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Erik Larson brings us history in novel form.  The Devil in the White City follows two different persons of great historical significance that are related only by the city they both occupied at the same time.  Daniel Burnham was the driving force behind the World’s Columbian Expedition of 1893 which is popularly known as the Chicago World’s Fair.  Herman Mudgett took on the name of H.H. Holmes, a businessman and womanizer who built an elaborate hotel and commercial property during the months leading up to the fair.  Discoveries not long after the end of the fair, along with the gruesome details of Mudgett’s own confession, paint a frightening picture of what is believed to be America’s first serial killer.  Larson alternates by chapter which man is the subject giving us an intertwined perspective of two thrilling histories.

Larson quotes Burnham even before reaching the prologue.  The statement shows the attitude which drove Burnham to carry out the impossible despite an array of issues that would have made even some great men quit several times over.  Burnham said, “Make no little plans; they have no power to stir men’s blood.”  This quote reminded me of a blog post and book by Donald Miller.  Miller blogged about Living a Good Story, an Alternative to New Years Resolutions where he fleshed out practically one of the great concepts in his book A Million Miles in A Thousand Years.  The idea behind it all is the old axiom that if you aim at nothing you’ll hit it every time.  Herman Mudgett clearly adhered to this same philosophy.  He developed a building filled with torture rooms and many killing devices then used his medical expertise, he was a licensed physician, to deliver cadavers to local medical colleges made from his victims bodies.  Seeing the great prospect of a city overwhelmed with visitors, the fair attracted 27.5 million guests at a time when the population of the U.S. was only 65 million, he endeavored to find those who seemed to be alone and from poor families as he felt they were least likely to arouse police suspicion.

The book opens with a very interesting introduction that gives us a glimpse and the large thinking, and sometimes monumental disappointment, of Daniel Burnham.  Always wanting the biggest and best of things he booked himself on a cruise in April 1912 aboard the R.M.S. Olympic of the White Star Line which was the largest ocean liner in service.  Three days before his departure his longtime friend and colleague, Frank Millet, a painter whose decorative scheme led to the fair being anointed “The White City,” booked himself on the maiden voyage of the newest White Star Line vessel which was now the largest in service.  With Burnham leaving from New York and Millet leaving from London they decided to wire communications to each other as the ships passed in the Atlantic.  On the night of April 14, after Burnham received no reply to several wires he had sent, he asked the ship’s Captain to have the equipment checked.  The unfortunate news was that the Olympic was suddenly put into rescue mode as they raced to the scene of their sister ship’s distress.  The Titanic sank and Frank Millet was not among the survivors.

The World’s Columbian Expedition was conceived as an opportunity to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ expedition.  Several cities were in the bidding with Chicago being given no chance to prevail.  Daniel Burnham chose to put his effort into helping the cause for Chicago.  His inspiration was from wanting to outdo France and the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower when they held the World’s Fair.  Despite the multitude of problems, the deadlines routinely missed, the persons who quit at a moment’s notice, the 1893 World’s Fair did succeed dramatically.  On a single day the fair drew 700,000 people.  A new snack called Cracker Jack debuted as well as a breakfast food called Shredded Wheat.  Burnham was able to import entire working villages from Egypt, Algeria, Dahomey and others along with the actual villagers.  The project was immense.  “A single exhibit hall had enough interior volume to have housed the U.S. Capitol, the Great Pyramid, Winchester Cathedral, Madison Square Garden, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, all at the same time. (p.5)”  In addition to the size of the exhibition grounds the number and quality of guests was extraordinary, “Never before has so many of history’s brightest lights, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow, George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, Henry Adams, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Nicola Tesla, Ignace Paderewski, Philip Armour, and Marshall Field, gathered in one place at one time. (p.5)”  The item that was debuted which put to shame the Eiffel Tower?  It was designed by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.  That’s right, it was the Ferris wheel.

Amidst all of this grandeur and accomplishment was H.H. Holmes.  A mad man who idolized Jack the Ripper and had the goal of outshining him.  Holmes eventually confessed to 27 known murders, of which 9 were confirmed.  It is believed he may have been responsible for 230 deaths total.  He was convicted of 27 counts of murder in the first degree and hanged on May 7, 1896, only 9 days before his 35th birthday.  A good documentary of Holmes has been produced that can be easily viewed for free.

This book is a nearly perfect summer or vacation read.  If you want a break from your normal reading, and a history work that is actually interesting, this is the book for you.

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