Literary Flashback: Reading ‘The Devil in the White City’

Kimberly Tolleson


The Devil in the White City

Erik Larson

Crown Publishers

447 Pages


Despite being a work of historical nonfiction, Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City is surprisingly capable of leaving readers with mouths open and hairs on end; it’s a wonder that such a tantalizing true story is not already a part of America’s mainstream lore. For this reason, however, the book reads like good fiction, replete with foreshadowing, suspense, and enthralling characters. The author backs up his narrative with vast research, digging into the history surrounding the improbable construction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and America’s first serial killer who preyed there.


In 1890, the World’s Fair was proposed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America, leaving less than three years for completion. The country was also eager to compete with the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, for which the Eiffel Tower was erected; Eiffel’s feat of architecture made Americans fearful that France had edged out the United States for “dominance in the realm of iron and steel.” By the time it was decided that it would be held in Chicago and Daniel Burnham (the architect of the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C.) would be its lead designer, there was little time for anything else. But predictably, Burnham faced a continual series of obstacles – politics, budgets, fires, storms and labor issues, on top of the already intense time constraints.


Though the production was rough, costly and even deadly, Burnham and his crew pulled off something unbelievably grand. Through his extensive research and storytelling, Larson deftly illustrates just how great a magnitude the fair had and its “powerful and lasting impact on the nation’s psyche.” The fair recorded 27.5 million visitors over the six month exposition. Attendees wore their Sunday best; some fainted and wept.


In an era in America when most things were built for practical purpose only, the grandeur and beauty were something people had never witnessed. There were more light bulbs and electricity in use than ever before, glowing palaces, huge domes, ornate theaters, and gorgeous landscaping by Frederick Olmsted, previously famous for his design of Central Park. There were also exhibits representing different countries and “ethnovillages,” with exotic sights like pygmies, hula hoopers, and belly dancers. Larson notes, “The Street in Cairo exhibit alone employed nearly two hundred Egyptians and contained twenty-five distinct buildings.” Overall, the fair was over one square mile and contained two hundred buildings; most people opted to visit for a week in order to see everything it had to offer. With its plentiful hardships and magical triumphs, it is no wonder Burnham looked back on the fair as “a long, bittersweet struggle.”


The time period of the World’s Fair is a fascinating read in itself. Larson paints a vivid picture of Chicago at the turn of the century, a period when Americans could still recount the Civil War while skyscrapers are being built. It was a time when extraordinary progress in technology and industry was occurring, but the kinks had not yet been worked out—trash piled up on the streets of Chicago, the water was unclean, and the city constantly reeked of garbage and the butchered meats from the nearby slaughterhouses. Death was gruesomely common, not just from illnesses like cholera or typhus, but from train cars running over people (on average, two deaths a day), electric shocks, construction accidents, and murders. The police forces were not as organized or competent then, and it was easy for people to kill or disappear without anyone taking much notice. One murderer in particular took advantage of this.


H. H. Holmes – his most frequent pseudonym – was a doctor originally from New England who traveled the country before settling down and working at a Chicago drugstore. When he later heard news that the World’s Fair was being constructed just a couple miles away, he saw too good of an opportunity to pass up. Holmes bought the drugstore and the lot across the street and did some architecture of his own; he built a three-story, block-wide hotel to which he hoped to lure tourists and new arrivals flocking to the city.  Many were young women who, for the first time in American history, were starting to travel, live and work on their own in large urban cities.


With his good looks and sociopathic personality, Holmes could charm and lie his way into or out of anything, some of his favorites including insurance fraud, credit fraud, bigamy, and far more unthinkable acts. Larson provides remarkable detail about the murderer’s activities, through firsthand admissions from Holmes and accounts of those who knew him. Indeed, it’s baffling that Holmes was not caught sooner, based on later testimonies: one man he asked to install a human-sized kiln in his basement, and another to step into his vault and scream, to test its soundproof ability. Numerous young women at the hotel, some employees or guests, happened to suddenly “leave” the city with no notice, leaving all their belongings in their rooms. Holmes hid in plain sight, his huge hotel existing for the sole purpose of killing more efficiently.


The factual history behind the dark subject matter creates a visceral level of eeriness, and Larson doesn’t skip over any macabre details. His matter-of-fact presentation of events makes the story even more ghastly, an almost documentary-like coolness placing the reader right in the vault with Holmes and his victims.


Two narratives intertwine in Devil in the White City, each telling the story of a powerful and determined man at the heart of the World’s Fair. One man created a masterpiece and started a revolution of ideas in America; Burnham’s fair inspired advances in technology, architecture, sanitation, workers’ rights and city beautification. The other man used his determination for evil so unprecedented, it was able to go undetected for years. Larson’s work suggests what amazing feats a human is capable of accomplishing – both for universal good, and also for inexplicable, personal malice.


Highbrow Magazine


Photos: H.D. Nichols, Weimar Purcell (Wikipedia Commons).

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