The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
The Devil in the White CityMurder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America
After the World’s Expo in Paris, the United States decided to have a World’s Fair to outshine Paris. Although there was fierce competition between a number of cities, Chicago was the final site chosen. The fair was to mark the 400th anniversary of the celebration of Columbus’ discovery of the Americas.
Daniel Burnham was an eminent architect who was determined to get the fair in Chicago. Once it was obtained, he became the man responsible for bringing the fair from ideas to reality. It wasn’t easy. Red tape and bureaucracy – it’s an old story. It was part of the many stumbling blocks that almost kept the fair from being realized.
Erik Larson chronicles the fair from the time it was given to Chicago until a few years after. The fair was an exceptional feat – for any era. He recounts all the people involved, the ideas, the missteps and the great steps taken. Throughout The Devil in the White City he includes the people who touched the fair – in a great way or in a small way.
But this book is more than the fair. Larson shows the reader Chicago and society in Victorian era United States. It includes more than just the fair itself but living conditions, societal mores, business, architecture, government, large and small personalities, and the ideas that were burgeoning at the time. Which also means the dark side of the time as well as the successes.
H.H. Holmes, (nee Herman Mudgett) moved to Chicago in the mid 1880’s. He was a charismatic man, a con man, and a serial killer. Women were earning more freedom by this time. Many single women moved to the city to earn their living. Holmes put Chicago, the society changes, and his charm to good use. He ran up debts that he never repaid. He was a bigamist. He sweet talked people (especially women) out of businesses, property, and fortunes. The Chicago World’s Fair was a boon to his lifestyle. To this day no one knows how many people he killed during his lifetime.
Larson winds these true stories around each other for comparison and contrast. The fair was known for its White City. Holmes had a “hotel” a few blocks away that was dark – a maze where one easily got lost. The juxtaposition of the two narratives, along with a third one of a madman (one with mental health issues) who also affected Chicago during those years, turns this non-fiction work into a flowing book that is readable and enjoyable. It read easily like a crime novel and is classified as true crime in most libraries.
The light and the dark; the builder and the destroyer; the beauty and the ugly, the hard worker and the charmer. All of these characteristics make The Devil in the White City a fascinating book. Larson states on the occasions when he makes conjectures of what probably happened (usually with Holmes) based on what is known. He did his research well to bring this book together.
I grew up knowing about this fair. But it was ancient history to me. Now I realize how important it was and how it helped shape and change the future of this country and eventually the world. Did you know that the first “city” that was run by electricity was the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893? They even used light bulbs to outline the buildings at night (was that the precursor of Christmas lights outlining houses?). There are a lot of “firsts” the Larson describes either in depth or in passing.
The Devil in the White City is an excellent rendition of an historical event in the United States. It is a creepy chronicle of a serial killer. It is a book to highlight a major event in the United States. And it’s a good book to read.