A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never even seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home. Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago's Hull House, wrote, "Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs." The women sought work as typewriters, stenographers, seamstresses, and weavers. The men who hired them were for the most part moral citizens intent on efficiency and profit. But not always. On March 30, 1890, an officer of the First National Bank placed a warning in the help-wanted section of the Chicago Tribune, to inform female stenographers of "our growing conviction that no thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenographer who is a blonde, is good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or will transmit her photograph. All such advertisements upon their face bear the marks of vulgarity, nor do we regard it safe for any lady to answer such unseemly utterances."
The women walked to work on streets that angled past bars, gambling houses, and bordellos. Vice thrived, with official indulgence. "The parlors and bedrooms in which honest folk lived were (as now) rather dull places," wrote Ben Hecht, late in his life, trying to explain this persistent trait of old Chicago. "It was pleasant, in a way, to know that outside their windows, the devil was still capering in a flare of brimstone." In an analogy that would prove all too apt, Max Weber likened the city to "a human being with his skin removed."
Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left the city did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the city's rail crossings. Their injuries were grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards. Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. Fires took a dozen lives a day. In describing the fire dead, the term the newspapers most liked to use was "roasted." There was diphtheria, typhus, cholera, influenza. And there was murder. In the time of the fair the rate at which men and women killed each other rose sharply throughout the nation but especially in Chicago, where police found themselves without the manpower or expertise to manage the volume. In the first six months of 1892 the city experienced nearly eight hundred homicides. Four a day. Most were prosaic, arising from robbery, argument, or sexual jealousy. Men shot women, women shot men, and children shot each other by accident. But all this could be understood. Nothing like the Whitechapel killings had occurred. Jack the Ripper's five-murder spree in 1888 had defied explanation and captivated readers throughout America, who believed such a thing could not happen in their own hometowns.
But things were changing. Everywhere one looked the boundary between the moral and the wicked seemed to be degrading. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued in favor of divorce. Clarence Darrow advocated free love. A young woman named Borden killed her parents.
And in Chicago a young handsome doctor stepped from a train, his surgical valise in hand. He entered a world of clamor, smoke, and steam, refulgent with the scents of murdered cattle and pigs. He found it to his liking.
The letters came later, from the Cigrands, Williamses, Smythes, and untold others, addressed to that strange gloomy castle at Sixty-third and Wallace, pleading for the whereabouts of daughters and daughters' children.
It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root.
This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history.
BjoLiz, February 25, 2014 (view all comments by BjoLiz)
Having read this book several years ago, I got so much more out of it this time around. On the first reading, I was absorbed in The Devil and the horrors he inflicted with zero regard for anyone but himself, a true sociopath. In my 2nd reading, The White City captured my imagination. What those architects, landscape artists and construction workers accomplished in so short a time was nothing short of miraculous. I doubt it could be repeated today even with all our modern machinery and technology.
Now, a brief word about Holmes and his despicable acts. Although tragic, his significance was of being the first US serial killer. Not a cherished goal for most of society, yet I think he eagerly sought that place in history. His powers of deception were amazing. His killings and subsequent disposals were simple as well as elaborate. His heart and mind were certainly of the devil.
Overall, this was a fascinating read. Just when the tedium of the building of the White City and all the setbacks became overpowering, Larson jolted my interest back with Holmes and his myriad of atrocities. It is a thoroughly researched and well written book surrounding a brief monumental and significant time in our history.
BakerB, January 14, 2013 (view all comments by BakerB)
Very interesting read. Full of fascinating history, details of the World's Fair, & Chicago in its heyday, & chilling murder & mystery. Great combo!
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Waney, December 29, 2012 (view all comments by Waney)
I strongly recommend THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY to anyone who enjoys an engrossing, well-written story, whether they normally read fiction or nonfiction. In particular, if readers have a book report in school, this book should be considered. It makes history come alive.
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An amazing history that recounts the inconceivable events surrounding the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, Larson's tale captures a time and place that vividly come to life. The central characters in this tale are Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the construction of the fair, and H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the popularity of the fair for his own nefarious ends. Burnham's work at overcoming the insurmountable obstacles before completing this awe inspiring project is interwoven with chapters relating to the maniacal Holmes, whose person will keep you both captivated and haunted. Breathtakingly written, this almost unbelievable history reads like the work of a highly inventive novelist.
by Michal D.
"I was mesmerized by this book. It was a deliciously creepy read, made more creepy for being true. Several times in the course of reading it, I had to keep reminding myself that the events really happened."
"Review A Day"
by Adrienne Miller, Esquire,
"You've got to respect a book that makes you keep flipping to the back cover, double-checking that it is nonfiction. Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City seems like something from the mind of, say, Thomas Harris. But it is, in fact, true. A gruesome and gripping book....[T]he heart of the story is so good, you find yourself asking how you could not know this already." (read the entire Esquire review)
by Chicago Tribune,
"Engrossing...exceedingly well documented...utterly fascinating."
by Chicago Sun-Times,
"A wonderfully unexpected book....Larson is a historian...with a novelist's soul."
by USA Today,
"Another successful exploration of American history....Larson skillfully balances the grisly details with the far-reaching implications of the World's Fair."
by New York Magazine,
"Vivid history of the glittering Chicago World?s Fair and its dark side."
by David Traxel, The New York Times Book Review,
"[Larson] uses language well, but has little sense of pacing or focus, perhaps because of the huge amount of material available on the fair....There is much less material available on H. H. Holmes, and Larson tells that part of the story economically."
The story of two men's obsessions with the Chicago World's Fair — one its architect, the other a murderer. The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others.
The story of two men's obsessions with the White City Fair, one its architect, the other a murderer.
Erik Larson—author of #1 bestseller IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS—intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World's Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.
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