Devil in the White City [book review]

I just finished The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Published in 2003, Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the rights to turn it into a film that will reportedly be directed by Martin Scorsese.

It follows two different stories. The first is the account of the building of the Chicago World’s Fair (known officially as the World’s Columbian Exposition) in 1892.

The second story is of H.H. Holmes, the most well-known alias of the serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, who used the fair to lure victims to his hotel.

The book is quite engaging. I came for anecdotes on super-creepy Holmes, and stayed for the World’s Fair.

It was a miracle the thing was even built. The entire project was hampered by such external forces as committees, political pressure groups, worker’s strikes, huge egos, bad weather, an economic depression and time limitations (less two years to complete such a thing on soggy Chicago soil).

At the same time, Holmes built his macabre “World’s Fair Hotel” to lure his (mostly female) victims. The building had airtight guest rooms that doubled as gas chambers, labyrinthine hallways that led to nowhere, and a crematorium in the basement.

A large part of the story of the Fair is told from the perspectives of Daniel Burnham, the fair’s chief architect, and of Frederic Law Olmstead (the designer of New York City’s Central Park). Holmes’s story is recounted from the viewpoint of Holmes himself as well as his victims and lovers. This is a style that resembles Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (he even admits his debt to that book), Erik Larson often spends time in the minds of the characters, making the whole book come across more like a novel than a historical narrative.

I wondered at his depiction of Holmes, the remorseless psychopath without any conscience. I’m still mulling it over in my head. Are there truly people out there who have no empathy, but can mimic it perfectly? In the 19th century they called the condition “moral insanity.” One study reports that 1% of all males have psychopathic tendencies while far less women. Do psychopaths always wear “masks” as the influential psychologist Cleckley suggests? he describes “[the] psychopathic person as outwardly a perfect mimic of a normally functioning person, able to mask or disguise the fundamental lack of internal personality structure.” He also asserts that “despite the seemingly sincere, intelligent, even charming external presentation, internally the psychopathic person does not have the ability to experience genuine emotions.” Do I know people like that? devil white city

A few facts I learned about the time:

  • The first Ferris wheel can be credited with saving the fair. Admission to the fair was 25¢ while a ticket to ride the Ferris wheel was 50¢. It rose 80m above the ground and had 36 cars that could hold 60 people each (2100 people). It survived strong winds and storms.
  • The buildings of the fair were considered the height of American architecture at the time, and were conceived of by the country’s leading architects. They were also impermanent; they were all vandalized or demolished by the turn of the century.
  • Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show set up alongside the fair; they were not allowed a place inside the grounds because it was feared it would ruin the fair’s architectural cohesion.
  • Belly dancing, considered horribly scandalous, was introduced to the US at the time. So was shredded wheat and Juicy Fruit gum.
  • AC current was used to power electric devices at the fair. This would become the industry standard, much to Edison’s chagrin (AC was patented by Tesla/Westinghouse).
  • Dozens, if not hundreds, of workers died during the building of the fair from fires, broken skulls, and electrocutions.
  • Chicago was a filthy, filthy place, overwhelmed with the stench of the Union Stockyards.
  • Over 27,000,000 visited the fair in the 6 months it was open. Teddy Roosevelt visited the fair. So did Scott Joplin, Antonín Dvorák, Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Theodore Dreiser. Mark Twain did not attend because he came down with the flu, and he spent 11 days in his Chicago hotel room before returning home.
  • Cash was king. The fair could be beautiful, but if it did not turn a profit, it was considered unsuccessful. They paid off their loans in August, thanks to the installation of Ferris Wheel in June, and canny marketing by Sol Bloom.
  • The fair ended with a bang and a sizzle. The day before closing ceremonies, a crazed assassin killed Chicago’s mayor. All was cancelled. A few months later, angry mobs set fire to the buildings of the fair during the Pullman Strikes, effectively ending the fair.
  • Ferris never equalled or surpassed his Wheel. He moved it to the north side of chicago at great expense, and again to the St Louis World’s Fair in 1906. It was later demolished for scrap.

In all, a good book. Very interesting. The Holmes story falls a bit flat at the end, as if he were rushing to finish the book.

4 stars out of 5.


One thought on “Devil in the White City [book review]”

  1. Sorry to say but I cant help but think of Hillary when you ask about people with no empathy but can mimic it perfectly. Also, perhaps juicy fruit was introduced to alleviate the symptoms of eating shredded wheat or maybe vice versa.


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