Erik Larson: The Devil In The White City: Murder, Magic, And Madness At The Fair That Changed America

Erik Larson: The Devil In The White City: Murder, Magic, And Madness At The Fair That Changed America

Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 had a lot to prove. Following 1889's wildly successful Exposition Universelle, the Paris World's Fair which startled attendees with far-flung wonders and modern marvels, the American successor had to establish that the future belonged as much to the New World as the old one. It also had to do so on the banks of Lake Michigan, in a city trying to shake its image as a smoke-drenched slaughterhouse. As it did so, a charming entrepreneur turned his hotel into a slaughterhouse all his own. Told mostly in alternating chapters, Erik Larson's The Devil In The White City traces the parallel histories of Daniel Burnham, the architect who oversaw the Exposition, and the man who called himself Henry H. Holmes, a lifelong murderer whose World's Fair Hotel became a black hole for unaccompanied fair-going women, and featured such unusual amenities as a dissection table and a stove large enough to accommodate corpses. It's the stuff of grisly fiction, but it really happened, and Larson's brisk, lively prose digs into the details of both halves of his story. Assembled on relatively short notice, the Exposition centered on a gleaming, neo-classical compound in the relative wilderness of Chicago's near south side. Overseen by Burnham, it employed some of the greatest minds of the day, including form-follows-function pioneer Louis Sullivan; Frederick Olmsted, the visionary who designed New York's Central Park; and an untested engineer named George Ferris, whose namesake invention was the centerpiece that the Columbian Exposition needed to "out-Eiffel Eiffel." With great investigative skills and an eye for telling details, Larson shows how the clash of powerful personalities brought the fair into being even as their competing creative visions threatened to pull it apart. He also spares no detail in recounting the fair's shadow history. Just as the fair served both as a mirror to the past and a window to the future, Holmes is presented as a foreshadowing of the century to come, a pitiless killer with a talent for machinery. Larson lets his parallel narratives exist side by side, seldom directly commenting on their connections, and The Devil In The White City is all the more powerful for it. Bringing together its labor conflicts, notable cameos (Nikola Tesla, Buffalo Bill, Susan B. Anthony), cheerful displays of weapons of mass destruction, a delusional political assassin, and a devil in disguise, Larson makes the fair look like a little 20th century rolled into a couple of months.

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