This book was referred to me way back when I lived in Paris. A classmate knew I was from the Chicago-ish area and asked if I had ever read Erik Larson’s narrative on “murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America.” I hadn’t yet, but when I was told that the book was partially about a serial killer, I put the title very far down on my reading list. I don’t do serial killers. However, the book always seemed to catch my attention while wandering through the history section of Barnes & Noble, so last time I had expendable book-buying income, I decided to face my fears, and get the book.
In The Devil in the White City, Larson interweaves the story of Daniel Hudson Burnham, director of works of the 1893 Chicago World Columbian Exposition, with a harrowing account of the serial murderer Dr. H.H. Holmes (née Herman Webster Mudgett). The author’s account is one of history. It’s dramatic, yet true — backed up by more than 40 pages of endnotes and references. Although there are moments of theatrics in describing both Burnham’s struggles to complete massive amounts of construction in time for the opening of the fair and Holmes’ modus operandi, the book feels genuine throughout.
Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’ blood.-Daniel H. Burnham, quoted in The Devil in the White City (Vintage Books, 2003)
His name may not be immediately recognizable to anyone other than architectural students, but Daniel H. Burnham was one of the most prolific architects of the 19th- and early 20th-centuries. His success in dreaming big, strategically creating teams and executing a masterful plan for innovative designs had made him a rising star in the industry, despite his lack of prestigious education and training. Additionally, Burnham understood both form and function in his designs and in business. He advocated for above-average laborer wages and set up an employee gym in the building of his architectural firm – advancements that were revolutionary at the time. Thousands of men and women worked to make the Chicago Columbian Exposition a show-stopping event, but Burnham was the cornerstone in the fair’s foundation. Surviving novelties first introduced at the world’s fair include the Ferris Wheel, Shredded Wheat and Cracker Jacks and stoked the creative fires of geniuses including young Walt Disney and Frank Lloyd Wright.
While never fully unpacking the psychology behind Holmes’ killing spree (which would have been nearly impossible to do a century after the fact with no known witnesses still alive), Larson humanizes the murderer without ever sympathizing with him. Unfortunately, as with many accused serial killers, their charming countenance (if only a facade) draws people in. It’s because they’re able to manipulate the best aspects of human character that victims meet their untimely deaths. Immediately, the reader knows that Holmes was guilty (a verdict rarely held in contention by Holmes’ contemporaries or modern investigators).
As a native Illinoisan, I found The Devil in the White City to be incredibly exciting. I was familiar with, and have even visited, most of the Chicago landmarks Larson describes, as well as the rural towns and neighborhoods he mentions. I’ve been to the Museum of Science and Industry, the only remaining structure from the fair, countless times on school field trips and family outings. On a recent trip to the city to see The Barber of Seville at the Lyric Opera, I walked past the Palmer House, a storied, luxurious hotel gifted to the wife of one of Burnham’s peers in business. Two years ago, I attended the Joffrey Ballet’s re-imagined production of The Nutcracker, which featured a Burnham-esque “Great Impressario” character as a replacement for Drosselmeyer and dances from the immigrant groups on the Midway of the fair, taking the place of traveling through the “Land of Sweets” in the more traditional production.
This book connected so many dots for me culturally and geographically that I felt like I really understood and appreciated the city of Chicago so much better after reading it. For covering as much ground (literally and figuratively) as it did, The Devil in the White City flew by in a gust of exciting Chicago wind.
You may like this book if you also enjoy: the city of Chicago; other titles from Erik Larson; architecture; Ferris Wheels; true crime; historical fiction; urban planning; the late 19th-century.