The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

All the Fun of the Fair…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Chicago won the right to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, there was much sneering from the snobbish elite of New York and elsewhere at the idea of this brash, dirty city, best known as the home of slaughterhouses and pork-packing factories, being able to put on a show that would impress the world. However, brash though Chicago may have been, it was also filled with go-getters and entrepreneurs, tough businessmen with determination, drive and, most of all, massive amounts of civic pride. This is the story of how those men turned an impossible dream into an astonishing reality – the building of the White City and the Chicago World’s Fair. And it’s also the story of how one man took advantage of the huge numbers of people coming into Chicago because of the Fair to indulge his psychopathic tendencies – the serial killer HH Holmes.

The Court of Honor (shame they forgot that pesky 'u' but otherwise quite impressive...
The Court of Honor (shame they forgot that pesky ‘u’ but otherwise quite impressive…)

In Larson’s hands, the story of the building of the White City is fascinating. The odds against success were huge – time was running short, the weather threw everything it had at the site frequently destroying half-built buildings, a financial crash began while the City was half-built, and unions and management were regularly at loggerheads. Although many men (and a few women) were involved in bringing the thing together, the whole effort was largely co-ordinated by one man, architect Daniel H Burnham, who as Director of Works was responsible for getting together the best architects, planners, engineers and landscapers, and inspiring them to believe in his vision of a beautiful city rising from a derelict piece of lakeside land. Larson uses all kinds of sources to bring Burnham and the other major players to life – newspaper articles, journals, official records and personal letters. He tells the story almost as if it were a novel, never revealing ahead and regularly leaving a chapter with a cliffhanger ending, as a storm approaches or a bank crashes or illness strikes.

Midway Plaisance - Eskimos, cannibals, belly-dancers - what more could you want?
Midway Plaisance – Eskimos, cannibals, belly-dancers – what more could you want?

The story of HH Holmes is told in separate chapters interspersed throughout the main narrative. To be honest, though it was interesting and also very well-researched, I mainly found it broke the flow of the much more absorbing story of the Fair. Apart from the fact that both events took place in Chicago over the same time period, there was very little to connect them. I wondered if the Holmes strand had only been included because the author felt that more people would be interested in a serial killer than in the building of the Fair – and I can’t argue with that, since it was the thought of the intriguing contrast that attracted me to the book. But when it came to reading it, I found I was rushing through the Holmes chapters to get back to find out how things were going on the building site.

Daniel H Burnham - "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."
Daniel H Burnham – “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

Once the Fair finally opens, Larson gives a vividly credible account of what it might have been like to visit, including telling of some of the many attractions the fair had to offer – from orchestral music wafting ethereally over a moonlit lake to rather more earthy sideshows, such as the belly-dancers from Algeria. He tells us about Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, cannily sited just outside the Fair grounds and constantly competing with it for customers. And the crowning marvel of the Fair – the world’s first Ferris wheel, built as a result of a challenge by Burnham to America’s engineers to come up with something that would top the recently built Eiffel Tower in Paris. At the same time, Larson takes us behind the scenes to see the men responsible for the maintenance of the site, publicity, finance and the sheer logistical nightmare of feeding and cleaning up after the many thousands of visitors who passed through the gates each day. The Fair was so huge, Larson tells us, that it was considered that it took a fortnight to see everything it had to offer.

Herman Webster Mudgett aka HH Holmes
Herman Webster Mudgett aka HH Holmes

In a few chapters at the end, Larson tells us what happened to the men we’ve got to know so well in their later careers and shows how the Fair influenced architecture and fairs and even city-planning far into the future. And at the same time he concludes the story of the serial killer, but I won’t spoil it by saying whether he was ever caught or convicted in case you’re inspired to read the book and don’t know the outcome.

A fascinating story very well told, I found this a totally absorbing read. The only real disappointment is that there are very few illustrations, so I had to turn to the Internet to fill that lack. But Larson has put the Chicago World’s Fair close to the top of the list of Things I Want to See When I Get a Time-Machine – till that day comes, the book makes a most satisfactory alternative. Highly recommended.

The world's first Ferris Wheel - 250' in diameter and carrying 2,160 people at a time
The world’s first Ferris Wheel – 250′ in diameter and carrying 2,160 people at a time

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67 thoughts on “The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

  1. I love this book! I loved all the architecture descriptions, too. Another architect
    mentioned was Frederick Law Olmsted, and I have a soft spot in my heart for him
    because I had an aunt and uncle who lived in Olmstedville in upstate New York.
    He was best known for his work in Central Park, New York. And, this might be the
    only “crime novel” I’ve ever read! How can you read those?? Yikes.


  2. FictionFan – Oh, I do like history, and this is a very interesting part of Chicago’s history. But I know what you mean about illustrations. I’m currently reading (among other things) a book about Alan Pinkerton and his role in protecting Abraham Lincoln right before he (Lincoln) took office as US President in 1861. It’s a fascinating book but I would’ve liked more illustrations. They do add to an historical account.


