Required Reading: Devil in the White City

worlds fair
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Two sides to the same coin, opposites attract, yin and yang. Man’s interest in contradictions knows no bound. As much as we strive to rid the world of evil, deep down we know it is essentially a futile endeavor. For if evil were to be abolished, so would the good we claim to appreciate. From the title itself, we recognize The Devil in the White City as another layer in the wall of narratives juxtaposing good and evil. The book claims to be a history text, but it reads as smooth as fiction. It may be hard to believe for those familiar with the story’s primarily South Side setting of Jackson Park and 63rd/Wallace, but at one time the former was an illustrious and seemingly impossible fairground for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition; at the latter, just a quick L ride away, was an infamous killing house.

What Daniel Burnham and his associates were able to create is unbelievable and began an invaluable beginning to Chicago’s amazing architecture. One of the most unfortunate criticisms I have heard from people who didn’t like or didn’t finish this book was the architectural planning and redtape passages were too boring to get passed. What makes this book incredible is how writer Erik Larson sought out so many details and subtleties, interweaving the seemingly mundane specifics of planning the festival with the conquests of serial killer HH Holmes; this becomes the book’s greatest triumph. Further, I feel this criticism is unjust since the reader knows the book is going to be about the World’s Fair and some interest in it is necessary. Larson does a tremendous job analyzing all the obstacles the architects and engineers had to overcome to create their buildings with limited time and supplies.

Understandably, bureaucracy and city planning isn’t riveting for everyone. Perhaps understanding the psychology and sinister evil of the mind of a serial killer is more up your alley. Any mass gathering or celebration essentially (and unfortunately) turns tourists into sitting ducks. While crime is something always more rampant than people prefer, the naivety of the people at the fair created a perfect target for criminals. The one who took the most grandeur was indeed the cleverest of the bunch. Constructing a building himself to pose as a hotel primarily for young, attractive and gullible ladies he could charm, Holmes built a gas chamber, dissection lab, and crematorium in the basement. He would clean the skeletons and sell them to medical labs for scientific study (think about that the next time you’re in bio class). The charismatic Holmes preyed upon the millions of visitors to the city in the summer of 1893. It’s unknown how many people he killed, but it’s estimated to be up to 250 over the course of his, erm, ‘career.’

Overall, the book declares genius can go either way. It’s no doubt that Holmes was as brilliant as Burnham, albeit for different reasons. Likewise, genius is still as temporal as existence. Not too shocking: the White City eventually crumbles and Holmes is eventually caught. If nothing else, the book does a great job of uncovering what it was to actually be at the fair. To imagine that Pabst actually deserved that Blue Ribbon or to see the very first Ferris Wheel holding two hundred people per car is being transported to another world. Whereas this is often looked on as the job of a fiction writer, the elaborately annotated bibliography reveals his careful research and the unsatisfied reader has a plethora of primary texts from which to seek out on his own. For those interested in the story but turned off to the idea of reading entirely, a film version is in the works with Leonardo DiCaprio set to star as a deceitfully dreamy Holmes. But, we still say to head to your local library and check out a copy of the book.

Andrew Hertzberg

About Andrew Hertzberg

If identity is an illusion, I’m a magician in training. And although Emerson was right in pointing out that “with consistency, a great soul has simply nothing to do” the one constant I don’t mind in my life is Chicago. Yes, even the boredom of her suburbs couldn’t suppress the glow of the city, my attraction as a moth to flame. The future is unwritten, the characters are ever-expanding, and the plot is a perpetual foray through rising actions, conflicts and falling actions; the setting, however, remains the same.

One Comment

  • richard
    March 1, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

    I find myself having the opposite criticism; I thought the chapters on the planning and development of the fair were fascinating, and I eventually started skimming the Holmes chapters just to get through them.

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