The Devil in the White City tells us two stories: 1) the conception, construction, and aftermath of the Chicago Columbian Exposition and all the people involved in making it happen, and 2) the horror of a serial killer in the midst of it all.
Fun Facts about the Chicago World’s Fair (1893):
- The event attracted almost 4 million people overall (sometimes attendance was as high as 200, 000 a day, with 20, 000 people a day riding the Ferris wheel), including many notable historical figures such as Jane Addams, Buffalo Bill Cody, Harry Houdini, Scott Joplin, Woodrow Wilson, Susan B. Anthony, Teddy Roosevelt, Helen Keller, and William Stead. (Not to mention, of course, all of the great architects who worked on the Fair, such as Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, Richard Hunt, and Sophia Hayden.) Mark Twain did not attend. Instead, he spent his entire visit sick in his hotel room, then left without ever seeing it.
- Despite delays and setbacks, (financial negotiations, planning disagreements, economic instability, labour unrest, sewage problems, collapsing buildings, bad weather, health problems) the fair was thrown together in 2 years.
- The Ferris Wheel was invented to out-do the Eiffel Tower, which was the talk of the World’s Fair in Paris. The Ferris Wheel consisted of 100, 000 parts, 28, 416 pounds of bolts, was 264 feet high, and could hold 2,000 passengers at a time. Would you have taken a ride in it?
- Some of the new inventions on display at the Fair included the first moving pictures, the zipper, Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, Shredded Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jacks, and the vertical file (invented by Melvil Dewey – creator of the Dewey Decimal system).
- The name H.H. Holmes is just one of many of Herman Webster Mudgett’s aliases.
- Holmes moved to Chicago before the Fair, and constructed his own building/hotel, complete with secret chambers and vaults, gas lines, pits of acid, lime pits, and a kiln.
- As well as being a serial killer, Holmes was also a con artist and a bigamist. He was able to charm his way into several marriages, and out of paying his creditors.
- It wasn’t until a couple of years after the Chicago World’s Fair that Holmes was finally taken into custody for fraud. In the end, he confessed to 27 murders, but it is thought that the number may actually be over 200.
- Daniel Burnham was an amazing guy when you think about it. Besides his architectural accomplishments, he was able to pull this event together, despite all the setbacks, in an incredibly short amount of time while holding onto his health and his sanity. I think it would be interesting to learn more about his wife, and some of the other women behind the scenes. I liked reading the excerpts from the letters he sent to her while working away from home. Margaret and Daniel Burnham had 5 children, and Margaret outlived him by 30+ years, living into her late 90s.
- There is so much information packed into this book, so many facts and incidentals, that help make the book even more interesting to read. However, at times there was so much that it felt overwhelming. It helps to be wide awake when reading this book.
- In the Epilogue, Larson talks about what happened to some of the notable people who had been involved in the Fair, which was a satisfying way to end the book. He also talks about the lasting impact the Fair had on America, one being the idea that cities can be beautiful.
- I did a lot of googling while reading this book.
Erik Larson on libraries:
To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story. There are always little moments on such trips when the past flares to life, like a match in the darkness.
What was your favourite part about this book? What do you think Erik Larson should write about next?