Book Review: The Devil in the White City

Rating: 👹

The Devil in the White City is a book by Erik Larson about the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (“the fair”) in Chicago. It follows two main characters: Daniel Burnham, the fair’s primary architect, and H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who operated during the time of the fair.

I’m a bit late to the party on this one. It was big after it came out in 2003, and my mom recommended it to me at least 5 years ago, but 2023 seems like my year of Chicago - watching The Bear, putting together that something like 20% of my friends are from Chicago, and now this book.

I really enjoyed this book, and feel like I learned a lot of interesting history from it too. The narrative non-fiction format really worked well for me. I can highly recommend it. The serial killer bits can be very gruesome. I learned that I enjoy reading more about architecture than crime drama, which actually wasn’t obvious to me before.

The interaction described between Sol Bloom and Mike De Young was so funny. De Young deeply believed in the 23 year Bloom, who had worked for him as a teen, and really wanted him to work on the fair. Bloom didn’t want to leave San Francisco. De Young told him to name his price, and Bloom jokingly said the same salary as the President (about $1.5M in today’s dollars), and De Young was like “cool I’m sure you’ll earn every penny, pretty decent salary for a 21yr old huh?”. So Bloom took the job 😊.

Walt Disney’s father worked on the fair, potentially inspiring Disney’s castle down the road.

There were a number of labor related issues surrounding the fair. Burnham at times treated workers well to an unprecedented degree, but on other occasions was less kind. Strikes and unions had major breakthroughs at times during the fair’s construction. And laid off workers were destroyed financially after the fair completed and their services were no longer needed.

Descriptions of collaboration or lack thereof between everyone at the fair were wide ranging and super interesting. Tens of big egos, hundreds of millions of dollars, and thousands of lives at play. I really appreciated descriptions of Olmsted’s commitment to his vision of landscape architecture as uncomprimising art despite his extreme physical sicknesses and ailments.

“Out-Eiffel’ing” the Eiffel tower was done by George Ferris…can you guess what he made?

The cultural sensitivities of the 19th century crowd were pretty awful. Lots of descriptions of “exotica”, people as side shows, and rodeos depicting the conquering of Native Americans.

The economic instability of the time was a recurring theme. I was particularly taken with the “Children’s Run” description in Lincoln Nebraska, where children had been storing their allowances and all came at once to request withdrawal with worries of the bank failing. I couldn’t find any reference to this online, but that seems reasonable, as Larson apparently only does research for his books from libraries, nothing online!

Pabst Blue Ribbon beer got its “Blue Ribbon” at this fair. The fair consumed three times as much electricity as the entire city of Chicago did at the time. The term “snap shot” was invented there with the rise of the first real portable Kodak cameras, and demos of the first voice recordings with engraved cylinders were seen. The fair cost over $600M in today’s dollars. One day of the fair hosted 750k people, the largest peaceable gathering in history at the time.

I look forward to reading more from Larson. Never has history been so fun for me!