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« What We Are Reading One Book, One Chicago Fall 2006 »

Book Club Thu Aug 17 2006

Introduction: The Devil in the White City

"Its official name was the World's Columbian Exposition, its official purpose to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America, but under Burnham, its chief builder, it had become something enchanting, known throughout the world as the White City."
--Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City

This month the Gapers Block Book Club is reading The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson, the best-selling book about the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and America's first urban serial killer, H.H. Holmes. And, as Larson is quick to point out in the beginning of the book, "However strange and macabre some of the following incidents may seem, this is not a work of fiction."

Although the gruesome facts of H.H. Holmes’s story may be what readers remember, The Devil in the White City is a book about two men: Holmes and Daniel Hudson Burnham, the architect of the world's fair. In fact, Larson dedicates most of the book to the planning, construction and impact of the fair under Burnham's leadership.

But, if the White City represented Chicago at its best, the horrific killing spree of H.H. Holmes surely characterized the city's darkest side. His mansion at 63rd and Wallace, which Holmes operated as a hotel during the fair, was a real-life house of horrors. Young women, attracted to Chicago by the fair and the prospect of jobs, came to stay at his hotel, and were never seen again. Larson identifies at least nine victims, but Holmes boasted he had murdered at least 27 people in his lifetime.

Throughout the book, chapters alternate between the two stories. One could conceivably read only every other chapter and believe The Devil in the White City is only about the world's fair or only about H.H. Holmes. Together, however, these two separate stories reveal Chicago as a city of contrasts, filled with both darkness and light. One might easily argue the city has not changed in that respect.

But The Devil in the White City is ultimately about more than just a brief moment in the history of Chicago. The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was the focus of national and international attention. Many products and innovations we have long taken for granted were introduced at the fair. From Cracker Jack to electric lighting, and from the Ferris wheel to Juicy Fruit gum, Larson reveals, in his story of the fair, a broad portrait of America on the verge of the 20th century. And, reading the book now, one might even see some parallels between the proposal and construction of the 1893 fair and Chicago's current bid for the Olympics. Will the city become the focus of international attention again in 2016?

Larson performed thorough research for The Devil in the White City, and it shows. But, he does take a number of liberties with his sources, and some may object to the way he sometimes gets inside the heads of his "characters." For example, when Larson seems to ask the reader to believe he can know what a victim was thinking when she was cornered by Holmes, he stretches his credibility. Yet, despite these occasional lapses into fictionalization, The Devil in the White City is an engaging account of a sensational period in our city's history.

For more information about the book, visit the official website for The Devil in the White City, which includes an excerpt from the book, an interview with the author and more.

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Book Club is the literary section of Gapers Block, covering Chicago's authors, poets and literary events. More...

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