Three Things” “The Devil in the White City” by Erick Larson

In my quest to read more books outside of my typical genre (i.e. anything dealing with church, pastoring, or Christian living), I picked up a copy of “The Devil and the White City” by Erick Larson. This is the true story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It tells the story of Daniel Burnham, Director of Works for the fair, and Dr. H. H. Holmes, a charming man who had a passion for murder.

Burnham’s creative and architectural work is on display in this book. We see the difficulties of meeting deadlines and building structures at a rapid pace. Holmes is a man who is charming, handsome, and brilliant but he is evil. He opens up a hotel (house of horrors) close to the fair and begins to charm eventual victims.

Larson intertwines the two stories by alternating chapters on these two men. The two men never cross paths; they are only connected by the Chicago World’s Fair. Personally, I found the story of Burnham to be uninteresting and the story of Holmes to be fascinating. I also didn’t enjoy the structure of the and the alternating stories; but that is my opinion.

Here are three things I learned from the book:

1. Psychopath

Holmes was a genuine Psychopath, and one of the first American killers to be labeled as such. He was a con artist. He was a liar. He was brilliant. His personality attracted many women, in fact, he was married multiple times – yet never divorced.

His story is incomplete. We don’t know how many people he killed. Some say 200 and others say 9. He was only convicted for the murders of 3 people, after he had been arrested for insurance fraud. He had no difficulties in lying to people to get his way or convincing people to give him his land. He had multiple identities and even convinced one of his wives to start calling him by a different name.

He built a hotel next to his pharmacy, after he may or may not have killed the owner of the pharmacy. The hotel consisted of a crematory, gas chambers, and hidden rooms. It was a house of horrors. Holmes was the true definition of a Psychopath.

In his confessional (which many believe to be mostly false) he states, “I was born with the devil in me, I could not help the fact tat I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing”.

2.  The Chicago World’s Fair

Burnham had one responsibility when it came to the Chicago World’s Fair (CWF): to create an atmosphere bigger, better, more beautiful, and more sophisticated then the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889. Burnham faced immense pressure. He concluded that if this fair did not exceed Paris, then it was a failure, and a failure would mean that Chicago – and the United States – are trailing in innovation and architecture.

Much of the focus of the building and structure of the CWF was to make sure it was incredible. American pride was on the line and Burnham and Co could not afford to be the laughing stock of the world. Chicago would become the World’s view of the United States. In the end, the Chicago World’s Fair was an incredible success; thanks in large part to…

3. The Ferris Wheel

Burnham was a man on a mission. He wanted something bigger and more grander than the Eiffel Tower in Paris. He commissioned several architects to create Chicago’s “Eiffel Tower”, but everyone failed. That is, until George Ferris came along. This 33 year old Architect from Pittsburg set out to create a revolving wheel, with the highest point being higher than the Statue of Liberty.

The first Ferris wheel contained thirty-six cars, each weighing roughly thirteen tons. All together, the first Ferris wheel weighed in at just under one million pounds. People lined up by the thousands to pay .50 cents for a twenty minutes rotation. The Ferris wheel out did the Eiffel Tower, at least at that present moment.

Some other interesting products of the Chicago World’s Fair:

  • Shredded wheat cereal
  • Incandescent light bulbs
  • “Oz” writes L. Frank Baum and William Denslow were inspired by the CWF
  • Walt Disney’s Father helped build the “White City”, many speculating that the glitz and glamour was witnessed by Walt Disney himself.


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