Devil in the White City

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DevilI finally finished Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, which I struggled through largely because my Boston book group which I rarely see is currently reading it and I’ll be back there to attend later this month.

While I was thrilled to finish it, I have to admit that Larson did manage to bring Chicago in 1893 alive — after the read however, not always during. I found myself wanting to revisit pages that explored Chicago’s physical beauty and presence at the time, from its slums to the grandeur of the legendary World’s Fair.

He looks at the lives of two men, the historical architect Daniel Burnham and psychopathic killer Henry H. Holmes. Burnham’s firm wins the right to create Chicago’s World Fair, which became known as the “White City.” This was a huge undertaking affecting the health and lives of a number of prominent men in history.

As a lover of great architecture, it was inspiring to read through one thread, a meeting where some of the greatest architects of our time gathered, unrolled their drawings and presented their ideas — each aware that something extraordinary had occured in the room that day. As one architect put it to Burnham at the time, “I never expected to see such a moment. Look here, old fellow, do you realize this has been the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century?”

I got goosebumps reading the line and could also feel the silence in the room as each artist presented, wondering if they would outdo the other. At the same time, they realized that they were in this together, as a team, to create an awe-inspiring wonder that would only stand for the world to see for a mere six months, from May to October 1893.

All this magnificent creation right along side the life of Dr. Holmes, who had various aliases. Here was a man who managed to kill countless people, mostly women and children, all without police suspicion.

It was that last 20% of the book that I found riveting, when east coast investigators got closer and closer to uncovering the truth, a truth that makes you wince and your skin crawl simultaneously.

Writes Larson, “what motivated Holmes may never be known,” basing his account on known details of his history and behavior and on what forensic psychiatrists have come to understand about psychopathic serial killers and the forces that drive them.

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