Book Review: Devil in the White City

Those of you that know me know that I love to read a lot. As a social studies education major, I delight in historical books, fiction or realistic. However, suddenly, things like reading seem less than stellar when I am asked to do it for a class. I lose the desire to read when it is not for enjoyment.

My social studies ed professor required us to read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. I had never heard of this book and the synopsis on the back did not tell me much. The best conclusion I could draw from it was that it was about the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (otherwise known as the Columbian Exposition to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing on the New World), and that it was about the men who built it and the man that used the fair to his advantage. I knew some about the World’s Fair, but I had never really thoroughly researched it. So I sat down and began to read.

The book opens up with a prologue of a man aboard the Olympic on April 14, 1912. Any other history buffs out there (or even fanatic movie-watchers) should know that that particular date is the day the R.M.S. Titanic struck an iceberg and sank early the following morning. However, at this point, no one knew what had happened to the Titanic. The narrative then zeroes in on a man with a foot problem. This man was Daniel Hudson Burnham, one of the greatest architects of his time. Eventually, Burnham settled down in his cabin and opened his journal to reread about the fair.

The book then actually begins in Chicago on February 24,1890. In a roundabout way, the reader finds out that Chicago won the bid to host the World’s Fair, beating out New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and every other major American city. The city is overjoyed, but the architects know the work had just begun.

The story then shifts gears and jumps to a man named H.H. Holmes. It describes his upbringing and how he came to Chicago as a doctor. It also talks about he came to own a pharmacy in Englewood, one of the quiet suburbs of Chicago.

From there, the book jumps back and forth between what is happening in Burnham’s life and what is happening in Holmes’s. The reader gets to experience firsthand exactly how the various buildings of the glamorous World’s Fair came to be, and how Holmes built his own “hotel”.

By the time all the committees approve and all the buildings are designed by architects all over America, Burnham and his teams have twenty-seven months to finish the fair. As the story develops, the reader sympathizes with Burnham as he races against the clock to complete this impossible task. The biggest goal is to “out-Eiffel Eiffel,” who had just unveiled his famous tower in Paris at the 1889 World’s Fair. The architecture teams are desperate to complete their buildings in time. One of the architects suggest the construction workers use a cheaper material called staff and Daniel Burnham hires Francis Millet to color it. Instead of using brushes, Millet concocts this lead-based paint and attaches a special connector to a hose, thus creating the first use of spray-paint. The “color team” whitewashes the main buildings, thus dubbing the Fair “The White City”. Despite death, mishaps, illnesses, and other problems, the architects complete the majority of the Exposition on time. An engineer from Pittsburgh won the contest to “out-Eiffel Eiffel,” but his creation was not ready to unveil until June 21, 1893, almost two months since the Fair had opened on May 1 of the same year. That day, the creation was finally operational. George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., joked that he had taken the wheels in his head and placed them instead on the Midway Plaisance. Since then, Ferris Wheels have been seen at most carnivals and fairs and other places of amusement. Slowly, eventually, the World’s Fair became one of the greatest successes 19th century America had ever known. The reader can clearly sympathize with Burnham in all of the Exposition’s shortcomings and rejoice with him as he sees his creation unfold and be successful.

Nevertheless, despite this man’s success and good work, H.H. Holmes used the prospect of the Fair to his advantage. He built his hotel on cheap labor and broken promises. However, he was so incredibly charming and charismatic that collectors often left his place laughing and forgetting why they had come by in the first place. He was witty and handsome and all the women loved him. He married a few times, each without telling his previous wife of his earlier marriages. He used deception frequently and effortlessly. Nevertheless, he did not seem like a bad man to those that knew him, loved him, or who purchased medicine and other things from him. He was always described in the same way and always seen as charming. However, it always seems to be the ones one would never suspect that be the serial killers. That’s just what Holmes turns out to be. He entices women, sometimes seducing them, before he locks them in an airtight vault or just covers their mouths with chloroform. However, due to the lack of effective police and the sheer number of people coming to the Fair, disappearances were commonplace and often overlooked. 

After the Fair closes, the architects decide that it would be more economical to burn the buildings rather than renovate them or let them fall into disrepair, like the Paris Fair had done. Four buildings remained, three of which were sold to the states or regions they represented and were later moved. The one building to remain is the Palace of Fine Arts, which is now the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. 

Holmes was eventually faced with angry friends of the deceased and creditors. Working swiftly, he traveled across the Midwest, stopping for only a few days. He was finally caught in Pennsylvania for insurance fraud among other things. He was incarcerated, convicted, and executed by hanging. However, his work had been done. He was America’s first serial killer.

Overall, this book was one I thoroughly enjoyed. The history is accurate and fascinating, and Larson does an excellent job of humanizing the characters and giving them relatable emotions. One can easily picture the scene from 1890-1896 (and even into 1912 aboard the Olympic). One downside, however, is the foreshadowing. In my opinion, it detracts from the suspense of the story as a whole. Also, Larson sometimes puts in unnecessary facts that do not pertain to the story at all. Despite this, this book was exceptional and it did not feel like it was a book I had to read for a class.

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