Updated: Jan 19
"Bringing Chicago circa 1893 to vivid life, Erik Larson's spell-binding bestseller intertwines the true tale of two men - - - the brilliant architect behind the legendary 1893 World's Fair, striving to secure America's place in the world; and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. "
H.H. Holmes had many aliases and lives.
He's been a doctor and a licensed pharmacist, who then conned an old couple into selling their drug store to him where he preyed on young girls and ignorant customers that would buy whatever Holmes would tell them to buy, whether it were real or fake tonics.
He was a building owner who had a murder hotel secretly built with " a wooden chute that would descend from a secret location on the second floor all the way to the basement... ", "a room next to his office fitted with a large walk-in vault, with airtight seams and asbestos-coated iron walls. A gas jet embedded in one wall would be controlled from his closet...", "a large basement with hidden chambers and a sub-basement for the permanent storage of sensitive material. "
He owned and ran an alcohol-treatment company known as the Silver Ash Institute that claimed to have the cure for alcoholism.
He was a traveling business man, who had two wives and two children. He established the Campbell-Yates Manufacturing Company, which made nothing and sold nothing.
He was also labeled as America's first serial killer. His body count is unknown even today; his victims were frequently young women, which included stenographers and house wives. He was best known for convincing people who trusted him to sign him as the beneficiary of their life insurance policies, only to kill them and make it seem an accident so he could collect the money.
Holmes grew up in a small farming village in New Hampshire, where he briefly spoke about an early fear of a human skeleton that hung in a doctor's office: " 'I had daily to pass the office of one village doctor, the door of which was seldom if ever barred,' he wrote in a later memoir. 'Partly from its being associated in my mind as the source of all the nauseous mixtures that had been my childish terror (for this was before the day of children's medicines), and partly because of vague rumors I had heard regarding its contents, this place was one of peculiar abhorrence to me.' "... "Two children discovered Mudgett's [Holmes' real last name] fear and one day captured him and dragged him 'struggling and shrieking' into the doctor's office. 'Nor did they desist,' Mudgett wrote, 'until I had been brought face to face with one of its grinning skeletons, which, with arms outstretched, seemed ready in its turn to seize me. It was a wicked and dangerous thing to do to a child of tender years and health,' he wrote, ' but it proved an heroic method of treatment, destined ultimately to cure me of my fears, and to inculcate in me, first, a strong feeling of curiosity, and, later, a desire to learn, which resulted years afterwards in my adopting medicine as a profession.' "
Erik Larson's fourth book, the Devil in the White City, is only partly about Holmes and his dark trail of murder and lies. The story told is mostly centered around the planning and building of the 1893 World's Fair. The prologue opens with one of the architects aboard a ship long after the fair has ended - - - 1912 to be exact- - - where he begins to write of the fair in his diary. The next chapter continues on with Chicago competing against other major cities to win the rights to host the World's Fair. Chicago was not the ideal place for the fair because it was known for it's crime and slaughter houses - - - this was exactly why the politicians wanted it so badly there, so it would help to lighten the image of Chicago for the rest of the world. Even the local Whitechapel Club that had sprouted up after the infamous murders by Jack the Ripper, were excited to win the rights to host the fair in their city, and celebrated in a macabre way:
"Upon learning that Chicago had won the fair, the men of the Whitechapel Club composed a telegram to Chauncey Depew, who more than any other man symbolized New York and its campaign to win the fair. Previously Depew had promised the members of the Whitechapel Club that if Chicago prevailed he would present himself at the club's next meeting, to be hacked apart by the Ripper himself - - - metaphorically, he presumed, although at the Whitechapel Club could one ever be certain? The club's coffin, for example, had once been used to transport the body of a member who had committed suicide. After claiming his body, the club hauled it to the Indiana Dunes on Lake Michigan, where members erected an immense pyre. They placed the body on top, then set it alight. Carrying torches and wearing black hooded robes, they circled the fire singing hymns to the dead between sips of whiskey. The club also had a custom of sending robed members to kidnap visiting celebrities and steal them away in a black coach with covered windows, all without saying a word.
The club's telegram reached Depew in Washington twenty minutes after the final ballot, just as Chicago's congressional delegation began celebrating at the Willard Hotel near the White House. The telegram asked, 'When may we see you at our dissecting table?' "
There are chapters in-between, technically reading like a side story, that tell us about Holmes and his misdeeds in Chicago, but there just wasn't enough about Holmes that I could consider this a True Crime book, nor an informative book about Holmes. Unfortunately, when the reader begins to really dwell into the story of Holmes, it's quickly ended by having two or more chapters about the building of the World's Fair. One interesting point about the story is that the reader does get to see how many inventions were brought to light because of the Fair, such as the invention of the Ferris Wheel. Larson's writing is very coherent and the descriptions are so well done that the reader is practically transported back to the late 1800s, yet, before I finished the book, I felt misled by the title... then coming across everything that happened to not only the Fair, but the people who were involved with it, it's hard not to wonder if the whole thing was cursed, thus the Devil being in the White City.
One of the side stories I did really enjoy was the slow unfolding of a man named Prendergast. A delusional young man who ran one of the groups of paperboys in Chicago, who was also obsessed with politics, became a determined supporter of Mayor Harrison; after Harrison was voted into office again, Prendergast believed it was because of him and the letters he sent out to numerous politicians and potential voters. Prendergast also believed he deserved a chair on the council for Harrison's re-election, for which he even showed up at City Hall to take over. This incident was the straw that broke the camel's back for Prendergast - - - he was humiliated when the people there laughed in his face. Prendergast then decided to take matters into his own hands, and bought a revolver. The day before the Fair would end, Prendergast showed up at Harrison's home and shot him. Harrison died minutes later. Prendergast turned himself in for the murder as soon as he left Harrison's residence. When asked why he had done it, Prendergast responded: " ' Because he betrayed my confidence. I supported him through his campaign and he promised to appoint me corporation counsel. He didn't live up to his word.' "
This book has been voted as a top True Crime must-read novel. I don't agree with this. As I said before: Holmes' chapters are few; eighty percent of this book is about the building of the World's Fair. As a True Crime junkie, I didn't enjoy this one, but also as a history junkie, I enjoyed learning about the Fair and everything that happened. I can't recommend this book to TC fans or horror fans. It's mostly history and architecture.