In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men—Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication—whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time.
Set in Edwardian London and on the stormy coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners; scientific advances dazzled the public with visions of a world transformed; and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect murder.
With his unparalleled narrative skills, Erik Larson guides us through a relentlessly suspenseful chase over the waters of the North Atlantic. Along the way, he tells of a sad and tragic love affair that was described on the front pages of newspapers around the world, a chief inspector who found himself strangely sympathetic to the killer and his lover, and a driven and compelling inventor who transformed the way we communicate.
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|Publisher:||Crown Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Date of Birth:January 1, 1954
Place of Birth:Brooklyn, New York
Education:B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1976; M.S., Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1978
Read an Excerpt
Ghosts and Gunfire Distraction
In the ardently held view of one camp, the story had its rightful beginning on the night of June 4, 1894, at 21 Albemarle Street, London, the address of the Royal Institution. Though one of Britain’s most august scientific bodies, it occupied a building of modest proportion, only three floors. The false columns affixed to its facade were an afterthought, meant to impart a little grandeur. It housed a lecture hall, a laboratory, living quarters, and a bar where members could gather to discuss the latest scientific advances.
Inside the hall, a physicist of great renown readied himself to deliver the evening’s presentation. He hoped to startle his audience, certainly, but otherwise he had no inkling that this lecture would prove the most important of his life and a source of conflict for decades to come. His name was Oliver Lodge, and really the outcome was his own fault— another manifestation of what even he acknowledged to be a fundamental flaw in how he approached his work. In the moments remaining before his talk, he made one last check of an array of electrical apparatus positioned on a demonstration table, some of it familiar, most unlike anything seen before in this hall.
Outside on Albemarle Street the police confronted their usual traffic problem. Scores of carriages crowded the street and gave it the look of a great black seam of coal. While the air in the surrounding neighborhood of Mayfair was scented with lime and the rich cloying sweetness of hothouse flowers, here the street stank of urine and manure, despite the efforts of the young, red-shirted “street orderlies” who moved among the horses collecting ill-timed deposits. Officers of the Metropolitan Police directed drivers to be quick about exiting the street once their passengers had departed. The men wore black, the women gowns.
Established in 1799 for the “diffusion of knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction of useful mechanical improvements,” the Royal Institution had been the scene of great discoveries. Within its laboratories Humphry Davy had found sodium and potassium and devised the miner’s safety lamp, and Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction, the phenomenon whereby electricity running through one circuit induces a current in another. The institution’s lectures, the “Friday Evening Discourses,” became so popular, the traffic outside so chaotic, that London officials were forced to turn Albemarle into London’s first one-way street.
Lodge was a professor of physics at the new University College of Liverpool, where his laboratory was housed in a space that once had been the padded cell of a lunatic asylum. At first glance he seemed the embodiment of established British science. He wore a heavy beard misted with gray, and his head—“the great head,” as a friend put it—was eggshell bald to a point just above his ears, where his hair swept back into a tangle of curls. He stood six feet three inches tall and weighed about 210 pounds. A young woman once reported that the experience of dancing with Lodge had been akin to dancing with the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Though considered a kind man, in his youth Lodge had exhibited a cruel vein that, as he grew older, caused him regret and astonishment. While a student at a small school, Combs Rectory, he had formed a club, the Combs Rectory Birds’ Nest Destroying Society, whose members hunted nests and ransacked them, smashing eggs and killing fledglings, then firing at the parent birds with slingshots. Lodge recalled once beating a dog with a toy whip but dismissed this incident as an artifact of childhood cruelty. “Whatever faults I may have,” he wrote in his memoir, “cruelty is not one of them; it is the one thing that is utterly repugnant.”
Lodge had come of age during a time when scientists began to coax from the mists a host of previously invisible phenomena, particularly in the realm of electricity and magnetism. He recalled how lectures at the Royal Institution would set his imagination alight. “I have walked back through the streets of London, or across Fitzroy Square, with a sense of unreality in everything around, an opening up of deep things in the universe, which put all ordinary objects of sense into the shade, so that the square and its railings, the houses, the carts, and the people, seemed like shadowy unrealities, phantasmal appearances, partly screening, but partly permeated by, the mental and spiritual reality behind.”
