At the turn of the 20th century, Chicago saw some of the most innovative minds—but not all were used for good.
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BOTM Editorial Team
All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players,” Shakespeare once wrote. This quote likely would have resonated greatly on the occasion of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, a historic event of epic proportions. Meant to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the so-called New World. It is the kind of event that undoubtedly many writers dream of portraying, seeing as it encapsulates in technicolor the dreams, hopes, and fears of the world in their grandest form. But it takes someone of Erik Larson’s consummate craft and imagination to really do justice to such an event.
The Devil in the White Citygravitates around the exploits of two men: Daniel H. Burnham and H.H. Holmes. Burnham was the primary architect of the world fair and its glittering edifices. Holmes in the guise of a doctor was a serial killer who preyed on attendees of the fair. Even just in choosing these two leads, we can see Larson’s endeavor, who tradeoff taking the center stage each chapter. The push and pull of “progress” often rooted in exploitation and violence. This is not merely a lurid tale of murder in a bygone era. It is a rich look at the heavy price of cultural advancement and the things ambition and competition bring out in us.
In an act of senseless violence, at the end of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair the mayor of Chicago was assassinated. This bewildering act and many others are carefully handled by Erik Larson in The Devil in the White City. He does not try to impose sense where little is to be found. But he does offer all the detail and generosity of research and language to give us the texture and scent of history either ignored or flattened. There are few if any historical chroniclers in whom I would lay greater trust. Look to the millions who have learned to turn to him when they seek both entertainment and insight. And come join us on the “world’s stage.”
Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America’s 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 fairgrounds—a 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. 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.