A vivid account of the tragedies and triumphs of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the concurrent depravities of America’s first serial killer.
In roughly alternating chapters, former Wall Street Journal reporter Larson (Isaac’s Storm, 1999, etc.) tells the stories of Daniel H. Burnham, chief planner and architect of exposition, and Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, whose rambling World’s Fair Hotel, just a short streetcar ride away, housed windowless rooms, a gas chamber, secret chutes, and a basement crematory. The contrast in these accomplishments of determined human endeavor could not be more stark—or chilling. Burnham assembled what a contemporary called “the greatest meeting of artists since the 15th century” to turn the wasteland of Chicago’s swampy Jackson Park into the ephemeral White City, which enthralled nearly 28 million visitors in a single summer. Overcoming gargantuan obstacles—politically entangled delays, labor unrest, an economic panic, and a fierce Chicago winter—to say nothing of the architectural challenges, Burnham and his colleagues, including Frederick Law Olmsted, produced their marvel in just over two years. The fair was a city unto itself, the first to make wide-scale use of alternating current to illuminate its 200,000 incandescent bulbs. Spectacular engineering feats included Ferris’s gigantic wheel, intended to “out-Eiffel Eiffel,” and, ominously, the latest example of Krupp’s artillery, “breathing of blood and carnage.” Dr. Holmes, a frequent visitor to the fair, was a consummate swindler and lady-killer who secured his victims’ trust through “courteous, audacious rascality.” Most were comely young women, and estimates of their total ranged from the nine whose bodies (or parts thereof) were recovered to nearly 200. Larson does a superb job outlining this “ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.”
Gripping drama, captured with a reporter’s nose for a good story and a novelist’s flair for telling it. (6 b&w photos, 1 map, not seen)