Book Review | The Devil in the White City

Cracker Jack. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix. Shredded Wheat. Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum. The Ferris Wheel. The Hamburger. Kodak cameras. Moving pictures. The first movie theater. Widespread use of electricity, the incandescent light bulb and where Tesla’s AC and Edison’s DC “power war” was settled, becoming the prevailing form of electrical power in the country (AC). Hershey Bars. The inspiration for Disney World and the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz.

Playground for America’s first serial killer.

These are just a few of the things first introduced to the world during The Columbian Exposition, more popularly referred to as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (considered the most influential World’s Fair in history)…and the scene of the most recent book that I read by author Erik Larson entitled, “The Devil in the White City.”

“The Devil in the White City” is what is referred to as ‘narrative non-fiction’, in that it is based on true historical events and chronicling the lives of actual people through the exhaustive research and cross-reference of journals, personal diaries, newspaper articles, first-person accounts and historical documentation…but it reads like a fictional tale (sans dialogue, which would be impossible to know). It is also the story of two men – one a brilliant architect known for such landmarks as the Flatiron Building in NYC and the iconic Chicago Marshall Fields department store (now Macy’s)…and the other a ruthless murderer, preying on the many female visitors drawn to Chicago for the fair – whose lives and personal ambitions intersect in the excellent telling of their concurrent stories.


The White City - The World's Columbian Exposition: the Chicago World's Fair of 1893

The Fair & Daniel H. Burnham

The responsibility of building the fair was placed on the shoulders of Daniel H. Burnham and his partner John Root, of Burnham & Root. The two men had earned a reputation in Chicago for being the first to build the city’s tallest buildings and much, by way of being granted commission of the Fair, was attributed to Burnham’s shrew business acumen and the artistic, architectural genius of Root, who later died during the Fair’s construction.

The Columbian Exposition (from this point forward referred to as, “the Fair”) was a themed celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America…and would come on the heels of the awe-inspiring Paris Exposition, in which the famous Eiffel Tower was introduced. Chicago had won the right to put on the fair, beating out more obvious (and in some cases, preferred) contenders such as New York City. As Chicago approached the turn of the 20th Century, it had also seen its population grow in 1870 to the second largest in the country, however it was still not considered a “great” city due to its perceived lack of culture or dynamic industry, outside of the bloody slaughterhouses of the Stock Yards. It was a dirty, filthy and (quite frankly) smelly city (it was not uncommon to find dead horses in the street or excrement tossed out windows) and many feared that it would embarrass the country by not being able to meet or exceed the standards set by the heavily praised Paris fair.

To spare you of any feigned suspense, these concerns were summarily destroyed, as the fair was attended by more than 27 million people over its 6 month run (nearly half of the country’s population at that time), it shattered the previous single day attendance record set by the Paris fair of roughly 350,000…to Chicago’s 761,942 and inspired a nation during a time of financial crisis and earned the moniker, “The White City” due to its beautiful Roman classic architecture painted in startling white.


1893 Columbian Exposition, Chicago

But the creation and construction of the fair was not without its problems. At first it was difficult to get some of America’s most renowned architects to sign on due to the short amount of time needed (roughly 3 years), not to mention the delays caused by the simple act of trying to find a suitable location… eventually Jackson Park, which was nothing but a barren wasteland on the shores of Lake Michigan at the time. Most believed that it was not possible and that the Fair would be a monumental failure, including initially, Frederick Olmsted, most famously known as the landscape architect of Central Park and the Biltmore Estate…but who eventually signed on thanks to Burnham’s incredible powers of persuasion.

Not only did many believe that Chicago was incapable of putting on a Fair that could rival that of Paris; simple ego and fear of tarnishing one’s reputation, should the Fair not be a success, was also a major obstacle. This resulted in further delays, lessoning the already short time afforded to bring the Fair to fruition.


D. Burnham - Driving force behind the Fair.

As construction of the Fair commenced, it was plagued with uncontrollable problems such as: weather destroying buildings already behind schedule, the ground sinking beneath the Fair site, financial collapse of many of the nation’s banks and creating a panic and most importantly, not having something that could rival or surpass the Eiffel Tower of the Paris Exposition, which had come to define the Paris Fair’s dominance.

Interestingly enough, although Eiffel himself offered to build another tower for the Chicago Fair – even bigger than the one he built in Paris – it was rightfully decided that having a Frenchman build what would be the biggest draw to the American Fair would be in poor taste. This honor was (later…almost too late) given to a man by the name of Ferris and his seemingly impossible “giant wheel.”


