Saturday, April 29, 2006

Book Review: Devil in the White City

True story of matchless beauty and unspeakable evil

The World's Fair of 1893 was inarguably an inflection point in the United States' ascent from backwater territory to leader among nations. After all, the prior World's Fair, hosted by Paris in 1889, had unveiled France's gift to the world: the Eiffel Tower. Public sentiment widely anticipated that no country could match the smashing success of Paris. Public sentiment was wrong.

While many U.S. cities vied for the honor of the World's Fair, Chicago won out - beating New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Within months, Daniel Burnham and partner Charles Root, the leading Chicago architects of the day, transformed the lakeshore at Jackson Park into a spectacular and sparkling white city of the future. Clean water, electric lights, with a dedicated police-force and fire-squad. Rising from the lake were some of the largest and most ambitious buildings ever created, garnished with landscaping provided by the foremost designers of the day. And the park was capped by a singular, centerpiece attraction that would shock the world.

While Burnham was bringing his vision to life, another man -- Dr. H. H. Holmes -- was orchestrating a much darker plan. His large hotel, located near the fair, was a veritable house of horrors. Taking advantage of his prime location, Holmes advertised specifically to young, unescorted female visitors to the fair. After the event, hundreds of girls were reported missing. How many Holmes was responsible for is still unknown.

The fair attracted tens of millions of other visitors in its few short months of operation. Among them were Thomas Edison, Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, Houdini, Tesla, Clarence Darrow, Paderewski, Susan B. Anthony, Teddy Roosevelt and Lillian Russell. Its inventions were numerous: the first-ever electric kitchen (including dishwasher), instant pancakes, Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and the vertical filing system. And the fair also had longer-term ramifications: Elias Disney, Walt's father, helped build the "White City" and was a primary inspiration for DisneyWorld. Frank Baum's city of Oz was undoubtedly influenced by the Fair as well.

Weaving the twin storylines together, Larson has masterfully retold a story most Americans never learned: the transformation of the United States through a singular event, glimpsed through a prism tinted with both remarkable creativity and unspeakable destruction.

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