Posts tagged ‘Chicago’

Carnies are scary after all – The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, Published 2004

Administration building under construction

So in 1893 Chicago hosted the World’s Fair – I start with this fact because I am not sure I actually knew this before I read this book.  I also didn’t know I even cared about this, until I read this book.  Now, I find that I not only care but I want to know more and that is why this book is so good.

Larson details two parallel worlds, the building and eventual success of one of Chicago’s amazing achievements and the story of Dr. H.H. Holmes who used the city of Chicago, both the beautiful fair and the seedier side of the city,  to lure in and kill anywhere from 9 to 200 people. Larson does an amazing job of taking on the task of explaining the feat of building the fixtures and infrastructure of the fair buildings, sights and midway, while at the same time keeping it interesting and poignant for the reader. Shredded Wheat was first introduced at the Chicago fair (though predicted to fail as very gross food and I still agree), along with belly dancing, the first kodak camera, and juicy fruit gum.  The fair also may have inspired a little boy named Walt Disney and writer L. Frank Baum.  It also likely influenced Frank Lloyd Wright who had just started his own private architecture business.  It started what we now know as the midway, which no fair or carnival is without.  Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley lived and performed at the fair.  The fair’s architecture changed the way our cities were built. The story of the fair and the main architect, Burnham, is one of death, fire, inspiration, invention, illness and catastrophe – it is incredible.

At the same time in history, Dr. H.H. Holmes began his killing spree in Chicago, constructing his own building with a hotel, a pharmacy, apartments, oh and a crematorium for the bodies.  Larson details Holmes as best as he can but this is a difficult task.  History can only clearly chronicle the death of nine of Holmes’ victims. But there seem to be a lot of missing persons in Holmes’ life so whether it was just the nine (which includes at least four children) is hard to say.  I was surprised to find that I didn’t like this story line as much as the story line about the fair itself.  I think I wanted more explanation for Holmes’ actions which is not provided and really, how can you explain such amazing cruelty. But regardless, Holmes serves as a great reminder of how dark we can become while at the same time accomplishing the unthinkable – both good and bad.

What I found the most amazing in this tale was how connected the country seemed and how important it was to the country that the fair be successful. As the author stated “the juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck [him] as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions.”  But more than that, this book seems to show that we were a country of ingenuity and committment that I am just not sure still exists.  I don’t know that we are driven by simple pride in what we do, as much as we are now driven by the end result.  Even Holmes seemed to take an unnerving pride in the set-up before the kill, it is a thoroughness that is unparalleled.   I guess in this time of political grandstanding, scheming and corporate scandals maybe it just seems like we would build a cheaper version of the fair, which is really just a carnival with shoddy rides and drunken clowns.

But regardless of my depressing reflection on our country’s current state, this book is a great view of what our country can do.  And that in and of itself makes it worth reading.

(For more photographs of the fair check out this website:

July 31, 2011 at 2:20 pm 1 comment


There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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