Ferris's Wheel - 1893. It could carry as many as 2000 passengers at a time.

Despite the setbacks, the Fair opened on time (although some buildings were still not complete, nor was Olmstead’s landscaping ready or Ferris’s Wheel able to take passengers), but word very quickly spread throughout the entire country about this “magical dreamland” in the heart of Chicago. By all accounts, people were taken aback by the sheer majesty and overwhelming beauty and vision of the Fair. Writers, poets and journalists wrote about this “perfect city” and how leaving it left you with a sense of despair until the day you could set eyes upon it again. Millions pf people traveled from all over the country (and the world) to experience the Fair.

On an interesting side note, a young man and carpenter by the name of Elias Disney worked on the construction of the Fair. He would later recall the incredible wonderment and indescribable beauty that the Fair possessed…to his young son, Walt.

Everything from exotic villages of people from far-away lands, new foods, new inventions, fountains that magically propelled lit streams of water of different colors, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, belly dancers, scientific discoveries, Annie Oakley, priceless art and other amazing exhibits were on display. People such as Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Helen Keller, Susan B. Anthony, Teddy Roosevelt, Royalty from other countries, Mark Twain (although he became sick and bed-ridden in his hotel, enjoying the Fair he came to see from his window)…were all in attendance.

A Magical Place

The Fair lit up at night by electricity supplied by Westinghouse and Tesla’s AC power – after submitting a lower bid than Edison and General Electric – creating an incredible illuminated vision of the new future…for many, seeing and experiencing electricity for the first time (gas was the prevailing light source), for others the first time seeing it employed on such a large scale. In the process, altering the prevailing form of power that would be used in the future in this country.

There were so many interesting famous people and new inventions that many of us enjoy today, in addition to remarkable happenstance that occurred in the book, that is was very difficult for me to put down. I can’t tell you how many, “wow”, “that’s how that happened?!” and incredulous moments I enjoyed while reading this book. It made me seek out more information on the Fair, to see photos, research certain passages that I saw in the book and simply a desire to learn more about this incredible event in our history.

Anyway, I fear I may have waxed poetic a bit too much about the Fair…in juxtaposition to the evil that was also occurring at the same time.


Serial Killer: H. H. Holmes

Murderer in the Magic City

H. H. Holmes (born Herman Mudgett) arrived in Chicago before the Fair began construction. He was seeking a city in which to create a new identity, a city big enough to allow him to entertain his hidden desires / ruthless fantasies and where people (especially women) could easily disappear in the fast-paced hustle and bustle without attracting attention from the authorities…Chicago in the late 1800’s fit the bill perfectly.

By all accounts, Holmes is a very charming man who easily captured the attention of women who were attracted to the handsome and single “doctor” (an alias)…and he used this to his advantage.

Initially, upon arrival to Chicago, he swindles an old woman into signing over her recently deceased husband’s successful pharmacy over to him, allowing him to “help manage it, in order to release her difficult burden.” After signing over the deed, she suddenly disappears.

With the money he gained from the pharmacy, Holmes continues to increase his fortune by buying things of value on credit that he had no intention of paying for. He swindles another woman into signing over valuable property near the Fair site that will later become known in the media as his, “Murder Castle.” She disappears. Neighbors are told she is visiting family “out of state.”

On the newly acquired property, he constructs a building that he designs himself…as it has a very specific purpose. To hide that purpose, he hires construction workers who are only permitted to work on certain parts of the building for only a short time, whom he fires quickly (and rarely pays, claiming “shoddy workmanship”) and hires new workers to complete the task…never allowing anyone to work on the hotel for an extending period of time and thus, hiding knowledge of the buildings final layout.

The building contains numerous airtight & soundproof rooms (including one adjacent to his personal office) with only one opening, a strange feature indeed, in which gas can be fed into the room. He builds a kiln in the basement, capable of creating tremendous heat, enough to incinerate whatever (and whoever) might be placed in it. He orders & stores large amounts of chloroform (a favorite method of subduing victims…even when they sleep, as he uses his master key to enter their rooms at night), never raising suspicion because of his guise as a doctor.


