Monday, October 26, 2015

"Devil in the White City": Pure Evil and Pure Triumph at Chicago's 1893 World's Fair

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood. - 
-Daniel H. Burnham
Director of Works
World's Columbian Exposition

I lost count of the number of people who recommended that I read Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City"(2003) over the last 12 years.  That number increased when I told people I was moving outside of Chicago.  Even the woman who worked at Tumble Town in the York Galleria Mall suggested it to me.  "I would love to go to Chicago and see all the things in that book," she said as I peeled the name tag stickers off of my sweaty girls.  "Everyone in my book club loved it, and most of the time we fight about books," she said as she looked at me intently.  I handed her my credit card as she continued, "I mean, if you are moving out there, you really need to read it." Most of the time friends would reference it and say, "What do you mean you haven't read it?" almost as if they were mad at me for neglecting my duties as an avid reader.

When we moved to Crystal Lake, my cousin who lives in Chicago visited us and brought her copy of "The Devil in the White City" with her and dropped it off at my house. She repeated the same thing everyone else who has read it said, "You'll love it.  It's really amazing, and now that you live near Chicago, it's a must read."

Still I was unswayed to pick it up immediately.  I thumbed through and noticed that the words inside were really small and it looked rather long.  And non-fiction history isn't really my favorite thing to read.

I put it on a shelf and proceeded to read many other books.  Then, one day, I was passing by my bookshelf and the cover of "The Devil in the White City" was facing me, and I decided that it was time.

The subtitle of this book is "Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America" and murder, magic and madness take center stage throughout the book. Larson's book tells two stories that are equally compelling in flip flopping chapters.  With one story he recounts Chicago's improbable journey of winning the bid for the 1893 Columbian World Fair and the treacherous road that the architects and landscape artists traveled in order to showcase a fair such as the world had never seen.  The second story tells the tale of the twisted Dr. H. H. Holmes who constructed his own house of murderous horrors and turned it into a hotel during the World's Fair in order to trap and kill unsuspecting prey.

Although through the first 40 pages or so names and places overwhelmed me, both stories quickly gathered steam and I was drawn into the mayhem of both.  Larson used his stellar research to weave two equally sensational historical oddities together, and I loved every detail in both story lines.  I never tired of all the set backs due to weather or the naysayers who repeated "it's never been done before" or the constraints of the budget or the unions who were against the fair's progress.  I loved every fact about nails and bolts equally as much as I marveled that Ferris was able to achieve something no one had ever seen before with his towering rotating wheel.  At the same time, I was horrified by the gruesome accounts of the seductive and cunning Dr. Holmes who carefully chose his victims and then disposed of bodies in chemicals and his high temperature basement furnace. His murderous spree went undetected largely in part due to the distraction of the World's Fair.

But it wasn't only Larson's impeccable research that made this book so amazing.  He was also able to construct both story lines into nail biting narratives that read more like a novel than a fact based history book.  During certain parts I wanted to stand up and applaud Larson's writing prowess and his ability to keep me turning pages.

I also gained new respect for the city of Chicago and the amazing progress that the 1893 World's Fair brought with it.  From actualizing an urban landscape that is beautiful and technologically advanced, to improved sanitation efforts, to making cities a place that people want to visit, to beating impossible odds, Chicago proved to be both an unforgiving landscape for the Fair as much as it was the best location ever for a fair.

Because Larson's book reads more like a novel than a non-fiction book, I raced to get to the conclusion.  What happened to Holmes? I had to know, so I shut out the world and read on.  What other pressures would the World's Fair face? I couldn't wait to find out how each obstacle surfaced and how the builders and planners forged onward.

Everyone who urged me to read this book was right.  It was an incredible book, and I can't wait to visit downtown Chicago and see it with new eyes.  Not only that, I recently learned that the movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese will be released soon. I promise not to wait 12 years to see it.

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