THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (Crown Publishers, ISBN 0-609-60844-4) 2003 , 447 pgs., $ 19.95 hardcover, (also in paperback, audiobooks, and kindle) by Erik Larson
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only” .
The quote is from Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1859) but also perfectly fits America, and in particular, Chicago, in the 1890s. Mass poverty abutted beautiful mansions. Millions were being made by people like George Pullman and his train car building company while his workers barely made living wages, made harder by rising rents in the camps they were forced to work in ,owned by Pullman .
Beautiful architecture and new architectural methods were being created in Chicago at this time, as the city itself was a stockyard of death, as a nightmarish Rube Goldberg-ish machination of hog slaughter efficiently took screaming animals from packed cattle cars to abattoirs in an efficient and terrifying method that left the stench of fear blood and death hanging over the city.
- No wonder H.H.Holmes (aka Herman Webster Mudgett) was drawn to the city. He was clever, good looking, and a sociopath.
- At the opposite end of the spectrum was architect Daniel Burnham. Though his grades kept him from getting admissions into Harvard or Yale, his hard work and drive plus unique designs made him one of the most sought after architectural designers of his time. One of his remaining works is in NYC, the Fuller Building, better known due to its unique shape, as the Flatiron Building.
- At the same time, there were those who saw the dream that the city promised and rewarded others, but who felt frustrated that their hard work came to naught. One of those was Patrick Prendergast, a deranged young man who felt that he had been cheated, and wished to punish someone ,anyone ,whom was responsible for his being denied what he felt he was due .
After the Paris Exposition of 1889, (ExpositionUniverselle de 1889), the world, and in particular, the United States, thought that nothing could top the designs and wonders that that event had contained. The Paris Exposition is mostly gone now, but its centerpiece is now a recognizable symbol of Paris, The Eiffel Tower.
The U.S. wanted to show that they were now a power to be reckoned with and a clear world leader and a furious scramble occurred for major cities to sponsor the event that would define the U.S. to the world. Chicago’s bids and designs, led by Daniel Burnham, were the winners. The problem was by the time it was won, it was up against an impossible deadline to build what was for all intents an entire city in less than three years.
The Fair would be built against the forces of nature, strikes, deaths from injuries, time, as well as an economic collapse that seemed to make the idea of a Fair seem like pure hubris.
Also building a unique structure was H.H. Holmes, who built a hotel that had weird designs and rooms that seemed strangely air tight and sound proof, as well as a special large furnace in the basement, and a lime pit. The outwardly cheery man in the 1890s is rumored to have killed about 200 people, and eluded detection for years by hiding in plain sight, often called the first American Serial Killer (a claim which I feel rightly belongs to the Bender family, who between 1869-1872 are known to have killed at least 11 people, and are even referenced by Laura Ingalls Wilder (author of Little House On The Prairie) in a speech). He was definitely the most methodical and cool, rendering the skin from several of his victims and selling the skeletons to anatomists.
Patrick Prendergast, meanwhile wrote long rambling messages that filled every inch of postcards and sent them off to people telling of the glory of god and how he Patrick had helped the politicians to their lofty positions. When they failed to respond and give him his just reward of a political post, he got a gun and sought out the man who should have rewarded his loyalty.
These various threads are woven in a brilliantly involving and thoughtful style by author Erik Larson. His research is astonishing as he drops little tidbits of history in a conversational tone that you feel pulled into the time period when many felt anything was possible.
The fair was the place where things like Shredded Wheat, Cracker Jacks, and Electricity were first encountered by many people, and where those like the father of Walt Disney had labored on building this magical wonderland, stories of which may have inspired Walt to create Disneyland.
The book works as a police procedural too as we follow the rise and rise of Holmes as he murders with impunity as well as financially prospers (American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman’s dark spiritual great great grandfather.
A page turner from start to finish, you will want to turn off all outside interference and time travel back to the 1890s to truly immerse yourself in this brilliantly absorbing work.
Paramount & Leonardo DiCaprio have held the rights almost since the book was first published in 2003, but no doubt are encountering great difficulty budgeting as well as focusing a script on such a wide rich canvas. I would suggest that they go to HBO and make a mini-series a la BOARDWALK EMPIRE (2010-2014) to give them time to convey the awe sweep and tragedy that this story holds.
Highly recommended. Larson has since written THUNDERSTRUCK(2006), which intertwines the tales of Guglielmo Marconi and Harvey Crippen ,the notorious British serial killer , IN THE GARDEN OF THE BEASTS(2011), set in 1933 Berlin and the slow dawning of the horrors of the Nazis upon a visiting Chicago family ,and LAST WAKE (2015) the story of the Lusitania’s last voyage.
-Kevin G Shinnick