The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson.
Speaking of hurricanes, as I was a few dye ago, Mr. Larson also wrote Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, about the infamous Galveston hurricane of 1900. The Devil in the White City, set in about the same time period, The Gilded Age 1893, is about a very different kind of man-made disaster, a “perfect storm” of assassination, serial killing, and inflated ambition.
“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” ~architect and world’s fair designer Daniel Burnham.
The plan for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the Americas, was no little plan. Daniel Burnham and his partner John Wellborn Root were the lead architects for the fair, which was seen as Chicago’s and indeed the United States’ opportunity to outshine and outdo the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889-90. The pièce de résistance of the Paris Exposition was French engineer Gustave Eiffel’s La Tour Eiffel, at the time billed as “the tallest edifice ever erected by man” and still to this day the tallest structure in the city of Paris.
“The most marvelous exhibit of modern times or ancient times has now just closed successfully at Paris. Whatever you do is to be compared with that. If you equal it you have made a success. If you surpass it you have made a triumph. If you fall below it you will be held responsible by the whole American people for having assumed what you are not equal to. Beware! Take care!” ~Chauncey Depew, New York railroad tycoon upon the awarding of the world’s fair to Chicago.
So a fantastic, superlative, financially successful, and hugely admired show and exposition was the goal. And Burnham and Root had less than two years from the awarding of the fair to Chicago to put this grand spectacle into place. This half of the book was fascinating and informative.
Intertwined with the story of the building and opening of the world’s fair was the much darker story of a serial killer who operated a house of horrors in Chicago only a few miles from the fair itself. The house of horrors was ostensibly a boarding house/hotel, but it had a number of rather macabre features, such as gas jets in some of the rooms, controlled by the proprietor, and a walk-in furnace in the basement. This part of the story depressed me. Such evil in the shadow of such an ambitious endeavor!
At any rate, the book gives a vivid picture of turn of the century Chicago and the height of the Gilded Age. Mr. Larson is an excellent writer, and if the descriptions of murder and mayhem were a bit too vivid at times, it could be blamed on the actual historical material. Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes, was an evil man, a sociopath and a man who delighted in deception and murder. How could a book that is partly about his crimes be anything but lurid and depressing?
Does anyone in or from Illinois have a suggestion for my Nonfiction of the States list that would be more representative of the state, not as depressing, but still just as interesting and informative?
Other nonfiction books set in about the same time period (1890-1910), with overlapping characters and events:
American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu.
Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt.
Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson.
Related fiction, 1890-1910:
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. This book is the fictional version of The Devil in the White City, except I don’t remember the World’s Fair figuring into the story, and Carrie doesn’t get murdered. She just gets seduced and ruined. Reading these two books together, The Devil in the White City and Sister Carrie, would produce an excellent book club discussion.
Unleavened Bread by Robert Grant.
Beautiful Dreamer by Joan Naper. Reviewed at Reading the Past.
The Great Wheel by Robert Lawson. Newbery honor fiction about an Irish worker who helped build the great Ferris wheel in Chicago in 1893.
The Pit by Frank Norris. Wheat speculation and the commodities market in Chicago.