Friday, March 04, 2011

The Devil in the White City

Even though Eric Larson's book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America , was published in 2003, I didn't hear of it until I read about it on a few blogs last year and what I read intrigued me enough to add it to my various wish lists.

I had an credit that was burning a hole in my virtual pocket last month and so I downloaded the audio version as read by Tony Goldwyn. It was magnificent...chilling, interesting, balanced.

The book reads like a novel but as Larson asserts in the opening pages, everything in it is painstakingly researched, and when Larson makes suppositions, he clearly notes what is in the record and what he is piecing together.

The White City is the Columbian Exposition of 1893, aka the Chicago World's Fair, and the Devil is H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett), a serial killer who lived near the fair and lured his victims to his "castle" where he murdered, dismembered, and otherwise committed heinous acts upon them.

I really enjoyed the story of Daniel Burnham:, the fair's Director of Works who was responsible for having all the buildings designed and built and having the grounds designed and planted. He engaged leading American architects and masterfully dealt with their egos, their budgets, and their demands all while working under incredible time pressure. I also liked hearing about Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York's Central Park, who got the commission to design the fair's grounds.

Balancing this story of building the fair was the very dark story of H.H. Holmes and his macabre castle, outfitted with vaults, gas chambers, and ovens (for cremating bodies). Just when I got really chilled or shaken by this part of the book, Larson mercifully resumed the story of Birnham and his cohorts.

Other interesting side stories included that of Carter Harrison,Chicago's flamboyant major, who was assassinated on the eve of the fair's closing, and his insane assailant, Patrick Prendergast, Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show that crashed the fair (i.e., they were denied a spot in the fair so they set up shop next door and made millions!), and George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. and the selling and construction of his magnificant wheel.

After I was finished with the book, I promptly ordered a copy of The Chicago World's Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record so that I could pour over the pictures of the fair. It truly was a magnificent little city--I can imagine the impact it must have had on visitors to the fair, many of whom took the train in from the down on the farm to see the sights.

I felt like reading this book taught me a lot about a slice of American history that I knew virtually nothing about before. Somehow I've always skipped from the Civil War to WWI, without paying much attention to the time in between.

If you read it, brace yourself for some pretty grizzly stuff when Larson discusses H.H. Holmes, though regular watchers of CSI may find this fairly mild stuff! I kid you not, it gave me nightmares. I had to start listening to The Secret History of the Pink Carnation in order to get my dreams realigned.


  1. My husband read this years ago and still talks about it. But for some reason I've never picked it up. He and I rarely pick up the same book; we have very different taste in books. So I guess I just assumed that I wouldn't care for it. But with the movie adaptation coming soon and your review, I think it's time to pull it off the book shelf.

  2. I read this book about five years ago - I enjoyed the description of the Fair, so half the story, but hated the serial killer sections - not the kind of book I would usually read. So I really am in two minds about this book.

  3. I was really surprised when I read this book that I liked the portions about the fair better than those about Holmes. I had kind of figured it would be the other way around. At the time, I never thought about finding pictures-- that would be something to see!

  4. Lisa - I had no idea that there was a movie coming out. I Googled it and it sounds like it's been in discussion for awhile, with Leonardo DiCaprio set to play Holmes. I hope that doesn't mean they'll focus on Holmes with the Fair and the Fair builders on the sidelines.

    Tracy - I didn't hate the serial killer sections, but they did bother me and I was relieved when the author went back to the Fair.

    Mindy - the pictures are awesome...worth tracking down on the Internet or in one of the many books available on the Fair.

  5. I have this one on my shelves and should really try and get to it as I've heard great things. I find the World's Fairs/Expos to be incredibly fascinating just on their own and should probably find more books about the various ones.