Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” ~ Daniel Burnham

In recent years I haven’t read many full-length books for pleasure. The combination of work, school, and keeping up with world events limits the amount of time that I can spend reading lengthy pieces for pleasure.

For roughly the last year I have been slowly reading Erik Larson’s, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. It is a non-fiction historical novel about the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. The odds are pretty good that you haven’t ever heard of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, but it was both an extremely inspirational event and a moment in time that changed history.

The White City
The White City

Larson follows two story-line, the creation of the fair, and the evils of a man who went by the name H.H. Holmes.

The creation of the fair follows many of the men who made this impossible fair a reality. It specifically tells the stories of Daniel Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair and Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architecture pioneer and visionary who was responsible for the fair’s grounds. Olmstead also designed Central Park. Their trials and tribulations both amazed and inspired me on a profound level.

The second tale that is weaved into the book is the story of Herman Webster Mudgett A.K.A. Dr. H.H. Holmes. Holmes was a sociopath and a serial killer who murdered somewhere between 20 and 230 people over the course of a few years leading up to, during, and after the fair. He was a cunning, talented, and immensely evil man. His history has been pieced together by Larson, however much of his life remains a complete mystery (thus the wide range in the number of people that he murdered).

H.H. Holmes
H.H. Holmes

The story is compelling and shocking. If I didn’t know that it was real, I would have thought it was impossible. In the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition these architects built a stunning city in about two years, and Holmes was so good at being a villain that it is almost hard to believe he was real. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

Every once in a while I read a book, hear a song, or see a movie that changes the way I think. This is one of those books. I strongly recommend that you pick up a copy. If you choose to read it, I suggest that you refer to a site such as, Digital Archive of American Architecture for photographs of the fair.

The first ferris wheel was built for the fair.
The first ferris wheel was built for the fair.

The book is available here.

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