JudgyK's Reviews > The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
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's review
May 07, 2012

really liked it

In 1871, Chicago burned down. By 1893, it was a hustling bustling city in the middle of hosting the world's fair. The fair brought people from all over the planet to Chicago to find jobs and visit the spectacle. Among those people was America's first well-publicized serial killer. The Devil in the White City looks at how the world's fair came to be in Chicago, how it was designed and built, and what opportunities it presented to a certain sociopath.

Erik Larson is a master of storytelling. He’s a journalist and a historian, but he is a MASTER of storytelling. It would have been easy to tell the story of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Architects, politicians, city planners, and so forth changed the face of all cities in America while throwing a hell of a party. It would also have been easy to tell the story of Dr. H.H. Holmes, one of the first documented serial killers in the United States. And it would have been REALLY easy for either or both stories to be dry, boring, predictable, and ignored.

The Devil in the White City weaves the two stories together to make a fascinating novel. How did Chicago come to be the location of the Fair? How did it get built on time? What did it look like? What was a day at the World’s Fair like? What was Chicago like in the 1890s? How did that provide Holmes with the opportunity to create his hotel of horror? Why was he such a miserably bad guy anyway? What happened to the fairgrounds? What happened to Holmes? Larson answers all these questions and more. Like why the United States uses alternating current instead of direct current, causing fluorescent bulbs to flicker.

In 1871, Chicago burned down. It rebuilt quickly, inventing skyscrapers and working elevators (the elevator part was easy. the mechanism to keep it from falling was the hard part.), reversing the river, unionizing, and experiencing massive population growth. 20 years later, it was a bustling hub. All the railroads in the county converged at Union Station, and the stockyards fed the world. As the architects who designed the World’s Fair work to create a beautiful space, more and more people crowded into the city. Immigrants, young single women looking for work, hundreds of thousands of people.

Among the people arriving was Holmes, a psychopath and a doctor. People tended to mysteriously disappear around him. And then he built his death castle, specifically to torture and murder the immigrants and young single women who came to Chicago looking for a better life. No one would notice they were gone.

Holmes built his dark house of horror to kill. Burnham designed the White City to enthrall. He believed that cities should be large, with impressive buildings and tall columns and lagoons and pools and green spaces. The World’s Fair had all that and more – the Alabaster City gleamed enough to make it into the lyrics of America the Beautiful. The Ferris Wheel saved the Fair from certain boondoggleness. And Holmes wandered through the city killing.

Other than the timing of events, the two stories do not seem to be connected. But Larson weaves them together, back and forth. As you learn and dream and imagine the fantastic fairgrounds being constructed and worry about them finishing on time, you also cringe and close your eyes and hope that SOMEONE will stop Holmes before he continues his murderous rampage. Spoiler alert: they didn’t finish the fairgrounds on time, and nobody stopped Holmes in Chicago.

History comes alive and long-dead people find their voices through Larson. If you have any interest in history, Chicago, architecture, World Fairs, true crime, thrillers, nonfiction, or just a hell of a good story, you will enjoy The Devil in the White City.

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