The Devil In The White City


Erik Larson


Non Fiction


Date Reviewed:

July 26, 2004

his is the true story of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. It is also the story of a serial killer who preys on vulnerable people, mostly young single women, who come to Chicago, to see big city life for themselves. The book is a reporting of actual events, and I think that makes the reading all the more riveting. It is a juxaposition of an incredible achievement by a visionary man, contrasted to the unspeakable evil by a despicable man.

Daniel Burnham is the visionary. It is his job to build a wonderous World's Fair, something that will outshine the recently concluded and highly successful World's Fair in Paris. This World's Fair will put the United States on the map, and show that America is the equal of the continental powers. The major cities vie for the right to host the fair, but Chicago triumphs. When Burnham is finally given the assignment, only about 2 years remain before opening day. 2 years to design and construct a whole new city. He recruits the best architects in America, and they embark on the process. It is an amazing display of discipline and drive in the face of great obstacles. I wish there had been even more detail of the Fair's construction. We hear about demands for minimum wages, and how the workers are trying to unionize. We read about how the economy is tanking, banks are closing and financers are committing suicide. I wish there had been even more material about the era (was this part of the Guilded Age, or did that officially begin later?)

When the fair does open, it is a success. Burnham and his team have built a whole city (all painted a uniform white- thus the White City of the title) and filled it with wonders: electric lights! Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show! The giant Ferris Wheel! The chapters on the Ferris Wheel are especially great. The fair organizers want something that will out-do the Eiffel Tower that was the highlight of the Paris exhibition. George Ferris designs a monstrous wheel, which carries riders high above the sky line to look out on the city below. It is a feat of engineering that amazed the world.

Alternating with the story of Burnham and his team are chapters about H.H. Holmes (an assumed name, apparently adopted from reading about Sherlock Holmes who was popular at the time. Also popular at the time: Jack the Ripper.) Holmes kills for fun. He is remorseless, and very planful. He has built a hotel near the fair with a special killing room, which allows him to dispose of the bodies of the unfortunate souls who checked into his hotel, but never checked out again. People disappeared all the time in the big city back then, and what few inquiries Holmes received were easily deflected by his lies and manner. Apparently he was friendly with the cops. I had to stop reading several times when another innocent woman falls into his clutches - Larson sympathetically describes yet another victim, it is was upsetting to see Holmes' wreck yet another life. I think this book is more powerful because it is true.

At the end of the book, Holmes has blundered in a scheme to collect the life insurance of a man he murdered. Holmes is in jail, and the detective sets out to try and find what happened to three children who were last seen in Holmes care. It is an incredible amount of perserverance, deductive reasoning and some luck to find out what happened. Holmes ends up convicted and executed.

This book is recommended. It is successful in describing the fair, and the social conditions. The Burnham story examines Chicago from the big picture, while the Holmes story allows description of individual life in the big city (although, unfortunately, many of these lives end tragically.)