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The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson

By MelodyLane | Books | February 23, 2010 |

By MelodyLane | Books | February 23, 2010 |

Chicago is a really interesting city. It’s huge, ridiculously so to this small town girl, and beautiful, but with that special something found only in the midwest. Anthony Bourdain has called Chicago the only other true city in America outside of New York. Having recently visited Chicago, I can’t say if that’s true or not. I did fall in love with the city; it’s food (oh Three Little Pigs sandwich, I adore you), the architecture, and the lakeshore.

The Chicago of today is a far cry from the Chicago of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, Chicago was a dirty, dingy place, full of undesirable industry like the meat packing businesses of Armour, and Swift and Pullman’s train car company. Devil in the White City starts with the bidding for the location of upcoming 1893 World’s Fair Exposition. America dearly wants to prove to the world that they are just as capable of throwing a glamorous event just like the French did with the 1889 World’s Exposition. In a contest decided by the Senate, Chicago bested New York City and Washington, D.C. for the honor of hosting the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The 1893 Columbian Exposition was to mark the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus 400 years earlier. Two young architects were put in charge of transforming a marshy, swampy area on the lake shore into the most glorious fairgrounds ever seen. These men were Daniel Burnham and John Root. They enlisted other architects from Chicago and around America to help make the World’s Fair a success, most prominently Fredrick Law Olmsted. Daniel Burnham, as head of the construction team and fair overseer, is the main character of this portion of the book.

Devil in the White City follows the designing, building, and transformation of a formly undesirable park known as Jackson Park into a beautiful new city known as the “White City.” Many things that we take for granted were first created and sold at the 1893 World’s Fair, including Cracker Jacks and Juicy Fruit gum. The World’s Fair wasn’t all bright and shiny though. There was a darker, more seedy side. The other half of the title, the Devil, refers to one of the most prolific and the first American serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, aka Herman Mudgett. Holmes used the beauty and spectacle of the fair to lure his victims, typically young, lonely, beautiful women to his hotel for the duration of their stays at the Fair. The story of Holmes is disturbing, creepy, and cannot possibly be real.

Devil in the White City is very interesting book. The back and forth between the stories of Daniel Burnham, a honest, hardworking man, and Dr. Holmes, very likely a sociopath, makes for engrossing reading. This was an intelligent, well-written account of one of the most interesting periods in American history and two very interesting men.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of MelodyLane’s reviews, check out her blog, Procrastinating Grad Student.

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