The year 1893 heralded in the World's Fair to a bustling Chicago cityscape, and with it, wonders both glorious and terrible alike. It was not only the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World, but it was the great city's chance to show how truly exceptional it was in recovering from the Great Chicago Fire nearly twenty years prior. There was an energy in the air, quite literally, with demonstrations of electricity by Thomas Edison and others. The fair also presented the first ever Ferris Wheel, as well as one of the first night football games. Architect Daniel Burnham oversaw the magnanimous construction of over 200 new buildings for the occasion, expanding the city significantly.
And while Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City touches on these exciting attractions, especially going into detail about Burnham's work, it focuses most on another first for American history at that unbelievable fair. Dr. H. H. Holmes is considered to be the United States' first recorded serial killers, having slaughtered an estimated 200 innocent lives. Holmes, a certified doctor and drugstore owner, ran a hotel that opened just in time for the World's Fair. The hotel turned out to be a labyrinthine death trap. His victims were gassed, suffocated, and even tortured. The basement was later discovered to contain various devices for torture and disposing, including a stretch rack, a dissection table, and lime. Larson's thrilling novel explores the actions of Holmes amidst the magical city-wide festival, and the 150 year old mysteries behind these awful crimes.
Erik Larson is best known for his many historical novels, such as In The Garden of Beasts (about Nazi Germany) and Thunderstruck (documenting the invention of the radio). He has also contributed to The New Yorker and Time Magazine. The Devil in the White City has received high praise, including the 2004 Edgar Award for Best Fast Crime novel.
Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America’s rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair’s brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country’s most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his “World’s Fair Hotel” just west of the fairgrounds—a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.
The Devil in the White City draws the listener into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this audiobook the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before.
Erik Larson’s gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.
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