Devil in the White City

NOTE: This post deals with a difficult subject matter, serial killers, so if you’re easily disturbed, you might not want to read any further.

A book kept passing through my hands and it seemed intriguing – psychopath, history, award-winning – probably good, and I read it at last. The Devil in the White City  by Erik Larson tells the true story of the great Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, a celebration of Columbus’s 400th anniversary of discovering the new world and an attempt to outdo the 1887 Paris World’s Fair, which amazed the world with the new Eiffel Tower, the tallest structure in the world. The fair covered more than 600 acres – almost six times the size of Disney’s Magic Kingdom – and attracted more than 27 million visitors in its 6 month-run (versus 20 million visitors to Magic Kingdom in 2016). It also chose Tesla’s AC electric current to power it because it was cheaper than Edison’s DC current, cementing the road for America’s future electrical grid.

Chicago was no charming city, known for stink (stockyards), grime (trains and soot), crimes and vice. And in this mix lurked a serial killer, H.H. Holmes. Holmes’s background was a perfect mix of known factors of psychopathic development – strict, cold, abusive parents with severe religious obsession. By the age of 6, Holmes liked to dismember animals, and by his teens was implicated in the death of a young boy but cleared due to the pitiful state of investigations. He fled to Chicago, where he became a con artist, bilking insurance companies, furniture companies, and drug supply stores. He also charmed single ladies, killed them, reduced them to skeletons, and sold them as medical supplies. He built an elaborate hotel nicknamed “The Castle,” complete with gas jets in the rooms, soundproof rooms, and a personal crematorium in his basement. When finally cornered for killing his long-time assistant, Holmes confessed to 29 killings, though only 9 could be proven, but his total might have been as high as 200. He was hung for his crimes. Leonardo DiCaprio bought the film rights to the book, and a film is in production with Martin Scorsese as director (it had a tentative 2017 date, but is still in process).

Serial killers – those that kill large numbers of victims over time – are rare as far as murder goes, but the extent of their crimes garners a lot of press. Connecticut has its own serial killer in Amy Archer Gilligan of Windsor, who killed as many as 48 of her nursing-home patients for insurance claims between 1885 and 1917. Some of the more notorious American serial killers include:

Jeffery Dahmer (1991), who killed (and ate) at least 16 young men and boys. Not a high count for a serial killer,  it was the cannibalism that made him famous. He was beaten to death in prison not long after his conviction. Some things scare even murderers.

John Wayne Gacy (1978), who dressed as a clown for kids’ birthday parties and killed more than 33 men.  Stephen King said “It” was fiction.

Charles Cullen (2003), convicted of 40 murders while he was a nurse, but possibly responsible for up to 400, making him the most prolific not only in New Jersey, but the USA. Carl Watts (1982) was also a nurse, convicted of six murders but possibly as many as 130.

Ted Bundy (1975), one of the most famous and perhaps sickest, who killed more than 30. He decapitated at least 12 victims and kept the heads in his apartment, and often performed sex acts on rotting corpses (I warned you). He was executed in Florida.

Gary Ridgeway (2001)  the “Green River Killer”, with 49 proven deaths, 71 confessions, with a probable total closer to 90.

Ed Gein (1957)– Gein was convicted of only two murders, but if you’re looking at psychopaths, Gein is King. Gein had a bizarre attachment to his mother (back to that cold/abuse/super-religious thing), and would go to graves and dig up women’s bodies, skin them, and save parts attempting to wear his mother. Gein was the inspiration for Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, incompetent, and died in a mental facility.

What predicts a serial killer? Most professionals look for early abuse, neglect, brutality, bullying, and mental illness. Animal cruelty, especially in young children, is a warning sign. Killers are often charismatic (Holmes, Bundy, Jim Jones, too) and manipulative, gaining friendship and trust.  Lack of empathy for their victims is  always present. Some do it for attention, especially media attention. One interesting point: 70% of serial killers had experienced significant head trauma as children; with what we now know about violence among football players and boxers who receive blows to the head, could this be a risk factor?