The Royal Institution became for Lodge “a sort of sacred place,” he wrote, “where pure science was enthroned to be worshipped for its own sake.” He believed the finest science was theoretical science, and he scorned what he and other like-minded scientists called “practicians,” the new heathen, inventors and engineers and tinkerers who eschewed theoretical research for blind experimentation and whose motive was commercial gain. Lodge once described the patent process as “inappropriate and repulsive.”
As his career advanced, he too was asked to deliver Friday Evening Discourses, and he reveled in the opportunity to put nature’s secrets on display. When a scientific breakthrough occurred, he tried to be first to bring it to public notice, a pattern he had begun as early as 1877, when he acquired one of the first phonographs and brought it to England for a public demonstration, but his infatuation with the new had a corollary effect: a vulnerability to distraction. He exhibited a lofty dilettantism that late in life he acknowledged had been a fatal flaw. “As it is,” he wrote, “I have taken an interest in many subjects, and spread myself over a considerable range—a procedure which, I suppose, has been good for my education, though not so prolific of results.” Whenever his scientific research threatened to lead to a breakthrough, he wrote, “I became afflicted with a kind of excitement which caused me to pause and not pursue that path to the luminous end. . . . It is an odd feeling, and has been the cause of my not clinching many subjects, not following up the path on which I had set my feet.”
To the dismay of peers, one of his greatest distractions was the world of the supernatural. He was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, established in 1882 by a group of level-headed souls, mostly scientists and philosophers, to bring scientific scrutiny to ghosts, séances, telepathy, and other paranormal events, or as the society stated in each issue of its Journal, “to examine without prejudice or prepossession and in a scientific spirit, those faculties of man, real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable on any generally recognized hypothesis.” The society’s constitution stated that membership did not imply belief in “physical forces other than those recognized by Physical Science.” That the SPR had a Committee on Haunted Houses deterred no one. Its membership expanded quickly to include sixty university dons and some of the brightest lights of the era, among them John Ruskin, H. G. Wells, William E. Gladstone, Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain), and the Rev. C. L. Dodgson (with the equally prominent pen name Lewis Carroll). The roster also listed Arthur Balfour, a future prime minister of England, and William James, a pioneer in psychology, who by the summer of 1894 had been named the society’s president.
It was Lodge’s inquisitiveness, not a belief in ghosts, that first drove him to become a member of the SPR. The occult was for him just one more invisible realm worthy of exploration, the outermost province of the emerging science of psychology. The unveiling during Lodge’s life of so many hitherto unimagined physical phenomena, among them Heinrich Hertz’s discovery of electromagnetic waves, suggested to him that the world of the mind must harbor secrets of its own. The fact that waves could travel through the ether seemed to confirm the existence of another plane of reality. If one could send electromagnetic waves through the ether, was it such an outrageous next step to suppose that the spiritual essence of human beings, an electromagnetic soul, might also exist within the ether and thus explain the hauntings and spirit rappings that had become such a fixture of common legend? Reports of ghosts inhabiting country houses, poltergeists rattling abbeys, spirits knocking on tables during séances—all these in the eyes of Lodge and fellow members of the society seemed as worthy of dispassionate analysis as the invisible travels of an electromagnetic wave.
Within a few years of his joining the SPR, however, events challenged Lodge’s ability to maintain his scientific remove. In Boston William James began hearing from his own family about a certain “Mrs. Piper”—Lenore Piper—a medium who was gaining notoriety for possessing strange powers. Intending to expose her as a fraud, James arranged a sitting and found himself enthralled. He suggested that the society invite Mrs. Piper to England for a series of experiments. She and her two daughters sailed to Liverpool in November 1889 and then traveled to Cambridge, where a sequence of sittings took place under the close observation of SPR members. Lodge arranged a sitting of his own and suddenly found himself listening to his dead aunt Anne, a beloved woman of lively intellect who had abetted his drive to become a scientist against the wishes of his father. She once had told Lodge that after her death she would come back to visit if she could, and now, in a voice he remembered, she reminded him of that promise. “This,” he wrote, “was an unusual thing to happen.”
