The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson

photo-3Book Description (Amazon): Erik Larson—author of #1 bestseller In the Garden of Beasts—intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World’s Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: informative

My best friend recommended this book to me because she was going to Chicago last year for her one year anniversary, and I am going to Chicago this year for my one year anniversary. When I went to request it from the library, I realized that it is by an author who I have read before. I read Isaac’s Storm a few years ago after Hurricane Ike hit Houston, and I really enjoyed that book. It made me even more interested to read this one.

So the book juxtaposes two separate stories that happened in Chicago in the late 1890s–the story of Daniel Burnham, one of the architects in charge of the world’s fair; and the story of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who preyed on people, specifically women who came to Chicago for a better life. Both stories are quite interesting, but aside from happening at the same time in the same place, there isn’t much (anything) that brings them together.

The story of Burnham, in my opinion, was the duller of the two stories. There are some really interesting parts for sure, but a lot of it reminded me of work. Meetings, people arguing, nothing getting done. H.H. Holmes’s section was much more suspenseful and kept me engaged. (In their basic form, however, I don’t think that serial killers are more interesting than architects. 🙂 )

Paris had hosted a world’s fair in 1889 where Eiffel’s Tower was unveiled (named after Gustave Eiffel I learned). The United States wanted to do one that was even bigger and better than Paris (‘murica!) in 1892 celebrating Columbus’s discovery of the area 400 years prior. 4 cities bid for the fair–Chicago, NYC, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis. After a long period of back and forth, Chicago ended up winning the bid. This was a big surprise due to a variety of factors–the location being so far inland and the issues that Chicago had including their recent fire, crime, sanitation, and the fact that their main industry was a slaughterhouse.

An architectural firm–Burnham and Root were selected to design the fair. Burnham studied hard to get into Harvard and Yale for architecture but had difficulty with standardized tests. He feels insecure about this fact when working with other more pedigreed architects especially when Root tragically dies shortly after the preparations began, leaving Burnham to lead the project alone. He hires additional architects and designers from around the US to help with various projects, but he continues searching for that one key structure to rival the Eiffel Tower.

We are then introduced to Holmes. He acquires a pharmacy from a soon-to-be-widowed old woman, who after her husband dies, eventually she disappears. The pharmacy flourishes as women flock to go there as he entrances them with his unusual (for the time) demeanor and piercing blue eyes (seriously I think the author mentioned this 100x). (During this time, we also learn a bit about Holmes’s (Herman Mudgett is his real name) childhood. He was born in New Hampshire and had a scarring incident involving a skeleton as a child. He married a local girl, Clara, with whom he had a child, and then later abandoned both (though never formally divorced) to attend the University of Michigan medical school where he began scamming insurance companies with cadavers to collect insurance money.) Holmes apparently cannot forget about a woman he met in Minneapolis–Myrta–and asks her to marry him and move to Chicago with him. She does, and they have a child Lucy. Quickly things cool between the pair, and Myrta and Lucy move in with Myrta’s parents who have moved to Illinois. Holmes buys the plot of land across the street to build a castle of doom. He doesn’t hire an architect because he doesn’t want any suspicion about his creepy plans–a giant kiln, an airtight vault with gas access, a chute from the upper floors to the basement. He hires and fires people quickly, never paying anyone. He finds help with a few “friends” (conspirators, creeps?) specifically Benjamin Pietzel who helps with his plans.

The fair finally picks a location–Jackson Park. This suits Holmes due to its proximity to his building. He realizes that he can capitalize on this (both monetarily and with fresh blood) by offering space as a hotel. This spot does not impress any of the East Coast architects making Burnham’s job even more difficult. Olmsted, the landscape architect, likes the spot and has grandiose ideas involving boats, plants, and everything else.

