Columbus Day. The Pledge of Allegiance. Pabst’s iconic blue ribbon. The Ferris Wheel. All of these things—and more—originated with The World’s Fair in Chicago. Journalist Erik Larson brings the story of the grand 1893 affair to life with intricate details about the architecture, the performers, the politics and the magic in The Devil in the White City.
But while Chicago was in the world’s spotlight, a curious young man named Dr. H.H. Holmes was flying under the radar and at the height of his criminal career. The serial killer (and compulsive criminal—his elaborate schemes to escape fraud and cheat the system are what ultimately brought him down) was known for his good looks and the gorgeous women that hung on to his every word—until they disappeared.
Larson does a magnificent job of intertwining the two stories and bringing Holmes and Daniel Burnham (the master architect of the fair) to life from letters, newspaper articles and biographies. If you’re an architect, you will absolutely adore his attention to detail; if you’re not, you may need to skim a few passages when the details continue to pile on and all you want to do is get back to the Holmes story line.
On the book’s site, Larson explains why he wove together these story lines, “I found it extraordinary that during this period of nearly miraculous creativity there should also exist a serial killer of such appetite and industry. The juxtaposition of the architect and the murderer seemed to open a window on the forces shaping the American soul at the dawn of the 20th century.”
The inspiration behind the great fair and Chicago’s commitment to prove its worth reminds me of Indianapolis’ opportunity in 2012 as we host the Super Bowl, and Indiana’s upcoming Bicentennial celebration in 2016. It makes me wonder: Who is our Daniel Burnham and what will be our lasting legacy?
This What-Are-You-Reading-Wednesday post was written by Kristen Fuhs Wells, the communications director for the Indiana Humanities Council.