A Miracle of Rare Device

Book Review: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

One of the stars of the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 was Gustave Eiffel’s marvelous tower.  That fair celebrated the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.  With the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World approaching, the United States wanted to do something to top Paris, showcase the arrival of the US as a world power and center of technological innovation.  A fierce competition emerged between US cities to host and build the Fair.  To the surprise and consternation of the cities of the East, the upstart Midwest city of Chicago won the competition.

The World’s Fair and Columbian Exhibition of 1893 was Chicago’s chance to show that it wasn’t just the dirty, smelly, hog butcher of the world, and they mustered most of the great architects in the US to design it.  Daniel Burnham was the lead architect and Fredrick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park and Biltmore, designed the grounds and landscape.

The fair featured a number of important innovations: electric lights powered by alternating current, clean water, piped in from distant wells, and, as rival to Mr. Eiffel’s tower, the marvelous wheel of George Ferris.

Larson’s book tells the story of the fair, AKA, the Columbian Exposition, but it also tells a parallel story of a monstrous psychopath who operated simultaneously with the fair and in its immediate proximity.  The White City, because all the building of the fair were white, in contrast to the Black City, the rest of coal smoke begrimed Chicago.  The titular devil was Dr. H. H. Holmes, a prodigious swindler born Herman Webster Mudgett, but also known by many other names.

Holmes was a handsome man of great charm, who managed to charm and swindle contractors, suppliers, and employees who build for him a “hotel” with numerous sinister features, including murder rooms into which suffocating gas could be piped and a slide that led directly into a giant crematorium furnace in the basement.  His victims were mainly young women, whom he pretended to marry, or were borders at his hotel, but also included children and at least one man, a long time employee whose children he also murdered.

The interleaving of the two stories has schizophrenic effect which I found disquieting.


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