Author: Erik Larson
Many years ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Erik Larson about his book The Devil in the White City. Being a history buff, I thought it would be very interesting, but being overseas, I didn't pick up the book and had forgotten about it. I spent the past week at my in-laws and didn't bring enough books of my own to read. My father-in-law had bought the book after hearing the same broadcast and my mother-in-law loved the book. She said, "I wish I had highlighted things throughout the book. There is so much to learn and check on. You should read it!" And so I did, with much of the same feeling - it was a history lesson wrapped up in an episode of CSI.
The Devil in the White City is actually two stories in one book - both stories take place within blocks of each other in Chicago during the late 1800s. One character is Daniel Burnham, a leading architect of the Chicago Columbian Exposition (World's Fair)in 1893, and the other is Herman Mudgett, aka, H.H. Holmes (among numerous other alias), a suave, clever serial killer who murdered between 25 and 200 people throughout the U.S. but was especially productive during the World's Fair when hundreds of young, single women came to Chicago in the hopes of an emancipated life.
Paris has just closed their World's Fair with the wonder of the Eiffel Tower fresh in everyone's mind. The U.S. wanted to make a statement to the Old World, that the New World could be just as dazzling and innovative. Several cities vied for the honor (and the work) of the fair, with Chicago being the least compared to the likes of New York and DC. Chicago has just begun to recover from the Great Fire and still had the reputation of being a Stockyard city, with low-class culture. The architectural firm of Burnham & Root was selected to build the Exposition, which would be a city in itself. With multiple delays of money, committees, and bureaucracy, it took almost a year to decide on a location, which left less than 2 years to actually build. Architects from around the country proposed grand Neo-Classical style buildings, but struggled to build in the swampy land of Jackson Park. Both Burnham & Root dedicated their lives to the management of this endeavor, which eventually killed Root. Many innovations come from the building of the White City, named because all the buildings were white washed and illuminated with electricity at night. We use AC in our houses because Westinghouse won the bid to wired the Exposition and we have Ferris wheels because the Exposition needed something to “out Eiffel the Eiffel Tower”. The tremendous amount of work and organization that went into the development of the Exposition is absolutely amazing, and Larson does a great job of interweaving the facts into a compelling drama.
At the same time at the rise of the Exposition, a con-man/serial killer came to town. He adopted the name Holmes in honor of the new books with Sherlock Holmes. With some medical training and a charming personality, he created a small empire of a pharmacy, restaurant, shops, and apartments, all at little to no cost as he invented multiple aliases and swindles to pay for it. At the same time, he had several wives and families, but his greatest creation was his very own amusement park of gas chambers, dissection rooms, and crematorium. He charmed and killed multiple people, just for the satisfaction of controlling them. He was eventually caught through the work of a private investigator who was attempting to track down some missing children. The author used Holmes’s own memoir along with many newspaper articles, biographies, and eye-witness accounts to piece together Holmes’s life. With the World’s Fair in town, Holmes really had an ideal situation to wreak his havoc.
With all the detail the author provides, this is not a fast or beach read – but it was absolutely fascinating. There were several parts I read aloud to whoever would listen because the revelations of history were astounding. There is so much I take for granted in life that has its roots in the creation of this fair. At the same time, the recognition of the tremendous feat of building a World’s Fair – without computers, automobiles and infant electricity – is admirable.
A few remnants of the fair can still be seen in Chicago, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry. Much of the original collection of the Field Museum also came from the World’s Fair. The Norwegian Pavilion was moved to Wisconsin and can be toured at Little Norway. Some believe the White City was the inspiration for Baum’s City of Oz and Disney’s theme park.
There are rumors that the book will be made into a movie, starring DiCaprio.