Book #13

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

CHICAGO, 1893.

The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 was one of the greats wonders of the world. This is the extraordinary story of its realization, and of two men whose fates it linked: one was an architect, the other a serial killer...

The architect was Daniel H. Burnham. He created the 'White City', a massive, visionary landscape of white buildings set in an incandescent wonderland of canals and gardens. The killer was H. H. Holmes, a handsome doctor with intense blue eyes, who used the attraction of the great fair - and his own devilish charms - to lure scores, perhaps hundreds, of young women to their deaths. And while Burnham overcame politics, infighting, personality clashes and Chicago's infamous weather to transform the swamps of Jackson Park into the greatest show on Earth, Holmes built his own edifice. He called it the World's Fair Hotel. In reality it was a torture palace, a gas chamber, a crematorium.

These two disparate yet driven men together with a remarkable supporting cast, including Buffalo Bill, George Ferris and Thomas Edison, are brought to life in this mesmerizing, murderous tale of the spectacle that transformed America and set it on course for the 20th century.

I am far from a non-fiction kinda gal. Drawn more by the fictitious, the fantastical, the possibilities of imagination, I’d prefer to read about invented situations and people than real ones. Unless the situation and people involved fall under the category of true crime.

The attraction here was the tale of one H.H. Holmes, a serial killer operating at the time of the Chicago World Fair in 1893. A physician and pharmacist, he moved to Chicago and begun to build his ‘murder castle’ - a massive structure with secret rooms which allowed him to entrap and kill many people, many of which were young women he had employed. My curiosity was overflowing.

Delving into these pages sparked initial disappointment as I found myself reading of the politics involved in building the fair, and mostly the architectural strategies. I met the men responsible for planning and construction, I sat in on their budgetary meetings, I did all the things a woman with a slim to none curiosity for architecture would loathe to do. I could see myself skipping future passages, and yet slowly my interest in design and building piqued. I have no idea why, but there was something very engaging about Larson’s descriptions, his clear passion for this area in history, and his plain dedication to research. I learned a lot, and I enjoyed it.

Holmes appears briefly, and in alternating chapters, contrasting oddly with the in-depth explorations of the World Fair’s rise into being. His chapters are shorter, and far more sparse with their information. It became quickly apparent that Larson’s true love was for the fair; his passion for serial killing and fraud was noticeably lacking. Although Holmes carried out crimes around the time of the fair, and did visit a few times (as did everyone), there were no real connections between the two. It felt disjointed, and very strange, like two books fused together by accident.

Strangely, having picked up the book to learn about Holmes, I instead learned about the Chicago World Fair - something I had never garnered an interest for before. Odd how the passion of an author can propel something in you to join in.