Book Review: The Devil in the White City

Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Erik Larson (2003)

Erik Larson has done it again–transported me to another time and place to experience an amazing event in history.

I’d read and very much enjoyed his earlier book Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (see my review from Feb/2000) so when I heard that his next historical setting was the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 I was thrilled. The Columbian Exposition is a particular favorite subject of mine, but more on that later. Suffice it to say that I was excited that Larson was turning his storytelling skills on the fair.

The White City of the title was the dreamchild of Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, who orchestrated the creation of a huge temporary city on the shore of Lake Michigan, with a scale and grandeur, and filled with modern marvels (incandescent light, moving walkways, the Ferris Wheel) unlike any seen in that day. In 1889, the bar was set with the Paris exhibition boasting the Eiffel Tower and thousands in attendance. Burnham, best known today for his Flatiron Building in New York City, battled against the odds (political delays, financial constraints and, above all, limited time,) to turn a swampy section on the Lake Michigan shore into a dreamland of huge, classically designed white buildings, twinkling lights, lagoons, fountains, and a wooded island. The hog butchering capital of the world was transformed into a world-class destination that drew millions of visitors during the six months that it existed.

The devil of the title is H. H. Holmes, a psychopath who built a hotel of horrors where he murdered an undetermined number of people, most of whom were women on their own for the first time in a city that promised great excitement and opportunity in 1893. Holmes advertised his hotel, later dubbed the “Castle of Horrors” by the press, as a place to stay when visiting the nearby fair. Ingeniously designed and built by Holmes, guests checked in completely unaware that the hotel contained an air-tight gas chamber,  crematorium, and dissection area.

Larson draws a parallel between the stories of these two men following their passion, Burnham to put Chicago on the map and execute a phenomenal architectural and engineering feat for his day, and Holmes in his quest for the thrill and satisfaction that came from manipulating the lives, and more importantly the deaths, of his victims.

The tale bounces back and forth between multiple points of view, primarily Burnham and Holmes. Other perspectives include landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, engineer and inventor George Ferris (whose Ferris Wheel debuted on the Midway of the fair,) detective Frank Geyer (his tireless investigation led to the conviction of Holmes,) as well as numerous wives and victims of Holmes.

My initial impression of the book as I began reading it was that I couldn’t quite see the need to tell these two stories (the creation of the fair and the genesis of America’s first serial killer) in one book. Attaching a gruesome serial killer seemed a bit of a stretch or an unnecessary hook to get people to buy the book. A co-worker was reading this book, and when I asked him how he liked it, he expressed frustration and a tad bit of boredom that the sections on the planning of the World’s Fair kept getting in the way, bogging down the book (meaning the killer thriller.) I felt the same at first, only in reverse. I found the sections on the fair fascinating and the creepy intrusions of Holmes story interfered with my pleasure in reading the book. But as I continued to read, it all came together; the two tales fused into a whole that was compelling and insightful, much more so than either would have been if told independently.

Here’s the Gist: Larson once again proves that truth is often stranger than fiction, and just as fascinating to read. [*****]

P.S.  Erik Larson earned extra points from me with the final paragraph of his book, a sentiment that I could identify with and appreciate. In the acknowledgements section he writes:

Finally, a word about Chicago: I knew little about the city until I began work on this book.  Place has always been important to me, and one thing today’s Chicago exudes, as it did in 1893, is a sense of place.  I fell in love with the city, the people I encountered, and above all the lake and its moods, which shift so readily from season to season, day-to-day, even hour to hour.

I must confess a shameful secret: I love Chicago best in the cold.

This sense of place comes shining through Larson’s book as brilliantly as a White City on the lake, shimmering on a summer day in 1893.

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4 Responses

  1. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

    In the early years of the 1890s thousands of men labored feverishly, under an all-but-impossible deadline, to erect an ephemeral masterpiece, the Chicago World’s Fair, which would be open to the public a scant six months, from May to October of 1893….

  2. Alex

    Reading about the lives of Burnham and Holmes during the creation of the Columbian Exposition was fascinating because it definitely showed the flip sides of human genius: Burnam as someone with amazing civic, artistic, and architectural vision (don’t forget that Chicago owes it open lakefront parks in part to Burnham) as opposed to Holmes’ prsonality as a depraved killer with a frighteningly personable facade. The story’s essence boils down to the power to create and uplift versus the power to destroy.

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