Book Review: The Devil in the White City

DevilWhiteCityby Brad Nelson   7/7/14
Macabre is a word that justly evokes the chill of its own sound. And The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America is all that and more.

I’ve not read a book quite like this. It’s reminiscent of that Reese’s peanut butter cup commercial: “You got peanut butter in my chocolate.” “No, you got chocolate in my peanut butter.” In “The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson mixes an account of the building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with the exploits of a roving mass murderer, H.H. Holmes.

While Daniel H. Burnham, as prime architect and mover of the fair, is making the world safe for Shredded Wheat and Cracker Jacks (both products debuted at this fair), H.H. Holmes is custom-building a one-city-block-sized castle designed for the extinction and elimination of young vulnerable women. And the fair is attracting thousands of workers as both men and women uproot themselves and come to Chicago looking for opportunity which does indeed abound. And in this mass of people, in this already large and chaotic city, a few women going missing is a relatively minor event. No one can really know if they are missing or have just moved on.

Jumping back and forth between these two scenarios, with the time split about equally for each, is bizarre. It’s like reading a tender and sentimental love story and the author then inserting random scenes of murderous violence. It’s an interesting way to tell both stories. And I can’t say that either suffered for the presence of the other, for they both reinforce each other by playing off the very character of Chicago back then.

Chicago was a bustling city in the late 19th century. And it was a dirty city. It was making its fortune on slaughterhouses. The book goes into some detail on just how smelly and dirty this city was. It would seem that H.H. Holmes sprouted from the gutter like some kind of mallignant mushroom, an inevitability given the dark and depressing surroundings.

But H.H. Holmes is depicted as an extremely socially adept man. He can charm the ladies and is equally charming to the men. Holmes was adept at talking his way out of not paying for wholesale goods sold to him. His manner was so affable and friendly, his words so carefully chosen to evoke sympathy and acquiescence, that he quite literally was getting away with murder. You’ll be amazed and think, “I could never fall for those charms.” Maybe so, but most people did, and many to their final regret.

On the other side of the book is the story of the conception and building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. At times you’ll find yourself looking forward to the murderous half of the book because this other half can get a little dull, even as interested as I am in this fair which I first read about in the excellent Empires of Light which I reviewed here.

This is perhaps the weaker half of the book, at least in the early going. As much detail as you sometimes get about the planning and the architecture, I didn’t get a real sense for the overall picture. The details chosen tended to be dry. But as the construction of the fair came closer to completion, the details surrounding it were more engaging. The picture painted was exciting and broad.

But there is a slight disconnect in the telling of the construction of this remarkable fair. One moment it seemed as if they had an impossible deadline to meet. The next moment they had met it. And there’s not a great sense of how this was achieved other than that we were told that it was.

These criticisms aside, I found the description of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to be fascinating. One of the better sections was the description of the conception and building of the first Ferris wheel (by a Mr. Ferris, of course). It was truly a monster. And by the looks of it, it seemed too light and fragile to carry such enormous weight. On paper, the calculations said it would last. But it was easy to see why there was so much trepidation when the wheel was first set in motion. Its massive axle was the largest single piece of metal ever forged up to that time, 45-1/2 feet long by 33 inches in diameter with a total weight of 53,031 pounds. Just lifting the axle into position was a feat not equaled since probably some of the largest stone blocks of the pyramids were set into place.

The fair finally did start mostly on time despite the relatively short timeline, the very ambitious plans for the fair, and the financial panic that hit during its construction.

But back to H.H. Holmes. This man was relentless in his subtle manipulation of people. He enjoyed this manipulation and it was a sexual stimulant for him. You can’t read these passages without realizing just how much of this kind of pscyhopathy (perhaps not sexual, but who knows?) exists in the halls of political power. Although most politicians will not lure young ladies into a room, gas them to death, and then sell their skeletons for profit to medical establishments, you will see the similarity, the completely psychopathic desire to lie for power, and in the great joy in lying merely for the sake of lying.

For those folks here who believe in evolution, you can certainly see why this trait has utility. In more modest degrees, it might even be constructive. But you will likely never look at a politician again and not see a bit of H.H. Holmes in them, especially in the way they can totally charm and deceive women.

Dark. Chilling. Macabre. And a page-turner of a story until the very end (which I’ll leave for the reader to find out for himself).

I read the Kindle edition (it’s just $8.99). The only other edition I’ve seen is a paperback one. But this is the kind of book that desperately needs photos. The 1893 Chicago’s World’s Fair was a visual feast. And the Kindle edition shows its weakness in this regard. What photos that are included are puny and few.

This story should be told with the grand photos of the amazing architecture (and other curiosities) of this truly unique World’s Fair that indeed did impact the course of America. It did so architecturally and, of course, technologically. One of the star attractions was the installation of Westinghouse’s AC lighting system. And it produced an effect on a scale that had never been seen before. The book does capture some of this sublime uniqueness of this fair. There may never be another to equal it.

