The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America….Erik Larson

The Ferris Wheel, invented just for the 1893 World's Fair

February 24, 1893: The city of Chicago, IL surprisingly wins the ballot to host the 1893 World’s Fair over New York and Washington. The best and brightest of America’s architects descend on the town to plan the most awe inspiring spectacle the country, and the world, have ever seen, with the clock ticking until Opening Day. The pressure is on to outdo the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, which introduced the amazing Eiffel Tower, and to put Chicago on the map as an up-and-coming Midwestern city. Meanwhile, a blue eyed, charming physician arrives in town with a keen interest in the young ladies who will flock unaccompanied to the fair from their boring hometowns, eager for new experiences. And a downtrodden newspaperman will delusionally envision for himself  the favor of Chicago’s mayor and a better life.

All of these stories are masterfully woven together in Erik Larson’s amazing tale, The Devil in the White City. This is the story of Daniel Burnham, visionary architect and mastermind of the Fair, who brought together some of the most famous architects of the day to build what would come to be called the White City, so named because all of the buildings were painted white (spray paint was invented at the fair just for this purpose!). Utilizing neoclassical design, these men raised one of the most awe-inspiring settings for the fair anyone could ever imagine, all in a two year time frame. They would battle time, the elements, financial panics, and each other during the building of the fair, but would somehow manage to create something unforgettable.

HH Holmes, serial killer at the Chicago World's Fair

It is also the story of HH Holmes, America’s first serial killer, who used the lure of the fair and the big city to his advantage. Women would leave their homes to come to the city for a new start, a job, or for excitement. They were taken in by the suave, good-looking Holmes, who wooed them with flattery, gifts and from what it sounds like, groping, only to end up luring them to their deaths. He built a hotel specifically designed to get these women under his roof, where he could suffocate them in sealed rooms, burn their bodies in a specially made kiln in the basement, or sell their skeletons to medical schools (who were so desperate at the time for bodies that they would raid graveyards). When finally convicted it was known that he killed 9 people for certain, although others have estimated the number could have been around 200.

And finally, it is the story of Patrick Prendergast, an Irish immigrant who for some reason felt that if he worked hard to help re-elect Chicago’s four-term mayor, Carter Harrison, that Harrison would promote him to Corporation Counsel, even though the two had never met. Prendergast’s “work” usually involved writing delusional and scary postcards to city officials. When Carter gets re-elected and no promotion is forthcoming, Prendergast doesn’t take rejection well, and instead takes matters into his own hands.

It was fascinating to read about the Fair. Thanks to this fair, we were first introduced to Cracker Jacks, zippers, the Ferris Wheel, the hamburger, dishwashers, Hershey chocolate and Pabst Blue Ribbon (okay, maybe we could have skipped the PBR!). The concept of the midway was also introduced, although the Midway at the World’s Fair definitely differs from our modern midways. The midway was then conceived as a way for fair guests to be exposed to people from different cultures, and along the midway people could see belly dancers, camels, Eskimos, an ostrich farm, and Amazonians. The fair was also lit by electric lights on every building, making it a spectacle for night as well as the daytime. People could not even bring their own cameras without paying a fee!

I liked this book just as much as Thunderstruck, maybe a bit more. The Holmes story was so deliciously creepy I could not read it at night, and like I did in Thunderstruck when I jumped over chapters about Marconi to read about Crippen, I found myself sometimes jumping ahead a bit to read about Holmes. Not that the Fair parts of the book weren’t entertaining. It was fascinating to see how such a huge event got put together in such a short time, back before telephones, the Internet or computer drafting. The Holmes sections of the story definitely had more momentum for me.

I hope you’ll check this one out. Creepy yet immensely satisfying. 2nd book for the NonFiction NonMemoir reading challenge!

Grade: A


9 thoughts on “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America….Erik Larson

  1. Just finished ready this one (no post yet) and agree: Holmes was the most interesting part of the story. That last bit about the discovery of the extend of his crimes got me entranced.

    My favorite bits abut the Fair itself were not the ones about the construction or the difficulties in getting everyone to agree but the micro-story, like the storm that blew away the hydrogen balloon, or the marriage proposals at the Ferris Wheel.

  2. I can’t wait to see what they do with the film version because this book captivated me.

    I actually liked the bit about Olmsted. Wanting to know more about him led me to one of my favorite books last year, Genius of Place by Justin Martin.

    • I have Garden of Beasts on my Nook but haven’t gotten around to it either. I also have one of his older books (and I think his first book), Isaac’s Storm, about the Galveston hurricane. It sounds good as well. Will look forward to your review when you read Garden of Beasts!!

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