The Devil in the White City

 

by Erik Larson (Crown Publishers)

 

(This column was first published in the June 26, 2003 issue of ArtVoice.)

 

I was drawn to this book about the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago because a major character in it is Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Buffalo's Olmsted Parks. Indeed there is much in it about Olmsted, whose overcommitments by the time of this fair contributed to the breakdown of his health. Soon after it closed, his memory lost, he descended into dementia. The terribly short time allotted to design and construction of the fair had similar, if less profound, effects on all those involved. That story is well told, but as the book's subtitle - Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America - suggests, there is much more here as well. A major sub-plot follows the career of Dr. Henry H. Holmes, whose career in Chicago as a serial killer paralleled the development of the exposition. In fact he built a hotel adjacent to the fairgrounds in which he included a dissection table, a gas chamber and a crematorium. It was to the fair and finally to these rooms that this satanic psychopath lured a series of young women and male colleagues. The police of his time were ill-equipped to respond to the series of "disappearances" tied to Holmes, but he finally meets his match in Philadelphia detective Frank Geyer. Larson, the author of *Eric's Storm* about the 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston, richly succeeds in bringing this first U.S.-based world's fair to life.