The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson

It’s not QUITE the longest book title ever, but possibly the longest on this blog? And it’s a little bit misleading, since there’s not really “magic” the way we think of it at the World’s Fair/Columbian Exposition. But I suppose there was magic in how everything ended up coming together despite everyone’s delays and misgivings. And there was definitely murder. Lots of murder.

But I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a sensationalist book; it’s definitely not. It doesn’t invent facts, but it doesn’t play them down either.  This books weaves together three main stories: the Chicago World’s Fair (Columbian Exposition) (whichever you want to call it) of 1893, including its planning and building stages; the descent into delusion of Patrick Eugene Prendergast; and the career of H.H. Holmes.  The World’s Fair parts revolve mostly around the architect Daniel Burnham and the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (who also designed Central Park), who were the driving forces for the layout and buildings of the fair. Patrick Eugene Prendergast assassinated the mayor of Chicago two days before the fair closed. And H.H. Holmes was a serial killer who lived in the area and, it is believed, used the fair as a cover to entrap and kill (mostly) women. (He was also an insurance fraudster and bigamist, among other things.)

I really liked how the book wove together the three parts. They all seemed to have the right amount of emphasis for the book – Prendergast was focused on the least, but not so little that Iwas wondering why he was even there, for example. The book never got too bogged down in details either of Holmes or of the fair planning and building. Structurally, it works really well.

Stylistically, it works a little less well. It’s still really good, but there were moments where Larson was obviously trying to create tension or keep the you reading. One example of this manufactured mystery is the part about the monument that is supposed to “out-Eiffel Eiffel”. Larson presents an “unnamed” engineer working for a steel inspection company who presents an undisclosed design, which is rejected at least twice before approval is finally given. It’s not until the approval is finally given that the name of this engineer is revealed to be George Ferris – and the design is, of course, the first Ferris wheel. The manufactured mystery struck me as just that – manufactured – and annoying for two possible reasons. One, if you’re like me, you looked up the Chicago World’s Fair on wikipedia either before reading or near the beginning of reading the book, to get a sense of how accurate it was or how potentially interesting it was going to be. If you did this (as I did), you know that the first Ferris wheel was built for the World’s Fair, and that it was the monument that “out-Eiffel-ed Eiffel”. No mystery; the fakeness of “the Pittsburgh engineer” gets annoying. If you are not like me, then it is entirely possible that you read this section thinking, “I know this is supposed to be significant; get to the reveal already”, which is also annoying.

The Ferris part of it was the longest of these “manufactured mysteries” and therefore the most annoying to me. It worked better when it was all included in a short paragraph – like when the guy who invented the Braille typewriter met a blind girl who was extraordinarily grateful for the typewriter and her escort. Of course, it was Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. But since that’s a minor incident showing the power of the fair and the extent of its capacity and reach, it works a lot better than the drawn-out “mystery” of the Pittsburgh engineer who, by the way, was responsible for one of the greatest innovations of the fair, one of its main attractions, and one of its most prominent safety concerns.

The other thing that kind of got to me, stylistically, was the actual style. Every once in a while, the prose got a bit imagistic and flowery – jarringly so for a non-fiction book. (Not that non-fiction needs to be dry and purely factual, mind.) I thought I had highlighted more examples than this, but some that I’ve found among my notes are

“Sentences wandered through the report like morning glory through the pickets of a fence.”

“fogged windows, paper curled from ambient moisture, the demonic applause of rain on rooftops”

“Bertha Palmer, whose diamonds radiated an almost palpable heat.”

Seriously.  There was also one sentence about Jack the Ripper (a near-contemporary of Holmes and possibly an evil inspiration?) that was syntactically confusing (a semi-colon rather than a comma would have made things a lot clearer, editors!) and at least one that was probably intended to be amusing (And, to be fair, was amusing – but I just have an image of Larson giggling to himself over this sentence and refusing to consider changing it): “It was the first in a sequence of impossibly rich and voluminous banquets whose menus raised the question of whether any of the city’s leading men could possibly have a functional artery.”  (Also, he goes on to detail the menus of some of these banquets – at least three of them – in printed menu form with wine lists and everything.)

The other thing that made me go “hm” was that for a book that, in the foreword, prided itself on factual accuracy, it detailed the emotional reactions and responses of people in situations where they cannot possibly have left records of their emotional reactions and responses. It is addressed in the afterword, but it took me aback when I first encountered it – especially when it was the reactions of Holmes’s victims.  Because the foreword had been so clear about the veracity of the content, I expected that parts which were so detailed had primary sources – in other words, that some of these women would have escaped and testified. None of them had, and the level of detail (although well-intentioned and effective) disturbed me.

The story itself – stories, really – are fascinating, though. Holmes is disturbing; Prendergast is disturbed. My favourite parts, though, are the details of the fair. The stories of the notable people who attended, either notable at the time (like Archduke Franz Ferdinand) or future notables (like Woodrow Wilson, then just a professor at Princeton, or Theodore Dreiser, then a reporter), are interesting in that celebrity-gossip kind of way. Details of things that premiered at the fair (like, say, Shredded Wheat) help connect the story to the present day. Personal stories like the reactions of people riding the Ferris Wheel for the first time (and having a serious panic attack on it) bring the reader back into the past. It’s an incredibly well-researched book and a captivating read.

One last comment, to try to make it relevant to (relatively) current events: Larson says in the afterword that his first two readers were slightly confused by the outpouring of civic pride in the bidding and the building of the fair. I have just one thing to point out about that: Olympic bidding. The process for the World’s Fair bidding may have been internal to the US, but it seems very similar in the politics of it and the emotions of it to the bidding process for the Olympics. I’m sure – although they weren’t mentioned in the book – that there were detractors from the World’s Fair bid in 1890 just like there were detractors from Chicago’s Olympics bid two years ago.

Anyway, The Devil in the White City is a fantastic book. I was completely absorbed in it (until the Kindle ran out of battery power right before section 3) and there are so many more things I could talk about: the characters, the architecture, the panic of 1893 and its connection/effect on the fair (more resonance with the Olympics and 2012?), the labor movement, etc., etc., etc. If you want to know more, just leave a comment and I’ll reply in the comments (and will probably end up writing more than you want…..)

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