the fleet were turning inconceivable profits and living in unimaginable luxury, safely at home. Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that the threat of mutiny among Company crews and ship officers was constant-- but even against this background, the case of Cornelisz and the Batavia stands out.

One of the stranger twists of the whole affair is that Cornelisz's authority was initially legitimate-- as assistant supercargo, he was actually the highest ranking officer left in the atoll. As one of his first acts, Cornelisz detached from the rest of the survivors a group of Company soldiers who were on their way to the Company fort at Java. These men, armed and with some military training, represented the only real threat to the mutineers, so Cornelisz stranded them on a neighboring island-- one which proved to have more water and food (seals and seabirds) than that on which most of the survivors were marooned.

The island of the soldiers wasn't so far away that a few passengers didn't manage to swim or row to it; also, the soldiers witnessed a man being murdered by the mutineers, at the water's edge, in broad daylight. When Cornelisz decided that the soldiers had to die as well, and launched attacks against them, he was stymied by prepared positions and disciplined defense. But neither were the soldiers able to attack Cornelisz's island. Finally, Cornelisz was captured and imprisoned by the soldiers. His followers launched an all-out assault to try to free him... and in the middle of this pitched battle, the rescue ship arrived from Java.

Batavia's Graveyard is mostly about the abuse of power in the hands of a psychopath, and about the methods used by him to turn other to his ends. From the captain of the Batavia down to the cabin-boys who joined the mutineers, Cornelisz seems to have had a keen understanding of the weaknesses of the men with whom he dealt. He coaxed those who could be coaxed and drove those who could be driven.

The other aspect of the Batavia's story that strikes me is the timing of events. Why should it be that the Batavia was wrecked just when the mutiny was on the point of breaking out? And how could the longboat have gotten to Java and the rescue ship sailed all the way back, just to arrive at the most dramatic moment in the struggle between the soldiers and the mutineers? I wouldn't dare use dramatic timing like this in a story-- but it only goes to prove that truth is stranger than fiction.

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