Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America—Erik Larson

Although I started off my Grown Up Summer Reading Challenge, an adventure embarked upon with friends, by reading A Tale of Two Cities, I felt like a book that had been out 150 years had probably been reviewed to death. (Though I am always a sucker for anything French culture, history, or language related.)

My second book, which served as my Nonfiction selection, was Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. I will admit to a certain fascination with serial killers. (With the question, do we perpetuate the inclination to serial killing by sensationalizing it? Does even asking that question contribute to the problem? I feel like I've even talked about these same questions somewhere on this blog before.) Additionally, having recently traveled to Chicago for the first time in March, I was greatly fascinated with this history of the city and it's Worlds Fair.

One of my first questions upon starting to read this really had nothing to do with the serial killing (because, of course, the serial killings in Chicago came later). My question was: When was the last World's Fair? And the follow up question: Why don't we have them anymore? I did a quick Google search, and found that they still happen, although probably not to the scale as in the past, but are never hosted in the United States. Seriously, they have them planned out for at least the next ten years: zero in the U.S. I have to say, it made me a little sad. The fact that the Eiffel Tower and the design of the Ferris wheel had both emerged from World's Fairs makes me feel like we're cheating ourselves out of future innovations by not gathering to share. (And, admittedly, attempt to outdo the other countries.)

The story was artfully woven, gliding back and forth between the experiences of Daniel Burnham, essentially master of all things Chicago Worlds Fair, and Dr. H. H. Holmes, crazed serial killer and possible demon. Beginning a few years prior to the Worlds Fair in 1893, Larson chronicled the fight Burnham and his partner John Root to be awarded the contract to build the Chicago Worlds Fair, including the initial battle to even have the Fair held in Chicago. The struggle did not end after having attained the contract: John Root died before the Fair was even finished being built, there were many delays, weather issues, problems with fires, destruction of already-built pieces of the Fair. Honestly, it kind of seemed like a disaster the whole way, until they finally raised the Ferris Wheel and everything started to come together.

While Burnham and Root were getting started on designing and building the Fair, H. H. Holmes was busy being a crazy man. He moved to Chicago in 1886, convincing an older woman whose husband was dying to sign over their pharmacy to him. When patrons would ask him where the woman and her husband had gone, he would always say they had gone to visit relatives and decided to stay. (Yeah, probably not.) He was handsome and charming, which probably kept suspicion away from him far longer than it should have been. He was a master at avoiding paying bills, and built his entire "fortress," including chambers where he killed some of his victims, with essentially free labor; he would hire workers, work them as long as possible, then claim that things were built incorrectly, and discharge them without pay. He married several times over, without taking the time to get divorced from previous wives. He built this "fortress" just down the street from the Fair, and took advantage of all of the young women who were coming to the city for the first time on their own from places around the country. Because these girls didn't have contacts in the city, and the police force was a much different animal back then, it was often a long time, if at all, that girls who were reported missing were able to be tracked down. Several of these girls were victims of Holmes. After the Fair, in an attempt to evade increasing attention from creditors, Holmes left town, to some property in Texas that one of his wives (and murder victims) had "left" to him. Holmes was finally caught when he was accused of insurance fraud in relation to the "death" of one of his long-time associates, Benjamin Pitezel. (He probably did actually kill the man, as opposed to just claiming that he had died.) While in custody, he came to the interest of a Philadelphia cop, Frank Geyer, who was investigating the disappearance of a friend's daughter. Geyer came to find that three of the Pitezel children had last been seen with Holmes and were now missing. They found the bodies of the three children, and then more bodies and body parts at the old "fortress" in Chicago. The number of people that Holmes killed has never been confirmed, although estimates ranged as high as 200.

I thought it was very cool to see the stories of famous people/families that were just thrown casually into the book. He lists several at the beginning, and then elaborates on some.

"Never before had so many of history's brightest lights, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow, George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, Henry Adams, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Nikola Tesla, Ignace Paderewski, Philip Armour, and Marshall Field, gathered in one place at one time." (p. 5) Think of the genius in that group!

Larson throws in, "In all, the workforce in the park numbered four thousand. The ranks included a carpenter and furniture-maker named Elias Disney, who in coming years would tell many stories about the construction of this magical realm beside the lake. His son Walt would take note." (p. 153) So striking, how almost flippantly Larson throws that out there. "Oh, by the way, the beginning of an empire was started here, among other things." He does much the same thing introducing George Washington Gale Ferris, who invented the first Ferris wheel for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. And when introducing Annie Oakley, who worked at the Worlds Fair as part of Buffalo Bill's gang.

He also throws in several legacies of the Worlds Fair that we still enjoy today: "Within the fair's buildings visitors encountered devices and concepts new to them and to the world. They heard live music played by an orchestra in New York and transmitted to the fair by long-distance telephone. They saw the first moving pictures on Edison's Kinetoscope, and they watched, stunned, as lightning chattered from Nikola Tesla's body. They saw even more ungodly things--the first zipper; the first-ever all-electric kitchen, which included an automatic dishwasher; and a box purporting to contain everything a cook would need to make pancakes, under the brand name Aunt Jemima's. They sampled a new, oddly flavored gum called Juicy Fruit, and caramel-coated popcorn called Cracker Jack. A new cereal, Shredded Wheat, seemed unlikely to succeed[...]but a new beer did well, winning the exposition's top beer award. Forever afterward, its brewer called it Pabst Blue Ribbon." (p. 247-248) Pretty impressive collection there.

Overall a well-organized, captivating, engrossing read that I would recommend to anyone who's looking for a good nonfiction book.

I also just found out that Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the film rights to the book in 2010 (good thinking, Leo) and is apparently slotted to play serial killer H. H. Holmes, as well as co-produce. They all could be rumours. Except that Leo bought the film rights. That's for real.

Popular Posts