To Lodge, the encounter seemed proof that some part of the human mind persisted even after death. It left him, he wrote, “thoroughly convinced not only of human survival, but of the power to communicate, under certain conditions, with those left behind on the earth.”
Partly because of his diverse interests and his delight in new discoveries, by June 1894 he had become one of the Royal Institution’s most popular speakers.
The evening’s lecture was entitled “The Work of Hertz.” Heinrich Hertz had died earlier in the year, and the institution invited Lodge to talk about his experiments, a task to which Lodge readily assented. Lodge had a deep respect for Hertz; he also believed that if not for his own fatal propensity for distraction, he might have beaten Hertz to the history books. In his memoir, Lodge stopped just short of claiming that he himself not Hertz, was first to prove the existence of electromagnetic waves. And indeed Lodge had come close, but instead of pursuing certain tantalizing findings, he had dropped the work and buried his results in a quotidian paper on lightning conductors.
Every seat in the lecture hall was filled. Lodge spoke for a few moments, then began his demonstration. He set off a spark. The gun- shot crack jolted the audience to full attention. Still more startling was the fact that this spark caused a reaction—a flash of light—in a distant, unattached electrical apparatus. The central component of this apparatus was a device Lodge had designed, which he called a “coherer,” a tube filled with minute metal filings, and which he had inserted into a conventional electric circuit. Initially the filings had no power to conduct electricity, but when Lodge generated the spark and thus launched electromag- netic waves into the hall, the filings suddenly became conductors—they “cohered”—and allowed current to flow. By tapping the tube with his finger, Lodge returned the filings to their nonconductive state, and the circuit went dead.
Though seemingly a simple thing, in fact the audience had never seen anything like it: Lodge had harnessed invisible energy, Hertz’s waves, to cause a reaction in a remote device, without intervening wires. The applause came like thunder.
Afterward Lord Rayleigh, a distinguished mathematician and physicist and secretary of the Royal Society, came up to Lodge to congratulate him. He knew of Lodge’s tendency toward distraction. What Lodge had just demonstrated seemed a path that even he might find worthy of focus. “Well, now you can go ahead,” Rayleigh told Lodge. “There is your life work!”
But Lodge did not take Lord Rayleigh’s advice. Instead, once again exhibiting his inability to pursue one theme of research to conclusion, he left for a vacation in Europe that included a scientific foray into a very different realm. He traveled to the Ile Roubaud, a small island in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of France, where soon very strange things began to happen and he found himself distracted anew, at what would prove to be a critical moment in his career and in the history of science.
For even as Lodge conducted his new explorations on the Ile Roubaud, far to the south someone else was hard at work—ingeniously, energetically, compulsively—exploring the powers of the invisible world, with the same tools Lodge had used for his demonstration at the Royal Institution, much to Lodge’s eventual consternation and regret.
The Great Hush
It was not precisely a vision, like some sighting of the Madonna in a tree trunk, but rather a certainty, a declarative sentence that entered his brain. Unlike other lightning-strike ideas, this one did not fade and blur but retained its surety and concrete quality. Later Marconi would say there was a divine aspect to it, as though he had been chosen over all others to receive the idea. At first it perplexed him—the question, why him, why not Oliver Lodge, or for that matter Thomas Edison?
The idea arrived in the most prosaic of ways. In that summer of 1894, when he was twenty years old, his parents resolved to escape the extraordinary heat that had settled over Europe by moving to higher and cooler ground. They fled Bologna for the town of Biella in the Italian Alps, just below the Santuario di Oropa, a complex of sacred buildings devoted to the legend of the Black Madonna. During the family’s stay, he happened to acquire a copy of a journal called Il Nuovo Cimento, in which he read an obituary of Heinrich Hertz written by Augusto Righi, a neighbor and a physics professor at the University of Bologna. Something in the article produced the intellectual equivalent of a spark and in that moment caused his thoughts to realign, like the filings in a Lodge coherer.
