I’m already a huge fan of Erik Larson, after reading his great book on the 1900 Galveston hurricane, Isaac’s Storm. I had heard about The Devil in the White City, and was looking forward to getting an opportunity to read it.
This book is about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which was a tremendous undertaking by the city of Chicago, and contained quite a few landmark events.
It’s more than just a book about a fair, though. It is also about what was going on behind the scenes before and during that fair. You see, there was a mad man on the loose, killing people right under the noses of the Chicago authorities, and no one even suspected him. As I read this book, I kept asking myself, “How have I never heard about this??”
The book opens, though, in 1912, on April 14, as now-famous architect, Daniel Hudson Burnham, is aboard the ocean liner Olympic. One of his best friends, and fellow architect, Frank Millet, was aboard a sister ocean liner, built by the same company, travelling in the opposite direction. As he dined that night, he thought of Millet, and decided to send him a greeting, via the Marconi wireless on board the Olympic. The steward returned, stating that they had been unable to send the message. Burnham demanded an explanation, and all that he got was that there had been an accident involving Millet’s ship. Millet was on the Titanic.
Jump back a little over twenty years, and Burnham and his associates are awaiting news, on February 24, 1890. A World’s Fair in Chicago has been proposed, with the idea of outdoing the French, who had just astounded the world with the 1889 exposition. The people of Chicago are certain that they can represent America and outdo the French, even to the point of coming up with something more stunning than Eiffel’s tower.
Just a few years earlier, in 1886, a man who called himself H.H. Holmes arrived in Chicago. He had visited before, under his real name, Herman Webster Mudgett. But now, he had moved to Chicago, and changed his name to H.H. Holmes. He was a very charming young man, with the unsettling ability to convince whoever he was dealing with. He began his “legacy” by purchasing a pharmacy, Holton Drugs, on the corner of Wallace and Sixty-third Streets. Across the street was a large vacant lot, which would eventually become the home of some of the most bizarre madness to ever be known.
I could write for a long time about this book, but this is just a review, so I will not do that. I won’t try to describe everything. But Mr. Larson, in his grand style, has given another narrative of history that makes it come alive. One becomes emotionally invested in the lives of the people, even of the madman, himself. It is astounding that a serial killer could operate in such crowded conditions (millions of people visited that fair), and never be even suspected of fowl play. Young single women disappeared, their families sent letters, the police visited Holmes, yet never suspected him of anything.
Among some of the “firsts” at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, was the single thing that succeeded (at least in the minds of the Chicagoans) of “out-Eiffeling” Eiffel’s tower. A young engineer from Pittsburgh proposed a large, vertical, revolving wheel, 250 feet in diameter. This wheel would carry “thirty-six cars, each about the size of a Pullman, each holding sixty people and equipped with its own lunch counter.” The wheel, when filled to capacity, would “propel 2,160 people at a time three hundred feet into the sky over Jackson Park.” The name of the engineer was George Washington Gale Ferris.
The Devil in the White City is a gripping tale about man’s capability of architectural greatness, even in the face of seemingly impossible odds. There is no way that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair should have been pulled off. But they did it.
It is also a tale of the incredible evil that some men are capable of. No real motive was ever uncovered for the horrible deeds done by Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes. In my mind, it can only be summed up by Alfred’s words to Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight.
“…some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”