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 Audible.com 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.