Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Devil In the White City

Murder, Madness and Mayhem at the Fair that Changed America
by Erik Larson

Non-fiction, American history

The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 is not something that your typical 21st-century reader cares much about, or is even aware existed. However, the legacy of that fair is still with us today, from the carnival legacy (the midway, the Ferris wheel (the original of which was a behemoth, with cars that held 50 people at a time), and the exotica such as belly dance) to the Neoclassical revival (from an arbitrary decision to paint everything white to stop arguments about the colors) to the simple everyday things (such as zippers, AC current, and Shredded Wheat.) Larson's book gives a thorough breakdown of the process of acquiring and implementing the World's Fair in an incredibly short span of time, and the difficulties that had to be overcome in order to have not only a world-class fair, but to make such a fair better than all the previous ones and prove to the world that America was not longer a cultural backwater.

The designers had to overcome incredible difficulties, not limited to the architectural difficulties of building on Chicago's unstable ground. Committees did what committees do, which is take valuable time to come to decisions, labor strikes and lack of funds threatened the project, and critical people dropped dead or fell ill. And yet the overall effect came through, and the Fair came to be known as the White City, a vision of what the future could be.

Enter the Devil. Of course, nobody knew him at the time; the charming young doctor who called himself H.H. Holmes was personable and extremely convincing. He managed to build a city-block sized hotel almost entirely on credit, and directed its construction in such a manner that nobody truly knew what its purpose was.

It was only after the Fair when its use became clear. The hotel was a chamber of horrors, and dozens if not hundreds of women had met their deaths within its walls. H.H. Holmes was what would later be called a serial killer, and he used his charm to lure girls to lodge with him-- specifically, girls who had left their rural homes for the first time in their lives to come to Chicago's White City. Larson's account of Holmes is interwoven with the difficulties of the Fair, and the two stories drive home the fact that sometimes, decisions have unexpected consequences.


More about the Chicago World's Fair
More about H.H. Holmes

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