History, indigestible in its raw form, is ultimately a matter of how you slice it. Larson cuts out two pieces of Chicago history, circa 1893, and juxtaposes them in a way that casts a dramatic shadow over the larger piece and an aura of significance over the smaller one. The big piece was the World’s Columbian Exposition, an epoch-defining convocation on the shore of Lake Michigan that introduced visitors to the Ferris Wheel, Shredded Wheat, alternating-current electricity, and the idea that the frontier era in U.S. history had come to a close. The setting for these and other wonders of the fair was the fabled White City, an expanse of alabaster buildings, all designed in a Beaux Arts style by Daniel Burnham and his team of illustrious architects. (Burnham’s struggles to plan and erect the fair’s physical plant occupy much of the book; Larson has an undue faith in his readers’ taste for tales of bureaucratic jousting.) The relatively small piece, in world-historical terms, was the homicidal career of Dr. Herman Webster Mudgett, alias H.H. Holmes, arguably the first American serial killer of the modern type. Holmes built a hotel—later known as his “murder castle”—not far from the White City and lured possibly dozens of victims to it. Aside from that geographic coincidence, the two stories have a connection to one another that’s chiefly symbolic: The White City looms as a vision of civic progress and public virtue that the real Chicago, playing host to a “devil” like Holmes, fell well short of realizing. Larson, by wedging these pieces together in this way, makes vivid a previously drab-seeming portion of the American past.
[ADDENDUM: A few years ago, in advance of my first trip to Chicago, my mom recommended that I read The Devil in the White City. So I did read it. And I liked it. Crime, history, architecture, an evocation of the seam-bursting vitality of a great city: What’s not to like? While planning my trip, I discovered that the Chicago Architectural Foundation now offers a tour based on the Larson book. I went on another CAF tour, but had no interest in traveling by bus to “see” places—the White City, Holmes’s murder castle—that no longer exist. The best place to tour those buildings is in the pages of this book.]