Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America₂s rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair's brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country's most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his "World's Fair Hotel" just west of the fairgrounds₇a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake. The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before. Erik Larson's gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.
“Within the fair’s buildings visitors encountered devices and concepts new to them and to the world. They heard live music played by an orchestra in New York and transmitted to the fair by long-distance telephone. They saw the first moving pictures on Edison’s Kinetoscope, and they watched, stunned, as lightening chattered from Nicola Tesla’s body. They saw even more ungodly things---the first zipper; the first ever all electric kitchen, which included an automatic dishwasher; and a box purporting to contain everything a cook would need to make pancakes, under the brand name Aunt Jemima’s. They sampled a new, oddly flavored gum called Juicy Fruit, and caramel-coated popcorn called Cracker Jack.” (Page 248)
Larson starts by introducing the architects responsible for the creation of the “White City,” as the fair was called. How do you throw together men of great talent and even greater egotism, and make it work? Head architect Daniel Burnham was able to succeed, but it’s the fascinating story of how it happened that Larson brings to life so well. They have a little more than two years to complete the project and the ever increasing stumbling blocks to its success are challenges that these men are able to overcome, surprisingly well.
At the same time, there is a mass murderer operating in the outskirts of the fair, in the “black city,” a term used to describe the “real” Chicago, such a dichotomy from the artificial “white city.” And then there was the madman, who appointed himself Chicago’s corporation counsel, and who barraged the city’s mayor with postcards in anticipation of his permanent appointment to the position. That it would end in tragedy is foreshadowed early on by the author.
Larson expertly weaves together these three threads to create a fascinating portrait of the “windy city” (even that label has an unexpected origin) in the 1890’s and beyond, as Larson explains in this passage:
“The fair’s greatest impact lay in how it changed the way Americans perceived their cities and their architects. It primed the whole of America---not just a few rich architectural patrons---to think of cities in a way they never had before. Elihu Root said the fair ‘led our people out of the wilderness of the commonplace to new ideas of architectural beauty and nobility’.…No such vision could otherwise have entered into the prosaic drudgery of their lives.” Very highly recommended.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
That expression "The devil is in the details" also came to mind as we follow the blueprint drawn by the devil in this story - Herman Webster Mudgett (aka Dr. H. H. Holmes). His hotel is crafted to his specifications as the ultimate murder weapon. If this were fiction, many critics would scoff at this incredulous story, saying that the murderer could not possibly have gotten away with building this strange hotel right under the noses of the Chicago police department. He could not possibly have been connected to so many disappearances without raising a tremendous amount of suspicion or attracting attention to himself. And yet he did.
This book is a marvel of information that reads like a thriller. It does not disappoint and never falls flat. From beginning to end it is gripping and full of suspense that has you wondering about each step even if you already know the story. Mr. Larson explains it best himself:
"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."
I do recommend this book and I found some of the fair details to be very magical and it would have been amazing to be there for the creation of so many great inventions. Although it does read like fiction in parts I would only recommend to those who enjoy reading non-fiction as some of the historical details do bog it down a bit in spots.
They're both interesting stories. The creation of the World's Fair features a certain degree of real drama, but more than that, it provides a window into many different aspects of the times. And Holmes' killings hold a gruesome sort of fascination, which Larson presents in an understated sort of way that makes it all the more effectively creepy. If this were a movie, I'd strongly suspect Hollywood of inventing some of the more audacious (but apparently true) details in order to make a better and more shocking story.
It's like the longest Hardy Boys story ever: every good guy is "handsome," with "piercing blue eyes." Or a Reader's Digest true crime report fleshed out to book length. The neighbors always had a bad feeling about that new guy with pasty white skin and an aura of Pure Evil...
What you get is a tome (a fucking TOME) too clumsy and full of half-hearted melodrama to succeed as either historical novel or creative non-fiction. I really think that either complete camp or the driest of dry record of facts would have been more effective than this sort of humorless crap:
"Much was made, in retrospect, of the fact that Root, in evening dress, charged into the rock-cold night without first putting on a coat."
Holy foreshadowing, Batman, I think that's the last straw!
I found myself sinking into the story of the fair - relishing the details like the inventors who proposed outrageous ideas to "out Eiffel the Eiffel" and descriptions of the devices and concepts which were new in 1893, but which we now take for granted (moving pictures, the first zipper, an electric kitchen, an automatic dishwasher, boxed pancake mix, and Cracker Jacks to name a few). Set against the backdrop of the labor unions and economic depression, the novel reveals the true spirit of man's endurance and determination. The 1893 World's Fair is with us today every time we watch The Wizard of Oz (who's Emerald City was inspired by the tremendous architecture of the fair), or when we celebrate Columbus Day, or when we stroll down a carnival midway or ride a Ferris Wheel. Larson's accessible prose puts it all together for the reader without weighing her down with facts.
Larson's parallel story about H. H. Holmes - the first American serial killer - is just as compelling and provides the dark side to the White City.
