The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson is a book that interested me after seeing a documentary about the Chicago World’s Fair – EXPO – Magic of the White City (you can watch the whole thing on YouTube at no cost!) I had heard about the book before but it took the interest piqued from that film for me to really understand what a big deal the White City really was.
So many things were invented or popularized at the fair that the impact cannot be overstated. The zipper, the Ferris Wheel, the automatic dishwasher, the elevator, fax machine, the Tesla coil (and a host of lighting exhibited,) moving sidewalks, food products like Cracker Jack, Aunt Jemima pancakes, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Juicy Fruit gum, Shredded Wheat and many more, the first machine to squash pennies for souvenirs, commemorative stamps and coins, and even spray paint – invented to speed the process of painting the White City. This is just a fraction of the impact this fair had on the world. Heck, even the Pledge of Allegiance came as a result.
More so than the results the public saw, there were things like building techniques invented here that are still used today.
Juxtaposed in this book to all that is stunning and grand at the fair is the story of H.H. Holmes considered one of the most vile serial killers in American history. Larson winds the two seemingly unrelated stories around each other in a way that at times seems clever, but often feels quite jarring. It could be because their stories are so different.
Holmes is the epitome of a psychopathic serial killer. Larson describes in macabre detail the horrific actions taken by this predator. While the information about the Svengali-like control he exerted over people and the lengths to which he went in creating and covering up his hideous actions was fascinating, the details of his twisted actions was too much at times.
Because these two stories are so completely different and only really share a rough proximity, it feels very forced to put them together. In fact Larson’s writing style too feels very forced. It is a very subjective writing style that feels more like speculation than research at times.
The 1893 Columbian Exposition portion of the book was great. The rest just read like pulp fiction, albeit interesting pulp fiction. I hear it will be a movie soon starring Leonardo Di Caprio as H.H. Holmes so tossing these two stories together appears to have paid off handsomely for Larson.
by Chris Doelle
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