In 1889, American architects and engineers witnessed, as did the rest of the world, the sudden ascendancy of France to the highest of heights in material human achievement. The Exposition Universelle, the world’s fair in Paris, had succeeded with overwhelming glory and praise.
At the heart of the Paris exposition was a tower of iron, one thousand feet high, designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, sealing forever in the minds of most people, the supremacy of the French architectural vision. However, the Americans would have the last say.
The Devil in the White City is an extraordinary accomplishment by author Erik Larson. It is a comprehensive and fascinating telling of the high stakes gamble by American architects, engineers, and inventors, to regain the admiration of the world by hosting the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
The driving force behind the effort was Chicago’s architect Daniel Burnham (pictured left). His beloved business partner, John Root, assisted Burnham in the early stages of the project, but Root died shortly after it was underway. City leaders credited much of the inspiration for the fair to the deceased Root, an opinion not shared by Burnham. With an enormous well of good will from which to draw, along with his personal enthusiasm and tireless cajoling of his naysayers, Burnham succeeded in assembling many of America’s architects and engineers to cooperate and to commit to the exposition’s success.
Larson’s rich details are invaluable. Readers enter into the tedium of bringing this extraordinary vision to material fruition. The politics, money, the egos of geniuses, the weather, labor unions, not to mention the short calendar, serve as major antagonists in the story, underscoring the significance of the remarkable achievement.
The “Devil” in the book’s title is the charming Mr. H. H. Holmes (below). Born as Herman Webster Mudgett, Holmes had a voracious appetite for scams and murders. A respected business owner who could talk his way out of thousands of dollars of debt was equally adept at winning the trust of women.
The mysterious disappearances of several women known to have been friendly with Holmes did not raise eyebrows in the beginning. However, with each successfully executed murder Holmes’ lust grew. His hotel, referred to as the “Castle,” was patronized by fair-goers aplenty. Holmes himself determined who stayed at his hotel and who did not. His preferred customers were women traveling to Chicago alone, especially those whose personalities presented him with the best opportunity for domination.
As the Columbian Exposition met with popularity and success, an estimated dozens of women met their gruesome fates. Tortured, gassed, dissected, and incinerated, most of Holmes’ victims simply vanished.
This extraordinary juxtaposition of the improbable success of the Chicago fair with what could only be called the impossible suspect, the serial killer hiding in plain daylight, is a complex and ambitious structure for Larson’s book. The contrast between the glory of human achievement and the horror of the psychopathic mind is an uncomfortable consideration for the reader.
In this aspect, much is required. Larson does not use much ink on the killer’s psychological profile. Unlike other true crime books, the labor of making sense of the juxtaposition belongs to the reader. This is a quiet and intelligent compliment by Larson. There is plenty of imagery and description, but the author deftly stops short of saying so much that there is nothing left for the reader to think about.
Erik Larson is nonfiction’s John Updike with a rich and precise use of language. He teases the story out of its tangled web in a masterful fashion. The Devil in the White City deserves and receives my highest marks.