So hug your kids. Be patient. Be kind to them and to others, and teach them to be kind as well. Take bullying and animal cruelty seriously, and report it to authorities. You don’t know how many lives you might save.

Sorting White Trash

indexIt was a hard call, but I’d say White Trash by Nancy Isenberg was my Number 2 Must Read of 2016 (after Chasing the Scream), but oh, have I put off writing about it because it played so much into last year’s politics it seemed as if it were written for it – but it couldn’t, because it was written before last year’s one-of-a-kind election year.

“White Trash” is a term that began just before the Civil War and became entrenched afterward, a term for the poorest white people who were absolutely uneducated, dirty, poorer than slaves – and had no desire to change their ways. They considered themselves perfectly fine and above anyone else. Rich people were to be sneered at, since they considered themselves better. Educated people were sneered at, because they considered themselves better. Yet as a class they were so despised for their lack of morals and work ethic, even slaves considered themselves above Poor White Trash.

Isenberg feels the concept goes back further than that. Who did England send over to1400306193764-cached America to pad out their colonies? Who would not be missed from the overcrowded prisons and cities? Not the landed gentry, but those persons who for whatever reason did not fit into society and were unsuccessful at supporting themselves. The Virginia Colony had to go so far as to set a death sentence for people who did not work and did not attend church on Sundays. Starvation was so bad that people resorted to cannibalism. The people sent over refused to work, preferring to run off to unsettled land (which was “owned” by others) and fend for themselves. Getting people to do the hard labor of setting up a colony was quite difficult.

Further, Isenberg says that as the country expanded, the first to move west were… the folk who refused to work for others, could not function in a society, and would rather starve than work. Each time, the ones who pushed west first were the dregs, seeking escape from prisons, debt collectors, tax men, and others who “infringed” upon them. The wild west was wild because the people who colonized it couldn’t get along with anyone.

“White Trash” has many names, depending on geography – Crackers, Okies, Rednecks, Hillbillies, Trailer Trash, Mud Eaters – all people who shun government, distrust education, live in abject poverty, and have a very flexible moral code. I don’t mean “flexible” as a pejorative but as a term to describe a juxtaposition of ideals: your baby out of wedlock is a sin, but it’s okay for me. Never take charity, but taking free stuff from this agency over here isn’t charity, it’s just free stuff. They have quite the knack for making things acceptable for them but a sin for anyone else.

Isenberg digs into both politics and popularism, citing Andrew Jack110932-004-3f4811e2son (the first person running for President who lost despite getting the most popular votes the first time he ran) as an uneducated, crass boor who appealed to the lowest masses and yet was elected President, and how he loved to flaunt that boorishness, to the distress of the American Gentry. She cites the 1970’s as a time when White Trash became hip – from Smokey and the Bandit, to the Dukes of Hazzard, to Tammy Faye Bakker and the  whole Televangelist craze. Today’s exploitainment shows like Duck Dynasty, Honey Boo Boo, and 16 and Pregnant continue to flaunt poverty, lawlessness, and lack of education as something chic and desirable.

Of course race and politics play into it. Much of the divide still stems from the Civil War, with Southern States blaming Northern States for the outcomes, and the Northern States holding the South in utter contempt. Isenberg shows how that all translates into votes, and political forums, and how those in turn affect our elections – including the recent one.

indexIsenberg is not alone in her observations. Numerous authors have also written similar observations, making her research more plausible. One is Deer Hunting With Jesus, by Joe Bageant, in which he talks about going home to rural Virginia, and why such places are becoming  a permanent underclass.  Lee Smith touches on a little of it in her dreamy autobiography Dimestore, about growing up in rural Appalachia.  Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance does a fantastic job presenting the issues from the first-hand experience of growing up in 1980’s Kentucky.

No matter what your political leanings, White Trash815bv15ciol will open your eyes to why current politics are playing out the way they are and how people are being exploited in the process, why you can’t seem to educate people out of poverty, and how that poverty persists generation after generation – and no, it’s not due to Welfare. How do we change it? How do we shape it? Or should we allow an uneducated underclass to dictate policies it knows nothing about – and chooses not to learn?  There’s no easy answer to be had, but this book is a must read and will open your eyes to a lot of things you never learned in school.

Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with Knowledge and Service

January 19, 2015 is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In 1994 Congress designated MLK day as a day of service. The MLK Day of Service is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service. It calls for Americans to work together in order to provide solutions to our most pressing national problems. To learn more about the day check out the official website here.

The titles below include children’s books about Dr. King, fiction and nonfiction books about ordinary people who stand up for what’s right, and stories about helping others and giving back. Then there is a list of books about volunteering, to help choose what avenues we each might want to take in volunteering or service. No matter the day, helping out in the community is rewarding for the volunteer and those it helps. So even if you cannot participate on the designated day, maybe a book can help in finding something you can be passionate about or enjoy while serving the community.

People Who Made a Difference:

1. Child of the Civil Rights Movement by  Paula Young Shelton. A daughter of civil rights activist Andrew Young describes her experiences of growing up in the Deep South at the height of the movement, sharing her witness to the efforts of her father, family friend Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of others who participated in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.

 

2. March On!: The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World by Christine King Farris.Having led thousands in a march for civil rights to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. made the most of the historical moment by giving a speech that would forever inspire people to continue to fight for change in the years ahead.

3. Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges. Provides the first-hand factual account of the six-year-old student who made history by having been one of the first black children to attend an all-white, segregated school in the 1960s.

4.Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney. A picture book celebration of the
50th anniversary of the momentous Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, when four college students staged a peaceful protest that became a defining moment in the struggle for racial equality and the growing Civil Rights Movement.

More books on civil rights and how individuals affect change include:The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles,  I Am Rosa Parks by Rosa Parks, Heroes for Civil Rightsby David A. Adler, Ida B. Wells: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement by Dennis Brindell Fradin and Judith Bloom Fradin, Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movementby Ann Bausum, My Country, ’tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights by Claire Rudolf Murphy, Miles to Go for Freedom: Segregation and Civil Rights in the Jim Crow Yearsby Linda Barrett, The Girl From the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement by Teri Kanefield, and Free at Last?: The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made Itby Fred Powledge. 

Inspiration to Serve:

1. 50 Ways to Save our Children: Small, Medium & Big Ways You Can Change a Child’s Lifeby Cheryl Saban.Describes how to make a difference in a child’s life, including collecting toys for homeless shelters, donating books to schools and libraries, volunteer work, charitable donations, and starting a scholarship fund.

2. Teens With The Courage to Give: Young People who Triumphed over Tragedy and Volunteered to Make a Difference by Jackie Waldman. Thirty young people tell their stories of overcoming hardship to become volunteers in this inspiring look at a national trend among teenagers.

3. Our Day to End Poverty: 24 Ways You Can Make a Difference by Shannon Daley-Harris and Jeffrey Keenan, with Karen Speerstra.Imagine ending poverty at home and around the globe in our own lifetimes. Imagine your actions combining with others; actions to make poverty history. With originality and imagination, this book invites us to look at our very ordinary days, from waking up in the morning to going to bed in the evening, and to begin to think about poverty in new and creative ways. “Our Day to End Poverty” is organized into 24 “hour/chapter” segments.  Each chapter connects with your day, from breakfast to bedtime, relating these steps to ending poverty to our daily routines. Some times a problem gets to be so big, we feel there is nothing we can do about it. “Our Day to End Poverty” reminds us that if we all do just a little, a lot can get done.

  4. Giving: How Each of us Can Change the World by Bill Clinton. Compiling anecdotes about the diverse charitable efforts of the famous and non-so-famous, the former president looks at the positive influence of such work in every corner of the world and examines the profound benefits of working for the good of others for all humankind.
Looking for more inspiration? Try checking out The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change by Adam Braun, Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World by Wendy Smith, Immersion Travel USA: The Best and Most Meaningful Volunteering, Living, and Learning Excursions by Sheryl Kayne, Green Volunteers: The World Guide to Voluntary Work in Nature Conservation edited by Fabio Asuneda, Volunteering: The Ultimate Teen Guide by Kathlyn Gay, In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy with Sally Jenkins, The Busy Family’s Guide to Volunteering: Do Good, Have Fun, Make a Difference as a Family! by Jenny Friedman, Volunteer Vacations: Short-term Adventures that will Benefit You and Others by Bill McMillon, Doug Cutchins, and Anne Geissinger, or Volunteering: A How-to Guide by Audrey Borus.

