Title & Author: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
Genres: True Crime, History
Format chosen: paperback
Synopsis (abridged, from Goodreads):
Bringing Chicago circa 1893 to vivid life, Erik Larson’s spell-binding bestseller intertwines the true tale of two men–the brilliant architect behind the legendary 1893 World’s Fair, striving to secure America’s place in the world; and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling. Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.
I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, even before I actually got a copy (thanks, Dad!). I had seen it somewhere and it sounded really intriguing, plus I knew nothing about the 1983 World’s Columbian Exposition (the official title of the World’s Fair in Chicago). Sadly, to me, most of the book was about as exciting as watching paint dry. I’ve been trudging through the pages hoping that something more interesting would happen. There are whole chapters dedicated to every detail about the design of a building or the grounds or what type of boats they would use in the water features, and then much smaller chapters devoted to the murders of one H. H. Holmes, America’s first documented serial killer, that surrounded the Fair. ‘Murder’ is the first word in the subtitle, yet very little detail is provided about the murders throughout most of the book (compared to the building of the Fair itself). The details that are provided are very dry and don’t really get into what he was thinking or what prompted him to commit these acts, which is what I really want to know. I recognize that all of this might make me sound like a terrible person since these were actual murders committed on real people, but I love a good murder mystery. This is no mystery and it contains little murder.
Also, people in 1893 just seemed to be sick all the time. I’m sorry – your teeth hurt so you have to stay in bed for weeks? I wish I had that kind of luxury…though I’m more than glad that my teeth don’t hurt. I know that we’ve made significant medical advances in the last 120ish years but it sounds ridiculous. I have had my share of allergy problems since moving to California and if I hadn’t shown up for week for a week or two I’d be unemployed. How did they stay employed?! It was another time entirely.
All of that aside, it sounds like the “White City” (so named because the main buildings in the Fair were painted the same shade of white) would have been a marvel to see. It was particularly interesting to read about the design and development of the first Ferris Wheel. [Side note: I never really thought about the name ‘Ferris’ Wheel, or that it was named after a real person.] Can you imagine how incredible and horrifying and frightening it would have been to be one of the first people to ride on that monster, not knowing if the plethora of nuts and bolts would actually hold?The Ferris Wheel was supposed to outdo the Eiffel Tower, unveiled during the World’s Fair in Paris during 1889. (This entire Fair was supposed to outdo the 1889 Fair to show how advanced the United States was comparatively.) What would have made this book much more intriguing to me was if it contained slightly fewer facts and a lot more photographs from the event. Because look at that Ferris Wheel – it’s a beast! You could write about it all day and not sum up its immensity. The cars are gigantic and held 60 people! Just hoisting all the materials would have been a nightmare. Or look at the ‘Court of Honor’ buildings:
The design of the buildings and grounds was completely stunning! Looking at stuff like this always makes me a bit sad for the cookie cutter style most buildings have today. Granted, the buildings weren’t the sturdiest and a few burned or had entire glass panes fall out in storms – but they sure looked incredible. And besides the buildings, the Fair itself included all kinds of wonders including brand new foods (Cracker Jacks!) and new inventions like the zipper. The zipper, people! The buildings and grounds were also lit with electric lightbulbs using Tesla’s alternating current, the first large test of its use.
The entire undertaking of the Fair was more than a bit miraculous, honestly. To get an entire city behind you to get this thing done – for the honor of its citizens and the country as a whole – is just not something that seems like it would happen today. For the most part, people today are much more concerned about their own self interests than working as a team for some greater good. And Chicago had terrible terrain and weather for trying to complete all of these buildings and ground on such an escalated time frame. I’m sure it wouldn’t take 2.5 years with modern technology but at the time it sounded like nothing short of a miracle with all of the obstacles placed in their path.
I could go on and on about the buildings and the grounds but the purpose of this post is to review the book. And I will say that the last 100 or so pages really drew me in. The Fair was over at that point in the book so it was more about the aftermath of the Fair and trying to track Holmes down (along with the children in his custody). Larson never really uncovered the why behind the murders but I think that Holmes sounds like enough of a psychopath that it’s doubtful anyone really knew that part.
Verdict: This book was incredibly detailed and well-researched! Definitely a bit dry in parts for me, but again – I really enjoy murder mysteries. That said, I really appreciate the history on the Fair, which I knew nothing about. Could I have done with slightly less history? Sure. But it would be hard to know what to trim out of something like this since it has such a broad scope.
Recommended for: history buffs and those with an interest in true crime. If you enjoy history in great detail you will probably like this one.
Price: currently about $9.04 (paperback), $11.99 (Kindle), and $17.09 (hardcover) on Amazon.