Labor laws play a big part in Burnham’s part of the story (somewhat in Holmes’s too although he is quite the opposite in paying and keeping employees). Burnham appears to be a decent man who tries to do good things. It’s hard for him regarding the unions as they don’t seem to know what they want themselves. He hires a man named Bloom from San Francisco to design the midway of the fair. Burnham decides to paint all the buildings at the fair white (aka The White City) and the concept of spray paint is invented for the task. Burnham is still in search of that one final piece–the rival to the Eiffel tower–and reaches out to some engineers for some suggestions (yeah, engineers!). Eventually one of the engineers’ ideas is selected and the first Ferris wheel (designed by George Ferris) is planned for construction.

Holmes continues to go through girls. Next is Julia and her daughter Pearl, then Emeline from the alcoholism facility that Benjamin went to (where Holmes also stole the idea for an alcoholism treatment for his mail order catalog), and Minnie Williams (someone he knew from when he lived in Boston) and her sister Anna as well as supposed nameless female guests at his hotel. He makes out well financially in most of these killings as well due to shady insurance policies and the like. In some of the killings, he partially dissects them and then sells them to a man who sells skeletons to doctors and medical schools. In others, he burns them in his kiln.

The fair eventually opens to a much smaller crowd than is expected. A lot of firsts happen at the fair however–Juicy Fruit gum, Shredded Wheat, zippers, day care centers, and a beer name Pabst is crowned the Blue Ribbon thus changing its name forever. Thomas Edison lights the fair all over with electric lights (adding to the name “The White City”). The fair continues to grow and push to gain attendance. The Ferris Wheel runs its first unmanned spin and then eventually an inaugural spin with passengers and then finally is open for business. This increases attendance significantly but it is still falling short of expectations. Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, who were denied entry to be in the fair themselves, but have set up their Wild West show just outside the fair, have been doing very well and it is thought that maybe they should have been included. (Many other “weird” attractions were such as hula dancers, belly dancers,  etc.) The fair does not go off without its hitches though. A fire happens in one of the buildings and a few lives are lost. Burnham is charged with negligence although he knew nothing of it and was never actually arrested for it. As the fair is winding down, a promotional idea is set in motion–creating “Chicago Day” where all businesses are closed for the day. Attendance at the fair on that day only pushes the fair out of the red.

Holmes has gotten married to a new woman–although not legally–and decides the time is right to leave Chicago. He sets fire to his building to collect the insurance, however the investigator is skeptical after finding out how many debts Holmes has. The investigator is the first to really think something is off with Holmes and gets the businesses and their lawyers together to confront Holmes. Holmes finds himself in an overwhelming situation that he doesn’t really know how to get out of so he and his wife flee to Texas to live off of the money he has swindled from Minnie.

The fair finishes on October 30 (as someone didn’t realize October had 31 days). Mayor Harrison is set to do the closing ceremony, but he is shot before he can by a deranged lunatic I discuss below. The closing day of the fair turns into a makeshift memorial service for the mayor who was apparently well liked by the common man.

Holmes eventually ends up in Philadelphia where he is under police custody for faking the death of Benjamin Pietzel and collecting insurance money. The investigator assigned to the case, Geyer, doesn’t believe that is what has happened. Geyer tracks down and finds that Holmes has killed many people and committed many crimes. All the while Geyer is off investigating, Holmes is writing an auto-biography pleading his innocence. Geyer ends up finding the bodies of Pietzel’s children as well as many human remains in his house in Chicago. Holmes is sentenced to death and is eventually hanged.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

I liked the book overall, and I found both the stories interesting. However, I didn’t really think they belonged together.

Another small issue I had is that throughout the book there are a few bits that I did not understand the point of including. The first is Prendergast, a delusional person who eventually kills the mayor who he believes should give him the position of corporation counsel. I don’t think the story would have been changed by not including him. The second is the visit of the the Spanish royal. I didn’t think it added a thing to the story.

I would recommend this book though because it’s easy to read and it includes a lot of little tidbits of history–most of which I didn’t know. I also think it is interesting to read about old timey serial killers because I just like having that knowledge when old people tell me about “my generation” and how immoral and terrible we are.  In the end though, I think I liked Isaac’s Storm better, but I will not hesitate to read another of Larson’s books in the future.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Review, Books

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