What do you know about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair? Not much? Until a couple weeks ago, I didn’t either. What do you know about the most prolific serial killer of the 1800s? Nope, not London’s Jack the Ripper, who had five confirmed victims. I’m talking about H.H. Holmes, who may have killed as many as 200 people, using the allure and chaos of the World’s Fair to attract people to his Chicago boarding house a.k.a. the “Holmes Castle.”
The Devil in the White Castle by Erik Larson is a meticulously researched nonfiction book that captures the magic of the fair and the darkness that lurked in the shadows of it.
The book unfolds primarily with intercutting chapters about what’s happening with the World’s Fair versus what’s happening with Holmes as he constructs his own building full of peculiar corridors, soundproof rooms, and traps… and then carries out his own dark plans.
I’ll admit that I bought the book mainly because of the serial killer angle. Don’t judge me! And if you are judging me, watch this recent SNL skit. They get it, okay?
Even though I read this book out of a macabre fascination, I ended up just as – if not more so – engrossed in the descriptions of how the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (just barely!) came together.
To give a bit of background, international fairs and expositions took place around the world almost annually throughout the nineteenth century. And every several years, a really major fair was held (what we think of as “World’s Fairs”). In 1889, the fair in Paris dazzled the world with the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower.
What’s crazy about these fairs is that they produced impressive, massive architectural structures that were intended to be torn down after the fair, which would typically last three to six months. People would travel from all over the world to see these fairs during that precious window of time. The Eiffel Tower was originally supposed to be a temporary structure, but it was so beloved that it was turned into a permanent structure. Can you imagine if they’d torn down the Eiffel Tower?
As a side note, in my home state of Washington, we have our own treasure from the Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair: The Space Needle!
The United States was set to host the next major World’s Fair in 1893, and in a move that surprised many, in February 1890 the U.S. House of Representatives picked Chicago instead of New York City for the honor. That gave the city just over three years to “out-Eiffel the Eiffel Tower.” Three years might seem like plenty of time, but when you consider the actual size of the fair – the number of large buildings to be constructed (almost 200), the hundreds of acres of grounds and greenery and lagoons to be designed and cultivated (they planted 200,000 trees!), the entertainment and expositions to be planned, and the enormous infrastructure and manpower to support it all – it seems like an impossible task. Especially considering they were also dealing with Chicago’s soft, unstable soil, its brutal winters (twenty degrees below zero), and notorious windstorms. Oh, and did I mention that more than one of the key designers will die unexpectedly during the three years of planning, design, and construction?You must also keep in mind that this was all taking place in the last decade of the 1800s in Chicago. At the time it was selected as the host city, Chicago was averaging four violent deaths a day, a dozen deaths a day from fires, and two deaths a day from people being hit by railcars. The city was blanketed every day in the stench of rotting animal corpses from The Union Stockyards meatpacking district. Contaminated city drinking water spread cholera and other diseases. University Medical Schools were robbing graves in order to get cadavers to dissect. Ever seen the movie Gangs of New York (based on the nonfiction book of the same name) and set in the mid-1800s New York? I always loved the imagery in that movie, because it wasn’t a romanticized period piece but showed New York as the muddy, dangerous, chaotic place it surely was at the time.
Larson paints a similar picture at the outset of The Devil in the White City. When you take all of that into account, it makes sense that a serial killer was able to operate so easily in the city. And it becomes even more inspiring that a team of architects, artists, and workers were able to create such a beautiful spectacle. Much of the book highlights the experiences of Director of Works Daniel Burnham, who oversaw the design and construction of the fair during that stressful, hectic, high-pressure time.As all of this fair business was taking place along the shores of Lake Michigan, Holmes was busy himself constructing The Holmes Castle, which occupied an entire city block. The ground level was retail space and a pharmacy, the upper levels were a strange collection of boarding rooms, and the basement was a cavernous space that held a kiln which Holmes claimed was for bending glass. He constantly hired and fired bricklayers and workers so that no one person would know too much about the building and thus become suspicious.
