Monday, April 17, 2017

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

The Devil in the White City tells the stories of two men who made a big impact during the time of the 1893 World Fair held in Chicago: architect Daniel H, Burnham and serial killer H.H, Holmes. Most of the novel focuses on the planning and building of the World Fair by Burnham and all of its problems, pitfalls, and successes. Practically everything that could have gone wrong did, including the poor health and death of his partner, the great economic downturn, the growing demand to pay workers a living wage, the interference of government officials, disastrous weather destroying buildings, and hard to work with land. With all of these obstacles, its opening was a bit lackluster with so many things incomplete. Later on, it proved to be successful anyway, spanning 690 acres, breaking the record for outdoor event attendence, and welcoming over 27 million visitors. The biggest innovations were in the use of electricity to power the fair and the original Ferris Wheel.

While the fair is entertaining in its own right, the more interesting part of the book was about H.H. Holmes, amateur architect, opportunist, and serial killer. He started out as a con artist, using his charm and manipulative nature to start businesses and never pay any debts. His murder spree either targeted people who were in his way financially or women he dated and/or married after he had grown tired of them. After masquerading as a doctor and owning a pharmacy, he took advantage of the World Fair hype to build his own hotel. He built it over a long time, hiring and firing many workers without paying any of them. The resulting building was dark and odd with apartments and retail spaces. Unbeknownst to the occupants and employees, many hidden chambers, hidden passages, heavy duty locks, and hidden gas lines. The basement was outfitted with a huge furnace, lime pits, and acid pools to dispose of bodies when he was done with them. The building surprisingly attracted many people wanting to go to the fair. He only allowed women to stay and redirecting male customers to nearby hotels.

When people started disappearing around him, Holmes claimed they moved, eloped, went back home, or just left in the night with no word. It was years before he was even suspected of anything because of his manufactured, affable personality. It's chilling to think that people could disappear without a trace and it could be months before anyone would even look for them at that time. After he killed, Holmes would dissect the bodies, then sell the skeletons to medical schools as they wouldn't ask any questions about where the body came from. This whole situation with the fair seemed like a coincidentally perfect situation for him to be able to target numerous people and go unnoticed for so long. At his trial, he confessed to murdering 27 people, but it could have easily been many many more. He was suspected of killing his associate Pietzel for insurance money and then killing Pietzel's three children in especially grisly ways. The investigation of these murders was the most interesting part of the novel as it was written more narratively to show the detective's journey.

The Devil in White City is an easy book to read, but it's deceptive. I expected it to mostly be about H.H. Holmes because of the title. At least I expected half of the book to be about him, but it was much less. While the Chicago World Fair is engaging, I read this book for the true crime aspects and they were lacking. H.H. Holmes is a horrific person who got away with a shocking amount of crimes before being put to death. His audacity and the volume of his murders are both shocking and fascinating, making the fair chapters eventually tedious to get through.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

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