The Devil in the White City
by Erik Larson
“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
– Daniel H. Burnham
“I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”
– H. H. Holmes
So begins Erik Larson’s account of two extraordinary men and the event of the century that tied their stories together. Husband and I were channel flicking a few weeks ago and came across a documentary on America’s first serial killer. We’re both a little macabre and enjoy a good doco, so we started watching; an hour later, we were glued to the screen, intermittently Googling details mentioned to check their legitimacy. My online hunt led me to this book, which I was mighty excited to start reading.
In a nutshell, Larson’s book covers the Chicago’s World’s Fair (or World’s Columbian Exposition) held in 1893 held officially to mark the 400th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus, and unofficially to one-up Paris on their stunning World’s Fair held in 1889 (which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille) and stick it to New York who didn’t think a city like Chicago had the ability to do it justice. The Fair is one of three “characters” in my mind; the other two were architect Daniel Burnham, the man who was behind the design and construction of the Fair (no small feat considering it covered an area of almost 700 acres with almost 200 buildings custom built for it), and H. H. Holmes, the man who used the excitement and lure of the Fair to help him kill at least nine people, but the actual number is suspected to be quite a bit higher.
In Larson’s own words:
“Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.”
The book follows the city of Chicago, Burnham and Holmes through the years preceding, during and after the World’s Fair. We see the White City of the Fair come together under the watchful eye of Daniel Burnham, and we see how Holmes uses it to his advantage. While Burnham is employing talented artists and craftsmen, Holmes is luring vulnerable young women to Chicago and killing them in his “castle,” a structure he had built for use as a hotel for the guests that would flock to Chicago for the fair, but which was also equipped with special features like gas pipes that only he could control, sound-proof chambers, and custom built oven that was not used to bake bread in.
“The Chicago Times-Herald took the broad view and said of Holmes: ‘He is a prodigy of wickedness, a human demon, a being so unthinkable that no novelist would dare to invent such a character. The story, too, tends to illustrate the end of the century.’ “
And the legacies these three legends left behind?
Holmes was hanged in 1896 after being found guilty of the murders of Benjamin Pitezel and his daughters Alice and Nellie. While some claim he was America’s first real serial killer with over 200 kills, the exact number will never be known for certain. Larson writes that “At the very least he killed nine.”
Burnham‘s Fair was a raving success, the buildings swept visitors off their feet, and went on to design many more buildings, including the Flatiron in New York City. He passes away in Heidelberg, Germany in 1912 and was laid to rest in Chicago’s Graceland cemetery.
And the World’s Fair set the standard for every other fair to come; Walt Disney was most likely inspired by the Fair, given his father helped build it. L. Frank Baum’s Oz was another dreamland likely informed by the White City. Every carnival since has had a Ferris Wheel, which was invented just for the Fair. Juicy Fruit and Pabst Blue Ribbon came into existence, and the Dewey Decimal System was introduced to the world, and Helen Keller was introduced to the man who invented her beloved Braille typewriter.
One of the best reads I’ve had this year, combining history with story telling in the most captivating possible way. I also love reading books that describe great cities as they used to be, and this painted the most vivid picture of “old” Chicago – I’m so much more excited to get back to this amazing city for a second visit now! And apparently in line for the Hollywood treatment, so pick up a copy and read the book first – it’s always better, anyway!