Erik Larson’s heroic and wonderful book, The Devil in the White City, is an historical study of the contradictions and contrasts of its two chief characters, Daniel Burnham, the lead architect and visionary of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and Herman Mudgett (alias Dr. H. H. Holmes), the coolly maniacal serial killer. In a broader sense, however, the book portrays the glaring disparity of values and priorities of the extravagantly wealthy barons of property and politics, and those of the impoverished lower classes, most of who could barely afford admission to the celebrated Chicago World’s Fair.
The title of the book is misleading, if the “Devil” is presumed to be Holmes, because the real devil in the White City is unadulterated avarice, motivated by outrageous hubris and the pugilistic moxie of America’s immense inferiority complex. The Fair’s leaders designed a blindingly white, neoclassical tribute to technology, science, art, architecture and culture that was surrounded by grimy, uncivilized streets, widespread poverty, and the gritty smoke of industrial waste.
As with most narratives of “The Gilded Age,” Larson’s book juxtaposes the ideals of democracy, free enterprise, and technological progress with the realities of a plutocracy that prolonged the wretched and unsanitary working conditions and backward medical treatments that ultimately undermined the economic and physical health of the nation. Burnham created a short-lived utopia out of a combination of benevolence and necessity to ensure the success of the Fair. He insisted on piping in pure spring water from Wisconsin, maintaining pristine facilities, and enlisting an army of security guards that protected, even if only for a day, the visitors’ health and safety.
Despite the Herculean efforts of thousands of workers and the celestial brilliance of the Court of Honor’s tributes to human endeavors, the Devil got his due. Holmes seduced and murdered countless luckless fair attendees, mostly women; dozens more lost their lives in the construction of the buildings or in fires; illness and suicide abbreviated the careers of bankers, artists and politicians. None of this would have been possible without the tacit indifference of financers, police and politicians to the value of individual life. Most of the mysterious “disappearances” of young women and children went uninvestigated. Within the three years of the Fair’s inception and its closing ceremonies (unexpectedly subdued by the assassination of the beloved mayor), banks went belly-up, personal fortunes were won and lost, and unemployment skyrocketed, casting a pall of bitter disillusionment on the exposition’s valiant magnificence.
In contrast, many wonderful inventions and products were introduced at the Fair, including engineering marvels like the Ferris wheel, timeless treats like Cracker Jacks, efficient electricity using alternating currents, and architectural inspirations that changed the design of cities throughout the country. The legacy of the Chicago World’s Fair lives on in places like Epcot Center (Walt Disney’s father worked at the fair), in the stories of L. Frank Baum (Oz was modeled after the White City); and in every local carnival with its midway, unique food, rides and entertainment.
There are more detailed books on Holmes (see my review of Harold Schechter’s Depraved), and numerous biographies of Burnham and other architects, but you would be hard pressed to find a more entertaining, compelling or better written account of the entire saga of this fascinating slice of history than The Devil in the White City. I thoroughly enjoyed every page of it, and found myself re-reading especially interesting passages, like rewinding a video, to fully absorb its magic.