Devil in the White City
August 7, 2004 11:44 AM   Subscribe

I've just finished reading a copy of Larson's Devil in the White City sent to me by a relative who heard of my love for Isaac's Storm. Devil is a biography of two men who were central to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. One, Daniel H. Burnham would become one of the most influential architects and city planners of the early 20th century. Burnham organized a crew of the architectural, engineering and artistic elite including landscape artist Frederick Law Olmstead (famous for Central Park and Biltmore) in an effort to better the Paris world's fair of 1889. The Chicago exposition would be profoundly influential for American culture introducing Arabic Dance (the tune for "There's a place in France/where the naked ladies dance" was created in Chicago), the Ferris Wheel, Shredded Wheat, and helping to settle the Battle of the Currents between Edison and Tesla. The fair drew a large variety of larger than life figures including Archduke Ferdinand, Elizabeth B. Anthony, Buffalo Bill Cody and the mostly forgotten master of self promotion Citizen Train.

Devil is also a biography of the man given credit for America's first recognized serial murders, the self-named H. H. Holmes. At the start of the fair, Holmes changed his modus operandi from marrying and killing women as part of insurance and real estate scams, to running a hotel from which an unknown number of his female tenants never checked out. Although information on Holmes's activities is scanty, he serves as a mirror of the utopia of civic safety created by Burnham. Larson makes the argument that the contrasts between optimisim and pessimism, well-intentioned virtue and depravity, urban utopia with a few blocks from slums, would set the tone for the 20th century.
posted by KirkJobSluder (13 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
who is Elizabeth B. Anthony?
posted by obloquy at 12:44 PM on August 7, 2004

Pfft. Read it through four times and still didn't catch it. That's why they say it takes at least six revisions to go from shit to readable. Somehow mixed Susan B. Anthony with Elizabeth Cady Stanton together in my head.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:56 PM on August 7, 2004

Nice. I have a fondness for posts like these.
posted by vacapinta at 1:02 PM on August 7, 2004

More on Holmes.
posted by rushmc at 1:06 PM on August 7, 2004

Since moving to Chicago I've been fascinated by the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (where Pabst Blue Ribbon won its blue ribbon) - great collection of links, KirkJobSluder!

Of course the 1893 "Columbian Exposition" is also famous for introducing the world's first mechanical man.
posted by wfrgms at 1:09 PM on August 7, 2004

An older Devil White City thread
posted by gluechunk at 1:14 PM on August 7, 2004

er, I meant "an older Chicago exposition thread"
posted by gluechunk at 1:15 PM on August 7, 2004

While I enjoyed reading the individual stories of Burnham and Holmes, I thought an opportunity was missed - while the coincidence of them being at the Fairground at the same time is remarked upon, there's really no attempt to link them in any other way. The blind fervor with which both men approached their "work" was eerily similar, and I thought several times while reading it that a more dramatic compare-and-contrast approach might have made more exciting reading. The story of Holmes is complicated from a presentational standpoint because, frankly, no one was actually looking for him until late in his "career," right, so it's not much of a "police procedural." Still, I think a case could be made for a much deeper and more thoughtful examination of human obsession, its consequences and its eventual rewards than "Devil in the White City" provides by simply recounting Burnham's and Holmes' stories individually.
posted by JollyWanker at 4:24 PM on August 7, 2004

Larson's book was spoiled for me by two things. One, the Chicago World's Fair was, in the end, nothing more than a short-termed theme park. Larson spends too much time on the topic of the Fair turning a profit (for its already wealthy backers) and not enough time placing the Fair in the context of Chicago and America at the end of the 19th century.

The other weakness is that Larson clearly had no taste for the topic of Holmes' bizarre career. His writing in Holmes' part of the story is melodramatic, as if the tale of a serial killer needed "spicing up."

The book should also have had more photos of the Fair. The book's website had some striking images that brought the White City to life, but they should have been in the book itself.
posted by SPrintF at 4:45 PM on August 7, 2004 [1 favorite]

Jesus. More inside. More inside.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 6:19 PM on August 7, 2004

My girlfriend's been reading this book and loving it. Now, I suppose I will be reading it as soon as she is done, as it sounds quite intriguing. Thanks for a great post, KirkJobSluder.
posted by shoepal at 6:21 PM on August 7, 2004

This book is on my to-read list. It looks really interesting.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:57 PM on August 7, 2004

I've little to add to what SprintF and JollyWanker said above. I had the same problem with Larson's overwrought treatment of Holmes. What astounded me about the story was that the builders of the fair actually managed to pull it off (however imperfectly) in the amount of time they had.
posted by infidelpants at 10:39 PM on August 7, 2004

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