The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

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In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson tells the story of two men, an architect and a serial killer, operating in Chicago during the 1890’s. As he did in Isaac’s Storm (1999), Larson takes a notorious but largely forgotten nineteenth century event and gives a broad understanding of it by focusing tightly on a few individuals. Here, he helps readers make sense of what was new about big cities at the end of the nineteenth century—transportation, communication, electricity, anonymity—by showing how these aspects of the Gilded Age helped Daniel Burnham create a world’s fair, dubbed the White City, and helped Henry Holmes, the devil of the book’s title, indulge his hunger for power, blood, and fear.

The story of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, more popularly known as the Chicago World’s Fair, begins with civic pride and rivalry. The 1889 French Exposition Universel drew the attention of the Western world to Paris, where the Eiffel Tower, built to be a temporary landmark, stood as a monument to French beauty and sophistication. The success of the exposition led to a desire for a similar event in the United States, to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing and to demonstrate American ingenuity and culture. Rather like cities today competing to host the Olympics or the Super Bowl, New York and Chicago vied for the honor of hosting an American world’s fair. Chicago seemed an unlikely location for the exposition. It was dirty, poor, and overcrowded. Its leaders were greedy, proud, and occasionally corrupt. Its weather was unpleasant and unpredictable, and not even the cold lake winds could completely erase the smog and the smell of butchered hogs that hung over the city. Nevertheless, Chicago was chosen, and leading architects Daniel Burnham and John Root were hired to oversee the design and construction of the fair.

The saga of Burnham struggling to overcome a series of obstacles that might have driven most men to despair makes compelling reading. From the death of his partner early in the process to impossibly tight deadlines, labor unrest, a poor economy, and the worst Chicago winter on record, Burnham faces it all with remarkable determination and good old American ingenuity, ultimately turning a malaria-infested swamp into a White City so beautiful that many visitors wept when they saw it. Burnham was the chief of construction for the fair, but he worked at the behest of committees and boards who had agendas of their own and often no aesthetic sense. The force of his personality was as important as the power of his vision in getting the project completed.

The fair was a triumph. Beautiful to look at, with more than two hundred immense white buildings designed by the best architects of the day and grounds designed by the great Frederick Law Olmsted, the fair was illuminated by electric lights—the first large-scale demonstration of alternating current. Many visitors were seeing electricity for the first time, and the spectacle of thousands of bulbs reflecting off ponds, Lake Michigan, and the white buildings was simply overwhelming.

There were other wonders. Visitors sampled new foods, including Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat, and a new beer that won first place in the beer competition and was known afterward as Pabst Blue Ribbon. They saw the first dishwashers, zippers, motion pictures, pancake mix, electric chairs, and vertical files. They rubbed elbows with celebrities, including Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, Buffalo Bill Cody, Thomas Edison, and Harry Houdini. They saw belly dancers and camels from Cairo, gondolas from Venice, and cartoonish villages representing Lapland and Algeria;...

(This entire section contains 1603 words.)

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Pygmies from the Congo, alas, did not arrive. In one six-month period, some twenty-eight million people visited the fair, while the population of the United States was only sixty-five million.

Three of the visitors to the fair were a man calling himself Dr. Henry Holmes, his wife Minnie, and her sister Anna Williams. It was Anna’s first visit to Chicago, and she had come to calm her suspicions about her new brother-in-law. For a few weeks, Anna toured the city with Minnie and Henry, staying at Henry’s “World’s Fair Hotel,” just a short ride away from the White City. She found herself captivated by Holmes, Chicago, and the fair. A few days after the family’s visit to the fair, Anna stepped into the walk-in vault next to Henry’s office to fetch a paper for him, and soon after Henry closed the door she discovered that the vault was really an airtight, sound-proof gas chamber. Henry had supervised the construction of the hotel himself, hiring a series of builders so that no one but he had a full sense of the building’s design. In addition to the gas chamber there was a chute leading to the basement, a vat large enough to hold acid and a human body, and a crematorium. Holmes disposed of Anna’s body, and after he rode with his wife to their apartment in the suburbs, Minnie was never seen again.

