Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
- 447 pages (Notes and Sources begins about page 376)
- I saved this one for the weeks before Halloween.
This book sounded so creepy that when I started my History Reading Challenge months ago, I knew I had to save it until the spookiest month of the year, October. And the “devil” of its title is definitely creepy in that over-the-top, steampunk -supervillain kind of way. His charm was preternaturally overpowering, enough so that his many victims—and, later, investigators and creditors—fell for the most flimsy excuses he bothered to offer them. He relied on his personal charisma to manipulate people and enjoyed the heady, invulnerable feeling of power it brought.
He strategized and enacted his long-term plans for manipulation and murder in a building he had constructed in bustling Chicago of the early 1890s. Called “the castle” by many locals, it stood a short ride on the Alley L from the site of the Chicago World’s Fair. The Fair was open for many months, so he took some of his victims there for an afternoon here and there before finishing them off. The Fair was such a big deal for its time—imagine if Disneyworld came to your neighborhood for a year—that no one could resist the invitation of the charming man who paid their way during those difficult economic times.
Author Erik Larson divides his book into two separate stories. One story is about the serial killer, and one story is about the man who was the driving force behind the Chicago World’s Fair, architect Daniel H. Burnham. Burnham faced all manner of struggles to bring the Fair to fruition, both personal and professional. His battles began with the national debate over which city should host the Fair—it was remarkable that Chicago edged out New York City, which was seen as the center of American technological and cultural achievement. From there, it only got worse: death and illness among key men for the project, natural disaster, labor disputes and fire all set back this massive project.
The Burnham thread of Larson’s story might sound familiar to all project managers who have to juggle the resources of labor, money and time. However, two considerations keep Burnham’s plotline from becoming a couple hundred pages of managerial bellyaching about any project. First, the sheer scale of the thing for its age. The Fair would ultimately exceed attendance at the Paris World’s Fair a few years earlier (when it unveiled the Eiffel Tower) despite the refusal of rail companies to discount fares to Chicago in troubling economic times. The logistics of upkeep, moving inventory for the restaurants and exhibits, waste removal and keeping the grounds proved tremendous challenges in a pre-digital era where a county fair was the biggest event most people ever saw or thought about. Second, the Chicago World’s Fair proved a touchstone for some important elements of American history during the 1890s. For example, we in the U.S. still live with the Fair’s decision to award the lighting contract to Westinghouse instead of Edison—the Westinghouse plan for alternating current was the low bid, and it became the standard for electricity in the U.S. (Edison favored direct current). But the Fair also touched the careers of many American achievers of the age: Frank Lloyd Wright, Buffalo Bill, Walt Disney, and George Ferris (designer of the Ferris wheel). Clarence Darrow (as in the lawyer from “Inherit the Wind”) had a role in the Fair’s story as a labor lawyer. The detailed story of birthing this massive event fascinated me more than the serial murder angle—the world still has psychopaths, but we just don’t do World’s Fairs anymore.
That said, the book’s serial-killer “devil” is only actually “in the White City” (what people called the Fair itself, not Chicago as a whole) for a couple of paragraphs out of 447 pages. In fact, only about half the book involves him at all. The two tales have only tangentially to do with one another, having setting in common. Either tale is well-researched and well-written, but the book has a disjointed quality and stuffing these two entirely separate plotlines into the same book cover feels contrived. However, either story is a good read and worth looking at. If “true crime” is your thing, then perhaps the slick psychopathology will capture your imagination. I came for the serial killer but stayed for the Fair.