'Devil in the White City'

Bellevue (William O. Lockridge) Library

'Devil in the White City'

“Murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America”

Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is a gripping historical tale that is a must-read for anyone, especially those who Devil in the White Cityrarely venture out of their fiction-only comfort zones. Set in Chicago at the turn of the century in 1893, Larson masterfully describes a bustling city full of life, industry, and promise. Larson’s tale focuses on the lives of two infamous men, Daniel Burnham and H.H. Holmes, that seemingly have nothing in common but whose lives “collide” in the midst of the spectacular event that was the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. This grand production would not only provide entertainment like never before, but more importantly assert America’s magnificence and showcase its prominence to the world.

In addition to mass industrialization, the turn of the century in Chicago was marked by a strong wave of immigration and an increase in class warfare. Consequently, Burnham and his fellow architects aimed to quell the civil unrest and dampen violence by bringing people of all backgrounds together from all walks of life from all over the world. As a result, the World’s Fair was more of a celebration of diversity as opposed to a rally for collective struggles. Burnham continues to be lauded today for his architectural contributions to the city of Chicago, as well as his work in New York and Washington, D.C.

So where does H.H. Holmes come into play? Holmes, born Herman Mudgett, was already leading a successful life as a con artist throughout the U.S. before becoming the serial killer known as the “Beast of Chicago.” Burnham’s World’s Fair arguably made it possible for Holmes to build his “Murder Castle,” have a plethora of victims to choose from, and more easily get away with his murderous crimes. It also helped that Holmes was handsome, wealthy and intelligent. Most of his victims were women he seduced or offered employment. He was adept at storytelling, creating and using aliases and committing fraud. He, too, was a skilled architect as his “castle” was literally a maze filled with trapdoors, hidden rooms, chutes and a secret kiln.

Perhaps without Burnham and his 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, H.H. Holmes would just be a footnote to history and sadly his fascinating story might be buried alongside his victims. Read Larson’s book to find out more about Holmes’ legacy and what ultimately happened to him and his victims. While reading, keep in mind that as Larson importantly notes, “However strange or macabre some of the following incidents may seem, this is not a work of fiction.”