Friday, July 07, 2006

Devil in the White City

Here’s a strange one. This book, by Erik Larson, follows two concomitant story arcs. On the one hand, a group of America’s leading architects comes together to create the 1893 World’s Fair. On the other is the career of H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer. Both stories unfold in Chicago at the same time, and the juxtaposition is jarring. That World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition, was a remarkable feat of design and engineering even by today’s standards: a pristine and elegant white city on the shore of Lake Michigan. It was described as a city of dreams and fantasy. How odd that just a few blocks away, Holmes, likely lured by the promise of so many vulnerable out-of-town visitors to the fair, constructed his “castle,” a structure of sheer malevolence, with twisting, dead-end passages, a gas chamber, a dissection room, and a crematorium. As it happens, both stories are fascinating, and together offer a valuable insight into a period in which America was feeling intense growing pains.


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