I first read The Devil in the White City in February 2006. I was recuperating from an operation and this was the book on top of the TBR pile. I have lauded its excellence in history, mystery, and style for over 7 years, but recently wondered if I really enjoyed the book, or if the Percocet I was taking post-op liked the book. So I decided to re-read it, something I have done very few times in my adult life (no really, I don’t re-read as much as people think I do…) and I am very glad I did.
Shredded Wheat cereal, Cracker Jack, the Ferris Wheel…all of these were first displayed to the world at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1983. Inventors, performers, and artists chose this venue to showcase their work because of the worldwide exposure they were sure to receive. And, based off the popularity of the abovementioned products, they were correct.
But the fair meant more than pitching new breakfast cereal to the masses. Chicago – the Second City – held the world’s attention over New York City for the few years between receiving the vote to host the fair and the fair’s closing. The city considered the World’s Fair to be their contribution to society, both local, regional, and national. Architects from Chicago to Boston constructed stunning, record-breaking structures, built in record-breaking time. Business owners thrived in a time of depression. The country looked to Chicago to buck the trend of economic downfall, and for a short time, the city complied. The fair’s Chicago Day surpassed the most heavily-attended day of the Paris World’s Fair in 1889, drawing over 700,000 souls.
But the Fair was the setting of a much more dark game…that of H.H. Holmes’ serial killing. Herman Mudgett, who went by numerous aliases, lured women into his life with his piercing blue eyes, charm, and sophistication. When he grew bored with them, he used them as medical experiments, often killing them with chloroform and methodically investigating the insides of his victims. Many were allegedly turned into skeletons, others were burned to ash in his incinerator. All were reported missing by their families.
I found myself wanting to read more about the murderer and his victims than the fair, but found the mix of topics to be intriguing and oddly alike. The parallels drawn between the fair, the era, the city, and the killer all came together seamlessly in the end of this well-researched book. I have read a few other Erik Larsen books, and will continue to do so. His research is thorough and his writing exciting. If you read this many years ago, do yourself a favor and read it again. This is one history lesson that only gets better the second go round.