This is a novel I an highly recommend. Rated 4.5/5
Larson's use of foreshadowing got pretty ridiculous, as did his waiting to disclose certain facts, like the engineer who was building the great wheel, oh by the way, just happened to be named Ferris.
While we read of the fair being conceived, the site being chosen, the day to day details of the construction, we are also reading of American history. Many, if not most, of the major personalities of the time are included in these pages. This book brings both a city and a country to vivid life at the closing end of the century in a time that became known as The Gilded Age. Contrasting the brilliant architect whose vision became known as the White City, with the slimily engaging, cunning murderer who lured his victims to their untimely death was a brilliant idea.
This book engages the reader from the first page to the last, unique in vision, informative and entertaining, I highly recommend The Devil in the White City.
But (and it is a large but) the juxtaposition fails. Serial killer H. H. Holmes story may sound fascinating: a man who built a murder hotel, a place with gas chambers and a too large a furnace in the basement, but so little is known about Holmes and so much of it hard to swallow that Larson's technique falls flat. Yes it’s meticulously researched and carefully reconstructed but it feels lacklustre and often resorts to repeatedly mentioning his suave charm and cold, devilish icy blue eyes. The end chase, away from Chicago and after the fair is the most interesting but sadly feels out of place.
I am not sure I would recommend this book, the fair seems to warrant more concentrated exploration but this is as good as place as any to get a glimpse. Also what is it with the lack of photos? Larson’s good but not fantastic at painting the scene, all I can say is thank goodness for google
Meanwhile, banks and companies were failing across America, strikes threatened everywhere, and cholera had begun a slow white trek across Europe, raising fears that the first plague ships would soon arrive in New York Harbor.
The best history doesn't just explain the past, or relate it. It casts it through a prism, so the separate colors fall against the reader's perception and hang there, luminous.
On the other hand, it does take him a while to move the plot. And I'd like the speculation and fact to be more clearly demarcated.
What brought the book down for me was, in some part, Larson's writing style. It felt like he was forcing many analogies or striving to include just a little bit of everything. Think of it like talking to that person at the party who's in love with a topic and can't help but share, relating it to any and all subjects you might bring up... speaking of appetizers, did you know about the fascinating history of salt? Okay, that was my own awkward analogy. But I felt like the chapters on Prendergast were just sprinkled throughout because hey, the mayor who was re-elected during Fair time was shot by him after his big event at the fair... so that relates, right? While Larson may have gotten chills from seeing the force with which Prendergast wrote his crazy postcards (see how I threw that fact in? Now you must be intrigued too, righ?), I just wanted to get back to that fair that, by all accounts, should never have been built!
I also thought that Larson glossed over some important details, ones that he even stressed earlier in his book. For example, much was made of the fact that the Fair wasn't open on Sundays, owing to Lobbying by the Sabbatarian movement. But in the "Storm and Fire" chapter, the Fair is suddenly open on Sundays and subject to a wicked storm. Since the Fair was struggling for money and being closed on Sundays was a huge loss of revenue, why wasn't this covered? I was also annoyed that, while we received a great deal of biographical information on many of the Fair's architects, we received almost nothing on Sophia Hayden, the woman who designed The Woman's Building without any formal training and was driven to breakdown by the Fair's Board of Lady Managers. More than anything, though, I think I would've liked to have read more about the goings-on of the Fair after reading about all the preparation, construction, and politics.
One of the things I really did enjoy about this book was the long list of "notable firsts," including shredded wheat, Cracker Jacks, the Ferris Wheel, widespread use of alternating current electricity, and the effects of unionization. I suppose, having read this, I'll have lots more strange facts to insert, unnecessarily, into conversations.
I particularly enjoyed the descriptions and imagery of the Chicago World's Fair. It really whet my appetite and I know I will be looking around to see more images and learn more about that remarkable event. I wish though, that there were more photos included. It seems like they are probably available just based on the author's own remarks. At the very least I wish the few photos that were included had been printed larger. It would have been fun to see more of the detail that was lost in such miniature reproductions.
I found the "Holmes" story really dark and gruesome - there is no other way to describe it - it is what it is - but I would caution people who are upset by such things really to think twice before reading this book.
The author uses very heavy handed foreshadowing and constantly alludes to events that will be revealed or resolved later in the book. This device - no doubt - is supposed to make us prick up our ears and take notice - it would have been fine in moderation but by the halfway mark I was really tired of being teased.
The other small quibble I have with the author was just the over use of his description of Olmstead's ailments. I get it. His ears hurt (roared) and his teeth hurt. Repeating it every time he is mentioned was really tedious. I wanted to shout "I KNOW! - you told me that a chapter ago AND the chapter before that... etc etc!"
All that being said - an interesting topic (or two) and a pretty engaging and quick read.
Otherwise, I was bored to sleep each time I read more than 10-15 pages of this work. I was hoping for a substantial connection between the "devil" and the Fair. No dice. Instead, the reader is treated to excrutiatingly detailed descriptions of what was on the menu at various meetings attended by architects, quantity and types of flowers to adorn the landscape (seriously, a list of plants went on for an entire paragraph), or engineers performing stress tests on soil samples. Ooooh, how compelling.
