Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson

Chicago hosted the 1893 World’s Fair, earning the city a sought-after role as a major player on the global stage (interestingly, Chicago is not nicknamed the Windy City because of the constant wind off the lake but instead for it’s boasting and self-aggrandizement during this era). This was truly a time of wonder, seeing the first introductions of so many things we think of as ever-present today: zippers, vertical files, long-distance telephone service, moving pictures, and the automatic dishwasher all made their first appearance at the fair, as did Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, Juicy Fruit gum, Shredded Wheat cereal, and Pabst beer (renamed Pabst Blue Ribbon to honor the first place award it won). The Pledge of Allegiance was written specifically for the World’s Fair, and the first Ferris wheel was unveiled there as well. Larson does a magnificent job of both painting the picture of the spectacle of the fair and the politics and complexities in getting a project of this size put together.

What sets the book apart from a simple historical text is the second story that is interwoven with that of the creation of the fair: the story of America’s first serial killer. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes tortured and killed between 20 and 200 people—the exact number is unknown because many bodies were so thoroughly dismembered they couldn’t be accurately counted—mainly in Chicago, using the vast number of visitors to the city for the fair to go undetected. Holmes built a labyrinthine hotel with air-tight rooms (so he could gas victims), a large vault (for suffocation), and a crematorium for disposing of bodies. The evil of this killer juxtaposed with the marvels of the fair made for a thought-provoking and informative book that I quite enjoyed.

First Sentence:
How easy it was to disappear: A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago.

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