Erik Larson has taken on the role of an infomercial guy, in his 2003 book The Devil in the White City. Do you want to know the history of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893? That’s great, BUT WAIT, there’s more! Do you like reading about true crime and one of the first known serial killers in the U.S? That is even better, BUT WAIT, there’s more! I’ll throw in a side story about the nut case who murdered the mayor of Chicago.
I found the history of the World’s Fair to be the most interesting part of the book and felt it should have been a stand-alone story. Larson captures the zeitgeist of Chicago in the 1890s. The grand buildings were all painted white, giving the grounds the name of “The White City.” The fair development and building were bogged down with bureaucracy, bad weather, union strikes, worker injuries, a short time frame to complete, and some poor structural designs. The people involved included the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and Walt Disney’s father. Under the guidance of architect Daniel Burnham, the fair ended without losing money during a terrible economic time. The names that are dropped during the story were a who’s who of the American elite. Visitors included Nikola Tesla, President Benjamin Harrison, and Frank Lloyd White. Buffalo Bill set up his famous Wild West Show starring Annie Oakley just outside the fairgrounds. The 1893 World’s Fair introduced us to the Ferris Wheel, the tallest skyscrapers, grounds lighted by incandescent bulbs, and shredded wheat.
The story involving “The Devil”, H. H. Holmes was mostly interesting as Larson details the criminal activities of a charming serial killer who killed numerous people at the time of the fair. The smaller story regarding the crazy Pendergrast seemed unnecessary to the book. The intermixing of the true crime tales with the history of the fair was a bit odd but mostly worked.
3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 because of Larson’s excellent story-telling ability.