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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Devil in the White City

I knew pretty much nothing about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair before reading Erik Larsen's The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.  The titular devil is Herman Webster Mudgett, better known has H. H. Holmes, one of the first documented modern serial killers in America.  The book came highly recommended, so I wasn't surprised that I enjoyed it.  What did surprise me was that I found the logistical nightmares facing someone organizing a world's fair even more engrossing than the the gritty details of a murdering psychopath.

It's actually pretty hard for me to conceive of a world's fair on the scale that they existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  They have not happened in my lifetime.  It seems like they've been replaced by the Olympics.  While those are certainly grand events, they are not world's fairs, which are designed to showcase nations' achievements rather than their athletes.  Atlanta sold more tickets than any of the other games, but it didn't reach seven million.  The World's Columbian Expedition, the official title for the 1893 fair in Chicago, lasted six months and had over 23 million visitors.

Given the odious and overlapping bureaucracy, money issues, schedule, and incredibly grand scale of the fair, it seemed impossible that it would actually come together.  They were essentially constructing a city in the space of two years.  In order to show up the Eiffel Tower that had served as the centerpiece of the 1889 fair in Paris, they eventually decided to build something that most people thought would collapse and end lives: the Ferris wheel.  It's hard to conceive of now, but nothing like it had ever been done before, and even though the math made sense it was only out of desperation that it ever got built.

Meanwhile, not to far away a hotel was being readied for the fair.  It was named the World's Fair Hotel, but it came to be known far better as the Murder Hotel of H. H. Holmes.  Holmes made this building for the sole purpose of trapping, torturing, and murdering young women.  Holmes' story is fascinating and disturbing, so I won't go into too much detail here.

While I wouldn't say that the author is more graphic than needed to convey the horrors that Holmes put his victims through, it is not a book for anyone who can't stomach descriptions of torture and mutilation.  For those of you who can, I'd highly recommend this book.

Update:  I'm adding a criticism of the book that I had forgotten until a friend reminded me.  Larson definitely blurs the line between non-fiction book and novel in attempt to add interesting details.  His descriptions of the murder are gripping but can only be described as an educated guess presented as fact.  You can get a lot more detail from this New York Times article.

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