And we can only hope there will not be equaled the diabolical exploits of H.H. Holmes. For those who say that man is basically good, they should read this book and put aside their fairy-tale delusions.

Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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18 Responses to Book Review: The Devil in the White City

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I will probably want to get this when it comes out in an affordable edition (or turns up at Half Price Books). Incidentally, a very similar book is Jonathan Mahler’s The Bronx is Burning, which deals with New York City in 1977. It covers the Son of Sam murders, the riot when the power went out (not to mention exactly what led to the power failure), the Yankees’ baseball season (and thus the Reggie Jackson-Billy Martin soap opera), and the mayor’s race.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I had a feeling this book was right up your alley, Tim. And thanks for the recommendation of “The Bronx is Burning.” I might check that out. Mixing a little history with mayhem can be fun! I remember catching a couple episodes of the ESPN adaptation of that. It wasn’t bad from what I remember.

    • Rosalys says:

      This book has been on my reading list so long that I forgot it was on it (I’ve a bad habit of not writing down my list on paper – I have a mental list.) However, I will get it from the library. It’s free and completely affordable!

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I had a higher opinion of the telling of the story of H.H. Holmes than this Amazon reviewer did, but this is a very good summation of the book:

    This book tells two stories that intertwine around the fabulous Chicago World’s fair of 1893. One story concerns itself with the monumental challenge the actual construction of the fair presented to the various architects, engineers, and landscape artists involved in the event. The other story tells the tale of murderer H.H. Holmes, who constructed a large hotel near the fair to accommodate the young, female tourists needing a room for the event. Holmes, in fact, had constructed a murder factory, complete with gas chambers, crematorium, and chemical decomposition facilities. There is a third story which makes brief appearances as well: the story of Patrick Prendergast, the sad lunatic that stalked and killed Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison just as the fair was wrapping up.

    This is an extremely ambitious book. Too ambitious. For me, the story of the architects and the trails in constructing the fair was fascinating and more than sufficient to carry the book. I had no idea the fair of 1893 was so towering an undertaking. They basically built a city within a city, complete with fire and police departments, municipal workers, and political offices – all built on earth that was, in essence, a quicksand-like foundation that had no real bedrock. The stresses and ultimate successes of this side of the story are captivating and incredible.

    The anecdotal stories about the fair make wonderful reading, my favorite being the story of George Ferris and his incredible Ferris Wheel, which was built to outshine the Eiffel Tower, introduced at the Paris fair a few years earlier (which it did in spades).

    The Book fell flat for me whenever the author undertook to tell the story of H.H. Holmes, the handsome, smooth con man who many call the first serial killer in American history. In the book, these episodes feel unfocused and hasty. Particularly rushed and episodic was the description of Holmes’ pursuit and eventual conviction by Pinkerton Detective, Frank Geyer. When reading these portions of the book, I felt myself whishing the author had dedicated a book just to this aspect of his tale. Mr. Larson has sensed the great story that lies in wait for the telling, but hasn’t given himself the space or time to tell it well.

    Read it for the magnificent, melancholy story of the engineers, artists and architects, whose ultimate triumph came at such sad, personal costs. For all the men involved in this project, it seems to have sapped the very strength right out of their lives.

    This writer mentions something interesting that I did not: It was the “melancholy story” of many of the people involved in constructing the fair. Many seemed to have been used up, or were already used up and this fair sapped what little strength they had left. Even Ferris, a young man in his thirties at the time, didn’t live that long after the fair.

    This book is a remarkable contrast in the Utopia of the fair (and what a pleasing and brilliant vision it was) contrasted with the reality of Chicago at the time — dirty, crowded, and with a sickly ever-present stench.

    And the very ending of the book is poignant in its description of reaching the end of the fair. It was a dream that would be no more, and it saddened those who knew that this White City would progressively deteriorate. Many thought it would be better to just set it to the torch and give it a glorious death. As it happened, arson (or some mischief of negligence — vagrants came to live in the abandoned structures) did cause it to burn to the ground soon after the fair’s closing.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      It was the “melancholy story” of many of the people involved in constructing the fair. Many seemed to have been used up, or were already used up and this fair sapped what little strength they had left. Even Ferris, a young man in his thirties at the time, didn’t live that long after the fair.
      Many thought it would be better to just set it to the torch and give it a glorious death. As it happened, arson (or some mischief of negligence — vagrants came to live in the abandoned structures) did cause it to burn to the ground soon after the fair’s closing.

      Both these paragraphs point out the ephemeral nature of our world. Our ancestors were acutely aware of this. Before the development of modern medicine, particularly antibiotics, many were struck down in their youth and healthy people could sicken and die in a matter of a couple of days. Others could waste away over months or years with no hope of improvement.

