Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City is two histories united by a place: a history of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and that of the Chicago-based serial killer H.H. Holmes. Both of these histories are well written. The Worlds Fair history fits alongside The Box as a worthy appendage to Nature’s Metropolis, the great and monumental history of Chicago. And I have not read anything quite like H.H. Holmes life – but I have seen variations of him in the movies.
The Chicago World’s Fair is properly the “World’s Columbian Exposition,” marking the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World. The narrative begins just as Chicago is chosen, by Congress, to host the fair. The story is told primarily through the eyes of Daniel Burnham, once rejected by both Harvard and Yale but responsible not just for the fair but Union Station and the National Mall in Washington, DC. Other great architects appear as minor or supporting characters including Louis Sullivan, Frederick Olmsted, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Devil in the White City is a story of a start-up like Compaq or Oculus, but operating under government control and with a known end-date, like the Brexit campaign.
White City introduces the reader to each phase of the planning and execution of the fair. During each phase different other characters receive attention. For instance, “Buffalo” Bill Cody briefly appears as an individual attempting to get a concession during planning, as a rival during the fair’s lackluster opening, and finally as a memorable part of the festivities as the fair draws to a successful close. Likewise, Gale Ferris enters as a contestant with an idea for a tower, and as his “Ferris Wheel” is constructed, becomes the centerpiece of the fair’s business success.
I also enjoyed reading about the various people who visited the fair. I wonder if the rumors reported about Archduke Franz Ferdinand are true. I did not even know about Infanta Eulalia of Spain, who was quite the character. And it’s ironic that Mark Twain visited Chicago during the fair, but due to illness did not go.
All this excitement and hope is shadowed by H.H. Holmes, a wealth businessman, trained surgeon, and serial killer. The story is interesting, and the man, evil. The demon that warped Holmes succeeded in not just killing many, but also torturing him. His last, bizarre, and wicked trip saw him putting in an exhausting effort to no clear goal at all.
I enjoyed reading about the greatness of Chicago, and the success of the World’s Fair. I would describe Devil in the White City as a cross between Nature’s Metropolis and Steve Jobs, in “America 2.0” in her full confidence. Mixed in with a murder tale. Most of the narrative is about the fair. There’s just enough of Holmes – at first you think you want to know more, than you are glad you don’t.
I read The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson, in the Audible edition.