The Devil in the White City
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
That night the exposition illuminated the fairgrounds one last time. “Beneath the stars the lake lay dark and sombre,” Stead wrote, “but on its shores gleamed and glowed in golden radiance the ivory city, beautiful as a poet’s dream, silent as a city of the dead.”
This book recounts the incredible 1893 Chicago World’s Fair by following the stories of two very different men — Daniel Burnham, the fair’s architect; and H.H. Holmes, a psychopathic serial killer that preyed on fairgoers in the city.
This book has been my “dessert” for the past few weeks — the book that I pick up at the end of the night, that I ration out to myself a few chapters at a time so that I don’t finish it too quickly, and that I lament when I’m getting near the end because I want to read more. My sentiments are similar to those of fairgoer Mary Hartwell Catherwood —
“What shall we do when this Wonderland is closed? — when it disappears — when the enchantment comes to an end?”
This was, indeed, an enchanting tale. The author’s poetic prose perfectly portrays the magic and wonder of the exposition and the dark, calculating mind of a murderer. The book was chilling — the beauty of the fair contrasting with the gloomy depths of Holmes’ “castle” hotel where he would carry out his victims’ demise. This book was incredibly well-researched, with tons of primary source material taken from letters and memos from the fair founders, newspaper clippings, and information from Holmes’ autobiography and his criminal investigation. This book covered topics of architecture, history, culture, politics, economics, crime, and art all in one readable tome that reads more like a novel than a textbook or research paper. I was amazed at how wide the fair’s influence spread, how many famous people all shared this common event in their life, and how it changed Chicago.
Yes, it does switch back and forth between story lines, and yes, the author does obviously like to use foreshadowing — to the point of revealing (a couple times) rather far ahead of time that the fair would, indeed, burn down — and yes, there is a lot of detailed information about the fair that some readers may find trivial, but overall, it is an engrossing, fascinating book.
Overall: Thanks to this book, I now know where I’d go if I ever acquire a time machine (though I will certainly steer clear of a certain Dr. Holmes). A compelling, fascinating piece of history.