The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America|
by Erik Larson
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|A Review of: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America
by Bill Gladstone
In this riveting page-turner that reads like a murder mystery
thriller, Erik Larson resurrects the legend of a forgotten American
psychopath, mass murderer, the cold-blooded H. H. Holmes, and
overlays it with the equally dusty story of the Chicago World's
Fair of 1893, one of the most impressive achievements of gilded-age
Satisfying the modern appetite for realism, the book falls into a
hybrid literary genre, combining the narrative techniques of the
suspense novelist with the intense realism of the documentarian.
"However strange or macabre some of the following incidents
may seem, this is not a work of fiction," the author advises
in a preliminary note, adding that all quoted material comes from
The author has likewise hobbled together two distinctly different
subject matters, which would normally require distinctive treatment.
In Larson's hands, the chapters dealing with the fair have an ominous
undercurrent of death, decay, fright and morbidity-the very traits
that we come to associate with Holmes, who is the focus of alternating
chapters. Thus unified in tone, this Frankenstein of a book lurches
forward with a peculiar, uneven gait, carrying the enthralled reader
in its vice-like grip for 390 pages.
Dr. Henry H. Holmes, whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett,
was a brazen serial killer who, like the society around him, embraced
many of the modern conveniences of his day. As all of Chicago was
churning with excitement at the prospect of hosting a magnificent
world's fair, Holmes designed and built a tourist hotel near the
fairground, at 63rd and Wallace. Nicknamed the castle, it was a
dark gothic edifice with long narrow hallways, odd-shaped rooms, a
soundproofed vault, hidden passageways, and leaden chutes through
which large objects could be dropped into the cavernous basement,
where Holmes had installed a coffin-shaped kiln hot enough to melt
glass. (It was for a glass factory, he explained to the curious.)
How ironic that this human monster-equal parts Sweeney Todd, Ted
Bundy, Hannibal Lector and Josef Mengele-could make himself so
irresistibly charming to women. "He broke prevailing rules of
casual intimacy: He stood too close, stared too hard, touched too
much and long. And women adored him for it," Larson writes.
By conservative estimates, he murdered dozens of unattached females
lured to the big city by the fair. Numerous women who became his
fiances disappeared, as did some of their sisters; they ran off
with someone else, Holmes would explain to puzzled acquaintances
and distant parents. Men, especially bill-collectors, were also
charmed by him; he was adept at floating dozens of creditors
simultaneously, like a juggler keeping balls in the air. He was a
confidence man par excellence.
In several cases he convinced trusting friends and lovers to buy
insurance policies, naming him as beneficiary-a fatal mistake.
Accidents always seemed to be happening near him; he would poison
and suffocate. He also gassed tourists to death in their sleep.
Possessing a medical degree, he would sometimes strip the flesh off
cadavers, bleach the bones, and sell the skeletons to medical
schools. Despite a growing missing persons list, the police were
too disorganized to conduct the rigorous investigation that was
Until Detective Frank Geyer, that is. Two years after the fair, the
shrewd gumshoe sensed that Holmes had plotted an insurance scam
with a partner, then killed the partner as well as his wife and two
children so he could keep the insurance money for himself. As Geyer
discovered, Holmes had dragged the poor children to Indianapolis,
Detroit, and ultimately Toronto, where he gassed them in a trunk
and buried them in the dirt cellar of a rented cottage near what
is now College and Bay streets. After Geyer dug up the corpses, the
story made front-page headlines across the continent; by then,
Holmes was rightly being referred to as "the Chicago monster."
He was eventually hung.
As mentioned, alternating sections of this chilling narrative deal
with the massive achievement of the so-called "white city"-the
monumental fairgrounds built in less than two years by a cadre of
architects that included Daniel Hudson Burnham and Frederick Law
Olmsted, and involving a supporting cast of real-life personalities
from Buffalo Bill Cody to Thomas Edison. Larson is successful in
depicting a city so giddy with the notion of progress, scientific
advancement, civic growth and the optimism of the gilded age, that
it had become an unregulated jungle where a cunning beast like H.
H. Holmes could operate with seeming impunity.
The author deserves enormous credit for retrieving this important
piece of social history. Although he takes some dramatic liberties,
he maintains his unwritten pact with the reader by remaining loyal
to the documented truth. If his depiction of Holmes seems as thin
in spots as that of a cardboard villain from Dickens, it's the
result of a lack of information. All in all, Larson has done an
excellent job with the limited material at hand; he builds a wonderful
atmosphere of suspense and horror. Obviously intoxicated with the
story, he has deftly polished each of its facets until the whole
sparkles like a jewel. Can a sale of movie rights be far away?