Imagine hosting in Chicago what would eventually be considered one of the most influential World’s Fairs in history, The White City, creating such a masterpiece for which “Chicago has disappointed her enemies and astonished the world” (Charles T. Root, editor of the New York Dry Goods Reporter, p.310). Imagine one of the most notorious serial killers of the modern times: Dr. H. H. Holmes, a man, by his own words, ‘born with the devil in me’ (p.109); a shadow darker than those cast by the buildings of the growing fair; a man lost in the crumbs of anonymity of the raising city.

Now put these two together – and give them a turn of the screw.
You will have The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson, Vintage Books, 2004).

The book The Devil in the White City is not a battle between Good and Evil, but it is the parallel stories between Men’s highest achievement, Culture, and the mundane dimension of evil, perhaps for this even more frightening. The book is an architecture class captivating amateurs or professionals alike, and it describes the strength of men creating a show on a monumental size, leaving an indelible mark in history (“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Daniel H. Burnham, Architect, Director of Works, p.26), while leaving almost no trace in its city.
The book offers The World’s Columbian Exposition as a cross-section of the world: “Chicago was host to the world at that time and we were part of it all.” (Hilda Satt, D. H. Burnham daughter, p.288). The book reveals the articulated work of the minds and bodies of all of those involved in the evolution of Chicago and in the birth of the fair: at any level of the planning, or the construction; royal guests, sponsor, or janitor; protagonist or spectator.

The book tells of the simplicity of the will to live, and the will to end.

The story starts at the first sparks of the events – the birth of D. Burnham’s (and others) idea of hosting the fair in Chicago, and H. H. Holmes arrival at the city’s train station – and it will move forward shifting back and forth between the two characters as the two polarizers of events. Burnham’s odyssey, personal as much as professional, covers the political and social interaction in and around the Fair; the professionals’ design process; their detailed creative work; and the Fair’s entangled construction. Every step seems to take too long and to meet one-too-many obstacles – I almost felt stressed as if I was part of the team – but the people involved defeat all the odds to complete the endeavor. Holmes story is the transformation of his wickedness, and his own realization of it. He fully embraces what he is and what he does – torture and murder – he never feels uneasy, and he wants to refine his “skills” as much Burnham wants to refine his work. Holmes builds his Murder Castle (a hotel on the outskirts of Chicago) at the height of his depravity, at the same time when the White City is completed and opens to the world, at the height of its fame.

I felt one of the most intense cities in the Western world at the end of the 1800s: its skyscrapers rising from the ashes of its Great Fire; the wind blowing through the buildings; the view on the Lake; the bustling city streets; its exploding, diversified population; the far stretching railroads; its river; the cold, the smoke, the noises, the smells, the screams. I felt the majesty of the shows in the fair; the artistic details on the facades of the halls; the perfume of the flowers in the gardens; the colors of the wondering visitors. I felt the most primordial emotion, the wish to live, against its nemesis, the need to kill.

I witnessed a life, from beginning to end.


Book review written for a writing MatadorU lab.