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

Well I’ve been on an Erik Larson kick lately. This book traces the two stories of two different men who seemingly have nothing in common: Daniel Burnham, an architect in charge of the designer of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and H.H. Holmes, a serial murderer.

Part of the story traces how Burnham, an already successful architect, brought the World’s Fair to Chicago and then designed it to be more successful than the Exposition in Paris. Some of these details were, as I have noticed in Larson books, tedious. Particularly the beginning chapters of organizing the fair and getting committees together to plan for the different events and structures are a little bit of a bore. But it quickly becomes more interesting as you get a glimpse of all the different exhibits and entertainers who piled into the fair at Jackson Park in Chicago to be part of, by the end, the biggest event ever known to man. A good portion of the book deals with the tension between Burnham and landscape architect Frederick Olmsted. Olmstead and Burnham quarrel for superiority almost through the entire book.

The fair in itself garnered over 700,000 people in one day, and perhaps almost 4 million in total, adequately breaking the record that the Paris exhibition set of some 300,000 people. The legacy of the fair lasts even today. Have you ever had Shredded Wheat or Pabst Blue Ribbon? Or perhaps you’ve ridden on a Ferris Wheel. All of these things find their origin in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Some of the first electric lamps illuminated the night sky every evening during the duration of the fair, and the exhibitions included in the fair featured such famous faces as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Eddison, Nikola Tesla, Scott Joplin. New inventions and edibles included the Cracker Jack, Cream of Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, Phosphorescent lamps, the first all electric kitchen, a process for making braille books, among others.

Such large crowds as attracted many people from out of town. This is where the two stories intersect: H.H. Holmes was a physician and entrepreneur. He was mentally unstable and enjoyed murdering people; mostly young, attractive women. When the World’s Fair was set to come to Chicago, Holmes made changes to his business building (which also housed people in apartments) to make it into a hotel. But this was no ordinary hotel: it was said to be Holmes “castle” where he murdered helpless, out of town, untraceable victims in his house of horror. These are some of the most horrifying parts of the books. Not only was he engaged in this practice, but also was heavily involved in other precarious practices such as insurance fraud (where he would fake the death of persons or kill them after buying life insurance), failure to pay creditors (he would take out loans under a different name so he wouldn’t have to pay them back), the already mentioned crime of murder, and infanticide. This portion of the book is macabre. Listen to what Holmes says about himself:

“I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing — I was born with the ‘Evil One’ standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.”


What is interesting about this book is that it traces these two men who seem to be wholly different. But when looking closer at their stories, they seem to be more similar then anyone would admit. I think more than anything, Holmes story tells us the classic wisdom of Numbers 32:23 – “Be sure your sin will find you out.”

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