This was during a day and age when people just didn’t ask questions like they do today. There was little city or government oversight into citizen’s activities. People minded their own business. The facts of Holmes’s crimes are obviously disturbing, but Larson steers clear of being graphic or gratuitous. Make no mistake though: This book is very dark at times. I don’t know that I expected otherwise, but it’s one thing to think to oneself, “Oh this non-fiction book about the World’s Fair and the most prolific serial killer of the 1800s was a National Book Award finalist; it must be interesting!” And it’s another thing to actually read it and come to understand the details of the criminal case. I found myself feeling upset and angry and sad at times while reading it. I set it aside more than once. Ultimately, the story is baffling. How did people not recognize what was going on? And when they had initial concerns, why did they keep it to themselves? And when people finally did speak up, why didn’t the police thoroughly investigate Holmes sooner?
That’s part of what make this story so fascinating. Most people who encountered Holmes thought he was a charming, warm, brilliant, cultured, and impressive man. The truth is that he was a con artist in every aspect of his life, buying things on credit and then creating elaborate stories to talk his way out of ever paying for it. He romanced women and impressed men. He swindled an elderly lady into signing over her thriving business to him and when she disappeared, he told everyone she’d simply moved out of state to be with family. Over and over again, young women who worked in his store and boarded in his castle would disappear, often leaving their personal belongings in their rooms. For a long time, people simply believed his explanations that these women had quit and left.
Later, once an investigation and criminal proceedings were under way, so many people spoke of wholeheartedly trusting Holmes, and only a handful of people said that they felt unsettled by him and suspected the monster lurking underneath the polite exterior. One man whom Holmes owed money was pestered by Holmes to visit the roof to take in the city view. The man refused to go, certain if he did that Holmes would push him to his death. Another woman was offered an impossibly good deal where Holmes would pay her to take out a life insurance policy with him as the beneficiary. She was a breath away from signing the papers when Holmes said, “Don’t be afraid of me.” That made her very afraid, and thankfully she decided not to do it. But for every person who felt scared of Holmes, there were fifty people who thought he was a kind, generous man.
It makes you wonder – had Holmes entered your orbit, would you have recognized the danger of it, or would you have happily taken a job at his pharmacy counter or rented a room in the castle?Larson clearly did a lot of research to write this book. He used personal letters, court transcripts, meeting notes, news articles and interviews, and journals to unfurl the story of the World’s Fair and Holmes’s crimes in a style that feels almost novelistic at times. However, I’ll admit that sometimes during the first hundred pages, the chapters about the fair made me feel like I was reading a text book where I was trying to remember all of the key facts. Those early pages have a lot to do with committee decisions, political influence, and high society meddling before things with the fair really got underway. But as I got more familiar with all of the names of the people involved, I started reading more quickly and got lost in the story of the fair. I also think if you’re from Chicago or familiar with the city, you will especially love this book. I’ve only ever spent a few days in Chicago, so I’m not familiar with all of the neighborhoods or landmarks, but having knowledge of those things and being able to picture the areas that were being talked about would have made the story even more interesting.
While I started the book feeling most interested in the Holmes storyline, I found myself eventually looking forward to chapters about the fair most of all because of the author’s attention to detail about specific choices, problem solving, and end results.
For example, the fair was a huge collection of buildings in a neoclassical architectural style that were all painted white. The fair was applauded by most for its classic, glamorous appearance. In reality, the choice to paint it all white was actually a solution to a bigger problem: During the construction, most of the buildings were behind schedule, which meant there would be no time for elaborate painting and color schemes. Thus, the color designer Francis David Millet suggested a whitewash, and the fair went down in history as “The White City.”So much innovation came out of the fair too, things that we still use today. For example, in order to get all of the buildings painted in time, Millet developed a method of spraying the paint on the buildings through hoses, the earliest version of spray painting.
The Chicago World’s Fair also gave us the very first Ferris Wheel. The designers wanted to show that Chicago was as good as or better than Paris, and to do that they knew they’d have to create something as impressive as the Eiffel Tower. But how does one create a cooler building than the Eiffel Tower? There were talks of trying to construct one that was even taller, but in the end, the men in charge understood that being compared to the Eiffel Tower was a losing proposition. They had to debut something no one had ever seen before, and that’s how we got our very first Ferris Wheel (named for the engineer who came up with idea and plan). The one at the World’s Fair was massive, with 36 cars that could hold over 2,160 people at one time. People loved it. And to this day, smaller versions of the Ferris Wheel are popular attractions at fairs and carnivals.I recommend this book to any lover of history, architecture, or true crime stories. In 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio optioned the rights to the book, and in 2019, he and Martin Scorsese began developing it as a series with Hulu. So we’ll likely see more of The Devil in the White City in the future.
Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer and editor. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.