Murder, Magic and Madness in the City that Changed America
by Erik Larson
447 pages, Vintage (2004)
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
In 1893, the city of Chicago hosted the World's Fair. Following on from the much lauded Paris exhibition of 1889, expectations were unusually high and Chicago had a lot to live up to. One particular concern that occupied the collective mind of the World's Fair Committee was how to create something that would match Eiffel's famous tower. The Devil in the White City charts the development of the Chicago World's Fair, focusing in particular on the efforts of the fair's chief designer Daniel Burnham. Assisted by America's greatest architects, Burnham created the White City, a vast Neo-Classical metropolis set amidst beautifully landscaped gardens. Visitors to the World's Fair at the White City witnessed the technological marvels of the age. Tesla's alternating current powered the White City's electric lighting. Krupp's vast cannons made their debut as did Shredded Wheat and the very first Ferris wheel.
Larson's book is skilfully crafted; he creates a wonderful sense of rising anxiety as Burnham struggles to complete construction of the White City against an impossibly short time-scale. As he leads us through the fair, we share the sense of wonder and excitement felt by its millions of visitors. His characters, all meticulously researched and lovingly recreated, are as fascinating and as colourful as any pulled from a work of fiction. Burnham's own stubborn determination to become the world's greatest architect frequently brought him into conflict with others, though these confrontations were always resolved in a refined and gentlemanly manner. The author also paints a fantastic portrait of Carter Harrison, the city's mayor. Harrison was a larger-than-life personality, a self-proclaimed man of the people and watermelon addict. Whilst not as pivotal as Daniel Burnham's, Harrison's own tragic role in the story of the World's Fair is no less fascinating.
However, Larson's account of Chicago in 1893 does not just focus on the technological and architectural marvels of the White City and the men who shaped it. Cleverly mirroring the celebratory tale of Burnham's creation with the grisly story of Dr. H. H. Holmes, Larson reveals the city's dark side. Henry Howard Holmes, born Herman Webster Mudgett, was an entrepreneurial soul who built the World's Fair Hotel in the neighbourhood of Englewood, close to the White City. The hotel, however, was merely a means for Holmes to indulge in his unusual hobby. Holmes, you see, was a serial killer who was responsible for the deaths of dozens, possibly hundreds of people.
The strange tale of how Holmes came to be operating his sinister establishment is carefully woven into the fabric of the larger story. Though Holmes and Burnham never met, their tales are inextricably linked, for it was Burnham's White City that drew so many of Holmes' victims to Chicago. Whereas Burnham created an architectural utopia, Holmes' hotel was a living hell complete with a labyrinthine structure, gas chamber and crematorium.
Larson writes with the pace of a thriller writer and the skill of a great novelist. It is neither a novel nor a history book but something in-between. With a keen eye for detail and a gift for writing prose that is both beautiful and accessible, Larson offers readers a chance to step back to America at the close of the nineteenth century. He shows us that Chicago in 1893 was a place of both light and darkness, hope and despair. Those with the gift of foresight might have seen a stark warning for the century to come.
Hereward L.M. Proops