The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America
by Erik Larson

“Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America’s rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair’s brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country’s most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor, who in a malign parody of the White City, built his “World’s Fair Hotel” just west of the fairgrounds.”

For anyone with an interest in history, specifically the history of architecture in America and of the birthplace of the American skyscraper, Chicago, this book will provide an absolutely riveting read. A work of non-fiction, it recounts the parallel tales of two men, the first one of America’s greatest architects, Daniel Hudson Burnham, and the other, America’s version of Jack the Ripper, Dr. Henry H. Holmes. The spectacular Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, nicknamed “The White City” and inspiration for the city of Oz after a visit by L. Frank Baum, was born and prospered under the direction of Burnham, partner of one of America’s greatest architectural firms, Burnham & Root. The incredible beauty and wonder of the fair was also used by the satanic Holmes, who strolled its dramatic, landscaped grounds to lure scores of young women, bewitched by the beauty of the fair and the energy of Chicago, to their deaths in his carefully constructed “castle of horrors” across from the gateway to the White City.

Larson’s previous book, Isaac’s Storm, tells the story of the deadliest hurricane in history, which struck Galveston, Texas in 1900 and killed nearly 6,000 people. Also a brilliant piece of historical narrative, Isaac’s Storm was the first book in which Larson demonstrated his masterful use of dramatic language and vivid detail in capturing the character of a specific time and place. He effortlessly does it again with The Devil in the White City and transports the reader to Chicago at the turn of the century, a city obsessed with its perceived “second class status” to New York, very proud of its entrepreneurial spirit and seemingly unconcerned about its plethora of urban ills (overcrowding, high crime, corruption, pollution generated by coal-driven industry and the stench of the Union Stock Yards, which slaughtered animals by the millions) that earned it the reputation as the “Black City.” An exhibition and world’s fair meant to surpass the incredible success and glamour of the previous one in Paris (symbolized by the brand new Eiffel Tower) would reinvent Chicago as the “White City.”

The author gives great insight into the architectural spirit present in America and specifically Chicago at the time-the height of the Gilded Age. It was Burnham who gathered together some of the greatest American architects of the era-Frederick Olmstead, the landscape architect who created New York’s Central Park, the egotistical Louis Sullivan, a genius of architectural ornamentation, and Richard M. Hunt, a founder of the American Institute of Architects-to create the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, celebrating the discovery of the New World by Columbus 400 years earlier. Also a key figure in the fair’s success was George Ferris, whose dramatic, 264-foot high, turning wheel towered above Chicago’s glorious fair and provided it with its own Eiffel Tower-like symbol. These colorful figures in the history of architecture are woven into a compelling story that draws the reader into an unforgettable world. Also making appearances throughout the book are major figures of historical prominence, such as Thomas Edison, Buffalo Bill, Susan B. Anthony, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. All the more dramatic is the eventual demise of one of the characters on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

The other side of the story is Dr. Holmes, who, like Burnham, became known for his devotion to his craft. In Holmes’s case, it was murder. While most of the book alludes to the unspeakable deeds committed by Holmes, it is only at the end that the full story unfolds of just how horrifying a person he was and the unimaginable scope of his crimes.

The Devil in the White City reads like a grand novel and draws the reader into a truly spellbinding story, made all the more fascinating because it all really happened.

- Reviewed by Richard Nemeth, April 2003


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