The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
The Devil in the White City centers around the grit and grime of Chicago during 1893 right before the famous World’s Fair. Despite being rampant with grime and crime, many people moved to Chicago in hope of growing their fortunes and pursuing the excitement of the city. Illustrated as a diamond in the rough, Chicago becomes a beacon of hope for the few hopeful architects who dreamed of creating a fair that would rival the previous World’s Fair in Paris and alight Chicago with national and international glory. However, while the city’s architects pour their blood, sweat, and tears into the project, a dangerous serial killer runs loose in the streets. As the title suggests, The Devil in the White City recounts the “murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America” for good.
“No matter where you were on the ship, you felt the power of the Olympic’s twenty- nine boilers transmitted upward through the strakes of the hull. It was the one constant that told you—even in the staterooms and dining chambers and smoking lounge, despite the lavish efforts to make these rooms look as if they had been plucked from the Palace of Versailles or a Jacobean mansion—that you were aboard a ship being propelled far in to the bluest reachers of the ocean,” (page 6).
“In Minneapolis there had been only silence and the inevitable clumsy petitions of potato-fingered men looking for someone, anyone, to share the agony of their days,” (page 64).
“He entered a bright green coach, one of George Pullman’s Palace cars, where the air hung with the stillness of a heavy tapestry. A bell clanged and continued clanging in a swinging rhythm as the train surged at grade level into the heart of the city at twenty miles an hour, despite the presence at arm’s reach of grip-cars, carriages, and pedestrians. Everyone on the street paused to watch as the train leaped past crossing gates waving a raccoon’s tail of white and black smoke,” (page 75).
“McKim had opened this meeting with a wandering talk about the fair and its prospects. Hunt cut him off: ‘McKim, damn your preambles. Get down to facts!'” (page 79).
“Half a century later, in his path-breaking book The Mask of Sanity, Dr. Hervey Cleckley described the prototypical psychopath as ‘a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly…. So perfect is his reproduction of a whole and normal man that no one who examines him in a clinical setting can point out in scientific or objective terms why, or how, he is not real,'” (page 88).
“The lake was gray, darkening to a band of black at the horizon. The only color in the vicinity was the frost rouge on the men’s cheeks and the blue of Burnham’s and Olmsted’s eyes,” (page 95).
“Closer at hand a far stranger creature raised his head in equally intent anticipation. ‘I was born with the devil in me,’ he wrote. ‘I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing,'” (page 109).
“As the light began to fade, the architects lit the library’s gas jets, which hissed like mildly perturbed cats. From the street below, the top floor of the Rookery seemed aflame with the shifting light of the jets and the fire in the great hearth,” (page 115).
“He [Olmsted] wanted the lagoons and the canals strewn with waterfowl of all kinds and colors and traversed continually by small boats. Not just any boats, however: becoming boats. The subject became an obsession for him. His broad view of what constituted landscape architecture included anything that grew, flew, floated, or otherwise entered the scenery he created. Roses produced dabs of red; boats added intricacy and life. But it was crucial to choose the right kind of boat. He dreaded what would happen if the decision were left to one of the fair’s many committees. He wanted Burnham to know his views from the start,” (page 116).
“Atwood had a secret, as it happens. He was an opium addict. It explained those eyes and his erratic behavior. But Burnham thought him a genius,” (page 121).
“Eiffel had done it first and best. More than merely tall, his tower was grace frozen in iron, as much an evocation o the spirit of the age as Chartres had been in its time. To build a tower would be to follow Eiffel into territory he already had conquered for France,” (page 135).
“As he sat among his peers, an idea came to him ‘like an inspiration.’ It arrived not as some half-formed impulse, he said, but rich in detail. He could see it and touch it, hear it as it moved through the sky,” (page 156).
“The countryside itself, however, charmed him: ‘there is nothing in America to be compared with the pastoral or with the picturesque beauty that is common property in England. I cannot go out without being delighted. The view before me as I write, veiled by the rain, is just enchanting,'” (page 171).
“She [Harriet Monroe] watched with pride as an actress read it [her poem] to the few thousand people close enough to hear it. Unlike the majority of the audience, Monroe believed the poem to be rather a brilliant work, so much so that she had hired a printer to produce five thousand copies for sale to the public. She sold few and attributed the debacle to America’s fading love of poetry,” (page 182).
“Men working on the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building heard the shriek of failed steel and ran for cover. In a great blur of snow and silvery glass the building’s roof—that marvel of late nineteenth-century hubris, enclosing the greatest volume of unobstructed space in history—collapsed to the floor below,” (page 196).
