A New York Times Bestseller, The Devil in the White City is an historical book that examines the obsessive nature of two men against the backdrop of the World’s Columbian Exposition (known as the World Expo these days) in 1893 in Chicago. The White City of the title is the astounding neo-classical city created out of nothing for the World Fair as overseen by the architect Daniel Burnham (who designed the Flatiron Building in New York amongst many others). The other focal point of the book is a man by the name of Henry H. Holmes who lived in the ‘black city’ of Chicago and was one of the worst serial killers (and one of the earliest) of the time.
It is certainly an interesting juxtaposition, this sense of creation on the one hand and destruction without remorse on the other.
What interested me more were the wonderful historical facts that came out of the Fair and the lives of the people who built it.
The book opens with Burnham later in life on his way to London aboard the RMS Olympic. It is the night of the sinking of the Titanic and he is sending a letter to a man he worked closely with at the Fair. Needless to say, the man didn’t receive it.
But to the Fair!
Walt Disney’s father, Elias, worked on the construction of the White City. It is suggested by Larson that Walt’s Magical Kingdom might well had been inspired by the real thing. There is certainly enough evidence to suggest a world that few people could have possible imagined at the time. Frank Lloyd Wright was charmed by the wooded island which housed the Japanese temple exhibit, an island that may have inspired his own later architectural endeavours.
The Fair was built on the premise that it had to outdo the Paris Expo of 1889 which gave to the city of light and to the world, the iconic Eiffel Tower. Chicago – and by association the USA – wanted something to outdo the tower. Eiffel even offered his services to build a tower for Chicago, an offer that was declined relatively quickly. Burnham decreed it should not be a tower. Cue: Mr Ferris and the first Ferris Wheel, something that captured the imagination of the public like nothing before, and of course, it gave people a bird’s eye view of the most majestic skyline in the world.
There were other notable facts that show how history turns. Take for instance the battle between the direct current of Edison and the alternating current of General Electric. The later, coming in with a more competitive bid, won the right to light the Fair Grounds and the incandescent bulb, powered by alternating current was pushed to the forefront of the electrifying of the modern world.
The grounds of the fair were designed and constructed by Frederick Olmstead, the man of New York’s Central Park fame.
The miracles are that both obsessions were realised; first, the White City was built in the way it was, providing a year’s worth of delight to a city and pride to its people; and second, the devil, H.H. Holmes, got away with so much for so long, including the gruesome murders of children.
The book is a very interesting read, particularly if you’re a history buff. For me, I’ll try to remember the White City rather than the Black.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Crown Publishers – New York
447 pages (including bibliography & references).
Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow (aka: personal library).