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Monday, March 26, 2012

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

With this work of narrative historical nonfiction, author Erik Larson showcases American society and its customs during the late nineteenth century. The 1889 French Exposition Universel, featuring the newly-built Eiffel Tower, was a tough act to follow. But the United States was determined to outdo the French and show the world that we could surpass them in matters of culture and innovation. Chicago and New York each vied to be the host of the 1893 World’s Fair; amazingly Chicago was selected to receive the honor. The up and coming Chicago architectural firm of Daniel H. Burnham and John Root was chosen to be in charge of the design and construction of the fairgrounds, which included the creation of buildings, landscape design, and selection of the various exhibits. With time running short, construction troubles abounding, and committee members fighting among themselves it seemed unlikely that the fair would be completed on time, especially with the death of partner John Root early on. But through the labors of Daniel Burnham the fair was able to open on schedule.

At the same time another massive project sprang to life. Serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, whose alias was Dr. H. H. Holmes, a man of some medical talents and much charm, and a bona fide psychopath, decided to move to Chicago to pursue his own interests of murder and dissection of human bodies. His victims were mostly young women on their own; they were less likely to be missed. Holmes constructed a hotel so that he could rent rooms to the fair visitors. Unbeknownst to all, this hotel also housed a gas chamber and a crematorium that were used in the murder of more than 200 people. Eventually Holmes was caught, tried and put to death.

Throughout the book, we get to meet a variety of well-known historical figures such as landscaping genius Frederick Law Olmsted (also the designer of Central Park), Buffalo Bill, Susan B. Anthony, George Washington Gale Ferris (the originator of the Fair’s greatest attraction , the Ferris Wheel), Thomas Edison, and more. Most importantly, we are able to visit a more innocent time in American history.

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