Sunday, May 31, 2015

A spellbinding tale of depravity and glory in the Gilded Age

The Devil in The White City, Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Published in Vintage Books, a Division of Random House Inc., 2004

Erik Larson's "The Devil in The White City" is a non-fiction book that tells the true life stories of two men who worked in Chicago in the late 19th century. Geography and gender are about all that these men shared in common.

Daniel Burnham was a leading architect and city planner of his day, largely credited with being the mastermind and driving force behind Chicago's bid to host an exposition commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in North America.

Chicago had a lot to prove in hosting the World's Columbian Exposition, which became known as the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Until then, the city was famous as a hog producer and was considered something of a backwater. As Larson writes:
Failure was unthinkable. If the fair failed, Burnham knew, the nation's honour would be tarnished, Chicago humiliated, and his own firm dealt a crushing blow. Everywhere Burnham turned there was someone - a friend, an editor, a fellow club member - telling him that the nation expected something tremendous out of this fair. And expected it in record time....The fair would also have to make a profit.
"The Devil in The White City" also tells the chilling tale of a doctor and businessman by the name of H.H. Holmes, who earned the dubious distinction of being one of America's first documented serial killers. Holmes created a house of horrors just blocks from the site of the Chicago World's Fair and committed dozens of murders right under the noses of customers, friends, neighbours, passersby and the police. He was able to avoid detection for years because of the newness of this type of crime, the lack of investigative resources and Holmes' inherent charm, likeability and skill at manipulating others.

Both Burnham and Holmes possessed powerful egos and towering ambitions; the former harnessed his talents for good in pursuit of the highest forms of artistic expression and human achievement while the latter devoted his life to orchestrating acts of fraud and evil. Larson weaves the lives of both men into a captivating narrative that spans the years leading up to and immediately following the fair.

What I found particularly fascinating about this book is the process by which the fair sprang into being. Burnham, along with his fellow architects, landscape designers, construction workers and participating vendors essentially created a mini city from wasteland on the banks of Lake Michigan over a 26 month period. Blueprints, work schedules and deadlines were fast-tracked in a race against the clock to complete construction on time.

The odds seemed stacked against meeting this impossible deadline. A deepening recession, poor weather conditions, engineering and logistical problems, labour strife and other challenges threatened to halt production and derail the opening of the fair. That Burnham and fellow organizers managed to prevail is a testament to their tenacity and will to succeed. In the end, despite setbacks and cost overruns that tested the mettle of the fair's organizers, Chicago hosted a world-class fair, which attracted millions of visitors from around the world. The fair introduced the latest technologies, product innovations and concepts, such as the Ferris Wheel, Juicy Fruit, Shredded Wheat, Cracker Jack popcorn and Edison's Kinetoscope. The fair became a role model for fairs held around the world for the next century.

In documenting Burnham's challenges in producing the fair, and recreating the setting of the multiple murders that took place at the hands of Holmes, Larson creates an "edge of your seat" drama from start to finish and does a great job keeping readers in suspense. This book has it all: real-life drama, larger than life personalities, a quick pace and enough facts and statistics to satisfy any armchair history buff.

My only quibble with "The Devil in The White City" is the lack of photographs of the main personalities and of the fair itself. A few more photos would have been a complement to this tale that is so expertly told. But a quick Google search will yield many photos of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, along with reams of  information covering this epic slice of American history in the Gilded Age.