“My chief trouble was that the idea was so elementary, so simple in logic that it seemed difficult to believe no one else had thought of putting it into practice,” he said later. “In fact Oliver Lodge had, but he had missed the correct answer by a fraction. The idea was so real to me that I did not realize that to others the theory might appear quite fantastic.”
What he hoped to do—expected to do—was to send messages over long distances through the air using Hertz’s invisible waves. Nothing in the laws of physics as then understood even hinted that such a feat might be possible. Quite the opposite. To the rest of the scientific world what he now proposed was the stuff of magic shows and séances, a kind of electric telepathy.
His great advantage, as it happens, was his ignorance—and his mother’s aversion to priests.
What People are Saying About This
"Larson's gift for rendering an historical era with vibrant tactility and filling it with surprising personalities makes Thunderstruck an irresistible tale...He beautifully captures the awe that greeted early wireless transmissions on shipboard...he restores life to this fascinating, long-lost world."- Washington Post "Of all the non-fiction writers working today, Erik Larson seems to have the most delicious fun...for his newest, destined-to-delight book, Thunderstruck, Larson has turned his sights on Edwardian London, a place alive with new science and seances, anonymous crowds and some stunningly peculiar personalities" Chicago Tribune"[Larson] interweaves gripping storylines about a cryptic murderer and the race for technology in the early 20th century. An edge-of-the-seat read." People"Captivating...with Thunderstruck, Larson has selected another enthralling taletwo of them, actually...[he] peppers the narrative with an engaging array of secondary figures and fills the margins with rich tangential period details...Larson has once again crafted a popular history narrative that is stylistically closer to a smartly plotted novel."Miami Herald"As he did with The Devil in the White City, Larson has created an intense, intelligent page turner that shows how the march of progress and innovation affect both the world at large and the lives of everyday people."Atlanta Journal-Constitution"Larson's gift for rendering an historical era with vibrant tactility and filling it with surprising personalities makes Thunderstruck an irresistible tale."The Washington Post Book World"An enthralling narrative and vivid descriptions...Larson has done a marvelous job of bringing the distinct stories together in his own unique way. Simply fantastic!"Library Journal"Larson is a marvelous writer...superb at creating characters with a few short strokes."The New York Times Book Review"Splendid, beautifully written...Thunderstruck triumphantly resurrects the spirit of another age, when one man's public genius linked the world, while another's private turmoil made him a symbol of the end of "the great hush" and the first victim of a new era when instant communication, now inescapable, conquered the world."Publishers Weekly"[Larson] captures the human capacity for wonder at the turn of the century...[he] has perfected a narrative form of his own invention."The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)THUNDERSTRUCK • By Erik Larson • Three Rivers Press • ISBN 978-1-4000-8067-0 • $14.95 • • By Erik Larson • Three Rivers Press • ISBN 978-1-4000-8067-0 • $14.95 • OSD 9/25/2007THUNDERSTRUCK • By Erik Larson • Three Rivers Press • ISBN 978-1-4000-8067-0 • $14.95 • OSD 9/25/2007
Reading Group Guide
Erik Larson, bestselling author of The Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm, returns with another gripping examination of a watershed period in history. In Thunderstruck, he intertwines the fascinating, sometimes shocking stories of two Edwardian-era men: Guglielmo Marconi, the appallingly driven inventor of the wireless telegraph, and Hawley Harvey Crippen, a mild-mannered doctor who killed his wife in the notorious “North London Cellar Murder.” One’s creation helped to capture the other, while the capture itself catapulted the creation from the merely intriguing to the downright necessary, opening the door for the instantaneous communication we take for granted today.
Told with Larson’s renowned fusing of meticulous detail and propulsive storytelling, Thunderstruck is his best, most absorbing book yet.
1. In his note to the reader, Larson quotes P. D. James: “Murder, the unique crime, is a paradigm of its age.” How is the murder in Thunderstruck a paradigm of its time? Can you think of a notorious murder in our own era that is an equivalent?
