Book Group Report: ‘White’

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

While a spirited pitch for Hari Kunzru’s White Tears was made when we selected our ‘white’ book, we went to a draw and this book from 2003 came out of the hat.

Subtitled ‘Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America’, Larson’s book is set in the early 1890s and tells the story of how Chicago took on the mantle to outdo Paris who opened the Exposition Universelle in 1889 and gave us the Eiffel Tower. America determined to “out-Eiffel Eiffel” and celebrate the anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World and host a bigger, better world fair.

Nowhere was civic pride a more powerful force than in Chicago, where men spoke of the “Chicago spirit” as if it were a tangible force and prided themselves on the speed with which they had rebuilt the city after the Great Fire of 1871. They had not merely restored it; they had turned it into the nation’s leader in commerce, manufacturing, and architecture.

New York wasn’t about to let the upstart second city win the vote to host the fair without a fight though – it was close, but Chicago won the final vote in Feb 1890. They would have just over three years before the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair would open to fill 600 acres of swamp by the shores of Lake Michigan.

Fair entrance ticket

Pioneering Chicago architects, Burnham and Root, who had designed the first steel-framed skyscraper, the Rand McNally Building, in Chicago in 1889.  Burnham and Root were selected as chief architects over Adler and Sullivan, who were further snubbed initially when Burnham and Root took on a selection of New York’s finest to design key buildings; they took on more Chicagoans later.

The original Ferris Wheel at the Chicago World Fair

Right from the start they were up against it – without Manhattan’s bedrock, foundations were tricky in the marshy grounds next to the lake. The winters were severe, there were delays in getting the plans, Burnham had to play politics and then his partner John Root died – it’s a wonder that they succeeded. And what about out-Eiffeling Eiffel? That task fell to a bridge-builder from Pennsylvania – his name was George Ferris. Alongside the wonders of the fair would be the wonders of the Wild West with Buffalo Bill’s show drawing in the crowds.

Almost all of the fair was dismantled at the end of the six months – only the Palace of Fine Arts, now Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building which now houses the Art Institute of Chicago remain. The Ferris Wheel was rebuilt elsewhere, others were demolished.

Thus far, I’ve concentrated on the fair. Larson, however, winds another story around the architects’ struggles.  If they were creating a heavenly white city, the antihero of the other strand created his own brand of devilist dark hell.

H.H.Holmes was a doctor, with mesmerising blue eyes, and a way with women. When the fair was over, it was discovered that several hundred people had disappeared in Chicago during its evolution and the show itself – many of these were young women, lured to their deaths by Dr Holmes’s nefarious deeds.  He started off by claiming the corpses he was sending for their skeletons to be cleansed and strung together we from anatomy dissections. But then he had had a portable furnace built, capable of acting as a crematorium. It resided in the hotel that he built by cheating lenders on loans. One room in the hotel was a gas chamber too. He had a steady stream of customers to the ‘Worlds Fair Hotel’, many of whom, wouldn’t necessarily be missed for ages. They never confirmed how many people he murdered. The two stories wrap neatly around each other, with Holmes’s eventual capture after much dogged detective work providing an apt coda.

And what did our book group think? 

We universally enjoyed the book. It does have its faults – it’s hard to get a feel for Chicago itself with its huge stock yards when the narrative concentrates on the fairgrounds. Where the book excels is in bringing these real characters to life in the text; we’re frustrated alongside Burnham as he has to play politics to get his grand project off the ground and then has to surmount obstacle after obstacle, and we’re shocked to the bone at the chilling exploits of Holmes. The story of Holmes once he gets the taste for murder rather overshadows that of the fair, which made some of the sections about the architects a little turgid by comparison. However, the book reads extremely well. If not for the extensive notes, references and the index, you would scarcely know it is non-fiction, for it wears its research lightly and provoked some good discussion. (8/10)

Source: Own copy

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City (2003) Bantam paperback, 496 pages (incl notes etc)

BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

4 thoughts on “Book Group Report: ‘White’

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Ironically – I had a copy ages ago and gave it away unread. Had to get another. Well worth reading though.

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    Oh man, y’all should have read White Tears. You should still read White Tears! If you get a chance, you should still read it. It was one of my favorite books I read last year, if not my very most favorite. Consider this a second spirited pitch. :p

Leave a Reply