Sunday, July 31, 2016

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

by Erik Larson
390 pgs

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, it’s not because I don’t enjoy it. More often than not, I enjoy it very much. But it usually doesn’t draws me in to the point where I don’t want to put the book down--like a good novel often does. Erik Larson's books—at least the two I’ve read so far—have been exceptions to the rule.

The Devil in the White City is about two men: Daniel H. Burnham and H.H. Holmes, two very different men, whose lives were tied to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The former was the architect of the fair, the latter a serial killer.

The fair stretched to more than 600 acres in size and contained close to 200 new buildings; all painted white, which gave it the name the "White City." It included the world's first Ferris Wheel, which was 80 meters high, had 36 cars, and could hold over 1,400 people when fully loaded. Close to 26 million people attended the fair, which lasted for six months, from May through October of 1893. Visitors included Harry Houdini, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Scott Joplin, Clarence Darrow, Helen Keller, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Annie Oakley, Susan B. Anthony, and Buffalo Bill Cody.

The fair introduced the world to "moving pictures," zippers, automatic dishwashers, Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jack, Aunt Jemima, Shredded Wheat, and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. It would be remembered as one of the most influential events in history.

H.H. Holmes's connection to the fair would not be realized until quite some time after the fair concluded, but his story is as interesting and compelling as the fair's is. At the time of the fair, the accounts of Jack the Ripper were only a few years old. The world was fascinated by this new kind of killer, the serial killer. And while Jack was known to have killed five women, researches estimate Holmes killed at least nine, and as many as two hundred. Holmes used the draw of the fair to lure unsuspecting women from all over the country to his hotel, many of whom would never be heard from again.

The Devil in the White City is an excellent book. It reads like a historical novel, and the fact that it's not, makes it that much more compelling.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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