2. The murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen and the inventor Guglielmo Marconi came from similarly prosperous backgrounds, and yet their lives took quite opposite turns. Compare the two men as characters–in what ways are they similar, and in what ways are they different? Who would you most like to have met, and why?
3. Now compare the two men to their respective spouses–is Marconi at all like Beatrice? What about Crippen and Belle?
4. Larson mentions Marconi’s “social blindness” throughout the book, considering it a defining trait. How did it affect Marconi’s success or failure? What was Crippen’s defining trait?
5. In specific terms, Crippen and Marconi were not linked–they never interacted with each other–and yet in Larson’s hands their stories fit together naturally. Why do you think that is? In what ways do the two men’s lives play off each other? How do you imagine they would have gotten along, had they actually met?
6. Marconi and Crippen were both foreigners in England, and yet they received very different treatment from the moment of their respective arrivals. Why? How is this reminiscent of the ways foreigners are treated in this country today?
7. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the supernatural, medical sleight-of-hand, and science were often treated in similar fashion–consider Lodge’s “scientific” studies of the paranormal, Crippen’s involvement in patent medicine, and the public’s mistrust of Marconi’s wireless technology. What parallels, if any, do you see to the way we treat emerging technologies now?
8. Isolation was a very real thing in those days, without the benefits of modern communication methods. How did Marconi’s invention change the world? Ultimately, do you think it was a change for the better, or are there benefits to the old ways?
9. Throughout the book, there are countless instances of betrayal: Marconi betrays Preece and vice versa, Belle betrays Crippen, Fleming betrays Lodge. Discuss the idea of betrayal and the specifics of it in Thunderstruck. In your opinion, whose betrayal is the most damaging?
10. Secrecy was vital to both Marconi and Crippen, but for very different reasons. Discuss the nature of their secrets, the motivations for them, and the ultimate effects.
11. Much of Marconi’s success was apparently based on gut instinct and simple trial and error, rather than any understanding of the science that lay beneath his discoveries. How would his methods be received now?
12. On page 69, Larson says that Marconi “was an entrepreneur of a kind that would become familiar to the world only a century or so later, with the advent of the so-called ‘start-up’ company.” What did he mean by this? Do Marconi’s practices remind you of any specific business leaders today?
13. Each man had two major romantic relationships in the book. Which, if any, was the healthiest? Which woman did you like best, and why?
14. Crippen is willing to subsidize Belle’s lifestyle and even her relationship with another man, only to murder her years later. Why do you think he behaves this way? Why didn’t he just cut her off financially? What finally drove him to murder?
15. Throughout the book, Larson foreshadows events that will come to pass in later pages. What purpose does this serve? How did you respond?
16. Crippen’s method for disposing of Belle’s body was quite gruesome. Larson quotes Raymond Chandler on page 377: “I cannot see why a man who would go to the enormous labor of deboning and de-sexing and de-heading an entire corpse would not take the rather slight extra labor of disposing of the flesh in the same way, rather than bury it at all.” Why do you think Crippen did it in that particular way? What does this say about him?
17. Do you believe that Ethel had no idea what had happened to Belle? Why, or why not?
18. The realities of an international manhunt were very different in the early twentieth century than they are today–as Larson says on page 341, “Wireless had made the sea less safe for criminals on the run.” Why has it changed so, and in what ways? Is it possible to hide in our world?
19. Discuss the media circus surrounding Dew’s chase of Crippen. Was this the beginning of a new era in journalism? What parallels do you see to many celebrities’ current war with the paparazzi? Compare the pursuit of Crippen to the O. J. Simpson chase.
20. If it weren’t for Marconi’s invention, do you think Crippen would have been caught? How might it have played out otherwise?
21. On page 379, Larson says, “The Crippen saga did more to accelerate the acceptance of wireless as a practical tool than anything the Marconi company previously had attempted.” Why do you think that is? What might have happened to wireless technology if not for Crippen?
22. At the very end of the book, Larson writes that Ethel was asked if she would still marry Crippen even after learning all that he had done. What do you think her answer was?
23. Why do you think Larson gave this book the title Thunderstruck? How does the term apply to Marconi and Crippen?