Holmes 'Murder Castle'

Once the building is complete, he puts it under a false name (one of many he will use) to stave off collectors. On the first floor he provides commercial space for stores, a barber shop and a pharmacy. On the remaining upper floors, he rents rooms and later converts the space into a hotel in preparation for the crush of people expected to arrive in the city for the great Fair…especially young women away from home for the first time, seeking the adventure of being out on their own and easily “lost” in the tremendous crowd of people making their way to Chicago.

He employs women. Often times will only rent to women. For those in his employ, he convinces them to let him buy them life insurance…of which he is the recipient. Telling them he will give them half, as he is planing to perpetuate an insurance scam for need of money and they will only need to leave the city with their share in hand. They disappear, but not with money in their purses.

What is interesting about Holmes is that he methodically courts the women (even the wife of one of his employees, as the challenge excites him), makes them fall in love with him, is warm and caring, proposes to them (he marries multiple women, although he has a wife and child from before he came to Chicago) and earns their trust. In some cases they have something he wants (i.e. property, savings), that they eventually sign over to him, thinking he has their best interests at heart. In other cases, there is no motive other than to abate his personal fantasies of having power over them, including the ability to take their life. He tells many that he is of royal descent in Europe, is very wealthy and he plays the part well…the women can’t believe their luck in finding such a successful (and single) man giving them his attention.

Once the Fair opens and his hotel is full of visiting women, he is provided with all the victims he can handle. The Fair and the traffic to the city it garners, offers him a steady supply.

Inquiries are made by the families of missing women, but in the chaos and excitement of the Fair, he is never suspected of foul play. He tells detectives hired by families that the missing women “up and left suddenly”, got married or moved overseas. In an age of limited communication and technology, it is impossible to effectively track or find a missing person when millions are converging on the city.

At the time, it is also unfathomable to think that a person would kill without motive, that they would simply kill for the sake of killing…in one case, this included children.


America's First Serial Killer

Colliding Paths

“The Devil in the White City” is an immensely interesting read and I highly recommend it to anyone who may have found interesting much of what I discussed in this review…the tale of two entirely different men, whose stories are told in juxtaposition to each other and centered around the same remarkable and historic event. For one man, it was a crowning achievement that exceeded all expectations and is considered to be the most influential World’s Fair in history. For the other, it was a playground in which he could enact his deepest and most disturbing urges.

The book primarily covers, in great detail, the story behind the Fair and all that it faced and eventually accomplished. It is astounding what they were able to pull off and I relished the descriptions of its creation and the impact that it had on people…so much so, that I constantly found myself searching for images and additional information to help fill the excellent narrative even more.

I can think of countless examples of passages that I found immensely intriguing, examples of references to things that I had no idea originated at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893…however I fear that this “review” has become long enough and I only hope that I have piqued your interest enough to pick up a copy of the book and read it yourselves.

– Dana

* “The Devil in the White City” was published in 2004. It was a New York Times Bestseller and is currently available in paperback, as well as through most ebook readers such as the Amazon Kindle and the Nook.


Images From The Fair

The following is a slideshow of some of the images from the Fair that I found particularly interesting. I hope you will check them out and get a sense of the world that is discussed in the book:

To check out previous book reviews, please visit the “Buk Lernin” section of the website.

Note to Publishers & Authors: If you are interested in having a book reviewed, please contact me. I will only review books in which the subject matter personally interests me. I will also make all reasonable effort to post an honest review prior to the scheduled release date, therefore (when sending an advanced copy) please allot enough time for this prior to publication. Should I enjoy the book, I will also honor requests to interview the author on the podcast. Thank you!

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Bipedal. Podcaster. Blogger. Geek. Browncoat. I Occasionally Pee Sitting Down. Dana is the host and owner of Stimulated Boredom.
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    I have just finished reading this book, and although I also found many of the factual tidbits interesting, I must say that the style of the writing was rather disappointing. I found the constant switch each chapter between the information on the fair and then information about H.H. Holmes to be rather disjointed and abrupt. It seemed as if the author had wanted to write two books, but didn’t quite have enough material for each, so he combined the two. The parts of the book about the fair are almost too specific and are quite redundant (how many meetings are described in excruciating detail, without adding anything to the story?), but the chapters on the murders are rather “light”, without much detail. The author also seems to be obsessed with the color of men’s eyes: many male characters are described with the color of their eyes, and for the two “main” characters (the architect Burnham and the killer Holmes), who both have blue eyes, this fact is mentioned repeatedly throughout the book. All in all, these features made rather uneven reading for me, and kept me from finding the book completely satisfying.

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