“They saw the first moving pictures on Edison’s Kinetoscope, and they watched, stunned, as lightening chattered from Nikola Tesla’s body. They saw even more ungodly things—the first zipper; the first-ever all-electric kitchen, which included an automatic dishwasher; and a box purporting to contain everything a cook would need to make pancakes, under the brand name Aunt Jemima’s,” (page 247).
“The electric launch carrying Burnham, Dora Root, and the foreign dignitaries cut silently through the lagoon, scattering the white city reflected upon its surface. The setting sun gilded the terraces on the east bank but cast the west bank into dark blue shadow. Women in dresses of crimson and aquamarine walked slowly along the embankments. Voices drifted across the water, laced now and then with laughter that rang like crystal touched in a toast,” (page 253).
“The ball ended at four-thirty A.M. The exotics walked slowly back to the Midway. The guests climbed into their carriages and slept or softly sang ‘After the Ball’—the hit song of the day—as their liverymen drove them home over empty streets that echoed with the plosive rhythm of hooves on granite,” (page 315).
“Elihu Root had said the fair led ‘our people out of the wilderness of the commonplace to new ideas of architectural beauty and nobility.’ Henry Demarest Lloyd saw it as revealing to the great mass of Americans ‘possibilities of social beauty, utility, and harmony of which they had not been able to even dream. No such vision could otherwise have entered into the prosaic drudgery of their lives, and it will be felt in their development into the third and fourth generation.’ The fair taught men and women steeped only in the necessary to see that cities did not have to be dark, soiled, and unsafe bastions of the strictly pragmatic. They could also be beautiful,” (page 374).
Other than the typical bouts of horror that come from reading about a serial killer, this book is a joy through and through. It’s elegantly written and engaging from beginning to end. If you get ahold of the book and look at the reviews you’ll find that many of them mention how it reads like fiction and I too found that to be a striking feature of Larson’s writing. As I’ve probably mentioned before I’m not a huge nonfiction reader. Normally I only test out something nonfiction if it revolves around a subject I’m really interested in. Originally I bought this book because the story of America’s first serial killer sounded equally creepy and interesting. I hadn’t heard of H.H. Holmes before so that part of the book piqued my interest, but the longer I read the more I began to realize I was reading the book for the fair.
Larson begins his story at the end, and this is something I’m a sucker for as I love coming full circle. He describes the lasting impacts of the fair on Burnham (one of the main architects involved in planning and organizing the fair) as he’s aboard the RMS Olympic and then connects the tale of Holmes’ well-deserved demise. I was captured, but I needed to know more. Who was Burnham? Why is he reflecting on the fair? What did Holmes really do? Larson’s choice to provide a vague closure to beginning of his book is strange but immediately effective. After that I couldn’t put the book down.
My favorite quote from this entire book is the quote from page 253 (third up from the bottom) and I think this is very representative of Larson’s writing style. It’s gorgeous and concise; every word feels genuine and magical. I could see the fair in front of me and I felt proud of the architects who worked so tirelessly to build it. And not only does Larson do an amazing job of describing the fair, but his other great strength lies in his persuasive powers. Larson’s description of the Chicago World’s Fair was enough to make me want to travel back in time to see it. I can hardly imagine having to live the life of a woman in 1893, but Larson made me feel very at home in the city and in the time period. (Of course Holmes is another matter, but we’ll get to that.) Part of this comes from how Larson paces the book. As I mentioned before, everything begins at the end, but he takes his time mapping out the scenery and setting the stage. I never felt confused about who was who and what was going on which is amazing given I hardly knew anything about the World’s Fair, let alone who built it.
Larson’s masterful characterization also shines through in his portrayal of Holmes. It must have been tricky to write about him at times, but it’s clear Larson did his homework. He begins from Holmes’ childhood to his life as a physician, his many marriages and scams, all the way to his arrest. His story is difficult to read at times as he was a horrendous person, but Larson makes sure to switch back and forth from the fair’s history to Holmes. At the back of the book he notes:
“The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city’s willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the world’s fair in the first place. The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions. The more I read about the fair, the more entranced I became. That George Farris would attempt to build something so big and novel—and that he would succeed on his first try—seems, in this day of liability lawsuits, almost beyond comprehension,” (page 393).
The Devil in the White City is a fantastic book. Although it’s a bit of a cliche, I felt the story come to life. Definitely would recommend.