History, Read All About It – For Book Clubs

history 2Here’s a selection of histories that should satisfy your reading club’s yearning for learning.

A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Presentby Howard Zinn – Known for its lively, clear prose as well as its scholarly research, this is the only volume to tell America’s story from the point of view of — and in the words of — America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highlcere by Countess of Fiona Carnarvon –  This rich tale contrasts the splendor of Edwardian life in a great house against the backdrop of the First World War and offers an inspiring and revealing picture of the woman at the center of the history of Highclere Castle.

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawaby E.B. Sledge – Based on notes Sledge secretly kept in a copy of the New Testament, this book captures with utter simplicity and searing honesty the experience of a soldier in the fierce Pacific Theater. Here is what saved, threatened, and changed his life. Here, too, is the story of how he learned to hate and kill—and came to love his fellow man.

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson – A behind-the-scenes story of how the United States forged its wartime alliance with Britain, told from the perspective of three key American players in London: Edward R. Murrow, the handsome, chain-smoking head of CBS News in Europe; Averell Harriman, the hard-driving millionaire who ran FDR’s Lend-Lease program in London; and John Gilbert Winant, the shy, idealistic U.S. ambassador to Britain.

Helmet for my Pillow by Robert Leckie –  From the live-for-today rowdiness of marines on leave to the terrors of jungle warfare against an enemy determined to fight to the last man, Leckie describes what war is really like when victory can only be measured inch by bloody inch.

The Lost City of Zby David Grann – In 1925, the legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon jungle, in search of a fabled civilization. He never returned. Over the years countless perished trying to find evidence of his party and the place he called “The Lost City of Z.” Journalist David Grann interweaves the spellbinding stories of Fawcett’s quest for “Z” and his own journey into the deadly jungle, as he unravels the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes – Amity Shlaes, one of the nation’s most-respected economic commentators, offers a striking reinterpretation of the Great Depression. She traces the mounting agony of the New Dealers and the moving stories of individual citizens who through their brave perseverance helped establish the steadfast character we recognize as American today.

April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik – A brilliant new look at the Civil War’s final days that will forever change the way we see the war’s end and the nation’s new beginning. Uniquely set within the larger sweep of history and filled with rich profiles of outsize figures, fresh iconoclastic scholarship, and a gripping narrative, this is a masterful account of the thirty most pivotal days in the life of the United States.

Here are some additional titles that might interest your club:  Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin; The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt; Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan; The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, The Horse That Inspired a Nation by Elizabeth Letts; A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins; Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul by Karen Abbott; Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution by T.J. English

Author Janet Dailey Passes Away

janet

Janet Dailey

Best-selling author Janet Dailey passed away “peacefully” on Saturday December 14, 2013 in her hometown of Branson, MO.  She was 69 years old.   No cause of death was released.

She was born in Iowa, but moved to Branson in 1978 with her husband Bill Dailey, who was instrumental in building Branson into an entertainment mecca.

Dailey’s novels have sold 325 million copies worldwide and include the popular “Calder” series and her “Americana” series – a book for each of the fifty states.  She is credited with writing over 155 titles.  Her first book was published in 1976.  She liked to get up at 4 AM to write, setting a goal of 15 pages per day.  This could take anywhere from 8 hours to 14 hours.

Her career hit a rough patch in 1997 when she was sued for copyright infringement by author Nora Roberts.  Dailey admitted that she took passages from Roberts’ works to write AspenGold in 1991 and Notoriousin 1996.  She apologized in 1997, saying the plagiarism occurred when her husband was undergoing cancer surgery and she was under immense stress. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 1998 for an undisclosed sum.

Her latest books, Merry Christmas, Cowboy and Bannon Brothers:  Triumphare available at the Cheshire Library.