The world’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was called “the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War,” and Chicagoans didn’t disagree. Their city, anxious to shed its second-class, slaughter-town image, had fought to host this world’s fair celebrating (if a year late) the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World, then poured every dollar and dream into making it a can’t-miss spectacle.
And spectacular it was, according to Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (Crown, $25.95). With its neoclassical architecture, extravagant lighting displays, whole villages imported from Africa, and first-ever Ferris wheel, the fair operated for only six monthsin the middle of the worst U.S. economic depression to date. Yet it drew a whopping 27.5 million visitors, at a time when the nation’s population was only 65 million. People came to sample a new snack called Cracker Jack; they watched the earliest moving pictures on Edison’s Kinetoscope; they were introduced to ginseng root from Korea and betel-nut dishes from Siam; and they escaped their quotidian woes amid the pistol-cracking excitement of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show.
But as the lengthy subtitle to Erik Larson’s bewitching new book implies, there was a darker side to these festivities. Between two dozen and 200 visitors, mostly women, fell victim to one of the country’s first and most prolific urban serial killers, H.H. Holmes, a doctor-turned-hotelier who claimed, “I was born with the devil in me.”
Don’t bother double-checking that this volume is nonfictionit is. But Larson, a Seattle author best known for his 1999 book, Isaac’s Storm, about the disastrous Galveston hurricane of 1900, employs fictive techniques, complex character studies, and cliff-hanger devices to turn what might have been a parched account of architectural ambition and convergent malevolence into a historical thrill ride.
Devil tells two principal, parallel stories. The first follows Chicago designer Daniel H. Burnham, who convinced America’s foremost architects of that eraincluding Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, and George B. Post (who would later create Seattle’s Olympic Hotel)to develop the fair’s Brobdingnagian but impermanent structures. (All were painted white to contrast with the congested, industrialized city that lay beyond the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed fairgrounds.) For the “decisive, blunt, and cordial” Burnham, this endeavor was more than just another job; failure would be a crushing blow to his firm and his city, while success could win him entry into professional circles to which his lack of an Ivy League education had previously denied him.
Meanwhile, in the fair’s long shadow, Holmes’ grimmer vision took shape. The demented doctor moved to Chicago’s Englewood area in 1886 and raised a quirky buildingcomplete with gas chamber to poison his preythat he’d eventually rechristen as the World’s Fair Hotel. Handsome, with mesmeric blue eyes, Holmes was a charming con man who made his fortune as a psychopathic Bluebeard, marrying and murdering inexperienced young women. Others he killed simply for pleasure, reducing their corpses to skeletons for medical-school use. (Finally caught two years after the fair closed, Holmes admitted to slaying 27 people.)
Although Larson explains that Holmes and Burnham never met, they were linked by the fair, by their abilities to present fantasy as reality, and by the sheer boldness of their respective acts. Burnham’s vision was rewarded through imitation; his idealistic “White City” on Lake Michigan inspired a nationwide movement toward coherent, landscaped urbanism. Holmes’ only reward was a hangman’s rope, yet the American archetype he embodiesthe suave serial killermay have more lingering potency today than the civic dreamer Burnham represents.