The Devil in the White City

My third (and final) Christmas Break book this year was Erik Larson’s non-fiction work, The Devil in the White City. It was recommended to me by my friend Mark. The book is a history of Chicago’s World’s Fair, “Columbian Exposition,” of 1893 following two primary plot lines. The first plot line follows an architect named Daniel Burnham, who was responsible for overseeing the fair. And the second primary plot line follows a serial killer who went by the name of H.H. Holmes. Burnham’s concept for the fair came to be known popularly as “The White City.” Holmes’ murder of 27 men, children, and (mostly) young women — during the time of the exposition — branded him as “The Devil.”

I was fascinated by the events themselves, of course, but Larson’s writing of the story makes it all the more compelling. It reads almost like a crime novel, with the chapters alternating between the two primary plot lines, with a few smaller sub-plots scattered among them. The end notes reveal meticulous research that was used to establish the events of the story. At the same time, Larson supplies just enough connective tissue that the scenes he sketches are graphic and visceral. At times, it really feels like the author is recording things that could only be known by an omniscient narrator. It’s a fascinating piece of writing giving life to this event that happened 127 years ago. And I feel like it may even provide some insights for current events.

Chicago’s World’s Fair was a significant event in American history (even if it might not seem like it). Larson presents a compelling case for the way that this exposition affected the way that American households currently use electrical lighting… the way fairs, festivals, and amusement parks are so frequently marked by Ferris Wheels and Midway games… the architectural styles preferred by so many banks, libraries, schools, and government buildings throughout the 20th Century… and the relationship between corporate powerhouses and their laborers. This book demonstrates the ways that a broad cast of historical figures — from Walt Disney to Woodrow Wilson to Buffalo Bill Cody to Helen Keller to Frank Lloyd Wright — can trace at least some of their “DNA” from Chicago’s World Fair. It was a big deal in the emergence of the United States of America, on the world stage.

But at the same time that such “progress” was being demonstrated at the World’s Fair, dozens and dozens of young people were simply getting swallowed up by industrialization. Single, young women, especially, made their way to Chicago at the end of the 19th Century because it represented a sense of freedom and forward-thinking. But they were easily lost in the crowds, losing touch with their families and communities before getting the chance to root themselves in the new environment. As a result, they were extremely vulnerable. And the darker side of human nature was waiting to take advantage of that vulnerability.

I’m really glad that I got the chance to read this book. Both for its educational insight and for its enjoyable artistry.

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