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Buy 'The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America' by Erik Larson

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Chicago Confidential

By Michael S. Gant

BUFFALO BILL'S Wild West Show, George W.G. Ferris' giant wheel, the nation's first taste of Shredded Wheat, a complete village transported from Algeria, a Japanese temple, a Venus de Milo sculpted from chocolate, Krupp's largest cannon, belly dancers--the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 had it all ... including a notorious serial killer. As Erik Larson relates in his new book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (Crown; $25.95), not all of the millions who visited the fair (dubbed the "white city" because of its uniform white facades and dazzling lighting displays) came back. At least nine, and probably more, disappeared into the soundproof basement of a young doctor named Henry H. Holmes, who owned a pharmacy with an upstairs hotel that catered to unattached young women. Working with chloroform-soaked handkerchiefs and piped-in gas, Holmes overpowered his victims, then applied his surgical talents to their corpses.

Larson skillfully interweaves Holmes' dark deeds with the astonishing story of how a burgeoning metropolis, in barely three years, converted a "desert of sand and stagnant pools" on the shores of Lake Michigan into a square-mile of architectural wonders. The driving force behind the fair was architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, who managed to corral the egos of the nation's best builders, from skyscaper pioneer Louis Sullivan to landscaping genius Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who created Central Park in New York and the grounds at Stanford University. In these days of EIRs, planning commissions and lawsuits, it is hard to imagine how so vast an undertaking could have been completed in so short a time, especially considering that more than once storms destroyed many of the structures in progress. Even more troubling, as work on the fair began, the nation started to slip into a major recession.

Indeed, so riveting are the details of the fair's stumbling progress as Burnham and his contentious managers, designers and unionizing workers raced against seemingly impossible deadlines, that the tale of Holmes' gruesome murders recedes to sideshow status. Compared with the Dahmers and Bundys of today, Holmes comes across as a piker, but the builders of the Chicago World's Fair still look like titans.


Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, speaks about his new book Wednesday (March 12) at 7:30pm at Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. Admission is free. (650.324.4321)


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From the March 6-12, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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