    • That sounds like another interesting read – I never knew that Pinkerton protected Lincoln. It does always leave me wondering why books like these aren’t more liberally illustrated – maybe it makes the production costs really expensive or something. At least these days you can always turn to Google, though.


  3. I believe SS composed for the fair, anyway…

    Are you sure Burnham isn’t the serial killer? He looks quite vicious and mean.

    The professor likes the idea behind Things I Want to See When I Get a Time-Machine. You should do a whole series, but would you really want to go back to that period?


  4. It sounds as though someone should give a copy of this to the people who are desperately trying to get Brazil ready for this summer’s World Cup. It might give some hope that everything will be finished on time.


    • I know! I must admit the book made me appreciate our success in getting ready for the Olympics even more – hope Glasgow manages to pull off the Commonwealth Games as smoothly…


  5. I loved this book, and it’s probably one of the few “true crime” stories I’ve ever read. I do think that the Holmes story effectively throws a cloak of creepiness over the exciting “boomtown” feeling of that era for Chicago. I kept wondering about all the young women (and men, for that matter) who may have just disappeared during those times, never to be heard from again. I think it successfully showed the dark side of this historical event.

    Having grown up near Chicago and having visited Chicago’s famed Museum of Science and Industry (special event “tour of the white city”, I was especially fascinated by all of the background info on the architects and the drama surrounding deadlines. I love Burnham’s quote about making no small plans. Too true.

    Have you ever read Frost’s poem about Chicago?

    Chicagoans desperately wanted to be known for something other than their brawn. And having taken the fabulous architecture tour (via boat on the Chicago River) there recently, I do believe Chicago is now considered more than just a “beefy” city.


    • Fabulous poem! Really sums up the pride that these rough tough cities provoke. More than the ‘little soft cities’ ever can. And it was really the civic pride of these builders that was so inspiring – not willing to let anything stop them. I’m glad they kept the museum, but it seems a real pity the rest of it wasn’t saved too. The pictures of the Court of Honor are amazing.

      It’s probably because I come from an industrial city myself but I love these places that juxtapose all the great buildings with the factories and grime. Turn an unexpected corner and you have no idea whether you’ll see a shining mansion or a belching smoke-stack.

      I did enjoy the stuff about Holmes and I see what you mean about the contrast. I think I just got so involved in the building of the Fair that I didn’t want to be distracted from it. But I thought he gave a great picture of how easy it was for people to simply disappear…


      • Yes, I agree. It’s sad that so much went to ruin, especially after so much effort went into the making of the spectacle.

        I’m at page 545 of The Goldfinch, by the way. Not going to give any hints about which side of the fence I’ll be on by the end.


  6. This post officially pushes me off the fence. I’ve picked this book up every time I’ve seen it in a bookstore, but always put it back on the shelf in favor of another. Now I’m kicking myself for putting it back all those times. Thanks for fixing my indecision! 🙂


    • I kept swithering over this one too – it took a couple of bloggers praising it to make me take the plunge! If you do read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I think you will – I haven’t heard anybody really have much negative to say about it. 🙂


  7. There–ordered a copy. Would you mind if I included a link to your review when I post mine? If I mention being pushed off the fence by an intriguing review, I feel like that calls for a link to said review. January was a hectic month, but I’m looking forward to having reading time again!


    • I’d be honored! And I look forward to reading it. I always like to link to a review that pushes me towards a book too…which happens all the times these days! Hence my ridiculous out-of-control TBR pile… 😉


  8. I don’t want to admit how long this has been sitting on my shelves, but you join the chorus of people who say to read it. There’s an ice rink in the Midway Plaisance right now, and it’s getting quite a workout this snowy winter (I live a few hours away).


    • Oh, if you’re close to Chicago you must definitely read it! I didn’t realise Midway Plaisance was still there – I thought only the museum had survived. But next time you visit, be careful what hotel you stay in…if the owner is charming and has a moustache, RUN!!!


  9. I loved this book but also felt it was a bit strange in construction with alternate chapters about the killer. The author really captured the era, and makes me sad to think there is nothing left from all that effort.


    • I think it may have been your review that first brought the book to my attention. It was so well written, and I felt I really got to know the architects and engineers. I think they did save one building and turn it into a museum, but it is sad they couldn’t save the whole Court of Honor. And what a shame the Ferris wheel was eventually destroyed!


  10. I was persuaded by a guy in an airport bookshop to buy this but it’s sat on my shelf ever since. I’m not absolutely convinced about it now I’ve read your review. I thought it was more of an intertwined novel.


    • I really found it fascinating, especially the stuff about actually building the White City which is by far the bulk of the book. The serial killer bit was also well written – it just interested me less, but I think that’s just personal preference. Although it’s factual, I didn’t know the outcome – either whether the World Fair was a success or whether the serial killer was caught and convicted, so in some ways it almost felt like a novel to me.

      If you do decide to read it, I hope you enjoy it. 🙂


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