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Saturday, March 05, 2005

Devil in the White City

Erik Larson has written several books of note including Lethal Passage and Isaac's Storm (great web site with movies of the storm's damage), both of which I enjoyed; so I was prepared to find his intermingling of the travails of building the Chicago World's Fair with the murderous shenanigans of Holmes to be equally fascinating. I was not disappointed.

This book is filled with fascinating detail, such as how the first enormous Ferris wheel came to be designed and built, the problems they had with Chicago area soils, the political machinations and compromises required to get anything done as well as the intense competition to beat out Eiffel's famous tower. The most striking element is the contrast between Daniel Burnham, architect of the fair, and H.H. Holmes, one of the suavest serial killers I've ever read about. Holmes was charming and could cajole even the most persistent creditor out of building. He was a woman magnet, married several, and just murdered them or anyone else who caused him any inconvenience. Holmes built his own crematorium in a hotel he owned and used the intense activity of the 1893 fair to cover many of his nefarious activities. The contrast between the builder (Burnham) and the destroyer (Holmes) is set out in stark relief. They were similar in many respects, using their exceptional people skills and drive to accomplish their ends and desires.

Larson is an engaging storyteller. His writing should not be missed.
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