From the VG Bookshelf: The Devil in the White City

From the VG Bookshelf: The Devil in the White City

From the VG Bookshelf: The Devil in the White City

It’s hard to think of an all-American summer without thinking of fairs, like a county fair or a state fair. This week’s book, The Devil in the White City, tells the tale of the 1893 world’s fair — the World’s Columbian Exposition — and how a group of men built a fantastical dreamworld in a swampy Chicago park. It also tells how one man simultaneously used the fair to become one of the most diabolical killers in history.


Nationalism brought about the fair’s inception after France held its 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, which presented the Eiffel Tower to the world. Americans of the Gilded Age were not to be outdone by the French, so in 1890 the decision was made to outdo them with America’s own world’s fair. In addition, the exposition would also celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World.

Although New York City and Washington, DC, wanted to host the spectacle, Chicago won out, much to the dismay of those on the East Coast. After all, Chicago was nothing more than a filthy, reeking stockyard town. But chief architect Daniel Burnham and his team put together a fair in a miraculous three years. The result was the exposition nicknamed “The White City.”

It’s gone now, of course. But this 3D video gives us some idea of how glorious it must have been.

And whether you know it or not, that 1893 world’s fair left a legacy that shaped much of America. For example, American leaders saw how architecture could change and enhance their cities. The fair also launched a revival of the classical architectural style, and thus the Lincoln Memorial owes its appearance to the 1893 exposition. But it also gave us the Ferris Wheel, shredded wheat, Cracker Jack, incandescent bulbs, and alternating electric current. (George Westinghouse with his alternating current beat out Thomas Edison’s direct current model for powering the fair.) Even author L. Frank Baum used the exposition as an inspiration for his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. What’s more, Elias Disney, the father of Walt, worked in construction at the fair, which impacted him greatly. Did it inspire young Walt to eventually create his Magic Kingdoms? It’s possible.

But where does the Devil fit into the White City? Well. . .


The Devil lurked in Chicago and the White City in the form of a young doctor whose handsome looks and charm hid his true nature as a conman and serial killer. Born Herman Webster Mudgett in New Hampshire, he came to Chicago calling himself Dr. H. H. Holmes. He would steal corpses, disfigure them, and use them to place false insurance claims. But then he moved on to killing his subjects, including women he lured with his looks, charm, and easy lies. Some of his female victims ended up as skeletons he sold to medical colleges around Chicago.

While in Chicago, Holmes built a three-story building, dubbed “The World’s Fair Hotel,” in what is now the Englewood neighborhood. On the first floor he ran a pharmacy and a barber shop. But while the third floor held apartments, the second floor rooms contained false walls, stairs that went nowhere, and airtight chambers into which he would pump poison gas. The victims would then drop into the basement via a large chute, where Holmes would butcher their remains.


The “Murder Castle.” Credit: wikimedia commons/public domain.

Holmes eventually left Chicago when creditors finally began to catch up with him. But the trail of missing people followed him, and detectives finally arrested him in Boston. He went on trial in 1895 for the murder of his business partner, but confessed to killing over 20 people, including women and children. However, to this day nobody knows what his body count really was. Holmes was hanged the following year in Pennsylvania, his body buried in concrete. The Devil in the White City was dead.

Someone burned down the so-called “murder castle” shortly afterwards, and today a post office stands on the corner where the Devil worked his evil.

The White City is gone from Chicago, too, with the exception of the Palace of Fine Arts. While all the other structures at the fair were temporary, architects built the Palace to give extra protection to the irreplaceable art within. And so the Palace of Fine Arts still stands in Chicago, rebuilt as the Museum of Science and Industry.

Why did I read this book? First of all, iBooks had recommend it to me, since I love history and historical novels. On top of that, it’s a book by Erik Larson, who wrote another book I’ve read called Dead Wake, a compelling account of the sinking of the Lusitania. And, let’s be honest here — The Devil in the White City is also about a serial killer. Macabre, yes, but also fascinating.

The book alternates between telling the story of the White City and the story of the Devil. On the one hand there’s a tale of a depraved monster. But on the other is the miraculous story of how American know-how and determination built the resplendent World’s Columbian Exposition within a timeframe no one thought possible, and in a city that Eastern elites snubbed.


Featured photo: original art by Darleen Click.

Written by

Kim is a pint-sized patriot who packs some big contradictions. She is a Baby Boomer who never became a hippie, an active Republican who first registered as a Democrat (okay, it was to help a sorority sister's father in his run for sheriff), and a devout Lutheran who practices yoga. Growing up in small-town Indiana, now living in the Kansas City metro, Kim is a conservative Midwestern gal whose heart is also in the Seattle area, where her eldest daughter, son-in-law, and grandson live. Kim is a working speech pathologist who left school system employment behind to subcontract to an agency, and has never looked back. She describes her conservatism as falling in the mold of Russell Kirk's Ten Conservative Principles. Don't know what they are? Google them!

  • Wfjag says:

    All of Erik Larson’s books are great. He is an excellent writer who thoroughly researches the subject. The Devil and the White City was recommended to me by a psychologist, with the proviso that it’s not for the feint of heart. She said that it will give you nightmares if you let it.

    His other books are on completely different subjects. Thunderstruck is about Marconi and the development on the transcontinental radio system. Marconi was a driven man. Dead Wake is about the Lusitania. It covers everything from the design flaws to the arrogance of those who should have been providing an escort and warnings, to the series of bad luck events. In the Garden of the Beast covers the first few years of Nazi power in Germany, with insights into the FDR Administration and activities of Stalin’s agents. If you love great reads, they are wonderful, intelligent alternatives to the ignorant blather of talking TV heads.

  • GWB says:

    Thank you, Kim and Wfjag, I’ll add this author to my always-too-high to-be-read pile.

  • A barbershop… A chute for dropping bodies to the basement…

    Truth meets fiction, apparently. (Although one does wonder if he had been reader of the penny dreadfuls at some point in his life.)

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