Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson


Chicago, Chicago, my kind of town.....Chicago won the spot for the World's fair beating out New York City and Washington, D.C.

A challenge between Chauncey Depew and the Whitechapel Club arose after Chicago won the spot. The challenge was to see if Chicago can make the World's Fair the best and biggest of the time....better than the one that just ended in Paris. Quoting from Page 14: It was the big talk, not the persistent southwesterly breeze, that had prompted New York editor Charles Anderson Dana to nickname Chicago "the Windy City."

Meanwhile Chicago was growing and architects were becoming wealthy and successful, but the city was so large it was starting to become dangerous and dirty. And all during this, in comes H. H. Holmes also known as Herman Webster Mudgett claiming to be a doctor and pharmacist. He actually did train as a doctor, but had a very shady past. His shady past began surfacing as he built a strange building across the street from a pharmacy he bought from a widow that mysteriously disappeared. His charm and charisma got him out of a lot of trouble and even out of paying his debts. Not one person could even suspect him of any wrongdoing in any aspect. His thoughts, though, were of young, single women and Jack the Ripper.

While he was building this strange building, Chicago had its architects looking for a place to build their "fabulous" World's Fair. Everyone was still waiting for them to fail since Paris in everyone's mind couldn't be surpassed. Finally on December 15, 1890, the committee decided on a location for the World's Columbian Exposition. It was going to be right next to H. H. Holmes' building...this made him very pleased and thrilled. The cost and organization was going to be astronomical. The architects hired were the best in the nation, but none were from Chicago.

H. H. Holmes was thinking more and more about completing his building and also turning it into a hotel and building a furnace in the basement that was able to go up to 3,000 degrees...the mason was a little leary about the shape and size he wanted. The mason said it looked like an oven they used to cremate dead bodies. Lots of signs had been appearing indicating that he was not normal, but no one paid any notice since he was a pretty smooth operator...he still didn't pay any of his bills either unless it became absolutely necessary.

The fair took all the time out of each architect's day...it was slow, and they were afraid they wouldn't get done in time. Obstacle after obstacle kept appearing...if it wasn't the land, it was that the blueprints were late, or that they were worried about sanitation and crime. During all of this, good old Mr. Holmes was still up to his tricks with money and women. He would steal down to the basement and light the furnace and loved to feel the incredible heat.

The building of the fair continued to be a disaster...hurricanes and storms knocked down buildings that were built, men died, architects didn't get along, and Mr. Holmes continued to swoon women and ask them to marry him - he already had two wives and two children. Something always happened to the women he targeted after he won them over and asked them to marry him....he knew which women were weak and which women would be able to help him with their financial assets or family connections.

Opening day was one day away, and the rain kept pouring down causing puddles everywhere. The trash from workers' lunches were still scattered on the ground and they had to do makeshift planting to cover up some of the holes caused by all the rain. They had found the one thing they needed and hoped would be the symbol that identified the World's Fair as being successful and one that would top the Eiffel Tower that had been the attraction in Paris for their World's Fair. Even though the Ferris Wheel was not ready for opening day, they hoped the Ferris Wheel would be their saving grace. It was designed by Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, bridge builder George Washington Gale Ferris.

The fair was a success, it was over, the fair was missed, and Mr. Holmes was missing.

The book was great historically...seeing all these names of people who invented things was great...the mystery surrounding Mr. Holmes was gruesome, but fit nicely into the story's plot. You will enjoy the book, but can skip some of the pages telling about the constructing of the the World's Fair Buildings.

4/5 would be my rating.

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