      It seems most people have forgotten, or pretend to forget (note the stupid youth culture), that even though we have extended our years upon the earth, they are still few in number.

      There are a number of books which deal with the slow wasting death through tuberculosis. “Drei Kamaraden” by Remarque’ is such a book. The story took place against the background of the troubled Weimar Republic.

      Mann’s “Magic Mountain” also deals with life and death in a sanatorium for consumptives. I started, but simply could not finish it.

      A children’s book which addresses death through “consumption” as part of the story is “Carry on, Mr. Bowdwitch”. This is about Nathaniel Bowditch, an early American sailor and navigator whose wife died of consumption when he was away. I was eight when I read this and it was the first time I had ever heard of “consumption” and its effects. It obviously made an impression as I can still remember it over fifty years later.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        That “Carry on, Mr. Bowditch” books sounds very good. I checked it out at Amazon and it has overwhelmingly positive reviews. I hope the publisher can put this out in Kindle format soon.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        This reminds me of my reaction to ads talking about how much simpler and more natural it was a century (or more) ago. My thought tends to be that they also had simpler, more natural diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and pneumonia — which often killed them young. (It’s also been pointed out that everyday life wasn’t so simple when you had to do everything without all the mechanical aids we have today. But that hadn’t occurred to me at the time I first started seeing such ads.)

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I read the Wikipedia bit on Dr. H.H. Holmes. What a piece of work. It is amazing how he could build his own house of horrors in the middle of everything and get away with it.

    I think the series “Most Evil” is the best thing on TV when trying to understand such people. Unfortunately, or perhaps not, it is impossible to truly understand what motivates these monsters.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      It can be very difficult to understand why someone like Holmes/Mudgett, Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgeway, Zodiac, Carl Panzram, etc. would simply declare themselves in Hate with the world and seek to kill. But most of us have at least a little of this, a part of us that hates some particular people and would (often gladly) kill them if we thought we could get away with it. These monsters simply generalize that hate to everyone, or at least to a very large group of people (landladies in Panzram’s case, or women who reminded Bundy of a girlfriend who had dumped him). But whether that can truly be considered understanding them is another matter.

  4. I read this a couple of years ago and had much the same reaction — the World’s Fair stuff was an interesting foil for the darkness of Holmes. It was horrifying and even more so because of its historicity.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Yes, I quite agree. Although some reviewers I’ve read would have preferred that each subject (the fair and the psychopath) be given their own book, each with more added detail, I think the mix created a synergy (a nice five-dollar word there) that made it quite an astute creative choice.

  5. Timothy Lane says:

    Well, we went to Half-Price Books last night, and I picked up a copy of this book (in fact, my biggest priority there had been finding a copy). They had it in the True Crime section. I can’t be sure when I’ll actually get around to reading it given all the other books on my list (especially after picking up a bunch of novels at InConJunction a couple of weeks ago), but it does have a reasonably high priority.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Let me know if there are a lot of photos in the book and if they are fairly large. That’s something that didn’t work well with the Kindle edition. The photos were rather small.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Well, I just did a quick scan of the book. The chapter beginnings have photos, but there don’t seem to be any others. They aren’t very large photos, though I obviously can’t compare them to the ones on Kindle. They are big enough to be clear.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          The one on the Kindle are not that much larger than a postage stamp…maybe 1-1/2″ x 1-1/2″. I love this book but it’s one begging for the inclusion of more photos.

  6. Timothy Lane says:

    I’ve just started reading the book, and already I’ve found a few interesting items even aside from the minor connection the chief architect had to the sinking of the Titanic. For one thing, it’s certainly interesting to learn that Chicago got its most famous nickname because of its braggadocio, not its weather (though Wrigley Field is certainly much affected by the wind patterns). And as someone who is most grateful that the Ten Commandments have no admonition against gluttony, I rather liked reading that it played a role in introducing Cracker Jacks and Shredded Wheat. No doubt I will find plenty of other interesting tidbits before I’m done.

  7. Timothy Lane says:

    Well, I finished the book, and must say I really enjoyed it. One thing that had never hit me before about Mudgett/Holmes is how much effort he put into preparing for a career of murder. As best I can tell, the typical serial killer acts when the impulse to kill becomes active again. Holmes planned in advance; murder was his recreation.

    I also found it interesting that Dreiser was so much influenced by the Exposition. As it happens, we read Sister Carrie (which is actually listed as a source) in the 11th grade, and it occurs to me that the character of Hurstwood, in his narcissism and lack of moral fiber, could have been inspired by Holmes just as the character of Norman Bates in Psycho was inspired by Ed Gein. I also noticed a similarity between Holmes’s calm reaction to exposure (and reliance on blatantly and obviously false alibis) and Slick Barry’s reaction to the various Obama Gang scandals.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Glad you liked it. It’s an unusual book in the way it mixes the two things (the World’s Fair and a Serial Killer). But it seems to work. A nice creative effort by the author.

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