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Book Review: The Devil in the White City

by Robert McCool

First posted on the Icon September 10, 2020.

Welcome to the White City - Chicago in 1890-1893.

It's been a while since I've written a review, as my wife had an emergency back surgery and an extended stay in the hospital that has kept me busy doing other things than writing.

But even as immediate as my time has been recently this book has been on my mind quite a bit. Once again, it comes recommended by a member of the Ada book club, and is justified as a good read.

The Devil in the White City (Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America) (Vintage Books, ISBN: 978-0-375-72560-9) by Erik Larson (Author of Issac's Storm) is a non-fiction  2003 tome that reads like a novel, and with everything else that has been happening recently it still held my attention with both its readability and dual story lines.

The main thrust of the book is the chronicle of the architects' struggle to bring into existence a marvelous world fair - The Colombian Fair Exposition in the 1890's. A fair that would have no comparison or rival. One that would be the city Chicago wanted to be; the city's conscience. The White City, a marvel that would be lit by thousands of electric lights all using, for the first time, Nicolas Tesla's Alternating Current.

The Chief Architects were Daniel Burnham and John Root, even though Root died before seeing his grand vision come to life. Other architects were Frederick Law Olmstead the Landscape Architect, Codman, Atwood, St. Gaudens, Sullivan, and Hunt. There was even a woman architect named Sophia Hayden who received a $1,000 reward for designing the Women's Building. Male architects received $10,000 for their efforts.

The major complexities were seemingly unsolvable. Not only would the fourteen large buildings and exhibits need to be finished in the same time it took to build a single house, the very ground in Jackson Park was unstable, being clay, water, and sand.

Even the area's moniker as the “windy city” worked to thwart the construction of the roofs of the biggest buildings. Progress proceeded at the speed of steam-driven technology, demanding great numbers of craftsmen and common labors work together on the many projects at the same time, often braking records with feats of daring-do with unknown methods of construction. And after Chicago's Great Fire of 1871 open flame was always a worry.

The growing labor movement hampered construction, as did the stench from the nearby stockyard's animal killing buildings. Amazingly, even with all the  complexity and problems, the White City got built with a fever pitch moving towards its completion.

Ending in October of 1893, some things and records still impress. Ferris's giant wheel set a new standard for height, and is remembered as the Ferris Wheel that was taller than Paris's Eiffel Tower. Hire's Root Beer and Shredded Wheat made an entrance at the fair and survive today.

The first Braille Typewriter was introduced, making Helen Keller exclaim with joy. The electric launch boat reached popularity, as many of the electric devices, like electric elevators, thrilled millions. All in all, the fair was considered a huge success.

The secondary story of the book concerns a psychopathic serial-killer with a taste for young, attractive girls, or for anything he could make a dishonest buck at.

Herman Webster Mudgett, aka as Doctor H. H. Holmes, among other aliases. He was a successful conman, stripping money from anybody that fell under his spell. He built a killing room in a building he owned, and conned and then killed young women who came to Chicago to join the Exposition's great need for laborers. Even he did not know precisely how many he killed, how many he gained control over in an effort to strip away their fortunes, how many insurance companies he defrauded, and how many died to increase his property. He even sold the skeletons from his victims for more ill-gotten gain.

This is a thickly paced book, at the speed of steam. But how it held my attention in difficult times speaks well of the author, and his thoroughness at capturing America at the end of the nineteenth century. I recommend it for its precise history and splendid portrayal of a serial killer in his natural habitation of evil.


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