We as human beings can get up to some pretty incredible things. Some can be inspiring and awe inducing where others can plum the depths of depravity and atrocity. We are truly peculiar creatures. Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City explores both sides of human nature through the actual events surrounding the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
At the end of the nineteenth century Chicago was beginning to make waves on the American landscape . In 1885 it was the home of the very first skyscraper ( has enjoyed a rich architectural history ever since). Chicago would later make it’s debut on the world stage when it won the bid to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition celebrating the 400 year anniversary of Columbus discovering America. Paris had wowed the world four years previous with its exposition of 1889 that became the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower. The organizers of the fair new they had a lot to live up to.
Larson does a wonderful job of describing the highs and lows of undertaking a project of this magnitude. The fair was to become a mini city designed by the prominent architects of the day. The shear size, amount and complexity of the buildings that were proposed seemed to be an utterly daunting task, add the fact; they had only eighteen months to complete it and you would guess that it couldn’t be done. The White City (named for the uniform colour all the buildings were painted) was built in Jackson Park on the shore of Lake Michigan. The land was water-logged and inhospitable to the designs of the fair. Daniel Hudson Burnhamn was the chief architect and the man in charge of overseeing the project. (After the fair Burnhamn would go on to build one of New York’s most iconic structures The Flatiron building in 1902). Burnhamm hired his friend Frederick Law Olmsted ( the landscape architect responsible for Central Park in New York) to design the grounds for the fair.
When the fair was completed, it was a marvel to behold. Along with the stunning buildings, it offered a midway full of exotic spectacles from every corner of the world. The organizers knew they needed a showpiece that would be able to compete with mister Eiffel’s tower. A young man from Pittsburgh named Ferris stepped up to the challenge and changed the world with his invention . The fair was a place of ‘firsts’ . It was one of the first places to use outdoor electrical light on a large scale. Shredded Wheat and Juicy Fruit made their debuts here. It was also in Chicago where America was going to get another first, but this time of a more sinister nature.
Enter the Devil into our little tale. Some people consider Dr. H. H. Holmes to be America’s first serial killer. At the same time Burnhamn was building the fair, H.H. Holmes was doing a little constructing of his own. Hearing of Chicago’s winning bid to host the fair and the large crowds anticipated to attend; Holmes decided to go into the Hotel business. The one thing that differentiated his accommodations from other hotels in the vicinity wasn’t exactly the hospitality of the staff but rather the inclusion of some rather macabre additions. The Holmes Castle (as it was known) was said to include soundproof rooms, secret passage ways and a huge blast furnace in the basement that could reduce anything to ash.
Holmes preyed on vulnerable women who found themselves in the big city for the very first time. Larson describes a man who’s charms had no bounds as well as his darker compulsions. History and legend have been blurred over the years and the deaths attributed to Holmes range anywhere from 12 to 200. In a signed confession after he was finally caught; he proclaimed to have killed people who turned out to be very much alive. It seems that every word he uttered in his life was wrapped in lies.
The Devil in the White City does a good job of exploring both central stories. The chapters alternate between the fair and Holmes. The events that took place at the end of the nineteenth century are both unbelievable and compelling. The book is full of many interesting historical facts highlighting a unique chapter in Chicago’s history. Larson takes some liberties with some of the events describing the life of Holmes but the writing never veers into the realm of sensationalism.