Book Review: The Devil in the White City

After finishing The Devil in the White City, you wonder why H. H. Holmes isn’t the go-to pop cultural reference for gruesome violence instead of someone like Jack the Ripper - H. H. Holmes was American, after all. Holmes’ house of horrors, a mansion he built under the guise of providing room and board for fair-goers, is something out of a Halloween-time movie. The mansion was complete with sound-proof vaults, rooms with no windows, explanations for the odd chemical smells (the ground floor housed a pharmacy), and a kiln in the basement used to incinerate bodies after Holmes had no more use for them. It’s a chilling tale and one that’s quite hard to believe actually happened.

Now, The Devil in the White City is really two completely separate stories that only coincidentally happen at the same time in the same place. It’s true that due to the large influx of visitors to Chicago during the time of the World’s Fair (especially young women with a fresh sense of independence), Holmes was able to prey on more naive targets. The Fair was also a convenient explanation for mysterious disappearances, and likely contributed to the delay in noticing the phenom of missing female tourists. However, this book is more a story of how the World’s Fair came to be with frequent interludes of Holmes macabre mischief. This is probably for good reason as there’s likely much more content and primary sources on the preparation and execution of the massive World Fair than Holmes murders. Most of Holmes portions in the book seem to be novelized using artistic license based on the little knowledge there is of what actually transpired in Holmes’ mansion of death. The World’s Fair is a fascinating story alone, but based on the title of the book I’d expect Holmes to be the star of the show against the backdrop of the Fair.

Holmes story is most interesting in that he was not caught sooner, and not even originally caught for murder! Given that he financed most of his evil deeds via insurance fraud of various types, defrauded creditors selling him goods, firing construction workers as to cheat them out of a payday, and owned & lived at the location many young women were last seen, no one seems to have raised an eyebrow at Holmes himself. Part of that is blamed on his ensnaring charisma and ability to talk himself out any situation, but it also feels like the few residents of his mansion that were close enough to suspect the truth willingly ignored the obvious - in fact, I believe one admits that they felt that murder was a real possibility but they never report it to police!

The story of the White City is completely isolated from the story of Holmes but incredibly thrilling in its own way. It’s the story of a city feeling like the little brother yearning for the chance to prove itself as one of the premiere cities in the United States and the world. Paris has just put on an incredible World’s Fair that brought the world the Eiffel tower. Short on time, the main conductor of World’s Fair Daniel Burnham must wade through inter-city rivalries, deaths of close friends and partners, opportunistic labor unions, and the unforgiving weather of Chicago among every other possible obstacle one can imagine. Burnham is still fighting to ensure the fair is a success financially and cultural up until the very last day of it’s multi-month tenure. It’s a journey through the execution of a large plan encompassing an entire city, and you experience the tension right along with Burnham as he works toward putting on the greatest non-militaristic gathering of people all while fearful that his efforts may prove extremely embarrassing to himself and the city of Chicago.

This book is certainly worth a read! Just be aware that the building of the White City is the main vehicle of the story and not the grusome actions of H. H. Holmes. I really enjoy Erik’s colorful descriptions and his extensive research into the subjects covered in the book. It’s also quite remarkable the impact the World’s Fair had on present day society. The Fair influenced modern day power systems with its decision to use alternating current rather than direct current (even though Edison argued for DC, AC was much cheaper). Walt Disney’s father was a construction worker for the fair, and the White City likely impacted Disney in his design of Disney World. The Ferris Wheel, the zipper and shredded wheat were all introduced to the world at the fair. Frank Lloyd Wright was an architect at a firm that designed some of the buildings in the city. The opening of the fair inspired Francis Bellamy to write the Pledge of Allegiance. Larson interwaves this small tidbits throughout the book, bringing what feels like fiction back into the reality that this all happened just over a century ago.