Anna was not Holmes’s first victim, and Minnie was not his first wife. Holmes, whose real name was Herman Mudgett, killed several young women who had come to visit or work at the fair and married a few of them when they seemed to grow suspicious of him or when he needed their money. The last third of The Devil in the White City reads like a mystery novel, as Holmes moves from Chicago to Texas to St. Louis to Philadelphia, committing fraud and murder, with Detective Frank Geyer always a few steps behind. When Holmes is finally caught and in prison, he confesses to twenty-seven murders, including those of three young children in his care, but he is suspected of as many as two hundred.

Larson tells Holmes’s story in roughly alternating chapters with Burnham’s. The ironic parallels are presented side by side. Both men use the force of their personalities to bring their projects to completion: Burnham to bring egotistical artists together to help realize his vision and Holmes to swindle businessmen out of their money and young women out of both their money and their lives. Both men succeed beyond their wildest expectations, and neither finds much enjoyment in success. Burnham achieves lasting fame for his achievement, but until this book Holmes’s amazing story had been forgotten. As Larson puts it, he is interested in “the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow.”

Larson is at his best in describing the beautiful and the horrible. His vignettes from the fair are most often told through the eyes of a visitor, and he captures the wonder and the enchantment. Small scenes, like the meeting between Helen Keller and the man who invented a Braille typing machine, are touching and linger with the reader. Similarly, the scenes in which Holmes meets a young woman or a child, gains trust, and commits a grisly murder are as creepy as the best suspense novel. Larson reveals in the notes that these murder scenes are imagined, using “threads of known detail to weave a plausible account, as would a prosecutor in his closing arguments to a jury.” Larson’s thoroughness as a researcher enables him to blend the skills of a novelist and a journalist to create a compelling and believable narrative.

However, as though he does not trust his material to captivate his readers, Larson seems determined to create suspense and to make sure the reader does not miss it. He repeatedly ends sections with comments such as “Far worse was to occur, and soon,” “Only Poe could have dreamed the rest,” or “Hays grew suspicious and watched Mudgett closely—albeit not closely enough.” These comments are unnecessary; the story would be compelling and the irony clear without such guideposts. Readers who count on the joy of discovery, moreover, should scrupulously avoid reading the head note that accompanies Larson’s detailed endnotes section until they have finished reading the entire text. This material, while engaging, spoils a surprise that Larson carefully unfolds bit by bit about an attempt to create a symbol for the exposition to rival Paris’s Eiffel Tower.

It is difficult to imagine how astonishing the World’s Columbian Exposition would have seemed a hundred years ago, when people in the United States still had the capacity to be amazed by new sights and inventions. In the twenty-first century, most Americans expect that technology can do anything, and even those who do not travel have seen film and television images of the wonders of the world. For similar reasons, it would be difficult for Henry Holmes to operate for so long today. Twenty-first century communications technology and ease of travel have not eradicated murder, but they have made it unlikely that so many young women could vanish without a trace and no one notice for so long. Wisely, Larson does not attempt to make broad historical or sociological conclusions about these two phenomena. He keeps his feet firmly planted in the late nineteenth century as he tells his story, giving fascinating and illuminating details about Chicago and its visitors in the 1890’s, while leaving it up to the reader to infer how far society has come from there.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 12 (February 15, 2003): 1022.

Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 22 (November 15, 2002): 1676-1677.

Library Journal 128, no. 1 (January, 2003): 133.

The New York Times Book Review 108, no. 52417 (March 9, 2003): 152

Newsweek 141, no. 6 (February 10, 2003): 67.

People 59, no. 9 (March 10, 2003): 46.

Publishers Weekly 249, no. 50 (December 16, 2002): 57.

Washington Monthly 35, no. 5 (May, 2003): 55.