October 2014 Book Club review-The Devil in the White City

October 2014 The Devil in the White City – Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

blog by Cindy Bushey
Oh boy, here they come. As anyone who has recently ventured into a department store knows, the holidays are almost upon us! Whether it was the Halloween display that appeared shortly after July 4th or the decking of the halls occurring now, shoppers and browsers are being greeted by lavish vistas designed by retailers to induce consumers to part with their hard-earned money. While we grumble about these displays bursting on the scene earlier each year, we nevertheless are attracted by their promise. We look at their lovely facades and resolve yet again that this season our homes will be picture-perfect and so will our entire holiday experience even though all previous celebrations have rarely attained that degree of perfection. Such is the power of advertising to raise expectations and anticipation!

With the title The Devil in the White City – Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Zion’s Book club expected amazing things from this true-life story. As author Erik Larson began to painstakingly weave the details of the planning, campaigning, and construction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with the chilling story of murderer H. H. Holmes, our readers’ anticipation grew. We were sure Holmes would be luring his victims from the fair’s environs to his lair and thought the details would stand our hair on end. However, painstaking might have been the key word here. Larson traced the first origins of the idea for a World’s Fair (let’s show Europe that the United States is no mere upstart), Chicago’s campaign to host it (don’t let those snobs on the east coast presume to speak for all of America), the political machinations necessary to get it off the ground (Chicago politics – has it really changed?), the many prominent engineers, designers, and architects involved (including landscape architect Frederick Olmsted of Central Park and Biltmore Estate fame), and the myriad of details and problems that had to be encountered and solved before this great White City could be built to attract visitors from across the country and the world to Chicago. Meanwhile, eerily evil H. H. Holmes arrives in the Windy City and sets about charming the fair sex while preparing a very special residence near the site of the fair.

As the time for designing all the various buildings to be housed in a 663-acre site began to shrink, it was truly amazing for some of our readers to learn about the new architectural and engineering techniques developed in response to the soil issues. The interference by well-placed society members, the problems with new workers’ unions, and the stress on fair developer Daniel Burnham were dramatically portrayed as were now famous personages (Ferris, Disney, Wright – the author seemed an inveterate name-dropper at times). However, other readers found these details boring and thought there was too much fair and not enough murder as the Holmes story continued to develop. The two stories, while occurring at the same time, often seemed like trains running on parallel tracks.

Our readers came to the realization that we are harder to entertain now than in the 1890’s and agreed that world’s fairs or expos are passé today. Bidding for and hosting the Olympic competitions are ventures of similar magnitude with a unique difference. As this Great White City took shape on the outskirts of Chicago, it was built only to be temporary – a lavish façade designed to attract visitors and impress them with new inventions but never meant to be permanent. Olympic venues either make use of existing facilities or are designed for future use once all the visitors have gone home. With the advances in transportation and standards of living, we expect a wide variety of attendance at Olympic competitions. Our readers had to abandon that mind set and look back to a time when economic inequality divided classes of people even more than today although individual home economies had changed enough for women to become more mobile. Entry fees for the fair were within the means of more people than ever, and advertisers successfully created the impression that this was simply too good an opportunity to miss. Societal mores were changing to allow more young women into the work force. Unfortunately, in a city the size of Chicago, this made them fair game for men of evil intent like Holmes. Our readers were amazed at the number of people who went missing during the fair without much in the way of official follow-up to determine how or why. Again, we had to leave behind our newer methods of investigation and accept the standards of the time. We marveled at the logistics Holmes employed to maneuver his victims. While no one knows how many of Chicago’s missing might have been Holmes’s victims, our readers were greatly relieved to meet a dogged detective toward the end of the book who pursued the brazen psychopath. (Another nugget of information – who knew that “alienist” was the precursor for psychiatrist?)

Author Larson obviously did copious research and unearthed oodles of fascinating facts. Our readers learned that Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jacks, and Shredded Wheat were introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair; that the Ferris Wheel originally was capable of carrying up to 100 people in a car; and that nearly all of the facilities and exhibits could never be built today due to liability concerns. The tons of citations at the back of the book were impressive but, alas, did not draw our attention. While a few readers enjoyed the book immensely, some were disappointed that it did not live up to the promise implicit in the title on the well-designed book jacket. We never did find the magic, but instead experienced the stories of two men of out-sized personality who accomplished vastly different things through the force of those personalities. Note to the author: an index of names would have been very helpful and pictures would have greatly enhanced the narration. One of Zion’s church members generously shared a pictorial history of the Chicago World’s Fair which we enjoyed immensely after reading the book. Zion’s readers’ reactions to the book ran the gamut with one reader actually falling asleep while reading, and this is reflected in their ratings:

1 thumb up – 4 readers
Neutral – 3 readers
1 thumb down – 2 readers
2 thumbs down – 1 reader