I also found myself distracted by the author's decision to describe what the "characters" were thinking or feeling. This is a work of non-fiction, correct? So, how can the author presume to tell what emotions long-dead person could have felt? It's doubtful that every person mentioned in the book left behind a detailed journal chronicling such thoughts. If you're gonna write non-fiction, gimme facts. If you're gonna talk about feelings, grab a seat on Oprah's couch.
I suppose if you're a architecture nut or get jazzed by minutiae then buy the book & get jolly. If you've run out of prescription sleep meds, buy this book. If you're looking for an exciting, Jack the Ripper/true crime thrill ride, well, look you'd better look somewhere else.
The Fair became the greatest assortment of men and women of the age; architects, socialites, artists, landscapers, and legends of the Old West (brought to the Fair by Buffalo Bill Cody, who I am now related to through marriage). It was a near impossible task that nobody thought could be done, and it speaks to the spirit of a city unified under a common goal to prove the rest of the country, the rest of the world, wrong.
Holmes, a charismatic man with absolutely no qualms about killing another human being, as proved by sheer number once he confessed. He had a way of charming almost anyone, even when people could see that something was off about the man. He was a psychopath before there was a term for it.
And then there's Prendergast, a small man with big ideas, but no real concept of how to make it happen (I can relate). I was completely baffled by his place in the events of this novel until they happened, then it made perfect sense. Perfect, horrible sense.
Larson spins a web of connections through some of the greatest and most horrible historical moments surrounding the Chicago Colombian Exposition, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America. Even more amazing were the connections that came about much later, and only an historical eye could see their significance.
If you like history or stories about the indomitable nature of the human spirit, then definitely check this book out. Worth it.
I can't complain about the pacing or the prose--both are first rate. If anything holds me back from a fifth star, it's that this is creative non-fiction, a genre that makes me wary. Truman Capote claimed to have invented that genre, what he called "the non-fiction novel," with In Cold Blood. In other words, creative fiction is a work that, though based on a true story, takes liberties with the facts and invents details, dialogue, and even entire events. Larson even cites In Cold Blood as an inspiration. There's just so much sensory detail and thoughts of historical figures in the book for me to find its facts reliable. One can suppose such details could be taken from contemporary newspaper articles, letters and diaries to some extent, but I don't find that plausible in many instances. On the other hand, I'll give Larson this, unlike Capote, he does supply notes--thirty pages of them. But I can't quite settle into this as a novel, and yet can't quite trust it as history as a result of his approach.
The storyline of H. H. Holmes, his victims, his crimes, and his trial completely captured my attention. I'd like to think that I would have sensed that there was something that wasn't quite right about him if I had met him, yet for years practically everyone he met was taken in by his persona.
A minor storyline about the assassination of Chicago's mayor was included because it affected the Exposition's closing ceremony. Having listened to Destiny of the Republic earlier this year, I was struck by the similarity between the motives for the mayor's assassination and President Garfield's assassination. The murder must have given many of Chicago's adults a feeling of déjà vu.
While the chapters on the workaday challenges of creating the fair (cost overruns, weather, ornery architects) did serve to sharpen the horror of Holmes' sickening seductions and murders, the contrast was too great for me. I felt that Larson's really involving work of architectural and social history was overshadowed and trivialised by the relentless reminders of the terrible cruelty happening down the block. The roofs are leaking over by the Midway, and the landscape architect is feeling depressed? Gosh, I'm crushed. Over here, we only have a woman being asphyxiated in a kiln by her husband. Yeah, the acid etched her bare footprint into the door. Conversely, a meticulously researched piece of true crime is made almost unbearable by the jarring transitions into and out of the crimes.
It may be to Larson's credit that I responded so much to his account of Holmes' murders. The last time I felt this fascinated and soiled by a piece of true crime was when I did some reading on the Crippin murder - another 19th century wife-killer.
Another incongruity is the kind of data Larson has to work with. Historians of the Chicago World's Fair have almost too many primary sources: memoranda, personal letters, memoirs, etc., and there are almost too few for a lengthy factual book on the murders. Few firsthand accounts of Holmes are on record, and since most of his crimes took place behind the closed doors of his building - dubbed the "murder castle" by the press - Larson has to rely on contemporary newspaper stories. He also makes significant assumptions (which he does, to his credit, reveal as assumptions) based on his study of modern psychopaths. The result is chilling, but not based entirely on facts.
Maybe I would feel more secure about Larson's guesses if he didn't betray such a weakness for the dramatic . He loves to build up an anecdote and then, with the air of a magician whisking a tablecloth from a levitating assistant, he gestures proudly at an essential name, stuck at the end in a single sentence:
Frank Lloyd Wright.
George Washington Gale Ferris.
That kind of thing.
Besides the coincidence of time and place, Larson does try to make a case that the two stories say something important about the 20th century -something about pride and cruelty, mobility and isolation. I'm not convinced. However, if the combination had worked for me on an emotional level, I could probably have forgiven the intellectual stretch.