The Devil in the White City, or why we don’t have World’s Fairs anymore

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson

This is the second time I have found my way to purchasing a book thinking I had stumbled onto a wonderful find, only to discover that, not only had Jeff already read it, we had a copy in our basement library. I’m typically not that interested in his books – for example, he read the entire Winston Churchill Second World War 6 volume set (we actually own the original publication, inherited from one of his relatives). And he’s not that interested in mine – for example, I read the entire (to date) Game of Thrones 5 volume set (purchased, not inherited). Seemingly very different but actually, they are probably more similar than you might think. Really, Tyrion Lannister as Churchill – it works! Maybe we DO like the same books after all …

This fascinating book weaves together three stories from the time of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition The Fair was ostensibly intended to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World but in actual fact was an effort to outdo the French Exposition Universelle of 1889, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French revolution. Americans were irritated because the fair broke size and attendance records, and introduced the Eiffel Tower, which became the tallest structure in the world at that time.

The first and preeminent story is that of building the actual fair against ridiculous odds. Despite setbacks like bad weather, building collapses, fire, unionizing workers, financial difficulties, a major stock market crash, and a very short schedule, somehow the architects and builders of the day managed to make bring it all together. Their topper – to compete with the Eiffel Tower – was none other than the first ever Ferris Wheel. This massive “ride” stood 264 feet high with 36 cars designed to carry about 50 people each. The Fair itself was nicknamed The White City because of a decision, either to save time or money, to simply whitewash all of the building instead of painting them. This story alone would have made a compelling book.

The second and more disturbing story follows the actions of serial killer going by the pseudonym HH Holmes. Holmes moved to Chicago, where he hid in plain sight in a city-block-sized hotel that he custom-built for the express purpose of preying on and murdering the young women who flocked to the city to find employment and start a new life. During his stay throughout the construction and running of the Fair, he killed 9 people for certain (he was later arrested for killing his former right-hand man), and while he later confessed to killing 27 people, some estimates have ranged as high as 200.

The third and final story describes the descent into depression and insanity of an Irish immigrant named Patrick Prendergast. In parallel with the construction of the Fair, Prendergast tries and fails to be recognized by the mayor of Chicago as having been an important contributor to his election campaign. When he realizes no accolades are coming, he buys a revolver, makes his way to the mayor’s home and shoots him at his door. The murder took place 2 days before the closing ceremonies of the Fair, which kind of put a damper on things.

A crazy time! And yet, as you read, you can easily imagine these same events all taking place today. The more things change, and all that.

Rating: Borrow it for sure, might be worth adding to your personal library. Be sure to let your spouse know it’s there!

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