The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

Many of Erik Larson’s books explore the intersection of technological brilliance and human evil. In The Devil in the White City, he recreates the Chicago of 1893, where the nation’s foremost architects build the Chicago World’s Fair on Lake Michigan while a serial killer creates his own grotesque haven just blocks away.

It’s a city teeming with creativity, filth, growth, and chaos, which Larson captures so thoroughly that I could almost smell the stockyards and see the muck oozing down the Chicago River.

With meticulous attention to detail and storytelling prowess, Larson introduces us to chief architect Daniel Burnham, his partner John Root, and his talented team, including Louis Sullivan, with whom Burnham most often clashed; Frederick Law Olmsted, whose landscaping plans caused him nearly as much grief as his aching teeth; and Sophia Hayden Bennett, the lone woman, who was just 21 when she designed the Women’s Building.

And then there was H.H. Holmes, aka Herman Webster Mudgett, who built the horrifying World’s Fair Hotel, complete with a gas chamber and chute to smoothly dispose of bodies, which included those of three wives and one fiancée. He even sold a good many of their skeletons to a scientist who cleaned them and used them for research, conveniently expressing little curiosity as to their origins.

Larson intersperses the drama and delight of the fair with the horror of Holmes’ Murder Castle, both being built walking distance away from one another. The book’s tagline: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.

The fair, also called the World’s Columbian Exposition, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the United States, needed a show-stopper, a feature to compete with the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris.  Planners rejected several brilliant ideas, including an 8,000-foot elevator that would take riders to a toboggan run from which they would slide all the way to Boston (details to come later). After months of stressful searching, they finally found the solution: the first Ferris Wheel. This behemoth was 254-feet tall, with a capacity of 2,160 riders at a time. Riders were enclosed in 36 wooden cars the size of boxcars, which could hold up to 60 persons and included their own restaurants and bars. (The latter would probably come in handy for some riders.)

And to make the structures and landscaping work together, designers painted all buildings white, creating a magical city in the purest of colors, another contrast to the darkness blocks away in Holmes’ evil world.

It’s a wonder the fair opened at all, with constant squabbling between its architects, plus the unreceptive Chicago weather and boggy location in Jackson Park, which was largely a swamp before Burnham and Olmsted visited and saw the possibility of a lakeside wonder.  And it’s a wonder Holmes was ever caught, given the ineptitude of local police, the lack of any national data collection of missing women, and Holmes ability to lie brilliantly.

Most structures of the fair were covered essentially with papier-mache, so they were destroyed after the fair. Today’s Museum of Science and Industry is the only major building remaining; it had been the Palace of Fine Arts. Pat Prijatel

To see how the fair might have looked, check out this three-dimensional recreation.


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