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March 03, 2003

Review: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

Although I have a degree in English, mostly concentrated in American literature, I don’t read much fiction. Mostly, it seems fiction teaches us about human nature and human frailties. The best nonfiction does this, as well, but throws in history, trivia, and reality.

The Devil in the White City has all that and more. It recounts the great Columbian Exposition of 1893 — the Chicago World’s Fair. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and the premiere architects of 19th Century America, the fair introduced or helped popularize neoclassical architecture, AC electricity, Cracker Jack, the Ferris Wheel, Shredded Wheat, belly dancing (and the melody we all associate with “There’s a place in France where the ladies wear no pants…”). On the periphery of the fair, there was also a psychopath.

Larson focuses on two men, both with grand ambitions: Daniel H. Burnham, the Chicago architect who was the creative engine of the fair, and Dr. H.H. Holmes, who schemed to become wealthy by running a hotel near the fair site, and by running insurance fraud schemes on young women he killed.

Burnham managed to create the most successful fair of the day, and to put Chicago on the world’s map. Holmes managed to bilk creditors, kill and dispose of young women as soon as they became inconvenient, and got rich in the process. In the 1890’s, without credit card receipts, instantaneous telecommunications, or income tax, people could disappear without a trace, even when no foul play was involved. It was easy for Holmes, a charming psychopath, to deflect suspicion by claiming the women involved had skipped out on their bills. A rough contemporary of Jack the Ripper, who killed 5 women, Holmes killed at least 9, with some estimates putting the number above 50. His hotel was constructed with murder in mind, with gas jets venting into some rooms, and a soundproof kiln that allowed him to dispose of remains.

This is a terrific read, by turns creepy and informative, full of detective work and turn-of-the-century technical trivia (the axle of the first Ferris Wheel weighed 142,000 pounds, and had to be raised almost 150 feet).

Weaknesses: I wish there were more illustrations. There’s one small photo at the front of each section, but no maps, and there’s a wealth of material that begs for illustration.

    A few links to make up for it:

  • Chicago Historical Society: History Files - The World’s Columbian Exposition

  • Illinois Institute of Technology: World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893

  • The World’s Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath

  • World’s Columbian Exposition

  • A Digital Archive of American Architecture: 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition
  • March 3, 2003 in Books | Permalink


    I need erik larson b0day and info i wish he could email me !

    Posted by: Lauren at Mar 18, 2003 6:08:42 PM

    One of my good friends is Erik Larson's middle daughter, Lauren (8th grade), and it was interesting, during a recent dance team rehearsal, we had a break, and Lauren was reading Devil in the White City and she was saying how people might think her dad is a very dark and morbid man because of his books, but that he really is just a funny guy, and i brought up the fact that Stephen King is way morbider and she said "yea, my dad knows him, he's really weird...."

    Posted by: Hillary at Apr 27, 2004 12:06:06 AM

    You may want to check out this new documentary movie, "Expo - Magic of the White City," narrated by Gene Wilder.


    Posted by: Michael Bussler at May 1, 2005 8:18:55 AM