Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

Summary: The story of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago juxtaposed with that of a psychopathic murderer, H. H. Holmes, pursuing his sinister seduction of young women within blocks of the fair.

The Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris captured the attention of the world, not the least for the engineering feat that dominated the vista of this world’s fair, the Eiffel Tower. Not to be done, the United States wanted its own fair and settled on a Columbian Exposition beginning in October 1892 and running through the warm months of 1893. A number of cities were in the running. In the end, Chicago won, and with less that two years to go, had to stage the fair. Two men, noted building architect, Daniel T. Burnham and landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted led the effort to turn derelict parkland into a showplace surpassing the Exposition in Paris. Burnham was responsible for the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station, among other architectural wonders. Olmsted was the mind behind Central Park and numerous parks around the country.

Meanwhile, a truly demonic individual had taken up residence in Englewood, within blocks of Jackson Park, the eventual site of the fair. A medical school graduate from the University of Michigan who left unexplained trouble wherever he traveled found a pharmacy where he could assist, and when the husband died, buy the pharmacy from the wife, who was said to have moved to California but was never heard from again. This was the first of a number of disappearances, mostly of women who had been won by the courtly manners, placid blue eyes, and touches of H. H. Holmes, one of many aliases used by Herman Webster Muggett.

Like many of Erik Larson’s works, the story of the visionary genius of Burnham and Olmsted, and the evil genius of Holmes are told side-by-side. Burnham was the exposition’s director, and his first challenge was to assemble the architectural genius of the country to build the various exhibition halls of the fair, subduing personal rivalries and vanities to get them to design aesthetically beautiful but temporary structures. It was his decision to paint all of them white, creating the “White City” that contrasted with the black city of Chicago to the north, casting a vision for the future city. Olmsted, who thought of landscaping projects in terms of years, had to do this in months, much of it after construction equipment from around buildings was removed, creating walkways and the central lagoon pictured below.

By C. D. Arnold (1844-1927); H. D. Higinbotham – The Project Gutenberg EBook of Official Views Of The World’s Columbian Exposition, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Two further factors exacerbated the challenges they faced. One was an economic depression with bank failures and joblessness that threatened attendance. The other was difficult relations with Chicago’s labor unions. Then there was the continuing challenge to erect a comparable structure to Eiffel’s Tower. Various hare-brained schemes were proposed until an engineer by the name of Ferris from Pittsburgh proposed building a huge wheel from which cars would be suspended. As it went up, it looked as if one good wind could knock it over. One of the highlights of the story is the account of a tornadic storm that barely shook it.

While the fair didn’t exceed the Exposition Universelle in attendance, it came close, and might have if not for the Sabbatarians who kept the fair closed on Sunday. In addition to Ferris’s engineering feat, Edison’s incandescent bulbs lit the White City at night, powered by alternating current, a first on a large scale. The fair gave also gave us Cracker Jacks and Shredded Wheat.

Meanwhile Holmes worked his evil in Englewood, erecting his “castle,” a dreary hotel with ground floor businesses, and some very strange features, like an airtight room and a specially designed kiln. Many women disappeared during the exposition, drawn to the newness and freedom of Chicago and inspired by the White City. It is not known how many fell prey to Holmes seductions. Larson focuses in on the deaths of Minnie and Anna Williams, Emeline Cigrand, and his assistant, Benjamin Pitezel and three of his children. Even these may not have come to light were it not for the dogged investigation of a Detective Geyer.

I find fascinating the technique of Larson’s to tell an inspiring story of noble vision next to one of unspeakable evil. Each could well be told separately and have been. To tell these stories together is to remind us that the distance between nobility and evil is never great. Even the fair’s ending points to the hubris of forgetting this reality. During the closing speech, Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. spoke of expecting to live another fifty years. That night, at his home, a disappointed and crazed office seeker, Patrick Eugene Prendergast, assassinated him. Larson weaves these stories together in a way both historically accurate and alternately fascinating and disturbing.