Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

By Erik Larson

Crown. 447 pp. $25.95 The Chicago World's Fair of 1893, officially known as the World's Columbian Exposition since "its official purpose [was] to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America," was an important milestone in U.S. history, albeit one that is now too often reduced to a footnote, if remembered at all. Built in an enormous hurry against stupendous odds and under no less stupendous pressure, it turned out to be a triumph of American architecture and engineering that influenced the country in any number of ways: It increased respect for (and faith in) science and invention; it established the neoclassical as America's monumental style; it greatly enhanced the world's view of the United States; and it did wonders for the reputation and self-regard of Chicago. Painted almost entirely in white, it seemed a miracle when it opened in the late spring of 1893:

"Despite its incomplete exhibits, rutted paths, and stretches of unplanted ground, the exposition revealed to its early visitors a vision of what a city could be and ought to be. The Black City to the north lay steeped in smoke and garbage, but here in the White City of the fair visitors found clean public bathrooms, pure water, an ambulance service, electric streetlights, and a sewage-processing system that yielded acres of manure for farmers. . . . Within the fair's buildings, visitors encountered devices and concepts new to them and to the world. They heard live music played by an orchestra in New York and transmitted to the fair by long-distance telephone. They saw the first moving pictures on Edison's Kinetoscope, and they watched, stunned, as lightning chattered from Nikola Tesla's body. They saw even more ungodly things -- the first zipper; the first-ever all-electric kitchen, which included an automatic dishwasher; and a box purporting to contain everything a cook would need to make pancakes, under the brand-name Aunt Jemima's."

The contrast between the White City and the real Chicago was indeed stark. The "widespread perception" was that it "was a secondary city that preferred butchered hogs to Beethoven," and its dominant odor was "the fantastic stink that lingered always in the vicinity of the Union Stock Yards." The city "got bigger, taller, and richer; but it also grew dirtier, darker, and more dangerous." Sanitation was minimal, congestion was stifling, and crime was pervasive. More often than the city cared to acknowledge, people came to Chicago from the hinterlands and simply vanished, their whereabouts and the reasons for their disappearance unknown.

It is the contrast between these two Chicagos that is at the center of "The Devil in the White City," an earnest if overheated book that falls considerably short of its self-evidently large ambitions. "In the end," Erik Larson writes with the predilection for melodrama that characterizes his prose, "it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black." On one side there is Daniel Hudson Burnham, the architect who bulled the exposition through to completion and success against obstacles and opposition at every turn. On the other there is H.H. Holmes, an oddly charismatic young doctor who was born, by his own account, "with the devil in me," who "could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing," and who turned an ugly building not far from the fairgrounds into an abattoir in which he systematically committed murder.

Most of his victims were young women who had come to Chicago from the boondocks with the usual dreams of big-city glamour. Larson identifies nine known victims; Holmes himself claimed he had killed 27 people; some estimates have run as high as 200, "though such extravagance seems implausible even for a man of his appetite." What is certain is that Holmes's story provides a convenient backdrop against which Larson plays out the story of the Columbian Exposition, a "Black" scrim before which the "White" fair unfolds in what is meant to be meaningful, revealing contrast.

But though both stories are intrinsically interesting, and though Larson has done his research thoroughly, the parallel tales feel a lot less like meaningful, revealing contrast than gimmicks around which to construct a book. It is true that Holmes built the charnel house he fobbed off as a hotel on land easily accessible to the fairgrounds, but since he bought the land long before the site of the fair had been chosen, this obviously is coincidence and nothing more. The connection of Holmes to the fair seems manufactured rather than authentic, and every time the story shifts from the fair to the murderer, the reader is brought up short.

The truth is that the story of the fair has plenty of intrinsic interest and drama and scarcely needs tarting up with a lurid sideshow. The fair was conceived as America's response to the amazing success of the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1879 and its centerpiece, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel's tower. With the decision to award the 1893 fair to Chicago, "the burden of restoring the nation's pride and prominence in the wake of the Paris exposition had fallen upon" that city, which was challenged to "surpass the brilliance of the Paris exposition." What Paris had years to build, Chicago would have to construct in barely two, "the biggest thing ever constructed on American soil, far bigger than Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge," and do it amid an economic downturn that was heading into the Panic of 1893.

That it did so was largely thanks to Burnham, a man of confidence in his abilities and insecurity about his social position. The combination gave him immense drive, and he was somehow able to coordinate an enterprise that engaged thousands of people (some of whom died in the effort) working on projects so numerous and dissimilar as to be almost, if not quite, beyond comprehension. Along the way there were bitter confrontations with labor unions, the assassination of the city's popular mayor, endless complaints by the proud, stubborn landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and the bedeviling search for something that would eclipse the Eiffel Tower -- a search that finally ended when an unknown engineer from Pittsburgh named George Washington Gale Ferris devised the gigantic wheel to which his own name was given.

Dramatic stuff all of it, and fascinating to read about. Unfortunately, Larson seems not to have enough confidence in the inherent interest of the story to tell it straight. Not merely does he give us the H.H. Holmes sideshow, he also has a hugely irritating habit of foreshadowing -- "But even he did not, and could not, grasp what truly lay ahead"; "Such peaceful intervals never lasted long"; "Later, much would be made of this precaution"; to cite just three among dozens -- and of overwriting, my own favorite example being: "It was even hotter in Indianapolis. Leaves hung in the stillness like hands of the newly dead." A further difficulty, presumably to be ascribed not to Larson but to his publisher, is that the book has only six pages of illustrations; but there are several Web sites devoted to the exposition, and I urge readers to use them to supplement this disappointing book.