The American Plague – A Review

The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our HistoryThe American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby

I debated between a 3 and 4 rating for this book and in all fairness, I must tell you that one of my favorite non-fiction books is The Great Influenza by John Barry. The American Plague doesn’t meet that standard, but it is still worth reading. It’s quick and an easy read and the history is excellent. The science is where it falls short.

The book is divided into 4 sections. Part 1 is very short and primarily explains how the yellow fever virus gets to the western hemisphere. Part 2 tells the story of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, TN, describing how it drastically changed the city. Part 3 takes you to Cuba in 1900 where experiments, led primarily by Walter Reed, prove that the mosquito Aedes aegypti transmits the disease. And Part 4 takes us back to Africa and the discovery that the disease is caused by a virus.

In parts 2 and 3, Crosby’s research is obviously excellent. She lays a foundation for understanding what Memphis was like before the epidemic and how it was changed. You get a sense of the fear that the words “yellow fever” created in the population, and her descriptions of the disease let you know why people were afraid. She also introduces us to people who might have been forgotten, but shouldn’t be because of the sacrifices they made for other people. She obviously cares about telling their stories.

Crosby’s telling of the story of Walter Reed and the others in Cuba is very similar. I was familiar with Walter Reed’s name of course, but couldn’t have told you why he was important, and that is a shame because he made a tremendous contribution to science. Yellow fever is a terrifying disease. But Reed wasn’t the only one responsible and she tells their stories also.

As I said the only area where I feel the book falls short is in the discussion of the science, primarily in Part 4. There were times where Crosby’s literary flourishes were annoying earlier in the book, but they were just out of place when discussing science. For example, “It seems only natural that a virus should fight for its own survival, and yellow fever had been hunting down and killing the scientists attempting to destroy it.” Or “The scientist becomes God and the virus his subject. The danger comes in the fact that a virus, ever mindful of evolution and its survival, has its own methods of defense. If man can manipulate the virus, the virus can manipulate man.” (emphasis mine) Personally, assigning human motivations to a virus bothers me.

There were also times when it seemed that she just wasn’t very comfortable with the science and rushed it. Writing about science for laypeople isn’t easy and Crosby missed the mark in my opinion. That being said I did enjoy the book and would recommend it especially if what you are looking for is a good history book about the impact of yellow fever on the United States.

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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – A Review

The Statue of the Republic overlooks the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.
The Statue of the Republic overlooks the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America chronicles the building of the “White City” of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893, also called the Chicago World’s Fair. The Exposition was held to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America. Over 27 million people attended the Exposition which covered 600 acres and included almost 200 new buildings, all in a neo-Classical style and painted white. Hence, the name, the “White City.” Parallel to the story of the Fair, Larsen details the life of H. H. Holmes a serial killer operating at the same time.

First and foremost, this is a history book. The bulk of the story revolves around the Exposition and takes you from the decision to hold the Fair at Chicago to its conclusion. The main character in this part of the story is Daniel Burnham, the architect who is responsible for overseeing its development. At stake is the reputation of Chicago as a city that can compete with New York City.

Daniel Burnham circa 1890
Daniel Burnham circa 1890

In the process, Burnham deals with some of the biggest names in architecture for the era including George B. Post, Charles McKim, and Richard M. Hunt, all from the east coast, which adds fuel to the fire of rivalry between New York and Chicago. Frederick Law Olmsted appears frequently. Often referred to as the “Father of Landscape Architecture,” Olmsted is known for his design of Central Park in New York City and the Biltmore House grounds in Asheville, NC.

The Midway Plaisance
The Midway Plaisance

But development of the fair isn’t all about architecture. You need engineers, construction crews, interior designers, and exhibits. The stories and people Larson tells us about add color and charm to the book. For example, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show was rejected as an exhibit, but Cody got around this rejection and made far more money than he would have had he been included. Sol Bloom’s exhibit idea was also rejected. When he took another approach, he ended up being responsible for the design and management of the Midway Plaisance. It was so successful that we still call the exhibit area of fairs the “Midway.” Even more surprising is the fact that Bloom was only 23 at the time.

Other people you will encounter include George Ferris (as in Ferris Wheel), Sophia Hayden, Harriet Monroe, Annie Oakley, Susan B. Anthony, Theodore Dreiser, Clarence Darrow, George Westinghouse, and Thomas Edison. It was a time of dramatic change in the country and the fair exemplified it.

The parallel story told by Larson is that of H. H. Holmes, serial killer. Holmes takes advantage of the coming Exposition to establish a business and build a cheap hotel. He is also a con man who avoids creditors through the use of aliases and his ample charm. The way he avoids suspicion and deals with it when it occurs is fascinating. He also has special needs for his chosen modus operandi as well as accomplice help. Larsen details all of this. He does take some liberties in describing Holmes’s murders, but he documents his choices and sources nicely in the notes and Epilogue.

Herman Webster Mudgett alias H. H. Holmes
Herman Webster Mudgett alias H. H. Holmes

All of this takes place against a backdrop of turmoil in the country. The Panic of 1893, the worst until the Great Depression, makes the success of the Exposition questionable and financial choices critical. It also brings hundreds of unemployed people to the city looking for work during a time when labor concerns and disputes were prominent.

Larson weaves all of this together beautifully and wraps the book up with a look at how the Exposition made an impact on the country overall. If you’re looking for a true crime book, you might be disappointed. Although true crime is definitely an element, in spite of the title, I don’t think it is the main focus of the book. If instead you are looking for a history book about Gilded Age America with a lot of interesting people and color, I think you’ll enjoy it. I certainly did.

The original Ferris Wheel designed specifically for the Chicago World's Fair
The original Ferris Wheel designed specifically for the Chicago World’s Fair