Staff Pick: The Devil in the White City

By Erik Larson (Crown)

Civic leaders fretted that their city had an image problem. It had established a reputation as America's distribution center, but it still wasn't in the same league as other cities across the U.S. What it needed, they thought, was something — anything, really — that would make the rest of the country take notice.

Sound familiar? But this isn't the story of Memphis in the twenty-first century. Instead — as hard as it is to believe — this is a tale of Chicago in the late 1800s, a city that had established itself, in poet Carl Sandburg's words, as "hog butcher for the world," but (and perhaps for that very reason) was still considered a provincial, backwater town by New York, San Francisco, and other "world-class" cities.

So the good people of Chicago petitioned Congress for the right to hold a world's fair that would pay tribute to the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the New World. (Back then, it seems, you had to have a good reason for a fair.) Other cities also fought for the honor, but Chicago eventually won the day, and by drawing together some of America's best architects and designers, the leaders of Chicago constructed what is considered one of the greatest world's fairs of all time. In little more than a year, acres of neglected lakefront were magically transformed into the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, and since all the buildings were painted a gleaming white, the fair came to be known as the White City.

Erik Larson, best-selling author of Isaac's Storm, about the 1900 Galveston hurricane, presents a fascinating account of this massive undertaking, and manages to do it by focusing on the untiring efforts of architect Daniel Burnham and his partner, John Root (who died before the fair opened), to design and build the fair in record time. The details and images are impressive; Larson easily makes the reader feel he or she is actually there, in the Chicago of the Gilded Age, as Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frederick Law Olmstead, and other luminaries create what, for many of them, would be their proudest achievement.

But this isn't just a book about a fair.

Against this shining backdrop Larson transposes one of the darkest tales in Chicago's — even America's — history. The story of "Dr." H.H. Holmes (among his many other aliases) is, for some reason, little known today, but he ranks as one of the world's worst serial killers. Near the entrance to the fair, he built the three-story World's Fair Hotel — "Holmes' Castle" as it came to be called later — that included acid vats, gas chambers, and crematories — essentially a killing factory that quietly and efficiently disposed of many young men and women who stayed or worked there. The exact number of his murders will never be known; estimates range from at least 13 to as many as 200.

It's almost hard to believe that this is a true story. The Devil in the White City is a fascinating blend of two opposing ideals — the efforts of the city's leaders to build one of the greatest fairs in history, and the efforts of one of America's greatest "devils" to destroy the lives of those who came there. My only complaint with the book is that I wanted more photos — of the stunning fair itself, of Holmes, and of the sinister castle where so many of the White City's visitors met their fate. Other than that, Larson's own words present a vivid picture, as declared in the subtitle, of "Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America."

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